In my fantasy world, revenants are a special type of undead. They only occur when a person dies feeling that they were wronged in life. If their soul contains enough hatred for those who wronged them, they will come screaming back into the mortal realm, and force their dessicated corpse to move through sheer force of will.

The revenants are stronger, faster, and smarter than they ever were in life, not to mention vampiric, and are incapable of death. It doesn't matter whether they are cut apart, blown up, or their bones are broken, they'll just pull their bodies back together and keep on going.

They only return to the afterlife when they find the person(s) that wronged them in life, upon which the revenant will murder them as brutally and painfully as possible, as penance for their wrongdoing. They will not rest until they find them, and will not hesitate to kill anyone who gets in their way.

If this is a relatively common occurance, there are obviously going to be some cultural ramifications. Burial practices will probably be effected in some way. Perhaps law and justice is altered, in an effort to prevent revenant occurances? Maybe people are just nicer to eachother.

By the way, the culture in question is similar to 1800's america. How considerably would this culture be altered by revenants?

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    $\begingroup$ So ... to clarify, when you say 'wrong', that's not necessarily in the sense that their target killed them, right? Could the revenant's grievance be over something that's outside the limit of the law, i.e. stolen love interest, run out of business, verbal abuse, something of that nature? $\endgroup$
    – Halfthawed
    Jan 10, 2020 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ So if I'm just angry and paranoid in general, with perhaps a bit of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, I'm pretty much guaranteed to come back as an unstoppable murderous vampire and promptly kill all the normal, nice folks who humored my illness? Since child mortality during this period was fairly high, that seems to include a lot of murderous, unstoppable babies and toddlers out to seek revenge for their killing pestilence upon their blameless parents and siblings. Fun! $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Jan 10, 2020 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ @user535733 Now you've got me wondering: if mental illnesses have a physical/chemical component to them, would a person carry said illness into the next world? $\endgroup$
    – Luis
    Jan 10, 2020 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Luis well, given that the ghost can apparently hold knowledge based on their mortal life...does it matter? As far as they know, they've been wronged. While a dead soul might be able to think more clearly, their past knowledge will remain intact. If they are convinced somebody wronged them, yet that knowledge actually comes from a delusion, I don't think there would be a relevant difference. In either case, the dead will return as a revenant. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Jan 10, 2020 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ As many are saying, this will wreck society as we know it. An idea to make revenants more manageable: the collective justice of society is also necessary to "power" the revenant, even if the wronged party controls it. (The omniscient "souls" of the living contribute energy to powering the creature - this may happen without the living people involved being aware of it) In other words, a revenant can only come back if society as a whole would condemn the guilty party if they knew about the crime. This will prevent things like sociopathic, misanthropic, or petty revenants. $\endgroup$ Jan 12, 2020 at 12:54

9 Answers 9


It sounds to me like one's best bet to deal with a revenant (assuming you're a target and don't wish to be) would be to contain it. Place the revenant in some situation that it cannot escape-- at least, not until the person who they want to kill is already long gone from natural causes.

To that end, I'd imagine that you have people who would establish businesses where they would attempt to prevent the revenant from accomplishing its goal. As Starfish Prime stated in their answer, it might be a good idea to cast the revenant in concrete after blowing it apart, depending on how they work when blown up. They might lock a revenant in an iron vault of some sort (since iron is said to have powerful properties against the supernatural in some folk lore). The idea here is that the revenant might be able to wear through the metal through time and energy expended-- but it will almost certainly take decades to do so-- at which point, the revenant's target will have already passed.

I think that it would make crime a little bit less personal, with a focus on anonymity. If I'm going to do something sinister (and there will always be people who do something sinister), I would want to disguise myself. If I can prevent you from knowing my identity, that's kinda useful (the revenant would only know who to look for if I re-used my disguise). But if I could convince you that I was someone else entirely while I did something sinister? Maybe even an enemy of mine? Why, I could kill two birds with one stone, potentially!

Example scenario: Jane Q Evil is a vindictive and greedy lass. Her half-sister, Becky J Good stands to inherit the complete family fortune when their parents die, and Becky already has a family and children. Jane knows that her sister would leave all of the money to her husband and children, but never to Jane. Jane also passionately hates her stepmother, believing that her father made a mistake with that marriage.

