Nihilism and the unliving
A deathly stare into the eyes of the undead.
At the age of six, I was introduced to the undead (how do you do!) through a video game series called Heroes of Might and Magic. Although there were many other frightening creatures in the game (trolls, cyclopses, minotaurs, hydras, gargoyles, etc.), it was only the undead creatures that haunted my dreams at night.
Starting from the second game of the series, one of the controllable factions is the necropolis faction, lead by the necromancers, the practitioners of dark magic, able to control hordes of listless undead creatures, taken from various mythologies.
When I was eleven, I was introduced to the third game in the series. Heroes of Might and Magic III features a new faction called Inferno: lead by heretics and demon lords, Inferno features the breadth of Pandaemonium and its demons and devils. Now, the makers of Heroes III worked hard at having the creatures of the Inferno team appear as sinister and “evil” as possible, and in the context of the plot, the Inferno faction causes the most catastrophic upheavals and kills the most people.
But the Inferno never perturbed me or haunted my dreams.
In the context of the game, the undead troops cannot be affected by many spells which affect the living: they cannot be blessed or cursed, cured or poisoned. But the creatures of the Inferno faction can. While they are different from humans, they are subject to the same weaknesses as humans. They are a living evil: a known evil, a contestable evil, an “other” who can be justly fought – who must be fought! Hence, even in my adolescence, I never feared the demons; instead, I had nothing but the purest loathing for them, and the firmest resolve to crush them.
But the undead were different. I always thought of the undead as evil, but they were evil in a different way than the Inferno.
The living dead are a paradox which confounds our consciousness. They do not seem sinister, but very ugly and mutilated. They are nothing but flesh, perhaps reanimated by dark magic, or (as in many modern mythologies) by a disease. However, they are not morally culpable for anything in and of themselves. Moreover, as depicted in many stories, we have a violent impulse against them, and they are radically different from us, at the same time that they are us, and we could join them at any moment.
The undead elicit a nameless evil, which has something to do with our own evil, at the same time that they problematizes the notion of evil.
The reason that I am stricken with terror and awe when I read/watch/ play horror media and literature is that I fear the abyss which the undead represent. To think that I am reducible to flesh, capable of being turned into the undead through a bit of bad luck, absolutely petrifies me. To consider the possibility that I have no soul fills me with despair. To think of a coming apocalypse makes me contemplate my place in a malevolent universe, devoid of value and God. What I am trying to say is that I find the undead horrifying because they are a symbol of nihilism to me. Who can blame the smile of a skeleton or the blank stare of a zombie?
The amorality of the undead and the worlds they inhabit, test our resolve to live. A co-worker of mine once said that if there were a zombie apocalypse, she would immediately offer herself: “take me!”
Ever since I played Heroes of Might and Magic II, I have often contemplated the insidiousness and the mysterious terror which images of undead creatures cause in me. I am fascinated by my horror because, I think, it is the same horror which fascinates me when I read Nietzsche or Sartre, and contemplate nothingness and the absence of God. Perhaps my experience can tell us something about postmodern society’s fascination with the undead and its own godless universe.