Counter to what you might think, this book does not have a chapter on zombies, one on vampires, something on ghosts, etc.. Instead, it tracks less pigeon-holed accounts of the supernatural, from ancient times up to the Renaissance (Shakespeare, anyway). What you’re getting is the deep origins, the DNA, of modern stories of the undead. A corpse stumbles around, terrorizing a medieval village, spreading disease, until dismembered and burned. Flashforward 800 years, and you’ve got business-as-usual on The Walking Dead. 16th century theologian Ludwig Lavater talks about folks checking around inside a house – the dark corners, under the bed, in the closet – making sure no one – nothing – is around before going to sleep. And then once they’re convinced and snug in bed- they hear a noise…. Sounds like Ebenezer Scrooge looking around for Marley. Sounds like me staring into the dark at the tiny smoke alarm light, listening for ba-ba-ba-DOOK DOOK DOOK –
Not only can you pick out those threads that have developed into our vast tapestry of horror, but you also get to see how specifically ghostly experiences were explained in literature and by the prevailing philosophies of their day. It’s really interesting how each era changes the understanding of supernatural phenomena. Pliny explains that spirits are signs, like oracles – which was a pretty significant part of Roman religious practice. By the time of the medieval church, spirits were usually considered the souls of those suffering in purgatory. The church used these stories to encourage good behaviour, alms giving, prayers for the dead, etc.. Protestants rejected the doctrine of purgatory, so they in turn had to reinterpret these aberrant encounters as either angelic or demonic. By comparison, look at us. Generally speaking, we view such experiences thru the lens of science. We either debunk or reserve judgement; we don’t know what else to do with the supernatural.
It’s fascinating that though interpretations have changed thru the ages, we have always seen things in the shadows. We flip back and forth thru our options: spirits, ghosts, messengers, demons, hallucinations, but meh… undead works pretty well.
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