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In those works where zombies or vampires (or other undead) aren't merely victims of some weird and exotic disease (and still biologically alive), what traits do the undead have that are common across most? Are any other explanations offered as to the nature of the phenomenon? Is there any consensus at all?

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Undead 101

Death holds a fascination in literature for humans because it is the last door that every human will eventually cross from which there is no return. As a result there are numerous cultural ideas, stories, myths and tales of horror that talk about what happens when people do return from beyond the grave.

Death is not required to be a member of the undead, a living death is also possible. The idea of not being able to return to the state of the rationally living is part of that horror. The fast zombies of the apocalypse film 28 Days Later qualify as zombies, even though they are alive when infected, because the state is irreversible and ultimately death is the result if by nothing else, starvation and an inability to think rationally enough to forage for food.

Skeleton(s)

  • Appearance: clinically dead, mindless, slow and shuffling, no semblance of life
  • Powered by: Magic or demonic animation, vulnerable to magical barriers
  • Mind: usually no intellect, capable of following simple orders
  • Used For: as a minion/shock troop in fantasy epics, usually sword and shield wielding
  • Tactics: Overwhelm their enemies with sheer numbers
  • Destruction: Relatively easy to destroy or disable, can sometimes be repelled by priests

Sources: Sword and sorcery novels, role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons The skeleton is the classic shock troop of classic sword and sorcery writing. They were used to demoralize troops with the horror of the dead attacking the living. They are not usually terribly great fighters, depending on the horror of their existence to cause their mortal enemies to fight poorly, become demoralized with their great numbers, or to simply flee outright. Works best on the superstitious.

Skeletons are employed most often by necromancers, because it takes considerable skill and magic to animate skeletons, it pays to be a specialist. They are also evidently able to be animated en masse because most undead armies have many, many skeletons. Modern literature does not use them as often, perhaps because most humans today are at least familiar with the anatomy of the human body and would not be as frightened. There could also be much less of a call for necromancy as well.

Zombie – Historical

  • Appearance: clinically living human with depressed vitals, or recently dead human
  • Powered by: psychoactive drugs, torture, mind-control or potentially magical curses
  • Mind: very limited intellect, no free will, capable of following simple orders
  • Used For: a punishment, curse, or torture, to terrorize people unfamiliar with Vodoun
  • Tactics: Causes fear, horror, revulsion, usually resulting in accidental death
  • Destruction: high pain threshold, can be killed normally

Movies: White Zombie (1932), Revolt of the Zombies – (1936), Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

The classic zombie of Voodoo legends is usually a person who has angered a Hougan and is now cursed by the use of a variety of psychoactive medicinals (and/or the use of spirit magic) to take over the mind, body and soul of an unfortunate victim.

In other tales, he uses the soul of the deceased as a power source for his magic. When these tales were told, a single zombie or two was all it took to horrify a reader, the descent into zombie madness was often slow and unnoticed or a loved one was kidnapped and transformed via bizarre rituals (buried alive, tortured, tormented past mental breaking points) into a mindless thrall under the control of the Hougan who exact revenge for some slight or to appease his spiritual sources of power with a properly prepared soul.

In any case, this zombie would lay the groundwork for zombies to come as mindless creatures of destruction. But to make them suitably horrific, they would have to be combined with the tactics of skeletons and show up in great numbers.

Zombie – Classic

  • Appearance: clinically dead, mindless, slow and shuffling, no semblance of life
  • Powered by: Magic, demonic, or unknown animating force
  • Mind: usually no intellect, ravenous, hungry, barely able to speak (groans for "brains")
  • Used For: as a sign of the coming of the end of the world, ”when the dead rise and walk”
  • Tactics: Overwhelm their enemies with sheer numbers
  • Destruction: Relatively easy to destroy or disable, supernaturally strong

Movies: Night of the Living Dead (1968), Day of the Dead (1979), Shaun of the Dead (2004), The Walking Dead (comic, TV series) and many others

The classic film zombie made famous in Night of the Dead and other Romero classics shows the zombie as it was best known: unknown how it came to exist, rose from the grave to attack and kill the living, relentless, able to be stopped but only at great cost and their numbers were completely overwhelming. In any confrontation between Man and Zombie, man might look good for a minute, but he always lost in the end to the superior numbers of the undead.

The Zombie was another allegory for natural force. With this classic zombie, the cause of their rising is unimportant, it is the story of the survival attempts of the people in the story. These stories often revolve around people coming to grips with the event, dealing with the reality of zombies, often losing their minds in the process, defending themselves against the zombie hordes, or attempting to find a place which would be "zombie-free."

These tales are often tales of the exploration of the idea of what it means to be human and the indomitable nature of the human survival instinct. Not that it matters in the end of most of these tales; humans almost always lose stories of the zombie apocalypse.