Jane disguises herself as Becky, then starts to do innocuously crappy things to her stepmother. Nothing too huge-- stepping on her dress without apologizing, stealing a few dollars from her, etc. When the stepmother tries to confront the real Becky, Becky obviously denies it and says that that didn't happen. The stepmother is now starting to really dislike Becky, as it seems that she's gaslighting her. This is the most dangerous part of the plan-- if Becky ever figures out that it's Jane disguised as her, Jane's got a potential revenant on her hands. But if Jane can convince Becky that their dear old step-mother is starting to go senile, she's got a great situation on her hands.

Jane, disguised as Becky, murders her step-mother one night. She makes sure that the step mother gets to see that it was "Becky" who killed her, and that she knows that the murder was purely out of greed and the desire to swindle for money. In short, she ensures that her step-mother becomes a revenant.

A few days later, the step-mother comes back and murders Becky. Jane's hands are clean in that murder, where she would most clearly stand to benefit. Now Jane can just wait for her father to pass and rake in the dough.

Of course, if Becky's suspicious of something, she might order Dear Old Mom's corpse to be placed in a cast iron safe filled with concrete and buried in quicksand that her mother couldn't crawl out of as a revenant. That would put quite the hitch in Jane's plan!

Edit: Your post asks for culture, and while crime is an aspect of culture, I'm definitely not answering your question completely.

I think that different groups might view revenants differently. Ordinarily, assuming all is well, it might be super common to put all corpses into a standard burial practice where a revenant couldn't easily escape (IE the iron coffin caste in concrete). But what about a case where there's an unsolved murder? The town might take a vote to leave the corpse free so that it might solve the murder and kill a murderer in their midst.

One other thing I think you'd find-- there wouldn't be such a thing as slavery in this world. 1800's America thrived on the cheap labor of indentured servants (who were hit with wildly unfair labor contracts) and the free (minus food and housing costs) labor of slaves. Both groups would be extremely inclined to come back and kill the people who used them for their entire lives. Workers probably have really, really good compensation in this world; a mogul can't afford to demand 15 hours days 7 days a week from people who might come back and murder him in a few year's time.

There's probably a strong inclination to respect the elderly, and a ton of disrespect from the elderly toward those younger than them. Consider-- if grampa dies hating me, he probably comes back and kills me while I'm still relatively young (in my 20s or 30s). But if I'm grampa and I'm a completely terrible human being to my grandchild-- I'm dead by the time that kid passes! What do I care if the kid was upset enough with me to become a revenant?

Doctors may be extremely scarce in this world (and those who are around are highly revered). Medical practices might also not have advanced beyond what seems obvious right now. If a doctor does something that people view as controversial (say, creates an early vaccine with scrapings from a scab that comes from an infectious disease) and a patient dies (whether because of what the doctor did or not), there's a decent chance that the patient or their relatives/dependents will interpret this as being the doctor's fault. If someone believes that the doctor is responsible for their passing and they left a dependent family behind, they might come back as a revenant and kill the doctor.

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    $\begingroup$ I love the idea of letting an obviously murdered person come back in order to solve their own murder. That's brilliant and efficient. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Jan 10, 2020 at 20:21

Say goodbye to government

If these things can't be killed by any means, say goodbye to any form of organized of government, ever. You can't be in charge of a large government without making people hate you with a passion, so that means anyone with power can last about a few weeks before some revenant goes after the poor sap. (And if you doubt the truth of this statement, take a look at outside.) The time scale for death, of course, is adjusted based on level of general despotism, a genocidal dictator will probably last hours whereas a pure-hearted democratically elected leader by 90% of the population might make it two months.

Basically, everything's going to be settlement based in small groups of people with the inhabitants trying desperately not to irritate their fellow man. It'd be like mutually assured destruction, except with being nice to people, and thus any large form of organization, which by definition will screw over the little guy in the giant gears of the machine, will fall apart. This is not a good thing as civilization will kind of just stall because that's only natural when any crank who dies will just rise from the grave and take out his enemies. I mean, there won't be large scale war either, (assassins, yes, but anyone worth assassinating probably has a few revenants after them) but imagine a world where no one wants to talk with anyone they don't already know for fear of offending them.

