The Dead Days: Life and Death

Photo by Charles Parker on

Welcome back to the Dead Days, and to the first of our posts exploring liminality and thresholds in the Gothic. Today, we’ll be thinking about the boundary between life and death, and those who exist in-between: the eerie undead. The undead crop up over and over in the Gothic, from the classic texts to the latest hits. But not all undead are created equal. This post will look at the differences between three common kinds of undead creatures: ghosts, zombies and vampires. All three hover on the boundaries between life and death, occupying the undefined liminal space between these two essential categories, and yet they are wholly different types of being, especially in terms of their corporeal nature.

A Spectral Presence

The occupation of a liminal space is perhaps clearest in the case of ghosts, which are commonly represented as being caught between two worlds, unable to fully ‘cross over’ into the realm of death. They lack a true physical form, passing through objects, walls and even people. They are visible in our world, but leave no trace. They are both here and not here.

Ghosts are removed not only from the rest of the physical world, but from their own bodily existence. In most ghost stories, the ghost is not the animated corpse of the deceased, but rather an echo of their spirit. In some lore, the destruction, discovery or reburial of the earthly remains will allow the ghost to move on, suggesting a continued link between soul and body, and yet the two are clearly not the same. Whilst it may be the treatment of the decaying corpse which causes the ghost to remain caught on the threshold of life and death, it is not the body itself which roams abroad. Indeed, it is the intangible nature of the soul which traps the ghost; without a body to house it, this ethereal, indefinable element of humanity finds itself unable to remain fully in the world.

A Fleshly Decline

In direct contrast to the ghost, the zombie is the corpse. Images of rotting flesh and disintegrating bodies immediately spring to mind when one thinks about the host of zombie media that is so popular today. In fact, unlike ghosts and vampires, which have a rich history in the Gothic, the zombie is much more of a modern phenomenon (in its Western iteration; the zombie myth originated in Haiti amongst enslaved African people). The prevalence of the zombie today is sometimes linked to growing cultural concerns about the waste and depletion of natural resources, which perhaps explains its overwhelmingly physical nature.

The physical decay of the zombie foregrounds the reality of death in a way that ghosts and vampires do not. Interestingly, the zombie is also the least individualised of the three, driven only by the instinct to feed. Ghosts and vampires both retain something of their earthly personalities, shaping their actions as unique beings, but zombies act en masse; hence the common scene in zombie media where characters must destroy the zombie which used to be a loved one. Time and again, these characters must accept that there is nothing left of the person they once knew in the creature. If the ghost is the soul removed from the body, the zombie is the corpse without the soul. Physically, they occupy the liminal space between life and death, but as a person they are long gone.

Photo by cottonbro on

An Invulnerable Endurance

Unlike ghosts, vampires possess a physical form. Unlike zombies, dying does not open their bodies up to the process of decay. Instead, they are eternally preserved, and for many vampires death is a physical improvement. Depending on the iteration of vampiric lore, vampires can be stronger, faster, or sexier than they were when they were living, not to mention impervious to attack. Whilst ghosts fade and zombies rot, vampires gain a power over the physical that is far superior to that of mortal humans.

And yet vampires are most certainly dead. Their hearts have stopped, their skin is cold, and every morning they return to their coffins to sleep. They are corpses, like zombies, but they are far from the physical reality of death. In fact, vampires are often linked with sex, whether through the overtly sexualised protagonists of today’s paranormal romances or the oblique metaphor of mysterious men praying on vulnerable women in the classic texts. This would seem to place them almost in antithesis to death, their physical prowess elevating them beyond the experience of undeath found in ghosts and zombies. There is a vitality to this figure that seems to ignore their undead nature, and indeed they are often referred to as immortal – living forever, not already dead.

Ever After . . .

Ghosts, zombies and vampires all balance the opposing forces of life and death, caught in a liminal state which is most often seen as a trap, an unenviable existence. But they also all flirt in different ways with the limits of corporeality, allowing the physical reality of death to be distanced, revelled in, or transcended. The threshold between life and death is one we must ultimately all cross, and yet there is none so mysterious. Perhaps this is why there is such variation in our imaginings of what it would be like even to hesitate in the doorway.

Megan Stephens is a first year PhD student in the School of English at the University of Sheffield, funded by the AHRC through the White Rose Consortium. She is looking at minor character deaths in contemporary fantastic film and television, thinking about the presence or lack of mourning and the value of different lives (and she promises she isn’t as morbid as this makes her sound!).