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The Lure of the Undead

Monday, March 16th, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

Do you think the undead are more interesting when:

a) beautiful
b) grotesque
c) both

Can’t do a real poll here, unfortunately.

My parents owned a book from the first King Tut exhibit to come to the US that held a fearful fascination for me. As a kid I loved reading about the discovery of the tomb and the contents and the strange family of Akhenaten, the heretic, and oh, those beautiful gods and divine animals made of gold, lapis, and cornelian… but I had to turn the pages very carefully to avoid the photo of Ay’s mummy’s head, which gave me nightmares every time my gaze fell on it.

In graduate school, part of the core curriculum was a human osteology practicum. Among other things we had to learn how to distinguish human from animal bone fragments. That and other physical anthropology classes were held in “the bone lab,” where shelves of skulls gazed down from three sides and a human brain sat behind you on the lab bench in a covered beaker of formaldehyde. Along the bench were drawers labeled “Quakers,” mixed fragments from an old Philadelphia graveyard that had been removed (IIRC) from one of the downtown parks. It was all pretty creepy at first, but I got desensitized. One of my classmates took bones home sometimes to study. I mean, a freakin’ human femur sticking out of his book bag, and the guards never said anything.

Then, a few years later, I started working in the Penn Museum’s collections. Between American ethnographic storage (in the basement of the now-old new wing), and the bulk of American archaeological storage (in a sub-basement that could only be reached from an elevator in the old building) lay the Mummy Corridor. The heads of the strangled maidens from Pachacamac were stored in old bell jars on top of a cabinet in one of the basement storerooms, but it was one I rarely had to go into, and one of the volunteers, I guess, had draped a sheet of Ethafoam over them so you really didn’t have to look at them (or they at you, more to the point when you are working in there by yourself for hours at a time). In the Mummy Corridor, the flexed Peruvian mummies were stacked naked in glass boxes along one side, and more mummies waited behind a door in one corner, these in plastic garbage bags because of a persistent leak. There was an overhead light, but it was very inconvenient to use, especially if you were pushing a cart and juggling your keys and keycard, so usually you just relied on the exit-sign glow at the far end. The Mummy Corridor also had a characteristic musty smell. It didn’t seem offensive when I started working there, although in Philadelphia summers, when the humidity can top 90%–and we had no climate control then–the smell got quite a bit stronger.

For a two or three years I had to use that corridor sometimes several times a day, and it slowly re-sensitized me. The scent became not just another storeroom-in-old-building odor (and the Museum had many of those) but the smell of stacks of old, dried-out corpses. The shadows were not just dark but full. As I passed the stacks of mummies the back of my neck would crawl.

The restless dead and the undead hold a fascination for many people and in cultures all over the world, and there are plenty of psychological and anthropological reasons why they should. When the undead creep into my fiction, though–as they do more often than I think they ought–it is not theory but the Mummy Corridor that comes to mind. The recent discovery in a Venice plague cemetery of a purported vampire grave set me thinking about how our notions of (un)death have changed. A plump-seeming, bloody-mouthed corpse, wearing a shroud rotten at the mouth from the processes of decomposition, was how people back then visualized a vampire. Something really nasty and grotesque and foul-smelling, in other words, and not the beautiful, sexually charged vampires of modern fantasy. Is it because as a culture we’re mostly so removed from death as a physical process?

I’ve also been thinking about how fantasy doesn’t feel like fantasy if it isn’t at some level concerned with both the beautiful and the grotesque. It’s hard to wade through too much of the latter (Mieville’s Perdido Street Station comes to mind), but when there’s too much beauty, the guts seem to be missing. Which may be why most vampire fiction does little for me. If they’re undead, they should be creepy, dammit.

7 Comments »

  1. I go with grotesque, myself. While I’ve written bits and pieces of the beautiful undead, the whole pretty vampire thing doesn’t really do it for me in fiction. In movies, it’s the other way around.

    While you were describing the Mummy Corridor, I immediately thought of the opening BG illustration for “Awakening.”

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - March 16, 2009 11:32 am

  2. Grotesque gets my vote.

    Comment by NewGuyDave - March 16, 2009 6:49 pm

  3. Well, the undead fiction that most freaked me out was the original Dracula, where much is made of the allure of the undead. Of course, I was twelve at the time, so there may have been other factors operating.

    Still, I guess I expect the undead to be horrible. When they are also endowed somehow with not-horribleness (e.g. beauty, or the form of a loved one, like in a couple memorable scenes in Shaun of the Dead, etc.), that underscores the horror for me.

    Thanks for the link to the vampire burial article; interesting stuff.

    Comment by James Enge - March 17, 2009 3:29 pm

  4. You Penn graduates. When I took my osteology class, the only bones we had were from monkeys that our teacher had buried in his neighbor’s yard the year before.

    Though, I should say that there is a decent amount of sexy-undead precedent from the old days; I’m not sure that it’s an artifact of modern culture. There’s a number of European gypsy folktales that have to do with men who died before they consummated their marriages coming back to life as vampire sex addicts.

    The gypsies also had stories about pumpkins turning into vampires, which I believe was just an excuse for them to steal pumpkins.

    Comment by braak - March 18, 2009 12:46 pm

  5. grotesque for me.

    I believe these modern vampires have somehow been mixed up with the succubus or something else.

    Comment by NightHawk777 - March 18, 2009 4:32 pm

  6. Interesting point about the succubus. I wonder if those vampire sex addicts were actually sexy to their victims? I also agree that making the horrible not-horrible in some ways increases the effectiveness. A broader principle in writing–the way villains are most interesting when they are not just utterly evil, but when we end up rooting for them in some way.

    Re Awakening, not the illo, but the opening scene, yes, I am sure it was influenced by the Mummy Corridor.

    Re Penn, I have long wondered how the museum and anthro dept gets around state laws about how you have to treat human remains. My former boss told me a classic UP museum story about going down to the office of the skeletal collections Keeper. As they were talking about some ordinary piece of business, and my boss was preparing to lean up against a table, Janet said, “Don’t sit on my Mafia hit victim!” You get sort of used to ancient mummies lying around, but this one was only six months old or so, had had its hands cut off (IIRC) and Janet who consults for the county medical examiners’ office was working to determine age and sex and so on. But it wasn’t in a morgue, it was lying on a table in her office on a corridor of staff offices. I wondered, how did she get it in the building–through the front door?

    Comment by Judith Berman - March 23, 2009 1:36 am

  7. I don’t even know how you’d figure out about it. The transcriptions I’d read all had that weird sort of dreamy quality about them where bizarre events are just accepted as a matter of course–that things were happening was clear, but that the protagonist’s feelings on the subject were not. Were they scary things? Nice things? Weird things?

    Who knows?

    I am pretty sure that Penn just has a blanket exemption from laws. They are like the Science Mafia.

    Comment by braak - March 24, 2009 7:43 pm


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