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    $\begingroup$ Just because your enemies cannot be killed does not mean you can't hide behind a wall that they can't beat their way through. Being a stronger than average human being just means that it will be slightly louder when you bang on the steel coffin we bury you in. $\endgroup$
    – Muuski
    Jan 10, 2020 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ Solid steel caskets would work, but that's assuming that every corpse was buried within steel caskets - a lot of these revenants, I'd imagine, would be buried in a pauper's grave, or the equivalent because those burying them can't afford something like that or just don't care. Not to mention that they might animate immediately after death, at which point it doesn't matter what coffin you use because you won't get them in it. And, don't forget, these aren't shambling zombies - they're described as being smarter than they were in real life. $\endgroup$
    – Halfthawed
    Jan 10, 2020 at 18:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Halfthawed Without government or a properly functioning civilization, making proper steel suddenly becomes impossible. Best a tribal sized community might achieve is a brick or concrete casket, but a revenant might still eventually punch scratch and claw its way out. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 10, 2020 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ But then the poor civil servant who got killed because they were in the way comes back convinced they were wronged by all who seek to upset proper civic authority, and you’ve got a Revenant Secret Service agent... $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Jan 10, 2020 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ I think there's a catch in the description: "If their soul contains enough hatred". How much is "enough"? Perhaps the necessary amount of hatred has to be so large that, were you alive, you would kill your enemy on sight. That is pretty rare and few leaders would ever garner that much hatred from any particular individual. $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    Jan 11, 2020 at 22:11

force their dessicated corpse to move through sheer force of will.

What if they were cremated? What if they were eaten by predators or scavengers, and their component molecules are now various distributed around a bunch of animals, plants, and some slightly-more-fertile-than-its-surroundings patch of soil? Will there be poop-revenants?

They only return to the afterlife when they find the person(s) that wronged them in life

If I dump your body in a foreign country where you don't know where you are and don't speak the language, you're gonna have a real problem tracking me down.

Exchange of corpses might be a sensible thing for neighbours to do, like the old "bury them at a crossroads so their ghost won't know which way to go" idea but a bit more thorough.

It doesn't matter whether they are cut apart, blown up, or their bones are broken, they'll just pull their bodies back together and keep on going.

Blow em up, set the bits in concrete. Separate the bits. Maybe throw some of them in the sea. It'll take longer than the lifetime of the target for them to get themselves back together, if done sensibly.

If this is a relatively common occurance, there are obviously going to be some cultural ramifications

Not following proper safe burial practises might become a crime. Mere suicides will probably be largely replaced with murder-suicides, probably with the murder after the fact. Might be safest just to kill anyone with signs of mental illness ahead of time, so you can guarantee they'd be buried properly.

Warfare is going to become somewhat more unpopular, because everything is pretty much mutually assured destruction.

Any work that requires you to travel far from home where you might not get the right sort of funeral rites might end up like a sorts of "untouchable" caste. Never let a sailor see your face, lest he drown on his next sailing and blame you, sort of thing. There are probably many vaguely related things like merchants or exiles or hermits or nomads or indeed people just living on their own, if they're not checked up on regularly, might be treated with similar fear and suspicion.

Maybe people are just nicer to eachother.

Haha, no. Be realistic now. Revenants rising from the earth and wreaking vengeance on those what done them wrong is way more plausible than people becoming basically nice human beings.

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    $\begingroup$ There will be poop revenants. If nothing else, poop revenants. And their wingmen the pee revenants. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jan 12, 2020 at 1:03

A world overrun by the dead

Your rules provide for a number of ways to create a revenant that will effectively never rest. More of them will be created all the time. An ever-increasing tide of revenants slowly but inexorably chokes the life out of Mankind. You should probably close these loopholes.

Loophole: a revenant can't kill a dead person

If I am parsing your rules correctly, if even a single person on a particular revenant's hit list dies, but not by the revenant's hand personally, that revenant will never go away. It will simply keep on killing ... forever?

You might be able to convince the revenant 'no, really, they're dead'. Or you might not. Many people have died whose bodies were never found, especially if they happened to die in a secluded area.

Loophole: Two revenants want to kill each other

Perspective being malleable as it is, it's easy to imagine scenarios where two people hate each other, each believing the other one screwed them, and they can die close enough to each other to become revenants.

Loophole: The revenant hates everybody

This could happen in numerous ways. Take a notorious psychopathic killer who doesn't give a crap about anyone but himself. Literally, that's what a criminal psychopath is: no conscience whatsoever, an inflated view of self-worth, a huge hypocrite, cares only about themselves. So when you execute one of them, they might well feel like the entire world has done them an injustice.

Or someone who is upset and disturbed enough to go on a mass shooting could become a revenant. They felt wronged by the world enough to lash out in life, after all.

Loophole: Revenants with vendettas against entire groups

Terrorist revenants, soldiers killed in battle become revenants obsessed with killing 'the enemy', particularly virulently anti-semitic or white supremacist race-war true believers who die of natural causes, there are lots of ways this can happen.


