Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Resurrection Gone Bad

I've always found it striking that some of the most powerful and enduring horror tales are stories of bad resurrections. The dead come back to life is the center of the Christian faith, and I've always wondered if these stories were somehow peculiar to the Christian West. The East is full of ghost stories, but I don't know if there are similar tales about corpses coming back to life to prey upon the living. Most of our horror tales are indeed about cadavers getting up out of their graves to get revenge, to find a long lost love, or simply to dine on the living (everything from blood drinking vampires to brain chewing zombies).
Ever since the Black Death in 1348, there has been a horrified fascination with physical decay and disintegration in Western culture. In the eternity of death, the process of physical disintegration is but an instant. It is largely absent in earlier tomb art, Christian and pre-Christian. Earlier medieval tombs showed the deceased as though alive, lying open eyed upon their tombs in prayerful expectation of resurrection. Classical tombs showed the theme of apotheosis, the transformation of the dead into a god or welcomed into the gods' company. Sometimes Classical tombs showed some hero or god who overcame death like Orpheus or Dionysos. The Egyptians tried mightily to stop time, and to stop the whole process of disintegration for their dead.
From 1348 into the 17th century, grave monuments and memento moris are full of "the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out," aesthetic. By the time we get to the 19th century, the story of the resurrection gone bad is thoroughly established in the popular imagination. The evil resurrection story comes to full fruition in that most famous of all dark and stormy nights in May of 1816 at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva where Mary Shelley writes Frankenstein, and John Polidori writes the first popular vampire story. The evil dead have been a horror staple ever since, and shows no sign of waning.

Michel Wolgemut, The Dance of Death, woodcut, 15th century

Ligier Richier, Transi from the tomb of Rene de Chalon, 1547. One of my favorite of all transi monuments, the dead knight offers up his heart to God even as he disintegrates.

Frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.


it's margaret said...

This is a wonderful post Doug.

Ponder the difference between the "coming back to life" of Lazarus and the trampling down of death by Jesus....

more than a semantic difference.

Saintly Ramblings said...

Brilliant! There's also a wonderful "Dance of death" painted on the outside wall of the Chapel of the Black Virgin at Rocamadour, Dordogne, France.

FranIAm said...

Oh my Counterlight, what a brilliant post. I would have not looked at this in this way, but thankfully to you, now I have something to ponder anew. It is fascinating.

Thank you.

MarkBrunson said...

The East is full of ghost stories, but I don't know if there are similar tales about corpses coming back to life to prey upon the living. Jiangshi - "hopping corpses" - were corpses enchanted by Taoist priests to travel home for burial (hopping because of rigor mortis). If the priest travelling with them wasn't careful, they'd break ranks and go after the living, seeking to consume their qi and tearing at them with long, clawlike nails.

Counterlight said...


That's a new one to me. I've always heard the stories of "the hungry ghosts," but I never knew the East had its zombies.


IT said...

did you see the recent story about the Venetian vampire? The putrefaction of the corpses caused changes and seepages visible when a common grave was reopened, leading to fears of vampires, Hence they shoved a stone into the mouth of the corpse.

Cany said...

Very nice post!

We humans...

We seem preoccupied with death while living, and preoccupied with life while dying. We just never seem to get in the moment much, do we?