Note: I wrote this as a Halloween edition letter for a mailing list and I am republishing it here with permission. Enjoy!
When I was about 12 years old, my mom took me to see a talk given by well-known paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. During this talk, they shared “evidence” from some of their most publicized investigations, such as the Amityville horror house and the possessed doll Annabelle (which later became the basis for the film The Conjuring). This talk had a profound impact on my young mind, namely that I DIDN’T SLEEP FOR WEEKS and it started a deep fascination with how to protect myself from the undead. In honor of Halloween, I wanted to share some of this wisdom so that you all may stay safe. Note that I’ve never tested any of this so I can’t guarantee its accuracy, but if you do end up using anything here, let me know if it worked.
A few points of clarification here: I am specifically going to discuss the undead, which I am using to describe supernatural forms of humans that were alive at one point in the past. I will not go into demons, mythological beasts, shapeshifters (such as werewolves), or any other supernatural creatures that do not meet this criteria. I am also not going to discuss specific entities, such as Slag Pile Annie or the Bell Witch – these creatures haunt specific locations and can easily be avoided by not going to where they are. For those of you who play D&D or other fantasy games, you may be familiar with some of these creatures, and perhaps have gone so far as to write them into some of your campaigns. Note that they may be represented differently in those universes, so your mileage may vary.
Okay, let’s get started!
A zombie is a type of reanimated corpse that is not sentient. Zombies are either created through some form of magic or by a contagious disease. They may possess superhuman strength and/or speed, and their bodies are often depicted in various states of decay.
What they want: More zombie friends (via infection) or to do their master’s bidding (via magic). Note that zombies did not historically eat brains; the first depiction of this was the 1985 film Return of the Living Dead. This may have been a direct influence of another popular film from 1985 about creatures seeking brains, The Breakfast Club.
How to defeat them: Destroy their brains, rendering them unable to function.
An undead mummy is a mummified corpse that has been reanimated by a curse, often caused by disturbing the tomb they were buried in. Mummies often possess superhuman strength, can use telekinesis, and are nearly indestructible. The first depiction of mummies as vengeful monsters was in the 1932 film The Mummy. Prior to this, most depictions of undead mummies were romantic partners for the protagonists of stories, such as in The Mummy’s Foot written in 1840 by Théophile Gautier.
What they want: Some damn rest and for you to leave their stuff alone.
How to defeat them: First, check your pockets for any ancient artifacts that you might have picked up. If you can replace these items in time, you may be able to break the mummy’s curse and sneak out of their tomb before they rip your face off. Otherwise, try fire and hope for the best.
A vampire is a parasitic corpse that feeds on the blood of the living. Although the concept of vampiric creatures has existed for thousands of years and across many different cultures, vampires as we know them have existed for about 400 years. One of the oldest cases of modern vampirism was Jure Grando, who died in Istria (now Croatia) in 1656 and was later decapitated in 1672.
There are a few ways in which a person can become a vampire, such as having a cat jump over your corpse or rebelling against the Russian Orthodox Church, but the most common way is to drink the blood of another vampire. Once converted, vampires remain sentient and do not age. They also gain supernatural powers, such as shapeshifting, superhuman strength, flight, and/or mind control. The 2014 documentary What We Do In The Shadows shows how vampires live in modern society.
What they want: To suck your blood.
How to defeat them: Driving a wooden stake through their heart, exposing them to sunlight, dousing them in holy water, decapitating and/or burning their corpse, or placing a slice of lemon in their mouth.
A revenant is a type of reanimated corpse that has returned to seek vengeance. Unlike a zombie, a revenant is sentient and has returned on its own accord. Revenants may have supernatural powers such as superhuman strength and/or speed. Although revenants may simply want to terrorize the living, they are not always objectively evil. For example, the 1994 film The Crow is about a revenant who returns to avenge his untimely death. Revenants generally go back to being dead once they have addressed their unfinished business.
What they want: Justice, possibly also lulz.
How to defeat them: Let them complete their unfinished business. If they are coming after you, best of luck!
All incorporeal forms of the undead fall under the broad category of ghosts. Ghosts are the souls of the dead that have been separated from their body but are still stuck on the mortal plane. Interestingly, the concept of ghosts is nearly universal – it exists across the world and there is evidence that it existed as far back as prehistoric times. One of the oldest pieces of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh (written around 2100 BCE), features a ghost as part of the storyline.