It would depend on how long this revenant phenomenon has been around. If it has been that way since prehistoric times, humanity and civilization would have evolved quite differently. Ancient cultures started as hunter-gatherer societies and were much more community-focused. There would be strong cultural practices surrounding

  1. Making sure everyone knows how it works, at least as well as is understood. No doubt it would become an important part of early proto-religions.
  2. Dispute resolution. Some form of community support and a relatively universal understanding of justice. It could be violent, like blood money, although early cultures didn't have money per se so something else would have to be worked out. I would prefer more non-violent solutions. Community therapists of some sort: many early cultures had wise men, shamans, matchmakers, and various other important social roles. There would be someone whose role is to settle disputes and ensure fidelity and harmony. People would mostly be willing to take part because everyone understands the consequences of not doing so, and it is something that they strongly believe in due to their religion. And in this case, it's based on actual real consequences, not just faith (although depending on how successful they are, it would still happen perhaps once every average lifetime of an individual since the younger generation has never seen it before).
  3. Forgiveness is an important part of the culture and religion, managing one's emotions is taught from a young age, like in many Buddhist societies. Meditation, controlled breathing, the taming of the passions, self-control. Like the Jedis, if you like.

I'm basically envisioning Native American society + Buddhism. Warfare would consequently be very uncommon, people would literally be forced to negotiate and practice diplomacy. Society would likely develop either more slowly or much more quickly, it's a bit up to your imagination. In a larger society, it is harder to maintain social cohesion, but maybe their peacemaking skills would actually lead to a more utopic type of society. There would still be risk to manage, but the religious aspect likely would be more dominant. Consider this: people wouldn't fight over whose religion is correct because everyone comes back from the dead no matter which religion they believe. Therefore I would assume there is not a lot of structure to the religion (such as in Buddhism) as to specific interpretations, perhaps it is more Deistic, this allows it to be more universal. I still predict a lower density of the population. Note that people will pretty much be guaranteed to believe in a spirit of some sort, and life after death (perhaps reincarnation?).

From this perspective, if it's something that has always been this way, then start with how you think society would have organized in early times and try to imagine how it would evolve forward. If you want organized large scale agrarian/industrial societies to exist, then think about how society managed to get that way without people getting killed.

This assumes that the risk of the revenants can't be managed by some means, such as cremation or prevention in some way as others have suggested. This then largely depends on the details of how you want it to work. If it's unavoidable for the most part, then society would be forced to evolve harmoniously or else remain as relatively small communities. If it's able to be managed and avoided, then perhaps people develop more selfish tendencies over time as the risk becomes lower. Even so, the mere fact that people literally come back from the dead due to their willpower is pretty incredible and will have a huge influence on people's understanding of the universe and metaphysics, and it will play a central role in any religion.


Since this question is about cultural changes, let's assume that the long term effects are minimal. People quickly figure out not to piss anybody off too strongly. Since most people don't anyway (I expect even 200 years ago, most people didn't die with hugely strong grievances), the only people truly affected are the famous and the powerful. If you're famous enough to have a stalker, you can basically be sure that you'll have to deal with a few revenant experiences.

In the America of the 19th century, I imagine it would be a catalyst for the already strong religious sentiment. The population could easily be convinced that the revenants are a sign from God to punish the wicked and to keep the population honest. Halfthawed's anwers hints at the difficulty of wielding any power without wronging people enough turn them into revenants. The people who do wield power, can point to this as a sign of their virtue. Their lack of revenants shows that God considers them a righteous and virtuous leader.

The real trick, of course is not to never ever wrong anybody, but to make sure that other people do your dirty work. Make sure that low level military and law enforcement get the blame, find some disadvantaged part of the population and make sure that society blames them for whatever is wrong, but above all, keep your own hands clean in the eyes of the people. So, basically the same as it ever was, but a little bit more.

Meanwhile, use the revenants to your advantage. If you have a dangerous opponent, just make somebody believe that they died because of the opponent. Spread enough lies and wait for some misguided sap to kick the bucket. It may be possible to keep a few revenants at bay forever if you're powerful enough, but then it just becomes a game of making sure that your opponent has more revenants on their back than you.

In short sycophancy, two-facedness, and manipulating the public using extreme religious sentiment would be the only way to survive in a political career, and the American culture would develop accordingly.


One of the most obvious societal changes is going to be in burial customs.

Since the Revenant is going to be dangerous to everyone who gets in its way, there is going to be societal pressure to make sure that they cannot pull themselves together quite so easily. The best way to do that will be to cremate all bodies and scatter the ashes to the wind from the nearest mountaintop, or to scatter in phases over rivers or in ocean currents. Whatever it takes to get all the bits as far away as possible from the other bits.

