The Malevolent Undead: Cross-Cultural Perspectives

Keith P Jacobi. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Across the world and throughout time, there is a relationship between the living and the dead. An individual begins to prepare mentally for death once he or she is old enough to comprehend the concept. When a child turns to her father at the age of 4 and says, “When you are dead… you don’t come back anymore,” that realization begins the child’s unfortunate walk toward death. All individuals follow similar avenues. However, different cultures march to different drummers in the ways they handle and cope with the dead. The living bury the dead, rebury the dead, pray for the dead, discuss and celebrate the dead, eat the dead, mutilate the dead, and visit the dead. Many living persons wish that particular deceased individuals were not dead and could return. Thus, to confront their own fears of their eventual death, individuals project some degree of animation on the dead. People transcend or rise above their fear of their own death by keeping the dead alive.

The term undead is used primarily in reference to what most people think of as the “walking dead.” These undead are corporeal; that is, they are physical entities that have material substance and can be touched or felt. The types of undead that come to mind are animated corporeal bodies such as vampires, zombies, reanimated mummies, reanimated corpses, and bodies cobbled together from bits and pieces of multiple humans, such as the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Usually, the corporeal undead are without souls or human sensibilities. Humans fear these undead because of their physical existence, which means they can touch and therefore physically harm the living.

There are two distinctive types of undead: (a) the corporeal undead, which include revenants (a generic term for the animated undead) and vampires (who are undead but have undergone a process of transformation; Barber 1988:2-3); and (b) the corporeal living dead, which include zombies (most notably in relation to the voodoo faith in Haiti). Zombies are not dead but appear to be, even to doctors (Boelderl and Mayr 1995); they are individuals who have been poisoned by a concoction that includes the toxins from puffer fish (Diodon hystrix L., Diodon holacanthus L.), sea toads (Sphoeroides testudineus L., Sphoeroides splengeri Bloch), and the large buga toad (Bufo marinus L.) (Davis 1987, 1988:110). To create a zombie, one mixes these toxins with other ingredients, including the “crushed and ground remains of a human cadaver,” to make a powder that can be placed in food or administered by the prick of a thorn (Davis 1988:110, 112). When an individual ingests the powder, he or she becomes a zombie, although remaining conscious of what is going on around him or her (Boelderl and Mayr 1995). For example:

If the patient tried [sic] to take anything in his hand or to stand up, he feels that his limbs are powerless. The patient remains conscious. If he goes to sleep after eating, he finds that he is suffering from poisoning when he awakes and cannot move or speak. In serious cases, the patient may die while asleep. After some time, the motor nervous system is completely paralyzed and it becomes impossible to move any part of the body. The eyes do not respond and the mouth stays closed, making speech impossible. The pulse and respiration slow down. The body temperature drops. Asphyxia occurs as a result of all this and, sometimes, the patient even dies. The patient’s comprehension is not impaired even in serious cases. When asked about his experiences, he can describe everything in detail after recovery. (Akashi 1880, quoted in Davis 1988:156)

Davis (1988) classifies zombies into three types. A zombi astral or zombi éfface is a zombie in which a part of the person’s soul is changed by the individual who possesses it, a zombi cadavre or zombi jardin is a zombie that has been created to work for someone, and a zombi savanne is an individual who had become a zombie and subsequently “returned to the state of the living” (p. 301).

Unlike zombies, vampires are undead corporeal creatures, dead individuals who have returned from the grave to haunt and physically harm the living. Vampires are malevolent creatures who feed on the living to sustain their own existence because they are not alive (Boelderl and Mayr 1995). When vampires feed, they kill the living. Just as zombies return as the living dead, when a vampire kills, that act enables the deceased to become resurrected; thus the dead become reborn and alive again (Boelderl and Mayr 1995).

The term undead also may be used in reference to what are known as ghosts. Ghosts, however, are incorporeal; that is, they do not have a material presence. They are the disembodied and restless spirits of deceased individuals and cannot be touched, nor can they physically touch the living. Underlying belief in ghosts is the common need to confirm that once the body is dead there is a continuation of the life force in an afterlife. The souls or spirits of individuals take form as bodiless presences, or ghosts. Many cultures have traditions concerning the ghosts of ancestors. These ancestor spirits or ghosts are often known as the “living dead” only when they are held in the memory of the living (Mbiti 1970). As time progresses, memories of certain ancestors fade in the living, and eventually these individuals are forgotten and become ghosts without names (Mbiti 1970). For example, among the Lugbara of Uganda there are two types of undead ghosts. The first are ghosts who are nameless and called ancestors. These are dead relatives who have faded from the memories of their descendants. The second are ghosts of relatives who have recently died. The living rely on these ghosts for aid against their daily misfortunes (Middleton 1971:488).

In different cultures, people describe and perceive the presence of ghosts differently. Ghosts are often observed to be wearing white sheets—an image that undoubtedly arises from the shrouds or winding-sheets used to wrap corpses before they are placed in their graves. Ghosts come in a wide variety of shapes and kinds, however. Some are transparent. Some are lifelike apparitions of their former selves, whereas others are horribly gaunt, with empty faces, devoid of eyes and lips. Not all ghosts take human or even vaguely human form: Phantom horses frequently appear, as do phantom dogs and large birds, and ghost lore is full of accounts of ghost trains, ghost stagecoaches, and, of course, phantom ships such as the Flying Dutchman (Lehmann and Myers 1989:304).

These animated incorporeal undead are for the most part benevolent and benign. Many of them have died “good deaths” (Bloch and Parry 1982:16) and are helpful ghosts or spirits. Still, there are those undead whom the living do not want to return, and some cultures may create cults of the dead to help deal with the loss and fear they feel toward the deceased (Malefijt 1968). In addition, the malevolent undead may have been unsavory or vengeful people when alive—monsters in life, so they would naturally become monsters in death. They may have been people who were averted from their path to the afterworld by supernatural forces, or they may have died “bad deaths” (Bloch and Parry 1982:16). Newcomb (1940) quotes a Navajo medicine man: “After the spirit has gone there is something evil about the body which none of the Navajos understand, and of which they are afraid” (p. 75). The ancient Maya believed the underworld, or Xibalba, to be heavily populated with ugly, evil mutants. They are depicted in Maya art as “creatures that were skeletal, hermaphroditic, anthropomorphic, and zoomorphic” (Jacobi 2000:38). The names the Maya gave to the underworld spirits were of such misfortunes as “disease, old age, sacrifice and war, and were often depicted with black marks, representing decaying flesh, as well as bony bodies and distended bellies” (Schele and Miller 1986:268). In Maya art, depictions of the spirits of Xibalba show individuals with “farts so pungent that they emerge in huge scrolls, and their breath is so foul it is visible” (Schele and Miller 1986:268). These visual manifestations encapsulate the fear of the living toward ugly and malevolent spirits. The living do not want such spirits to return, but they animate the undead to provide mental and physical outlets through which they can express their own fears. One can curse at, plead with, cry out to, hate, and physically strike back at the malevolent undead; one can blame them for all of one’s misfortunes (bad luck, disease, and death). The malevolent undead are a needed construct of humanity.