Zombie – New Age

  • Appearance: clinically brain dead, fast on their feet, tireless, relentless
  • Powered by: converted by trans-genetic virus or bacterium or an unknown animating force
  • Mind: no intellect, ravenous, hungry, frightening because of their speed and savagery
  • Used For: as a parable of the dangerous of science, a sign of the apocalypse
  • Tactics: Overwhelm their enemies with sheer numbers and threat of contagion
  • Destruction: strong and fast, shoot them in the head for best results

Movies: 28 Days Later (2002), Dawn of the Dead (2004), 28 Weeks Later (2007), Zombieland (2009)

The New Age zombie has all of the advantages of the Classic Zombie – resistance to pain, strong as hell, contagious bite, bladder-releasing horror, tough as nails, and has a secret weapon. He can run, really fast and without ever getting tired.

Yes, they were frightening when there were lots and lots of them, they were frightening when they could eventually tear down anything you put in front of them to break into your sanctuary and eat your brains. But you always had the comfort you could beat them in a foot race. No longer. Meet the Zombie for the New Age. He runs. Fast. Without breathing, without stopping until he has you in his slavering jaws. This was likely done to allow zombies to remain terrifying to an audience immune to terror. I must admit, my first running zombie disturbed me far more than I expected it would. Fast zombies have made cardio, ever more important to have at the end of the world.

Ghoul – Classic

  • Appearance: depending on the source, they can be living or dead, zombie-like in appearance, known for their rapacious flesh eating and ability to attack in the daytime
  • Powered by: magically animated and controlled, often escape when their master dies
  • Mind: low cunning, very capable at tricking people into becoming supper
  • Used For: shock troops, terrorizing, acquiring body parts
  • Tactics: Stealth, deception, lying, murder
  • Destruction: strong and fast, shoot them in the head for best results

Sources: Sword and sorcery novels, role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons

The Classic ghoul was common fare in sword and sorcery novels. It was smarter than both skeletons and zombies, could pass for human in low light, if it were well fed and reasonably intelligent, was strong and fast and quite combat capable. They could wear armor, thus increasing their durability and equipped with high pain thresholds and superhuman strength, they were quite efficient on the battlefield.

However, their odious personal habits made them less than attractive bodyguards, so they were mostly used on breaking and entering, the acquisition of goods (including humans, living or dead), and if left hungry until crazy, great slavering beasts used in necromantic armies. Overall, they could fill a wide array of uses and that explained their popularity with evil wizards, corrupt priests and necromancers everywhere.

Ghoul – New Age

  • Appearance: alarmingly normal, usually with odious personal habits (bad smell, eating live insects, digging up the dead, braining the living with a shovel)
  • Powered by: madness or converted by the blood or magic of their undead master
  • Mind: not usually a genius, low cunning is more their style, good at escaping with the goods for their master, making sure they kill all witnesses, strong attention to detail.
  • Used For: they are the aide to the vampire who cannot move around in daylight, they provide support, resources and manpower, they are repaid with superhuman strength, resistance to injury and the chance to kill humans, regularly
  • Tactics: Stealth, deception, lying, murder, often very practiced, no moral compunctions
  • Destruction: strong and fast, shoot them in the head for best results

Source: Bram Stoker’s novel: Dracula (1897), Nosferatu (1922), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) Let the Right One In (2004), Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files novels

The New Age Ghoul is right proper in comparison to Classic Ghoul, but their servant similarities remain the same. The New Age ghoul acts as a major domo, servant, real estate agent, book-keeper and overall butler to more powerful supernatural beings such as vampires or liches. In return for their allegiance, they are given access to supernatural abilities or even lesser magic. Never be mistaken by their calm and centered appearance, they are often partially or completely insane in the service of their master.

Vampire (Classic)

  • Appearance: clinically dead, strong semblance of life, but uses mesmerism to prevent people from detecting their undead state.
  • Powered by: Magic, demonic possession or animation, vulnerable to magical barriers
  • Mind: of normal human intelligence, often highly capable due to their very long lives, predatory, dangerous and able to work in small groups
  • Their tactics: Classic vampires were shapechangers, able to turn into wolves, rats, or bats; they were capable of mesmerism or hypnotism, they possessed superhuman strength, strongest than the strongest of men, and some legends had them able to turn into mist to escape harm.
  • Destruction: Armed with an array of powers, the classic vampire was difficult to destroy. They were unable to enter any home they were not invited into. You could throw salt or mustard seeds in their path to delay them, they were forced to count the particles. They could also be disabled this way until the sun rose. Find their lair, stake them through the heart, chop off the head, burn the body. They were also vulnerable to fire and could not bear the direct light of the sun.

Source: Bram Stoker’s novel: Dracula (1897), Nosferatu (1922), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) Let the Right One In (2004), Marvel Comics, Dracula, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files novels and many others

Vampire (New Age)

  • Appearance: clinically dead, very strong semblance of life; after feeding they could pass almost entirely as human.
  • Powered by: Magic, demonic possession or animation, vulnerable to magical barriers
  • Mind: of normal human intelligence, often highly capable due to their very long lives, predatory, dangerous and able to work in small groups
  • Their tactics: The modern vampire is rarely a shapechanger, instead they tend to be the most handsome or beautiful of creatures, with almost an unearthly attractiveness. Normal humans are unable to resist them. As long as they are relatively careful, they can feed unobstructed, passing through human society nearly invisibly. Modern vampires rarely change shape, but if they do, it will be to a clearly monstrous, bat-like form. They are capable of mesmerism or hypnotism often able to alter memories, they possessed superhuman strength, speed and stamina. In some cases, modern firearms are unable to harm them unless significant technology is used.
  • Destruction: Armed with an array of powers, the modern vampire is even more difficult to destroy. They are sometimes unable to enter any home they were not invited into. The classic defenses rarely work; no crucifixes, no garlic, no counting; in some cases, they are able to walk in the light of day. Most can still be destroyed using brute force weapons, staking, or fire.