Revenants, in most fiction I have read, dissipate after the death of their target. So if you can arrange things so that it takes decades for a revenant to get all of it's bits together. That way there is a very good chance that anyone who is a potential target for a vengeful monster will be dead before it even gets a chance to fully form.

Depending on how fast someone goes from corpse to revenant is going to make solving crime different. The practice of extensive autopsies would go by the wayside in the rush to get the corpse into a crematorium as fast as possible. Would you want to be the ME when the thing might wake up at any time?

Crimes of passion might go down, while pre-meditated murders that include remains disposal will go up. I dunno, humans aren't always that bright.

You are really going to have to develop tight rules surrounding the creation of a revenant in the first place. Does one happen only as the result of certain circumstances, or is anyone who has a little bit of spite going to be a candidate at death. Also, how long does it take to become a revenant if a body is left alone? Hours, weeks, years? If it takes a week from time of death it's one thing, but if the time span is hours it will be very different.

The last thing to give a lot of thought to is how the revenant determines who it's going to go after. Does the Revenant get absolute clarity on who did what, or can the spirit be effectively fooled, like in some of the other answers. This will be important because it will affect motivations. If someone knows that if they do someone dirty it's going to come back on them in a very absolute fashion, they may opt not to do the crime to begin with.

I'm surprised I don't see revenants more often in fantasy literature. They can be so interesting.


I'd say that the answer relies on the likelihood of revenants? And, the closely related question, what's the least likely people can make it?

If revenants are very common - let's say there's a fifty fifty chance of a corpse coming back - then society is in trouble. If there's a one in hundred chance, then that's more an inconvenience to society than anything. Presumably there's some threshold, so how high is that threshold? What sort of probability is civilisation dealing with?

Say, if someone come back as a revenant to target the man who killed your spouse, then that's fine because spouse murders don't happen very often. That's barely a blip as far as civilization is concerned - noticeable, but everything else is the same.

But say, if you could come back as a revenant to target a sheriff who gave you a ticket, or a stolen toy, or a coworker who chews with his mouth open... that's much more of a problem because they are very common.

Sure, people could lock every corpse up in a steel box and bury them in the ocean... but if you have to do that then civilisation will never form in the first place. If there's that much risk with every body, then the monkeys would never be able to leave the trees in the first place.

(Say what about animals? Can any animal come back as well - because if they do then being a butcher will become a very a dangerous profession)

The simple way to stop them is to make them less likely to happen. Here's some ways I think society will change...

Governments will avoid culpability. If there's the risk of summoning an immortal being as consequences, then its easiest to avoid giving them a target. Expect any real leadership to remain faceless, or appoint replaceable figureheads that are easily sacrificed while the real power system remains shrouded and anonymous (I know, totally different from real life...)

Sheriffs, judges and hangmen will wear masks, to keep their identities hidden against any vengeful spirits of outlaws they sentence. Armed sheriffs travel to neighboring towns to work, so nobody in their precincts knows who they are or where they live. If ever a revenant comes after, they simply retire the mask, stop coming to work and the revenant doesn't know who to target.

Organized religion would have elaborate funeral rites revolving around putting the dead to rest. I imagine that revenants would be linked to divinity in some way - they are, after all, proof of magic and supernatural. Clergy would become very important - I'd expect a separate religious organisation revolving solely around putting the dead to rest. Also, many more weird funeral methods like feeding dead bodies to pigs, or volcanoes, or steel boxes under the ocean.

Also, priests would offer final confessions and mediations to the dying, in hope of resolving any outstanding issues before death. There would be more social customs in place to try and prevent grudges from festering.

And, finally, people will still commit suicide. If someone has a truly hated arch nemesis, then it'd be an old and dark tradition to take your own life - knowing that you'll come back and wreak vengeance upon them. It'd be like the ultimate beyond the grave fuck you.


Frame Challenge

"1800s america[sic]" would not exist, because revenants would have existed since the beginning of humanity, so all of human history would have been radically changed.

  • $\begingroup$ i said it was SIMILAR to 1800's america, i didn't say it WAS 1800's america. $\endgroup$
    – Cobbington
    Jan 13, 2020 at 1:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Cobbington you're missing the point. "all of human history would have been radically changed. It's quite possible that agriculture never would have happened, much less English history as we know it, which is what's needed for something similar to 1800s America to happen. We might even have been wiped out as a species, or had to turn ourselves into upright bonobos. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jan 13, 2020 at 2:12

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