The cosmology of the Netsilik Eskimos includes a number of malevolent supernatural forces, some of which represent the human undead. A shaman might acquire the help of one group of spirits, the tunraqs, as a gift from another shaman or through the spirits’ decision to associate with the shaman. The tunraqs, which are ghosts of dead men, could even be related to the shaman (e.g., they may include the shaman’s grandfather; Balikci 1967). The tunraqs are supposed to be helpful spirits. They help to lessen the impacts of the actions of malevolent spirits who try to bring sickness and other types of misfortune to the Eskimos. According to Balikci (1967), even though the tunraq spirits are helpful, they can also be very independent: One “spirit called Orpingalik … used to attack his master Anaidjuq suddenly from behind and pull out his genitals; the unfortunate shaman, after much yelling, could recover these during a trance” (p. 195). Evil ghosts, such as the ghosts of men who felt that magic killed them while they were in bed, are especially feared in Netsilik Eskimo culture. When tunraq spirits are evil, they are the most feared of the evil spirits. If a shaman sends a tunraq spirit on a mission and the spirit fails in that mission, the spirit will turn on its master and could cause sickness and death to the master, his relatives, and other Netsilik in the shaman’s camp. Then other shamans need to assist in turning away the evil tunraq with even more powerful tunraqs that they have enlisted to help them (Balikci 1967).

Among the Navajo, “bad deaths” include deaths caused by unforeseen acts of nature, such as lightning strikes. Kluckhohn (1967) quotes one story about such a death:

It was almost dark and that man was standing in the door of that same hogan. His wife and kids were outside getting in the sheep. All at once lightning struck that man and killed him. His wife and kids ran away and didn’t even go back in the hogan to get their things. They never went back and that man is still where they left him. (P. 213)

According to Ward (1980), Navajos who die bad deaths—such as through drowning, murder, or suicide—should not be touched, therefore many of them go unburied. Violation of this taboo might force a ghost to return and harm the living.

The animation of both good and malevolent incorporeal and corporeal undead is a direct result of various eventrelated individual or group actions. The malevolent undead may be animated through a variety of events: An individual could die a bad death, or could misidentify a living person as someone who is dead; an individual might mistake a normal or abnormal taphonomic process for a sign of the undead returning, or strike up a discussion with a dead person about a certain topic; or an individual might neglect to pay tribute to his or her dead ancestors, or physically create a living or dead enemy through aggression, or even write about the undead.

The Mistaken Malevolent Undead: The Malevolent Undead at First Contact

In the early 1930s, when the Australian explorer Michael Leahy traveled to unexplored areas of Papua New Guinea to search for gold, he became the first person from the outside world to contact the inhabitants of this remote highland region. His extensive notes, photos, and film footage went unnoticed for 50 years, until Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson rediscovered them and created both a documentary film and a book titled First Contact (1987). The book and film include interviews with Leahy as well as his brothers and others who were on the expedition in addition to interviews with members of the Mount Hagan highland tribe who were present at first contact. The interviews with the tribe members are important because they provide recollections of what exactly the tribe’s men and women believed the Leahy brothers represented. The people of Mount Hagan believed the white men were spirits, the returning ghosts of loved ones and ancestors. They even believed they recognized the white men as certain relatives:

We’d never seen white men before—that’s why we thought they must be our own returning dead—and my mother thought Mick Leahy was the spirit of my dead father, who had come to take me…. One day we were digging for earthworms—well out of sight of the white man’s camp. Mick… came up to us and took me. My mother began to cry and said, “Don’t go away!” Mick took me, telling my mother, “I will look after him, and he’ll grow big, and then come back and talk to you people.” … My mother wasn’t sure if Mick was my dead father, and she hesitated to let me go in case they killed me. But our village was some distance away, and she had to go. But she said she would come back next morning and find out what they’d done to me. (Quoted in Connolly and Anderson 1987:160-61)

Among the tribespeople, there was no doubt that the white men were the dead. One of Michael Leahy’s companions was a man named Michael Dwyer, who happened to have false teeth. One of the highlanders recounts that this white man pulled out his teeth, and “‘when we saw this everyone just ran in all directions.’…Teeth might fall from a dead man’s skull, but surely not from the living” (p. 38). When the highlanders spied on the strangers while they were bathing in the river, some highlanders at first came to the conclusion that the white men were not the returning dead, they were just men; after all, they had penises just the same as all of the tribesmen. However, while the white men bathed, the highlanders saw white foam (soap suds) surround and cover their bodies. The highlanders thought this foam “was the pus coming from a dead person’s skin, like the milky part from the rotten flesh” (p. 46). When the strangers went to the river to pan for gold, it appeared to the highlanders that the white men were “sifting the gravel for their own bones” (p. 51). Even legend fueled the highlanders’ fear of these malevolent white spirits. Their tribal lore included stories of “giant white beings with fangs who could crack open trees with loud explosions and who hunted men” (p. 104).

The strange appearance of Leahy’s group and the shootings of Mount Hagen people that eventually took place (set off by the theft of supplies and the fact that Leahy and his companions felt that their lives and the lives of their carriers were in danger) became ingrained in the psyches of the Mount Hagen people. Even today, they keep quiet about dead relatives. They do not welcome them back from the dead as they did at first contact. They remember stories about the wild spirits that came and killed people, and these stories are the cause of much fear among the tribespeople (Connolly and Anderson 1987).

Will the Real Undead Rise? The Revenant and the Vampire

Sometimes people animate the dead because of ignorance about taphonomic processes. Often, they mistake the details of the process of human decomposition for signs of life. The living may focus on certain aspects of a dead body and come to fear that the dead may walk again to harm the living. In the famous story of Peter Plogojowitz from the third decade of the 1700s, as recounted by Barber (1988:6-7), we get a view of how the vampire took form as a malevolent entity. Plogojowitz died and was buried. Then, some 10 weeks after his death, the village he had lived in experienced misfortune. Within the span of a week, nine other people died after an illness that lasted 24 hours. Individuals who were on their deathbeds said that Peter Plogojowitz came to them while they slept and “laid himself on them, and throttled them, so that they would have to give up the ghost” (p. 6). These accounts by several individuals who then died created fear among other villagers. They knew that certain signs would indicate if Plogojowitz were indeed a vampire. They speculated that the evidence would include a lack of decomposition, and the body may even have enlarged since its burial, due to its feasting on the living. Further, they expected that there would be obvious hair and nail growth. Plogojowitz’s body was exhumed, and the following horrors were noted by the imperial provisor of the Gradisk District:

The hair and beard—even the nails, of which the old ones had fallen away—had grown on him; the old skin … had peeled away and a new fresh one had emerged under it. The face, hands, and feet, and the whole body were so constituted, that they could not have been more complete in his lifetime … I saw some fresh blood in his mouth, which, according to the common observation, he had sucked from the people killed by him. In short, all the indications were present that such people (as remarked above) are said to have … all the subjects with great speed, sharpened a stake … and put this at his heart, whereupon, as he was pierced, not only did much blood, completely fresh, flow also through his ears and mouth, but still other wild signs (which I pass by out of high respect) took place. (Quoted in Barber 1988:6-7)

The story of Peter Plogojowitz provides a classic example of the creation of a vampire—an undead being that is undergoing the process of transformation to a creature that might be interested in blood (Barber 1988).

