Sunday, March 23, 2014

3 Undead Monsters More Deserving of Cultural Ubiquity than Zombies and Vampires

The Walking Dead - AMC, via A Geek Saga; Twilight - Summit Entertainment, via twilightsaga.wikia 
Modern pop culture is obsessed with the undead.  People on the bus are reading books about zombies and vampires.  Cinemas are playing movies about zombies and vampires.  The video game market is flooded with... um... zombies and vampires.  You can see where this is going.  Looking at our pop-culture, you'd think that there were only two types of undead monsters: the shambling, mindless, brain-eating kind and the immortal, blood-sucking, inexplicably effeminate kind.

Don't get me wrong; zombies and vampires can be very cool if used correctly and in moderation.  But what we have in our culture right now is an oversaturation.  Zombies and vampires are getting played out, and I'm pretty tired of them.  This jumbled graph - which I painstakingly assembled with my own two hands, Wikipedia, and Microsoft Excel - shows that, while vampires and zombies still remain popular, they might be on the decline.  I think that the general public may be slowly growing tired of these undead as well.

I tried counting up all the vampire books, too, but soon realized that it would be an impossible task.
Damn Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer.  
So what undead horrors are worthy of stepping into the cultural spotlight and filling the gaps left by vamps and zombs?  I've got a few ideas:

1. Skeletons
Colombia Pictures via Gamers and Grognards
Zombie apocalypses are boring.  Where's my skeleton apocalypse?  Zombies are slowed down by their decaying flesh, but skeletons have a nimble freedom of movement that only bare bones can provide.  Look at these skeleton warriors (as animated by Ray Harryhausen) fighting in the classic Jason and the Argonauts: 

You just don't see that kind of mobility in your typical zombie.  Another problem with zombies is that they are too often explained away as the result of some sort of zombie virus.  Don't try to work science into my supernatural fantasy monsters, Hollywood!  Skeletons, on the other hand, can be the result of nothing else but accursed necromancy.  This is a good thing - I don't want to watch a skeleton apocalypse movie where precious screentime is spent on actors in lab coats trying to explain how some virus is stripping the flesh off of the infected's bones and somehow giving them all broadswords.

Skeletons are pure undead.  You can't get much deader that a pile of old bones.  And there's no way a horde of shambling zombies is more threatening than an army of cursed skeleton warriors.  Even scarier: there's a skeleton in the room with you right now... just biding its time under your flesh.

2. Liches
painting by Jeff Easley
Vampires have an image problem.  They used to be brooding, hideous badasses that preyed on innocent blood from their evil castles; now they just sulk around dressed like goth stereotypes whining about how much it sucks to be immortal and trying to not get discovered, or - worse yet - becoming romantically involved with emotionally fragile teens.

Liches don't have those problems.  A lich is a powerful wizard who turned to evil necromantic arts to gain effective immortality.  They preserve themselves in their undead husk of a body with the help of a phylactery, a magical artifact that preserves the essence of their soul - when their body is destroyed, their phylactery builds a new one.  You'll never see a lich getting all angsty about the curse of immortality, because liches choose to be immortal.  In fact, they work very hard at it.  You'll never see a lich go back to high school and fall in love with the new girl, because liches are hideous undead abominations who seek only supreme power.

Vampires are always plotting in the shadows to do something or other - kill the werewolves, enslave the humans, etc.  Well, liches can do all that, but from deep within their deviously trapped subterranean lairs.  And their plans are usually more along the lines of 'rule the world', 'siphon ultimate power from sleeping Elder Gods', or 'get these meddling interlopers to leave me alone so I can become the greatest wizard ever'.  As an added bonus, any story involving a lich can also involve an army of skeletons!

Vampires may have an array of ill-defined powers (depending on what the author or screenwriter needs), but liches are straight-up wizards.  Wizards so powerful that they bring themselves back from the dead, Dr. Manhattan style.  And whereas vampires get their powers from some curse or disease passed on to them, liches earned all that power themselves.  And they just want to be left alone so they can continue to accumulate forbidden magical knowledge and grow ever more powerful.  They're like... magical undead libertarians.

Yeah, how's that work for you people who need their undead monsters to reflect contemporary politics?

3. Draugar
Skyrim - Bethesda Softworks, via ctrlaltkill
Draugar (singular: draugr) are undead vikings, and they are metal as hell.  Draugar stories come to us from medieval Icelandic sagas, and they are far more terrifying than Skyrim, A Song of Ice and Fire, or Pathfinder would have us believe.

In the saga of Grettir the Strong, we hear of Glam, a hired hand who died fighting a draugr.  The townspeople soon realize something is amiss when Glam's corpse proves too heavy to move:
Drag horses were put to him, but could move him nowhere where they had to go on even ground and not down hill.

Soon, Glam was up and walking about again:
But just after Yule men thought they saw him home at the farm. Folk became exceeding afeard thereat, and many fled there and then. Next Glam took to riding the house-roofs at night, so that he went nigh to breaking them in.
How was a dead farmhand riding the roof-beams of houses so hard that he almost broke them? Oh, draugar can change their size and weight whenever they feel like it.

When the farmstead hired on another shepherd, he disappeared in the night and the men went out searching for him:
But when they came nigh to [Glam's] cairn, there they saw great tidings, for there they found the shepherd, and his neck was broken, and every bone in him smashed.

Soon Grettir the Strong hears of this draugr's doings and he goes to protect the farmstead.  After spending the night there, he finds that his horse "was dragged out to the door, and every bone in him broken to pieces."

Grettir eventually beheads Glam, but not before the draugr destroys the farmstead and curses Grettir to never get stronger and to eventually die of loneliness.  Even after beheading the monster, Grettir burns the body and buries the ashes, wrapped up in "the skin of a beast", in a place where no one ever goes.  Which is fortunate, because draugar can be injured but not killed by iron weapons; they keep coming back unless you destroy the body.

Other sources say that, in addition to the ability to bestow curses and to change size and weight, draugar have sharp claws, the ability to shapeshift into such forms as seals and flayed bulls, can turn into smoke, and drive people insane.

Someone remind me to stat up a real draugr for a Monster Monday sometime.


Honourable Mentions
Skeletons, liches, and draugar aren't the only undead monsters that deserve more coverage.

Mummies are incredibly badass and should not have disappeared from the silver screen after the unfortunate Mummy 3.  Lots of people prepare for a zombie apocalypse, but how would they deal with a mummy apocalypse?

The Baykok is a flying, skin-draped skeleton from Native American mythology that kills people with invisible arrows or a giant club, then eats their liver.  Sometimes it doesn't even kill them first, just paralyzes them.  That's worth at least one horror movie, right?

Ghouls are similar to zombies in that they are fleshy, hungry undead, but where zombies eat brains, ghouls eat everything, even cracking open bones to get at the marrow with their elongated tongues.  Even better, ghouls originally come from Arab mythology, where ghul are known as a fiendish, corpse-eating variety of genie which can also transform into hyenas.  Imagine a movie where an army invades a Middle Eastern country only to get caught up in a war between genies and ghouls (call me, Hollywood).


Again, I'm not saying vampires and zombies are boring, or should not be used.  I just think they need to step aside and let some other undead horrors wreak havoc on our popular culture for a while.

-your ghoulish d20 despot

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