Last week in Bulgaria, two bodies staked with wooden and iron rods were excavated. Medieval Europe certainly had some special skills in cruel and bizarre executions, but the curious thing about this staking is that it was posthumous. It was a prudent medieval burial ritual, to preclude occult resurrections, not just of vampires but of many kinds of undead. The seeming ridiculous superstitions of religious Europeans are easily dismissed, fantasized, and fictionalized today, in what Charles Taylor calls A Secular Age; with atomized individuals, disembedded from magical and material reality. But no matter how far our postmodern intellects and scientific exploits carry us, the reality of our end, of death, sticks with our imagination, limits our fictions, and teases our fantasies. Maybe today the undead are telling truer stories than the living.
Queue some blockbuster postmodern fantasies, both the utopian, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and dystopian, as in The Walking Dead. As organized religion fell out of favor with American cultural elites, other fantastical sources were needed for storytelling that took us beyond the mundane and the material.
The pagan sources of postmodern mythology put us in touch with a lost depth, maybe in a way that the cultural products of organized religion have failed to do. The domestication of North American Christianity, after all, has produced Touched by an Angel, but not Battlestar Galactica. Better, it seems, the unknown god, full of mystery and pregnant with the magic of life (and death), than a known, rationalized, and privatized gospel. And so the dead have been resurrected.
According to Elïf Boyacio?lu, the domestication of the undead started in Europe with the development of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. During the medieval period, death lacked the hard corporeal ending that modern instrumentation has ascribed it. Writes Nancy Caciola in Wraiths, Revenant and Rituals in Medieval Culture, “… intimacy between the living and the dead was possible because death was not envisaged as a full extinguishing of either body or spirit.” Burial rituals in ancient Mesopotamia, Rome, and Greece with food, libations, coinage, and—in the case of Chinese emperors—whole Terracotta armies confirm this. The twin spiritual and scientific revolution contributed to the eclipse of revenancy: empirical confirmation that the body, and especially the brain, irreparably ceases at the time of death, and that spiritual atonement is an exclusively non-corporeal exercise, for which a special supernatural existence exist. This stratification of the afterlife coupled with a growing empirical reductionism helped render the sharp divide between life and death that most North Americans have enjoyed.
But the collapse of empiricism, and the dismissal of organized doctrine, has struck a renaissance in these deeper mysteries. Purely secular mythologies lack the luxury of purgatory, and materiality and secularity are no longer—if they ever were—synonymous. The easy answers from organized religion continue to fail to convince, and maybe with cause. The bifurcation between material and spiritual, between death and life, has been absorbed into many European religious traditions in a way that might be unintelligible to their premodern, even co-religious, ancestors.
A renaissance in revenancy is telling stories about an embedded cosmos, magical and mysterious, rushing at infinite speed, penetrating and qualifying an anthropocentric, materially myopic world. Who would guess that the scourge of the undead could yet prove salve and savior from the autistic materialism of modern life?