As noted above, revenant is a generic term used to refer to all animated undead. Accounts of some of the more wellknown types of malevolent undead come from Europe, but vampires are not solely a creation or construct of Eastern Europeans—vampire legends are a worldwide phenomenon. Vampires appear in one form or another in many cultures: the obayifo and asasabonsam (Ashanti) and the asiman (Dahomeans) of Africa; the fifollet or feu-follet of African Americans in Louisiana; the American vampires of New England; the loogaroo of Haiti; the asema of Surinam; the sukuyan of Trinidad; the Dakhanavar of Armenia; the yara-ma-yha-who of the Australian Aborigines; the opyri or vipir, vepir, vapir, the obur, and the ustrel of Bulgaria; the chiang-shih or kiang-shi of China; the upír and nelapsi of the Czech Republic and Slovakia; the dhampirs and mulo of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe; the Nachtzehrer or Bluatsauger of Germany; the lamiai, empusai, mormolykiai, strige, callicantzaros, and vrykolakas of Greece; the rakshasas, the yatu-dhana or hatu-dhana, the pisachas, the bhutas, vetalas, or betails, and the goddess Kali of India; the kappa of Japan; thelampir of Bosnia; the Camazotz of the Maya of Central America; the Tlalteuctli, Coatlicue, Cihuacoatl, Itzpapalotl, Cihuateteo, and Tlahuelpuchi of the Aztecs of Mexico; the thaye and tasei of Myanmar; the aswang, danag, andmandurugo of the Philippines; the upier, upierzyca, and vjesci of Poland; the langsuyar, pontianak, and penanggalan of Malaysia; the Strigoi and Moroi of Romania; the uppyr and eretik of Russia; the mara of Scandinavia; the bruxa of Portugal; the Vukodlak, kosac, prikosac, tenjac, and lupi manari of Croatia; the kukuthi or lugat of Albania; the vjeshtitza of Montenegro; the Talamaur of the Banks Islands in the South Pacific; the Phi Song Nang of Thailand; the 58 Wrathful Dieties of Tibet; and the baobban sith of Scotland (Melton 1994). This list, although by no means complete, illustrates the global presence of the vampire phenomenon.

The Peter Plogojowitz account shows how the decomposition of the dead plays an important part in the fears of the living. Many of the specifics of the deterioration of dead human bodies have become part of folklore. In research conducted through the Human Identification Laboratory of the Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona, Galloway (1997:140-41) defined the five stages of decomposition, beginning with remains that are fresh and progressing through early and advanced decomposition to skeletonization and finally to extreme decomposition. Galloway (1997:141), Rebmann, David, and Sorg (2000:14), Anderson (2001), and Roksandic (2002) provide definitive information on the decomposition of human remains; I summarize this information briefly below.

Fresh remains (first stage), whether they be burned or not, include flesh with little change to the surface or exterior of the body. There is no discoloration of the body. Within the body, bacteria are hard at work, decomposing tissues. No smell is obvious to humans, but dogs can detect fresh remains from a distance. No insect activity is obvious.

Early decomposition (second stage) is characterized by a change in color of the cadaver. First, the color is of a “pink-white appearance,” which changes to a gray and then to green discoloration; then a brownish discoloration becomes apparent at the fingers, nose, and ears (Galloway 1997:141). There is a progression to a green color on a bloated body, and finally the color darkens from green to brown to black discoloration seen in the arms and legs. Odor from the remains is noticeable to humans and animals at a distance (Rebmann et al. 2000:14). The appearance of the body in early decomposition includes bloating from internal body gases, skin slippage, and hair loss, with some areas of the body looking fresh while other areas are bloated. After bloating, the skin can get a leathery appearance. Insects are present, helping with decomposition (Galloway 1997; Rebmann et al. 2000).

In advanced decomposition (third stage), the flesh on the body collapses due to body gases escaping, with a “caving in of the abdominal cavity, often accompanied by extensive maggot activity” (Galloway 1997:141; see also Rebmann et al. 2000). Remaining flesh can be black in color (Rebmann et al. 2000). Mummification takes place in environments conducive to this process. Moist decomposition includes beginnings of bone exposure and the development of adipocere, a soapy, crumbly material that forms from soft tissue after it has been in a water environment for a while. The odor of the remains is strong and easily discernible by humans and animals at a distance (Rebmann et al. 2000).

During skeletonization (fourth stage), the tissues undergo liquefaction. Decayed tissues liquefy and penetrate the surrounding dirt matrix. Bone becomes dry, with some remaining human grease. The odor of the remains becomes weaker. It may smell “cheesy or musty,” and animals can detect this smell from a distance (Rebmann et al. 2000:14). Finally, the bone becomes a dry bone skeleton.

In extreme decomposition (fifth stage), the skeleton itself undergoes deterioration due to the natural elements. Exposure to sun will bleach bones and cause them to dry and crack. Bone will exfoliate in this fifth stage. The body may have a “musty odor,” and an animal cannot detect the odor from as far away as during earlier stages (Rebmann et al. 2000).

Other signs of decomposition that figure into the folklore of the revenant and the vampire, as Glaister and Rentoul (1966) note, include the enlargement of the face, enlargement of the scrotum or vulva, the appearance of blisters of all sizes on the body, the dropping off of fingernails and toenails; the liquefaction of the eyeballs, and, perhaps most important for folklore, the exuding of a fluid mixed with blood from the mouth and nose.

