Tuesday, June 1, 2010

How's it hanging, bone daddy?

The elf awakes, expecting to see warm sunlight trickling into her family's home, high in the trees. Instead, she sees smoke and ash clouds. Averting her eyes from the corpses in her parent's cots, she looks out to see no forest, but instead a waste full of smoking rubble - great chunks of masonry like that in the human city to the east. Withered man-sized carcasses pepper the gray powdered spoil. The air is silent and still... and then, something creaks like an old door hinge. Again. Then, again... out of the smoke lumber gaunt pallid shapes, like elves or men but not quite.

Kitty has played DnD for the first time... but that warrants its own post. I wanna talk real quick about skeletons.

Skeletons are a go-to undead for Level 1 characters for more reasons than just "They're kinds easy to kill." For one thing, the solution to that is hoards of skeletons. No, what's really great about skeletons is that, more than any other undead creature, skeletons say "Death." Zombies are more visceral - they disgust us with their decay, and remind us of the horror of violence. Ghosts, wraiths et al are the opposite - they speak to the alien otherness of the dead, the great wall between them and us. They tell us about our fears of what's after death. Ghosts are the penultimate foreigners, our fear of them the greatest xenophobia.

Skeletons, though, just symbolize death. Not how it happens, not what will happen during or afterward... just the fact itself. Skull. Death. Skeleton. Death. Skeleton coming at you with sword. Death.

The skeleton is so abstract that the very image of an animate one is surrealistic. We don't do living skeletons in horror movies anymore, and I suspect it's because even CGI can't make them anything less than abstract and near-comical besides living actors. They worked in Jason and the Argonauts because everything looked surreal. Have them march around in a remake and I'd bet money they get swapped for zombies. Skeletons still work in video games (Elder Scrolls: Oblivion has some great ones) because once again, the whole world has a surreal polygonal feel.

This also gets at the whole "but there isn't anything to hold bones together!" thing. The answer is "so what?" That makes them more scary, because what the hell is holding them together? My answer - the very idea of them. The bones are just the focus - think of skeletons as a kind of weak death-golem. Bash 'em hard enough and eventually the negative energy holding them aloft will flicker out and fail. At which point they should completely come apart with the final blow, bones going everywhere. Noisily. Attracting the attention of more skeletons.

Do this: Imagine a skeleton walking towards you. Go look at one if you must (easier if you're in art or medical school). Really picture it. Covered in cobwebs and bits of dried stuff... rotten clothing and rusting armor... a great, probably busted but still dangerous-lucking sword. You just got some juice out of the fridge and now here it comes, its bare feet clacking on your linoleum floor. It is not slow. It walks as fast as you do.

It's surreal, and that surrealism makes it somehow more frightening. The skeleton is not fear of dying - that's a zombie. It's not fear of the dead - that's ghosts and wraiths. It's fear of death; an atheist's death, for the skeleton is but a husk bearing only passing resemblance to what it once was. Zombies still have some semblance of humanity - skeletons do not. They are an empty and meaningless death.

Creak. Creak. Creaaaaaaak.

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