In which I endeavor to explain my affection for reanimated skeletons and the aesthetics of bare bone without coming off like some sort of a nascent serial killer.
I’m sure that I already failed with that opening sentence.
I really like skeletons, and I think I can trace that back to one key event in my childhood.
I think I must have been about… five, maybe six years old when my parents rented me a copy of the classic fantasy adventure movie Jason and the Argonauts, which had three effects on young Aaron’s psyche. First, it jump-started my love of history. Admittedly I am remembering through the haze of decades here, but I vividly recall wanting to learn more about these weird people and their clothes and their awesome looking ships and their world. Second, closely related, it got me into Greek mythology, which would prove a gateway drug to various other pantheons and beasts from around the world.
Third, it introduced me to the stopmotion works of Ray Harryhausen, in this case heavily concentrated on the living dead.
I can’t overstate the effect that this movie as a whole had on me, but the best scene is the part where Phalerus, Castor and Jason are besieged by a group of risen skeletons (raised up from hydra’s teeth by the goddess Hecate, of course) and have to battle the janky bone creatures across an old ruined temple. I had an orange lambskin my parents got for me as a baby, that I proceeded to dub the golden fleece. My lego figures re-enacted the film several times, nevermind that my fleece was approximately five or six hundred times the size of the one from the film to them.
I went on to watch everything else Harryhausen involved himself in, but my favorite will always be the Argonauts just for the skeleton fight scene. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad comes close, but one skeleton being controlled by an evil magus isn’t as cool as seven skeletons grown from a dead hydra’s dentalwork by a vengeful witch-goddess.
I like reanimated skeletons the best out of any undead monster because they are at the same time incredibly spooky and incredibly goofy. Sharpened bones are pretty damn threatening and you don’t want a skeleton’s fingers poking through your eyes into your brain, they’re going to shrug off sword blows, and they don’t need to sleep or eat… but they’re so funny looking in how exaggerated their profile and their movements are.
They’re campy. I love camp. I love the sequence in Army of Darkness with the skeletons preparing to march to war. I’m going to blaspheme and say I like them even better than the deadites that the series is built around. The talking skeleton from The Last Unicorn is delightful. The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie solidified itself as a favorite of mine the second I realized that the cursed pirates were skeletons instead of zombies. The skeletal aesthetic is one of the few things I think the army of the dead handled correctly in The Return of the King. The works of Georges Méliès made extensive use of dancing, jerky skeletons as well and probably serves as the grandfather to their use in cinema.
Games, too. I love any enemy that may decide to throw its own body parts at you as weapons. Castlevania, Skyrim, and everything in between. I’m happy mowing through skeletons more than I am any other disposable mook enemy. They’re not some weird racist stand-in for another culture, they’re not a prepper wet dream, they’re just goofy looking skellies.
To take a more serious look at them, however, I’m going to recommend something outside of my usual genre books. When we were still dating my wife got me an absolutely amazing book called The Empire of Death by Paul Koudounaris. I have read it cover to cover a handful of times and consulted it more often than that. It’s got a heavy focus on Europe (as you might expect from something so heavily focused around the phenomenon of Catholic ossuaries) but it does such a good job at exploring how we approach death, how we look at human remains, how those things have changed over hundreds – thousands – of years. It really got my brain revving in the best way, and it still does. It was the book that made me realize I wanted all the magic in my setting to be based around various shades of necromancy, of harnessing dead powers leeched from properly prepared bones, and an approach to the aesthetics of death completely divorced from the goriness and morbidity we usually associate with it. There’s kind of an odd beauty to it and Koudounaris explores and documents that thoroughly with tons of pictures, captions and meticulously researched stories about the evolution of the burial ground.
One part that stood out to me, and something I want to work into stories, is the idea of death as the great equalizer and skeletons as the purest representative of this. Vampires are always going to have some elements of class warfare to them; they are either the aristocrats feeding off the lower classes, or they’re junkies feeding off greater society without offering anything else. Zombies I consider a very political monster in a way that makes me increasingly uncomfortable, they are often clothed in garb they wore in life and they represent the horde of unthinking eaters that the “better” parts of society must band together to survive. Not to shit on all zombie films here, I am a horrible person who loves all the Resident Evil movies, I’ve seen Romero’s collected works dozens of times through, Shaun of the Dead is one of my favorite movies out there, so on and so forth. But with animated skeletons you get a lot of the same threats you do from zombies without the fleshy baggage. So to speak.
One of my favorite parts of Empire is how it talks about the changes in burial throughout western civilization, over the years. How it used to be a very communal thing, how bodies were buried together without class or caste fitting into it. Once some people started getting buried with special objects or in fancier tombs, it started changing exponentially and death developed its own intricate caste system. Ossuaries as a reaction to that can be read as trying to bring some equality back to death, in showing that we are all indistinguishable skeletons underneath it all. To this day, when I’m inventing fantasy cultures, one of the first things I ask myself is what their burial rites are and how those came to be, because it says so much about the people and their history. One of the greatest conflicts in the book I’m writing right now comes from a massive religious schism between those who believe that the body remains holy after death and those who think that the corpse is an empty container and that the soul flees at the moment of expiration, so those bodies can be rendered down into corpse batteries or other power sources. Given what seemingly trivial things real world religions get into gruesome wars over, imagine the righteous fervor that could drive a nation into the trenches when they think the guys on the other side are smelting down immortal souls to power their trains and automobiles, eh?
I’m going to try to do one more of these before Halloween touching one some miscellaneous monsters I’ve enjoyed over the years, but on the off-chance my entire weekend gets eaten up by other non-internet things:
Have fun at your parties or your trick-or-treating or your staying at home and marathoning John Carpenter movies, stay safe, and stay spooky!