The effects of decomposition, added to the manifestations of a disease, help to account for descriptions of vampires in New England. Among the signs of vampires reported by individuals in New England during the late 1700s through the later 1800s are the usual observations one might expect of a decomposing body in a grave: bloated chest, long fingernails, and blood issuing from the mouth. However, the presence of tuberculosis also played an important part in creating the vampire lore of New England. Tuberculosis is a disease that causes the sufferer to waste away. Persons with tuberculosis “‘lose flesh,’ despite the fact that they remained active, desirous of sustenance, and maintained a fierce will to live” (Brown 1941; quoted in Sledzik and Bellantoni 1994:271). These physical and mental characteristics helped to fuel belief in vampires among some New Englanders. People afflicted with tuberculosis desired to live but were wasting away. In addition, they coughed up blood-streaked sputum (Hetherington and Eshleman 1958); this appearance of blood at the mouth paralleled what the New Englanders knew of the vampires of Europe. Tuberculosis is also highly contagious, spreading rapidly among individuals who live in crowded conditions. If a person died of the disease, it was likely that he or she had also infected relatives or other individuals who were living in close proximity. In perpetuation of the vampire myth, it would appear that the dead individual came back as a malevolent undead being to feast off those close relatives. The victims would show evidence of this draining by appearing to waste away (Sledzik and Bellantoni 1994).

J. R. Cole (1888) describes a case involving six sisters in which such feasting by the malevolent undead was halted. Michael Bell presents this account in his book Food for the Dead (2001):

In the old West Stafford graveyard the tragedy of exhuming a dead body and burning the heart and lungs was once enacted—a weird night scene. Of a family consisting of six sisters, five had died in rapid succession of galloping consumption [tuberculosis]. The old superstition in such cases is that the vital organs of the dead still retain a certain flicker of vitality and by some strange process absorb the vital forces of the living, and they quote in evidence apocryphal instances wherein exhumation has revealed a heart and lungs still fresh and living, encased in rottening and slimy integuments, and in which, after burning these portions of the defunct, a living relative, else doomed and hastening to the grave, has suddenly and miraculously recovered. The ceremony of cremation of the vitals of the dead must be conducted at night by a single individual and at the open grave in order that the results may be decisive. In 1872, the Boston Health Board Reports describe a case in which such a midnight cremation was actually performed during that year. (Pp. 161-62)

Conversations with the Malevolent Undead

The living often want to persuade the dead not to interfere with or harm the living. The living also often converse with the dead for other reasons, such as to describe current happenings, to ask about what the afterlife is like for the dead, to ask the dead to undertake specific actions on behalf of the living, and to create a dialogue that allows the living to understand why someone died.

Historically, among the Mandan Indians of North America a proper funeral ceremony was conducted by the village members upon the death of an individual. The body of the deceased was outfitted in clothing and supplies that represented what that individual would need if he or she were to embark on a journey of a few days’ duration. The body was then wrapped in buffalo skin and placed on a scaffold in an area away from the village where there were other scaffolds. The deceased would then be considered a member of a “village of the dead” (Catlin 1975:146). Village members would visit this village of the dead daily, to mourn. Eventually, the scaffolds and the flesh of the dead would deteriorate and the skeletal remains and scaffold pieces would fall to the ground. The skulls would then be picked up and placed in a circle that included about a hundred skulls “placed some eight or nine inches from each other with the faces all looking to the center” (Catlin 1975:147). Family members of the deceased would know which skulls were those of their relations. The skull circle served as a focal point for meeting the dead, as George Catlin (1975), who studied the Indians in the 1800s, describes:

Independent of the duties which draw the women to this spot, they visit it from inclination, and linger upon it to converse with the dead. There is scarcely an hour on a pleasant day when some of these women may not be seen sitting or laying by the skull of their child or husband—talking to it in the most pleasant and endearing language they can use and seemingly getting an answer back. It is not unfrequently the case that the woman brings her needle-work with her, spending the greater part of the day sitting by the side of the skull of her child, chatting incessantly with it, while she is embroidering or garnishing a pair of Moccasins. Then, perhaps, overcome with fatigue, she falls asleep, with her arms encircled around it, forgetting herself for hours. Afterward she gathers up her things and returns to the village. (P. 147)

Talking to the dead is a universal practice that continues throughout the modern world. People in modern rural Alabama, and in Chicago, and in Osaka, Japan, go to cemeteries, lay offerings on or next to graves, and talk to the dead individuals buried there. One group that takes the practice of conversation with the dead to a passionate and highly involved level is the Sora of eastern India. For the Sora, conversation with the dead is a daily exercise, and participating in such conversation is a way of dealing with issues surrounding death. A conversation may be as simple as a single living individual talking to a single dead individual, or it may be very complex, involving a number of living and dead individuals. Shamans (usually female) act as mediums for the dead individuals. The discussions are synergistic: All individuals involved, both dead and alive, use these sessions to learn about each other, and, through that knowledge, both the dead and the living change. For example, they might better understand the nature of an individual’s death and the feelings about that death of all the individuals, dead and alive, who may figure into the story. If a number of living participants are involved in a dialogue with several dead participants, the living often circle around the shaman, who is in a trance and provides the avenue for one or more of the dead to speak. During these sessions, the living question, argue, “persuade, cajole, tease, remind, deceive, plead,” and even gossip and laugh with the dead, sometimes for hours (Vitebsky 1993:5).

Among the Sora, a dead person is known as a sonum. The sonum lives in an alternate world, a distorted world, compared with the known world of the living. In that world, “the dead keep doves as chickens and pythons as cows … and hunt living humans as game animals” (Vitebsky 1993:217). The sonum is not only an individual but a condition. A sonum has a dual purpose in its relationship with the living. It can be benevolent and helpful (known as an ancestor sonum), or it can be malevolent and punishing (known as an experience sonum). The Sora believe that any death or sickness is a direct result of the actions of a sonum (Vitebsky 1993).

An experience sonum does not directly kill or create a sickness for an individual. Rather, the sonum duplicates the symptoms of its own sickness or death and projects those symptoms and/or exact manner of death on the living. The Sora understand the sonum’s causing an illness or death in another person as part of the cycle of life and death. Different experience sonums reside in different areas, each creating its own symptoms. For example, a sun-sonum resides in the sun and can cause deaths due to accident or murder. An earth-sonum can cause death in childbirth or old age. A convulsion or epilepsy-sonum lives just outside a village in a “clump of bushes” (Vitebsky 1993:74) and causes convulsions and epilepsy.

Vitebsky (1993:139) relates a story that illustrates the malevolent nature of the undead in Sora society. An earth-sonum caused the deaths of several Sora women in childbirth. One woman named Mabmati died in childbirth and became earth-sonum. Mabmati duplicated the death in her niece Ra’gi, who was unmarried and pregnant. Ra’gi died in pregnancy due to an abortion gone awry; the abortion also resulted in the fetus’s death. Ra’gi became earth-sonum and duplicated her death in her lineage-sister Gadi, who in turn duplicated the death in her sister Pui’jan.

Vitebsky (1993:164) presents a transcription of one Sora dialogue involving 19 dead persons and 3 living speakers. The Sora were trying to heal a baby stricken with diarrhea and backache caused by the lumbago-sonum, which is related to the sun-sonum. In this involved and complex dialogue, which has almost 300 speaker changes, we find out that a male sonum named Palda, who killed himself, is trying to kill the son of a woman named Rungkudi, who is one of the living speakers:

Palda: Hey aunt! You were happy enough to dispose of my corpse, weren’t you?