In this section, I am only going to discuss some general classifications of ghosts. There are some fascinating regional variants of ghosts, such as the different types of hungry ghosts of China, the banshees of Ireland, or Madam Koi Koi of Nigeria. Feel free to explore that Wikipedia rabbit hole at your own peril.
Some ghosts have a visible representation, but it is not a recognizably human form. These representations often take the shape of a vague mist, fog, or even an orb. It is also reported that the area surrounding these entities may be unnaturally colder than the rest of the space. Note that some people have claimed to have captured photographs of these types of ghosts, and those photos are by no means the result of photographic backscatter.
What they want: It’s a mist-ery.
How to defeat them: Clean your camera lens.
Residual ghosts are visible entities that have human forms but are stuck in a “loop” from their lives and do not interact with the living. When they appear, they are often repeating a series of events related to a traumatic event that may have led to their death. Note that mystery smells or sounds are sometimes considered residual hauntings, such as hearing music playing in a room with no radio or smelling an old perfume with no obvious source.
What they want: A different outcome.
How to defeat them: As these ghosts are anchored to specific locations, just don’t go there.
Unlike residual ghosts, interactive ghosts are aware of the living and can respond to stimuli. They may or may not be evil and are often associated with a specific location. Not all interactive ghosts have a visible form – some may communicate through sound or by moving objects.
What they want: I don’t know, ask them?
How to defeat them: This wikiHow article on how to get rid of a ghost might be a good place to start.
A poltergeist is a subtype of interactive ghost that is definitely out to cause harm. These ghosts rarely have visible forms, but can move objects. They may also attack people, whether it be by biting, hitting, or scratching. Unlike interactive ghosts, poltergeists generally haunt a specific person, often a child or young teenager.
What they want: To terrorize people.
How to defeat them: Exorcism. The 1973 film The Exorcist popularized the concept of exorcism through its graphic depictions of a Catholic exorcism of a demon. Interestingly enough, the concept of exorcism is not specific to the Catholic Church, nor is it only used for demons. Most major religions around the world have some concept of exorcism through ritual, which may entail cleaning your house, removing all musical instruments, or blowing through a shofar (or ram’s horn). These rituals may be used to expel many things beyond demons, such as bad luck, evil spirits, or black magic.
Finally, we will talk about the act of an undead spirit taking control of a vessel, often known as a possession. This is a common concept across the world – around 75% of societies have some notion of possession. While there are multiple types of entities that can engage in possession (such as demons, gods, and spirits), we will limit the discussion here to possession by an undead spirit. Possession can occur both voluntarily or involuntarily, and can happen across multiple types of vessels. The three main types are discussed below.
The most common form of possession is when a spirit takes control of a living person. In some societies, people may willingly summon spirits to gain control of the powers of the deceased. The possessed person may or may not recall being possessed, although this seems to be directly related to whether the possession was voluntary.
What they want: To be alive again.
How to defeat them: First, don’t invite them in, even if they ask really nicely. In the case of involuntary possession, an exorcism may be required. Serious note: many cases of so-called spirit possession can be attributed to undiagnosed (and serious) mental illnesses. If you think someone may be possessed, please have them checked out by a mental health professional before calling a priest.
Animals such as household pets can also become possessed by spirits. You can tell if an animal is possessed if it starts acting aggressively or knocks your stuff on the floor. This is in contrast to, you know, being a cat. The Weekly World News (the world’s ONLY reliable news) published a guide on how to tell if your pet is possessed, featuring commentary by none other than Ed Warren.
What they want: To be jerks.
How to defeat them: Unclear, but I will let you know if my cat’s scheduled exorcism has any effect.
There are also a few cases where spirits possess inanimate objects, commonly dolls. The most well-known case is the doll Annabelle, which is a Raggedy Ann doll that is allegedly possessed by the spirit of a small girl. There is also an equally frightening doll named Robert that can reportedly move around, make faces, and giggle.
What they want: To ensure that I never sleep again.
How to defeat them: SET. THEM. ON. FIRE. In fact, it might be a good idea to set ALL dolls on fire as a precaution to ensure that no more haunted dolls are created. This is a good and valid reason to buy a flamethrower (and don’t forget to pick up the gasoline backpack!)
And that’s it for this (long) letter on how to protect yourself against the undead. If you’re trying to stay safe, be sure to avoid haunted places, and if not, take lots of pictures! Thank you for coming to my DED talk.