More Than Moans and Clanks

Improving Un-fleshed Undead in Fiction

     “I swear, Culbertson, there was something there.”
     “But what was it, old man? There is no trace of foot or paw in the dust, no
sign of passage in the cobwebs for any exit other than the one we stand in.
Do you expect us to believe in a ghost, or perhaps a spectre?”

Perhaps among the most terrifying of elements in horror fiction are those that have no physical existence BUT can still affect the environment and those who do exist in physical form. We give them many names, and many disparate attributes. Some descriptions are so traditional that it becomes a bit of a cheat to use the physical form yet change the nature of what is being hinted at.

  • Ghosts and poltergeists may have clanking chains; specters generally do not.
  • Apparitions are viewed only.
  • Ghosts may be invisible but are practically always audible in some fashion.
  • And any poltergeist worthy of mention moves things around in a notable fashion, usually breaking something in the process of an appearance—but seldom, if ever, displays a visual form unless identified by some other development in the story.

Images graven upon the wind have been among the most frightening throughout the history of tale-telling.

An INCOMPLETE list of types includes:

Will-o’-wisps, apparitions, spirits, specters/spectres, wraiths,
ghosts, geist/gheist, poltergeist, “vapors,” banshee, mists, fogs, etc.

Additional borderline variations include: some types of vampires, devils, demons, and that generic marvel, the haunt.

Some of the most well-developed come from non-European sources:

Wendigo, “hungry ghosts”/soul eaters (Mercedes Lackey has
written of the ga-ku), and other ravenous “invisibles” are
of particular note. Some of these additional variations
still require a degree of physicality (often depicted by moviemakers
or other visual artists as shimmers, gleams, dust, or vapors).

Note that some types enumerated here may not always be considered undead, depending upon the source of their non-natural abilities:

  • Vampires may be classified as demons or devils.
  • Spirit folk may be born of a human and a non-human parent, etc.

In dealing with the paranormal creatures of our imaginations, some significant liberties are taken in folk tales, fiction, and other presentations.

A matter of distinctive nomenclature should be addressed here, if not directly in your own stories.

  • Corporeal, non-corporeal, incorporeal, and disincorporated undead/unliving have all been described as bodiless at one point or another in tales written in the last two hundred years.
  • Vampires or other corporeal creatures able to shift through or “phase through” material obstructions are a special case, so let us concentrate on the other three for the moment.

Noncorporeals are creatures that never had a physical body to start with, or may refer to all the bodiless of whatever origin. As a (very) loose guideline, incorporeal and disincorporated both have continued their existence beyond death of the mortal frame, with the general distinction being involuntary or at the least physically traumatic death as opposed to (mostly) voluntary transition (See Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land).

Demons, devils, daemons, and their ilk may have bodiless presences as well as fully fleshed forms but also have the distinction of being originally non-human in their origin, even if their specific appearances are made in forms no different than ghosts or spirits. They share with spirits, in particular, the ability to possess a physical form–whether that be human, animal, or furniture–and can lead to interesting variations.

Some purists will hold that only humans appear after death as ghosts, with all other formerly living creatures being spirits, instead. Unless dealing with some distinctive form of magick that affects one and not the other, this is probably too fine a point to make in general fiction, yet perhaps necessary for  tales placed into a game universe or other shared setting. (For example, the Dungeons and Dragons demi-plane of Ravenloft has some specific game mechanics related to undead that may need attention in a story, as do the unliving ancestral elves of the Eberron setting).

At least as critical as any other factor is to be consistent with the rules you are choosing to follow, even if you do not communicate those rules to your audience in advance, or in detail. The term “ghostly spirit, for example,” is sometimes also seen, and may be a good compromise to represent the undead remnants of non-human sentients. (Bain Sidhe as bodiless elven undead might be one specific type, although banshee in folklore of earlier times are not necessarily created from Fae folk.)

So, what are the distinctive elements of telling a tale (typically one of horror and mayhem, although we should not forget Casper…) that include non-corporeal creatures?

1. Visualization or Lack Thereof

The full range of costuming, wound descriptions, physically impossible action, contortions, mid-air appearance (or flight), etc. can all build upon what is seen but has no substance. Temporary appearances can be fruitful, such as an image seen in one mirror but not another, or a figure seen in a painting, windowpane, or photo only under certain conditions of light, timing, or combinations (light of a particular moon phase or calendar date being the classical examples).

Frustrated poltergeists may become angrier simply because they can NOT be visualized directly.


2. (Partial) Invisibility

  • In combination with other physically-traceable effects especially.
  • Variation in visibility (consider The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Beetlejuice for two film examples) also represents a considerable trove of possible story elements.
  • Transparency of form or figure can be enough in some cases, making the observer uncertain as to what is passing in front of their eyes against a bright, visually busy, or otherwise ambiguous visual background.

3. Auditory Effects

Clanking, rustling, clacking, moaning, sussuration, screams, whispers, and even normal conversational tones, in addition to the LACK of sound associated with some visual component: An ax striking a log usually makes a distinctive “thunk” noise–but an ax in the hands of a ghost may be silent…and a herald’s trumpet blaring silently can be as creepy an image as I can think of, when one comes right down to it, with only the quivering banner beneath to indicate vibration.

4. Disembodied Effects Upon Environment

  • An impossible wind moving spider webs or wall hangings.
  • A highly localized cold spot with no discernible source, likewise heat.
  • Vibration of a surface without accompanying sound (sometimes not impacting other items in contact with said surface, at other points impacting only a given type of item (metal, glass, stone, etc.).
  • The “Invisible Man” treatment for objects, floating them around as if being held in a normal fashion but with NO visible means of support, is one powerful way to show presence by absence.
  • Another is to show only transparent or partial visual components of the ghostly presence, such as a severed hand or headless torso, eyeless face or faceless eyes, and so forth.

5. Restraint (Subtle Is Sublime)

Perhaps with the non-corporeal undead more than any other “monster,” it is possible to show TOO much. Indeed, often the deciding factor in creating a ghost story is how long to withhold the knowledge from the reading audience that a particular character or effect is being generated by a ghost.

Indeed, if we consider the history of the horror movies that have made the longest-term impacts, those with buckets of blood and pails of entrails scattered about are laughed and sneered at by turns, while a single drop of blood falling silently from an unseen source builds tension and instills fear.

In other words, repeating a refrain I will return to often in this series: as in most tale-telling: Always know when to stop!

Tell A Writer
Mike C Baker

Mike currently lives in north central Texas and admits to being a COBOL programmer, technical analyst, and IT generalist. In his copious spare time, he writes and explores alternative worlds. Somewhere along the way, he THINKS he has learned a bit. He also sharpens knives (and wits). Some of his online ramblings are found at Black Eagle Wizards Den.