Rungkudi: … Did your mother or father teach you to hang yourself? Did they put you up to it?

Palda: I’m not saying any of you put me up to it.

Rungkudi: So did I kill you then? Don’t you try to pass on your death to your brother again. I’m not joking, if you get my boy…to do it I’ll…

Palda: Only the other day I almost made him hang himself, but then I said “Hey, you, untie yourself!” I went and fetched a knife to cut him down…Hey, aunt, are you listening?

Palda goes on to tell the living speakers how he might be prevented from causing the death of Rungkudi’s son. The ritual involves sacrificing a pig and then cutting up and burning rope. Palda leaves the dialogue and other sonums enter, each with issues for the living; of course, the living also have issues with the dead. One of the living, an elderly woman named Sindi, tries to prevent Rungkudi’s dead daughter, Amboni, from giving her death symptoms (scars on the throat, coughing, and choking) to Rungkudi or to her living sisters.

The Sora’s conversations with both the benign and the malevolent undead allow both the living and the dead to evolve. Individuals change, for the most part, in positive ways. In some cases, there is room for redemption of a sonum. Through their conversations with the dead, the Sora achieve a better understanding of the relationships between living individuals and dead ones. The person involved in a dialogue creates “an intimate and subtle portrait of a personality, derived from the sum of his interactions” (Vitebsky 1993:119). And when multiple living and dead individuals are involved in dialogues, the Sora people as a whole evolve, changing because they have a more defined and clearer picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the living and the histories and personalities of the dead, who become reaffirmed in the minds of the living. These conversations with the dead illustrate that the dead open relationships with the living and control those relationships. As Vitebsky (1993) notes, “The dead make the living into passive objects of theirown activity,” but the result of the dialogue is an education in life (p. 244).

The Malevolent “Living” Versus the Malevolent “Undead”: A Native American Example

Throughout history, humans have been cruel in their treatment of the human body at death and after death. Decapitations and the hacking off of body parts are recorded in both the written and the archaeological record throughout the world. It is true that a good number of these decapitations and dismemberments were inflicted in the throes of battle, and some of the dismemberments happened by accident, but beyond the fact that these inflicted traumas caused death, they have another significance: Many of these dismemberments are directly related to the intent of individuals or groups to prevent the recipients of the trauma from coming back from the dead, or to prevent those individuals from attaining a particular spiritual place.

Although they were not dealing with the undead in a manner that one would equate with vampires, prehistoric and historic Native Americans had numerous methods for preventing malevolent or enemy spirits from coming back to punish the living. One of the most visible of these is found in the burial treatment of those who might have been considered threats. In most prehistoric and historic Native American interments, the individual was buried in an extended or flexed manner, on his or her back or side. Burials of individuals in a prone position—that is, lying facedown—were not as common. In fact, such burials were reserved for individuals who were different or who were enemies. At the prehistoric site of Moundville in Alabama, for example, the burials of two achondroplastic dwarves were found in the 1930s. Achondroplasia is a rare congenital malformation and is very rare in the prehistoric record. Both of the individuals were found buried facedown (Snow 1943). The unstated implication behind this mode of burial is that the living did not want these individuals to come back. Examples of similar practices have been found throughout the world. For instance, Ralph Merrifield (1987) found that in Britain during the late Roman and early Anglo-Saxon periods there were a significant number of prone burials. Merrifield asserts that the bodies were placed in this manner to ensure that the deceased did not return, as the act of prone burial separated the living from the dead and directed the dead on a journey away from the living. At the archaeological site of Mulberry Creek (1Ct27) in the Tennessee River Valley in northern Alabama, three Native American individuals were found who had been thrown in the burial pit in a haphazard fashion and covered over with dirt (Webb and DeJarnette 1942). Two of the three had projectile points embedded in their backs. These individuals were enemies to those who buried them; they were afforded the dignity of a burial, but the lack of care in how they were placed in their grave reflects disrespect.

Native Americans found that one of the most visible ways of punishing the dead was by the act of scalping. Native Americans believed that to travel successfully to an existence after death, they needed to be physically complete (Hudson 1976), and scalping precluded this. For Native Americans in the Southeast, the treatment of the body after death was of great concern. As Hudson (1976) recounts, when men were killed away from home in a raid,

warriors would sometimes scalp one of their dead comrades themselves so that their enemies could not take the scalp. When it was possible to return and reclaim the remains of comrades fallen among the enemy, they would do so; when they could not, they wept and mourned the death of these men far more than for men who had the benefit of proper mortuary rites. It was deeply disgraceful to have one’s body dismembered or left to be devoured by animals. (P. 328)

Scalping was tangible proof of an individual’s success in combat. Most individuals who were scalped were already dead or died soon after the act of scalping. However, rare individuals did survive being scalped, sometimes for weeks, like one individual whose remains were found at the prehistoric site of Moundville, and sometimes longer, like another individual whose remains from the same site indicate that his scalp lesions healed totally and he lived out the rest of his life (Snow 1941). Both of these individuals would have lived what was left of their lives after their scalpings with the knowledge of their coming destiny after death and the knowledge that they would be prevented from harming the living after they died.

At the archaeological site of 1Lu59 (Bluff Creek site), excavated during the Works Progress Administration’s project in the Tennessee River Valley, the burial treatment of one individual represents an interesting case of the living dealing with someone they thought to be a threat in death. As Webb and DeJarnette (1942) describe the case, the skeletal remains are of a man who was buried headless. Found across his abdomen were five human fibulae that had been sharpened to points. These fibulae may have been tools of torture used to pierce the man. In addition, evidence of a necklace made of human teeth was found in the vicinity of the individual’s neck and between his elbows. The 100 teeth that made up the necklace show evidence of holes drilled to thread cords through and grooves on the roots of the teeth to wrap cords around. It is obvious that this individual was not accorded the common treatment of a Native American at death, in that he was incomplete. This individual could have been some type of shaman, as evidenced by the necklace. The fact that the necklace included at least 10 lower-left second premolar teeth indicates that the teeth came from at least 10 different people. These teeth, although worn, show no evidence of caries development, so the deceased was not extracting teeth for the purpose of alleviating pain due to decay. All tooth classes are present: incisors, canines, premolars, and molars. All of the teeth are from adults. What did these teeth represent to the deceased individual? They were not diseased teeth. They were not the teeth of the young or of individuals who were initiates to puberty or some type of tribal fraternity. The teeth could have been the teeth of enemies, and they probably served as trophies that represented the individual’s power over other living or dead individuals. The fact that this “shaman” was decapitated indicates the power the living had over this individual at his death, and their disrespect for him. The beheading was a conscious attempt to prevent the deceased from accessing the afterlife and coming back to harm the living.