Source: Bram Stoker’s novel: Dracula (1897), Nosferatu (1922), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) Let the Right One In (2004), Marvel Comics, Dracula, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files novels, Ann Rice's The Vampire Lestat Book and movie series, The Underworld movies, True Blood television series and many others

The undead in literature and now modern entertainment have changed significantly. As the modern veil of science remove superstition from the lives of humanity, our monsters have fewer weaknesses and become more horrific or beautiful depending on the artist and the messages they are sending. But all of them still address the underlying fear of our impending end, our inhumanity to our fellows, and our inability to understand our place in the environment.

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    How do you come up with these so fast? It'd take me 4 hours to write that. Thanks, it is a really good breakdown. I see you mention liches, but don't list them. I've never seen the term outside of D&D myself, but the few fantasy novels I do read tend to go in different directions entirely. – John O Aug 9 '12 at 17:12
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    Liches tend to be a bit more varied. I wanted to think about it for a bit before I put something down. I write stuff like this all the time, so it isn't that difficult for me. I used to write roleplaying games when I was younger and work as an analyst by trade, so I tend to think in terms of categories, themes, trends, eras and the like. This is just an overview document. I will refine it a bit later when I have the time. – Thaddeus Howze Aug 9 '12 at 17:18
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    Upvoted for massive justice; this is a fantastic thing to whip our on a moment's notice. Also, if you haven't already, you should read the Dresden Files - it hits more than half of these categories with Jim Butcher's Fantasy-kitchen-sink approach. – rsegal Aug 9 '12 at 17:21
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    While I may not agree point for point, +1 for completeness if nothing else! Although care to comment on non corporal undead (spooks, specters, ghosts, etc)? – Ashterothi Aug 9 '12 at 19:51
  • I've never thought of ghosts as the undead. I don't know if this is my own personal bias, or if it's just because everything I've ever read and watched make it seem as if they don't belong in the same category. – John O Aug 9 '12 at 22:20
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It's not an easy-to-answer question, because many authors intentionally take very different passes at the concept of the undead. It's such an exploitable uncanny valley device that it's more common a phenomenon than any one type of undeath.

I would consider the underlying consistency to be irredeemability of some sort, most often mental and/or physical. That is, some important part of a being has been degraded (be it mind, spirit, soul, body, or what have you), such that they couldn't be a functioning example of their species again.

Whether your undead are shambling, "braaaaaaaains"-chanting post-humans, magical bone constructs, terminator-like risen corpse, husks, or something completely different, the only solution is to kill them with fire.

  • Thank you for the answer. I didn't word the question very well, I tried to exclude the obviously not-undead by excluding anything still biologically alive, but past that I don't know how to ask exactly what I want. Still many good answers for such a poor question. – John O Aug 9 '12 at 17:02
  • Glad you found it helpful! Though I do feel a little shown up by the thesis that Thaddeus delivered. ;) Part of the appeal of this site, to me, is that there are people looking for even a kernel of a good question, or a teaching moment, in everything, about things I'm interested in. I'm pleased it worked out well for you! – rsegal Aug 9 '12 at 17:13
  • Wasn't trying to show you up rsegal, I do my best to resist answering every question that shows up. I am trying to only answer questions I feel I can bring real value to. – Thaddeus Howze Aug 9 '12 at 22:35
  • Oh, I meant it in the most praising way I could. It was an excellent piece and, like John O, I was a little blown away by both the quality and rapidity. – rsegal Aug 10 '12 at 0:24
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While most definitions would probably be similar, that may or may not be a consensus, depending on how particular you are about the definitions.

For me, "true" undead would require that the person, the original spirit inhabiting the body, be dead and the soul has moved on. The remains are then animated either by some magical force or a different spirit. In some cases, though the body is dead and inhabited by some kind of spirit, the death is not entirely clean and the soul is trapped.

Zombies and skeleton zombies are often animated by the magical power of a necromancer, whose bidding they must do. They may or may not retain some personality of the original person.

Vampires and ghouls are usually animated by a spirit, often some type of demon or demonic in nature.

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Ghouls: Corpse-eating undead monster

Vampires: Blood-sucking undead monster

Zombies: Brain-eating undead monster

  • You didn't give any traits that were common across different types of undead – The Fallen Sep 29 '12 at 16:27
  • @SSumner: 'monster' seems to qualify. – Jeff Sep 30 '12 at 3:14
  • Undead, I think, is commonly assumed to be short for "undead monster" or something of the like. Monster does not describe undead here. – The Fallen Sep 30 '12 at 4:05

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