The Undead: History, Legend, and Evolution


The undead have captured the hearts (or brains) and imaginations of the world for centuries; creating cultures and challenging what we know about life, death, and anything in between. The fascination with the unknown and supernatural is a psycho-social phenomenon occurring throughout history, crossing the cultural, religious, traditional, and geographic boundaries that separate people.

Pop culture of the 21st Century has integrated the undead into various genres from the classical horror setting, through fantasy and science fiction, and into romance and drama. Perhaps the undead have created a bridge between sub-cultures, unifying genres and peoples of various preferences as they have the bridge between life and death.

What Are The Undead?

An undead creature is a previously-deceased being who functions as the living and imitate life. They are animated by:

  • possession: demons, spirits, interdimensional beings, or aliens,
  • viral infection: such as the t-Virus in Resident Evil,
  • parasite/s: like those in the series The Strain,
  • magic: such as necromancy,
  • bioengineering: like with Frankenstein’s monster,
  • chemistry: where chemicals are fed to the deceased body and re-animation occurs, or,
  • mechanical control: such as with the Servitors in Warhammer 40 000.

Re-animation can include a combination of animation types in some scenarios.

In folklore, what makes the undead “undead” is often philosophical through social hypotheses. One could argue that when a person dies but the body remains alive, the subject is undead. Such an example is found in rural Haiti where persons with mental illness, disabilities, or brain damage were adopted into grieving families as a “returned” lost loved-one, and those with the above conditions who are found wandering are thought of as zombies1.

Social anthropology has explored the link between schizophrenia and the cultural view of the psychological aspects of zombification2. The search for a cure for the undead, cited throughout literature and media, suggests the definition of being undead lays in psychology, where the personality is what qualifies someone as being alive. Cures, like those explored in I Am Legend and Resident Evil, aim to revive the victim to their original, living self.

Does this make the undead merely a functional and socially acceptable undead being, or does it resurrect the person as well as the body?

Types Of Undead

An undead being can take both physical and immaterial forms; incorporeal and corporeal. Incorporeal undead are beings without a physical body. This type of undead include but aren’t limited to ghosts, wraiths, ghouls (although these could be considered corporeal as well), the Grim Reaper, banshee, the Boogeyman, bogies, poltergeist, revenants, and spectres.

Corporeal undead are beings with a physical body. They include creatures such as vampires, zombies, skeletons, liches, mummies, nightmares, golems, homunculi, and wights.

Origin And Evolution

The term “undead” is largely attributed to Bram Stoker and his use of the term “un-dead” in his novel Dracula (1897) to describe vampires. The novel also cites “nosferatu” as an “Eastern European” term for “undead”. The broader meaning of “undead” later expanded to include other forms of life-imitating and previously deceased beings. “Undead” was used in English before Dracula but was in context to the literal “alive” or “not dead” as opposed to “living dead” as we assign the term to today.

The undead are found throughout mythologies and folklore, dating into antiquity. The most commonly known undead in folklore are vampires, ghosts, wraiths, the Grim Reaper, and golems. Modern undead appear in literature as early as 1818 (Frankenstein, Mary Shelly) and further through Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allen Poe, who influenced the stories of H.P Lovecraft and paved the foundation for undead cult and culture. More recent appeals to the undead surfaced through romanticism into young adult fiction, targeting and opening a new market for the culture, for instance in the Harry Potter series with the character Lord Voldemort.

The undead of folklore in antiquity stemmed from the lack of knowledge on diseases, both physical and mental. Stories were created to explain phenomena people once could not understand; gods to explain weather occurrences and supernatural entities to explain medical conditions. Ghosts, zombies, and vampires were the first undead to arise and consistently remain the popular types. Superstitions fueled the concept of the living dead; sinking graves from the settling of the soil or disruption by animals was believed to indicate that the deceased would return to life or already have. People afflicted with disorders such as porphyria and diseases such as rabies were thought to be vampires, while people suffering from mental disorders were thought to be zombies or wights.

Through the Middle Ages, these folklore creatures were used as a means to instill fear in the populations and were presented as examples of an evil present in the world. Hysteria led to witch hunts and Inquisitions in attempts to purge the evils. With the rise of the scientific method and psychology, the diseases and superstitions that once breathed life into the myth were shown to be natural occurrences and not of a supernatural origin. Tales of the undead slowly disappeared into children’s stories, fables, and published as fiction. Science, in turn, introduced new ways to possibly explain the undead and science-fiction moved from the stars back down to Earth. More and more authors and artists began exploring the scientific means of the undead’s existence, whether they could exist, and how.

Science has directly influenced the evolution of the undead in modern fiction. Examples include:

  • vampires that were originally cursed beings of evil, but are now victims of viral and parasitic infection or genetic mutation;
  • ghosts, the once-supernatural apparitions, have become electromagnetic and atomic phenomena;
  • zombies evolved from the damned and unsettled people who returned, into victims of biological and mechanical engineering or viral, bacterial, or parasitic infection.

As science progresses and accessibility to media through the internet becomes more prominent, the undead continues to haunt and captivate our minds as the possibility of their existence becomes all the more plausible. Were the myths of old warning our future selves of the horrors that lurk between life and death? Will our future selves make those very myths become reality as we continue to explore the limits of life and death?

We will just have to wait, read, and find out the fun… Err, hard way.

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