When Native Americans placed additional human body parts in a burial with an individual who was complete, this represented an offering to that individual. Such human trophy elements were taken from individuals who were believed to be not worthy of being complete, or who were at least not as worthy as the individual with whom the trophy elements were buried. These unfortunate individuals were enemies or slaves. Sacrifice victims (children, tribe members, and others), in contrast, would be offered up whole, and a different status would be given to them. Regardless, the mutilated individuals would be prevented from accessing the afterlife and from coming back to harm the living. Their body parts would honor the deceased in the burial pit by virtue of being revenge. In Tennessee, at an archaeological site named Chucalissa (40SY1), which dates to the beginning of the 1400s, there are three separate burials with extra human body parts buried with them. One of the three has an individual buried with three extra human skulls (Nash 1972). Marks indicating scalping appear on two of the skulls, and one of the other skulls was painted red (Jacobi and Hill 2001). Archaeological sites in the Tennessee River Valley in northern Alabama, such as the Koger’s Island site (1Lu92) and the Perry site (1Lu25), have multiple burials with deliberately placed body parts in the burial pits, specifically, skulls, hands, and feet. These skeletal offerings honor the individual; they prevent his enemies from hurting him in the afterlife and prevent those enemies from harming the living. Trophy hands and feet even accompanied some of the seven individuals who were scalped and placed in mass graves at the Koger’s Island site (Bridges, Jacobi, and Powell 2000). They were incomplete, but revenge in the form of trophy hands or feet was placed within their burial pit.

Sometimes Native Americans took the power they expressed over the dead to the level of using a human body part in a ceremony or even for everyday tasks. For example, they made simple tools out of human skeletal elements, such as a portion of human femur (Jacobi and Hill 2001). At Pinson Mound, archaeologists have found rattles made from human parietals (two parietals filled with small pebbles and fastened together with cord), decorated with elaborate designs (Mainfort 1986). These noisemakers were placed on either the arms or the legs; similar rattles made out of turtle shells were worn in the same manner (Lewis and Kneberg 1946, plates 102, 103). Native Americans also have been known to make bowls out of human skulls. At the archaeological site of Mulberry Creek (1CT27), a human skull bowl was found; it is complete with drilled holes toward the rim of the bowl that would have allowed cord to be attached so that the bowl could be hung up or suspended (Webb and DeJarnette 1942). This bowl was not found in a burial context; it most likely represents the remnants of a disrespected individual, perhaps a victim of battle, who ended up as either a utilitarian object or a ceremonial object. It is also possible that the bowl represents a Native American “attempt at keeping the legacy of some relative alive through the incorporation of a physical portion of the individual into a daily or ceremonial icon. Or, were they modifying skeletal elements of individuals who were viewed as enemies and thus exerting some kind of control or revenge over them?” (Jacobi and Hill 2001:9).

Through their actions perimortem and postmortem, Native Americans of the Southeast physically and, more important, psychologically delivered punishment to individuals who were malevolent or potentially malevolent after death. Well-known engravings by A. De Batz, Le Page Du Pratz, and Theodore DeBry (who based his work on first-person eyewitness accounts and sketches by Jacques Le Moyne) document the trophy taking and display of human remains. Drawings exist that depict individuals displaying dried scalps poles (Fundaburk [1958] 1996:48-49, ills. 113, 115), and one engraving shows the total dismemberment of a human, with nothing left but a torso. Two other engravings show trophy arms and legs hung on poles, with the remaining torsos violated in the anus with arrows and poles (Fundaburk [1958] 1996:10-11, ills. 15, 16). Native Americans who were disrespected, hated, or misunderstood during their lives would have known what would happen to their bodies at death and, in some cases, for years after. This was the inherently understood psychological punishment to the recipient. Both the physical and the psychological trauma inflicted by these actions helped Native Americans to confront their own fears of death. By continuing to use the remains of the dead, Native Americans reminded themselves of the power they had over their enemies.

The Malevolent Undead as Entertainment: The Animated Dead in Popular Culture

Fear has always been a driving factor in the majority of human reactions or responses to the undead. Conversely, fascination with the dead, sometimes fascination propelled by fear, drives some humans into acceptance of, glorification of, obsession with, mimicry of, and even partnership with the undead. Since prehistoric times, humans have shown an interest in how the body works (Ackerknecht 1967, 1982; Lisowski 1967). Scientists and artists in the past fueled human fascination with the dead (and the undead) through their dissections and anatomical drawings, which provided the public with views of the inside of the human body. Hans Holbein, an artist who lived in the first half of the 1500s, produced a series of woodcuts titled The Dance of Death. These engravings depict a human skeleton (representing death) appearing in the lives of numerous people in all walks of life. For example, different illustrations in the series show the death skeleton standing behind the pope, playing the violin to a duchess, preventing a peddler from peddling his wares, pouring wine down the throat of a drunkard, and leading a blind man to his destiny (Holbein 1887, plates V, XXI, XXXIII, XXXIX, XLIII).

In 1543, Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, the founder of modern anatomy, created one of the greatest volumes of anatomical illustrations ever produced: De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Each illustration, with its accompanying anatomical labeling, is an artistic masterpiece. The title page of the volume illustrates a human dissection under way, with throngs of people straining to see, some crowding around the dissection table, others looking over their shoulders, and still others leaning over a balcony above (Saunders and O’Malley 1973:43). In the anatomical illustrations, the human body is posed in odd and striking ways. There are depictions of standing skeletons and fleshless bodies with pealed-back muscles and tendons that appear as if they are dripping or oozing off the body in the process of decomposition. The fleshless bodies also stand upright. In one illustration, a body is held upright by a rope hung around the neck; another shows a body leaning against a wall (Saunders and O’Malley 1973:103, 107). Many of the illustrations show fleshless bodies striking poses in the foreground within natural landscape scenes. In the background, towns and other structures can be seen (Saunders and O’Malley 1973:93-103). Most people today would find these depictions of fleshless figures horrific, no less than did people in the 1500s. The figures in many of the illustrations appear to walk as though alive, and although such depictions educated some of the public, others were both fascinated and frightened by them.

In the early 1800s, the vampire found its way into popular culture. Lord Byron had started a novel that was to involve a Greek vampire who fakes his own death and burial (what survives of this text today is usually referred to as “A Fragment of a Novel” or “Augustus Darvell”). The vampire’s traveling companion later arrives in England and finds that the vampire is alive and feasting on Londoners (Bleiler 1966). At the time Byron was writing and plotting this novel, he was attended medically by a doctor named John Polidori. Polidori stole Byron’s idea and subsequently wrote and published a story titled “The Vampyre” in an issue of the New Monthly Magazine in 1819 (Bleiler 1966). Even with Polidori’s name on it, the public accepted the story as Byron’s. The vampire soon became a popular figure. A stage play based on “The Vampyre” was produced in France in the early 1820 (Bleiler 1966), during which period the public’s obsession with vampires continued. Two German operas based on Polidori’s story were produced in 1828: In March, Heinrich Marschner’s Der Vampyr was performed, and Peter Joseph Von Lindpaintner’s version of the story, with the same title, was performed in September (Palmer 1992; Brown 1992).

