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Female Vampire Depicted By Philip Burne-Jones (1896)

Female Vampire Depicted By Philip Burne-Jones (1896)

The Walking Dead: Ghosts You Can Touch And Feel

Acording to European folklore, not all ghosts are vaporous, intangible spirits. Some of the dead return to haunt the living in the same bodies that carried them through life.

From the Middle Ages forward, these material or “solid” ghosts were called “revenants,” a word derived from the Latin word for “returning.” Prior to medieval times, the Vikings talked of animated corpses they called draugar (singular: (draugr or draug) which sometimes guarded buried treasures and/or possessed magical powers.

In Britain, Ireland, and other parts of Western Europe, revenants were thought to be the animated corpses of “bad” people or nonbelievers in Christianity. They crawled from their graves at night to haunt or even physically attack the living. However, people could fairly easily destroy a revenant by disinterring it and cutting out its heart.

The vampire is an Eastern European revenant that sucks the blood of living people. Vampires also can be destroyed through removal of their hearts.

Zombies are a form of New World revenant that arose from the folklore of people in Haiti who were the descendants of African slaves. Unlike ordinary European revenants and vampires, zombies often are thought be be controlled by living people who have magical powers. Another difference from other types of revenants is that the movements of zombies do not seem to be confined to the hours between sunset and sunrise.

But, do revenants, vampires, and zombies really comprise another kind of ghost—or are they entities of an altogether different sort? We suppose this depends on whether the spirit of the original, living person is still somehow attached to the dead-but-still-walking corpse. A ghost, after all, is a remnant of a person’s individual humanity that remains behind after he or she has been taken away by death. If there’s no spirit—if the revenant is just a robotic tower of mouldering flesh—then there’s no humanity, and the walking corpse, whatever else it is or isn’t, cannot be a ghost.

Unfortunately, scientists, religious scholars, and/or philosophers have never been able to examine an actual zombie, revenant, or vampire in order to determine whether the spirit was still at home. . . .

One thing we can say for certain, however, is that a ghoul—a word of Arabic/Middle Eastern derivation—is definitely not a kind of ghost. While ghouls have much in common with revenants and vampires—they attack and often eat living people—they are animated not by the spirit of a once-living person, but by a demon, which, as you’ll learn elsewhere on this site is a spirit that never existed as a human being.

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