In a book called Creating Life, a chapter on creating undead might seem out of place, but if it’s still moving, we can consider it alive enough. A multitude of undead types already exist for our use, with most being public domain. These include vampires, zombies, ghosts, skeletons, and more. Most of them are excellent ideas that, just like elves, dwarves, and dragons, have stood the test of time. No one will roll their eyes if we use them.
Should We Create Undead?
The first question we must ask ourselves is whether we should create our own undead. And the answer to that is—probably not. Not unless we have a good reason or an idea that is substantially different. Most basic versions of undead already exist, leaving little room for new ones that aren’t rehashed old ideas with minor twists. If we create immortal bloodsuckers that burn to ash in direct sunlight and have superhuman strength and senses, and we call them something besides vampires, people will call us out.
Conversely, there’s a limit on how much we can change something and still use the original name. This is a judgment call. The first consideration is, how quickly does the way we describe and use it invoke memories of the undead we used for inspiration? The sooner it happens, the more we just call it what it is. We want to avoid the “Oh, it’s just a vampire with this and that added or removed” reaction.
The second factor is whether the changes we’ve made substantially alter the nature of the source. If our creation is a vampire but doesn’t drink blood, we’ve changed something too fundamental to call it a vampire. Some will disagree with this and say authors can do whatever we want, and while this is sort of true, there are expectations that can be defied and ones that shouldn’t be. If changing something fundamental, just change it even more and invent a name.
This is an academic debate, but in death, does the mind go with the soul or remain with the body? Depending on our point of view, this can be used to determine the mental faculties of our undead. For example, we assume that if the soul goes to an afterlife, the mind goes with it and is fully intact. This would suggest that ghosts generally have their minds, whether those minds are impaired by their present state or not. Corporeal undead that have a soul would also have a mind, in theory.
But what about corporeal undead that have no soul in the body? Is that undead largely mindless? About as intelligent as an animal? It’s something to consider if creating undead, or at least use as a rationalization point. It can help us determine what our undead is capable of.
Either way, we can introduce mental impairment of any kind so that our undead is “not right in the head.” Such impairment includes denial of death. This might seem odd with a spirit. After all, a spirit doesn’t have a body, so how can they not realize they’re dead? Yet there are many ghost stories that include this idea. In such a case, the spirit is often behaving as if it’s alive, going about its usual business, such as housework or even rocking a baby’s crib. If confronted with the truth of their demise, these spirits can experience the usual wrath that even the living exhibit when an unpleasant truth is thrust upon them. The trouble with inventing this type of spirit is that we’re not really inventing it—it’s a standard ghost.
A generally accepted idea for undead is that they’re tormented. We speak of “rest in peace” and other phrases about the dead, the connotation being that anyone not lying still must necessarily be upset about that fact. Even Dracula, for all his seeming enjoyment of his state, is shown as tormented when no one is looking. If life is an ideal state and death is the worst we expect, then being undead is an unexpected half-life with even less of a training manual on what to do. Torment can be emotional or mental in origin but affects both. The degree to which our undead is upset about its state may help determine its goals and traits, discussed in this chapter.