Literature was the primary medium through which the undead continued to be part of popular culture. Thomas Preskett Prest published the amusing, campy novel Varney the Vampire in 1847, and Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, about a female vampire, was published in 1872. However, two novels that appeared in the 1800s rise above the rest: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, published in 1818; and Dracula, by Bram Stoker, published in 1897. These two works brought the malevolent undead to the mass public and created a foundation for the expanded elaboration of the undead mythos that continues to this day. These classic novels encapsulate all the centuries of humankind’s fear of and fascination with the dead. From Frankenstein:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils….It was already one in the morning…when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. (Shelley [1818] 1981:42)

From Dracula:

“Ah, you believe now?”

I answered: “Do not press me too hard all at once. I am willing to accept. How will you do this bloody work?

“I shall cut off her head and fill her mouth with garlic, and I shall drive a stake through her body.” It made me shudder to think of so mutilating the body of the woman whom I had loved. (Stoker [1897] 1992:207)

The malevolent undead continue to figure as major characters in the literature of today. Public interest in the undead seems to lie with vampires in particular. Novelist Anne Rice, with her contribution to the vampire mythos through her creation of the vampire Lestat and other vampire characters (introduced in Interview With the Vampire in 1977 and since populating numerous sequels and other novels), keeps vampires continuously in the public eye. In her books there are good vampires and bad vampires, and all vampires are very erotic. Numerous other authors also add to the proliferation of vampire literature. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has produced a series of books, starting with Hotel Transylvania (1979), that chronicle the exploits of the vampire Count Saint-Germain. Brian Lumley brings us numerous vampires and vampire conflicts in his multivolume Necroscope books and spin-offs (see, e.g., Lumley 1986). Laurell K. Hamilton has created a series of books featuring a character named Anita Blake, a vampire hunter and zombie hunter (see, e.g., Hamilton 1993), and Stephen King has included vampires in his horror fiction in Salem’s Lot (1976). Sherlock Holmes has met Dracula (Estleman 1978) and so have the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (Larson and Sloan 1978). P. N. Elrod (1990, 1995) has brought us the vampires Jack Fleming, a reporter, and Jonathan Barrett, among a number of her other vampire creations. And of course there is Sonja Blue, the vampire in sunglasses created by Nancy A. Collins (1992). Numerous romance novels also feature vampires as protagonists; titles include Vampire Lover (Lamb 1994), The Vampire Viscount(Harbaugh 1995), and Love Bites (St. George 1995).

In Western popular culture today, we even use vampires to educate and entertain children. On the popular children’s television series Sesame Street, a character called the Count (who bears a resemblance to Count Dracula) helps children learn about numbers. A children’s book titled Let’s Count, Dracula (Benjamin 1992) does the same thing. Beyond the vampire rabbit of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a vampire rabbit named Bunnicula is a character in a popular children’s book series (see, e.g., Howe and Howe 1979). In the children’s book Vampires Don’t Wear Polka Dots (Dadey and Jones 1990), teachers are vampires, and vampires are featured in at least one installment in the Babysitters Club mystery book series (Martin 1994).

In addition, vampires and other undead creatures are often featured in comic books. Anne Rice’s books have been adapted by Innovation Comics, and Marvel Comics has offered vampire comic creations such as Count Duckula, Morbius,and Tomb of Dracula. Perhaps one of the most erotic female vampire creations in comics is Vampirella, whose stories are published by Harris Comics. In addition to those mentioned, numerous other vampire creations are offered monthly by various comic book publishers.

Television has brought vampires to the public in numerous series. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the successful soap opera Dark Shadows featured the good/bad vampire Barnabas Collins; spin-off books by Marilyn Ross chronicling the lives of the program’s characters also became popular (e.g., Ross 1968). Vampires have appeared in television in many different kinds of programs, including The Addams Family; Count Duckula; Doctor Who; Fantasy Island; The Flintstones; Forever Knight; F Troop; Get Smart; Happy Days; Kolchak: The Night Stalker; Love, American Style; The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; The Monkees; The Munsters; The Phil Silvers Show; Rod Serling’s Night Gallery; The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour; Starsky and Hutch; and Tales From the Darkside (Jones 1993). In recent years, we have become acquainted with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a successful television show based on a Hollywood movie. The character of Buffy kicked her way onto television and subsequently into numerous merchandising opportunities that keep her, her associates, and good and evil vampires in our daily lives.

Hundreds of movies have been made involving vampires and other undead creatures, since the time when movies were silent and even earlier, when movies were called “2-minute trick films.” An early trick film made by Georges Méliès in 1896, The Haunted Castle, has some familiar vampire trappings, such as a bat, a medieval castle, and a crucifix that destroys the devil (Jones 1993). The silent film Nosferatu, made in Germany in 1922, is the earliest screen adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Jones 1993). Different versions of Dracula and other vampire movies have been made in many different countries, showing the cross-cultural appeal of the undead in entertainment. Vampire movies have been made in the United States, England, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Ceylon, Mexico, Malaya, Turkey, Argentina, Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Morocco, Poland, Brazil, Hong Kong, Russia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Singapore, India, Canada, Yugoslavia, Austria, Romania, Colombia, Thailand, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Australia, China, Finland, and Venezuela. Stephen Jones (1993) has produced an illustrated movie guide that can help you find the vampire movie of your choice, anything from the classic Dracula to movies with titles such as Dracula Sucks, Mama Dracula, Love at First Bite, I Married a Vampire, Kung Fu Vampire Buster, Scream Blacula Scream, Vampires on Bikini Beach, and Toothless Vampires. Vampires even appear in stage musicals, such as Dance of the Vampires, and stage plays; the classic Dracula story has been adapted for the stage many times.

Games and related merchandise involving the undead are popular among certain sectors of the public today. For example, Warner Bros. makes a Buffy the Vampire Slayer board game, and the U.S. Playing Card Company sells a game called Zombies. Role-playing games such as Ravenloff, by TSR, and Vampire: The Masquerade, by White Wolf, are popular. In Vampire: The Masquerade, participants create good or malevolent characters, which they role-play in scenarios monitored by a “gamemaster” or “dungeonmaster.”

Obsession with the undead is widespread in modern popular culture. There are vampireand zombie-themed rock groups, such as Desmo Donte, Type O Negative, and White Zombie. There is even a Japanese rock star who claims to believe that he is a 400-year-old vampire from the Netherlands. Vampyre Magazine includes a section called “The Sanguinarium Directory” that lists various vampire churches, societies, fan clubs, newsgroups, and Web sites (Melanie and Todd 2001). There are vampire boutiques, vampire corset and leather stores, vampire jewelry and cosmetics stores, and vampire art galleries. There are stores that offer casket furniture for modern-day wannabe vampires. Fangsmiths will help you to achieve the perfect vampire smile through dental filing. There is a Vampire Research Foundation and an interactive vampire dinner theater (Melanie and Todd 2001). There are underground vampire clubs and goth bars that serve a vampire cocktail known as the blood clot. At some underground vampire bars, razor blades are handed out at the door for attendees to use, possibly to participate in the dangerous behavior of exchanging blood with their loved ones.

As these numerous examples show, the undead are everywhere in popular culture. In some cultures today the evil undead are not feared; rather, they are creations in the stories told through different media. In most of these societies humans do not truly believe in the undead; rather, the undead serve as symbols for evil that is confronted and defeated by the living. However, in some cultures, even though the undead are prevalent in popular media, there remains very real belief in both the incorporeal and the corporeal undead. The undead are a necessary part of daily life in these cultures.

The Function of the Undead In Societies

The idea that ghosts, vampires, zombies and other undead entities actually exist may sound silly to many of us in Western society. However, the concept of the undead is very real and serves as an important thanatological symbol in a large number of cultures. Most humans feel the need to know that there is something after death. Cultures construct variations on the concept of the undead in their attempts to help individuals understand death and the existence that is known as the afterlife.

Cultures create animated corporeal and incorporeal undead entities to help describe the processes of death as well as hoped-for outcomes/results of death. Both benign and malevolent undead function to aid humans in understanding the physical and spiritual aspects of death. Benign animated ghosts and the tangible animated undead are important only when there is a dichotomous relationship/partnership with the malevolent undead. Humans need the malevolent undead to explain things they do not understand and to take the blame for misfortune. The existence of the malevolent undead provides a way for members of a culture to explain the unexpected deaths of loved ones, or to blame something outside themselves when bad things befall an individual or a group.

Anthropologists examine the concept of the undead across four subfields: linguistic anthropology, cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, and archaeology. Most cultures have linguistic terms for corporeal and incorporeal representations of the undead, as evidenced by the numerous names for vampires throughout the world mentioned above. Often, the terms by which undead entities are known in a culture are specific to that culture and its ways of relating to the dead. Although the concept of vampires or the undead in general is present in many cultures, explanations for the existence of the undead, the reasons given for why they help or punish the living, and the ways in which members of a society confront the undead and accept, reject, or defeat them are not the same cross-culturally.

Physical anthropologists find the undead interesting because the examination of taphonomic processes, which includes the study of decomposition of human remains, offers insights into why people in the past have viewed the undead as being in fact alive. For example, in the past, people may have viewed the bloating that is part of the decomposition of a body as evidence that an undead individual had risen from the grave and feasted on the blood of the living. Or the movement of maggots in and around a corpse may have made it look as if it were alive.

Archaeologists and physical anthropologists who are involved in skeletal analysis attempt to understand the actions of past cultures and their responses to the undead by examining human skeletal remains for evidence of certain types of trauma. Cut marks on a skull are evidence of scalping; the absence of a head, hand, or foot is a mark of mutilation. Both types of trauma, usually inflicted perimortem, shed light on a culture’s belief in the necessity of entering the afterworld physically complete. If one is incomplete, one is denied access. Perimortem scalpings, decapitations, and amputations were preemptive strikes against those individuals who might, if they were whole, come back as malevolent spirits.


Children sometimes hold their breath as they pass by cemeteries to avoid inhaling the bad spirits of the dead, which could cause the children’s own death. This seems like a silly superstition, but the threat of cemetery air was very real to me and my friends as we were growing up around the city of Chicago. Even though a good bit of my everyday work involves the dead, I still pause and think about that superstition when I pass the cemeteries I know from my childhood in and around Chicago. At the core of this superstition is a very real fear of the dead, of dying, and of the dead who are malevolent. Such fear of the dead, and especially of the dead who are malevolent, is pervasive in human cultures.

Spiritual constructs, both benign and malevolent, are necessary creations that once animated in the minds of humans help provide mental and physical explanations for the deaths of individuals and for the process of dying. Both benign and malevolent undead creations enable living persons to confront and transcend their own fears of death. The benign undead are important manifestations, but not nearly as beneficial as the malevolent undead to the mental and physical constitution of an individual or a group. It is the malevolent undead who help feed the fear, quiet the fear, explain the disaster, and provoke and prevent the human response.

Events in the lives of people animate the malevolent undead. Among the Navajo, strange deaths, such as a death caused by a lightning strike, were believed to create situations that might release malevolent spirits. In New Guinea, when the inhabitants of Mount Hagan first encountered the Leahy expedition, they approached with caution and fear because they saw animated ghosts. One of their first reactions was to raise their axes in shock and defense, because they thought the ghosts were probably malevolent. Then one New Guinea native recognized that one of the ghosts was in fact a relative returned from the dead. Later, after members of the Leahy expedition killed some of the New Guinea highlanders, these “ghosts,” in the minds of some native inhabitants, remained malevolent.

Among Europeans and New Englanders, series of deaths from unknown causes created fear that malevolent undead entities had returned to cause disease and death. The solution for the misfortune was to exhume a body and inspect it for known signs of a vampire, and then the natural process of decomposition animated the people’s beliefs in malevolent entities. The remedy in such situations was to drive a stake through the heart of the corpse or to burn the remains. Once this was done, the situation was understood.

The Mandan Indians of North America participated in conversations with the malevolent undead that helped the participants understand their own misfortunes or those of family members. Among the Sora of India, a shaman is the vehicle through which benign and malevolent spirits voice their opinions to the living while the living verbally challenge and question the dead. The resulting conversations are emotional and combative, with the malevolent undead admitting to their participation in misfortune, relating the causes of their own deaths and why they made other relations die from similar causes. From these discussions with the malevolent undead, the Sora gain understanding about why certain unfortunate events occurred, and that understanding allows them to control current and possibly future situations.

Among prehistoric and historic Native Americans of the Southeast, burial in a prone position, decapitation, scalping, trophy taking and display of human body parts, and use of human bone in utilitarian or ceremonial ways served as preemptive mental and physical deterrents toward potential and known malevolent enemies who, once dead, might return as undead bent on harming the living.

The malevolent undead are pervasive in current popular culture. They are described in literature and depicted in television programs, movies, stage plays, musicals, operas, and games. The influence of the undead can be seen in the ways some people dress, adorn themselves, cosmetically alter their teeth, listen to music, drink alcohol, use computers, and worship. The undead, malevolent or not, even take part in the education of our children. It is surprising that the malevolent undead have gained such prominence in the psyches of individuals and cultures. This prominence is evidence of human beings’ continuing fear of and fascination with death, which governs and guides our actions in response to unexpected events.