We all know an undead is a reanimated corpse, something rotten and decomposing yet still animated. Normally an undead (if made of flesh) will have an expiration date after which it won't be able to function anymore. Otherwise it'd just end up being a skeleton or a ghost, something very magical in nature.

But there exists an exception to that, vampires are some of the first to come to mind. They are undead creatures but are capable of healing and regeneration, something a corpse shouldn't be able to do. And that brings the problem "how are they undead"? They regenerate so they don't decay. They can move like a living being. In some cases they can reproduce.

If a wizard were to cast a healing spell on a regenerating undead, would it even have an effect? Would it heal the undead or damage it? Or is the undead now reanimated so it's fully alive?

Sure you could say that they are beings of darkness and are weak to things holy, but that's not exclusive to undead creatures. Help me out with this would you?

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    $\begingroup$ I am the last guy to say that something is so far into magic jibber jabber that you can make up whatever you want and it will be reasonable, but read that last bit again because for this question I am saying it. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 23:59
  • $\begingroup$ i think the reason they name undead is because they are "undead or unable to die after experiencing death" usually through black magic or questionable moral way, not because they are rotting corpse, which what you describe seems more a walking corpse/zombie thing rather than undead in general. $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Willk Reminds me of the reasoning behind why inhabitants of Discworld go so far as to "define" werewolves as undead despite clearly being living beings: "they're big and scary, they come from Überwald, and if you stab them with a sword they don't die. What more do you want?" $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 2:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Willk "you can make up whatever you want" this is a world building site for crying out loud. Saying that anything goes defeats the purpose of proper world building, it doesn't help anyone. If anything else I am beyond annoyed that people comment this in almost every question. $\endgroup$
    – user71341
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 11:17
  • $\begingroup$ @LiveInAmbeR What I think Willk is saying is that the term is used by a wide variety of authors who have different origins such that there really isn't a good way to define it, and thus, the term 'undead' is really just a meaningless crutch term that authors fall back on. $\endgroup$
    – Halfthawed
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 14:52

5 Answers 5


I think you're just misunderstanding what the word 'undead' means. The prefix 'un' simply means 'not'. Undeniable is a word combining 'un' and 'deniable', meaning 'not deniable'. The word 'undead' combines the prefix 'un', meaning 'not' and the word 'dead' meaning 'dead'. So all 'undead' means is simply 'not dead'. Technically, from a logical and grammatically correct point of view, all living beings are 'not dead', and therefore 'undead'.

So, to answer your question, undead is just a super vague term that people are using en masse uncorrectly*, and this has led to your confusion. In the future, if you ever meet a human being that you catch knowingly doing this, know that they're leading to a breakdown of communication in society and treat them as such. If you catch them unknowingly doing this, then please be understanding and teach them the errors of their ways.

*Yes, I know the convention is 'incorrectly', but 'uncorrectly' is a grammatically correct, just not conventionally correct. And I don't care.

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    $\begingroup$ Your answer is unconceivable, though not strictly speaking uncorrect. I suppose this is because the English language is, quite frankly, unsane. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 7:28
  • $\begingroup$ I would also argue that the proper naming for undead creatures should be undying. It’s not that they’re not dead. It’s that they don’t die if left to their own devices. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 7:29
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs My answer is unconceivable, you say? I do not think that word means what you think that word means. $\endgroup$
    – Halfthawed
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ Wait... Inigo?? $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 20:02

I must have been in a mood when I left that snarky comment, though it is true. The fact that there are many option does not preclude having fun with an idea! Let us consider several options systematically.

  1. Healing magic is for the living. Your hurt dog is back up. Azombie dog is unaffected. A broken bike is just that. Simplest, easiest from a game mechanics perspective.

  2. Healing magic restores a thing to least damaged, most functional condition. Your hurt dog would be back up, barking and begging. Your undead dog would be undead, but frisky and pieces firmly attached. Your broken bike would be ready to ride. The leftover Chinese food from last week would be safe to eat.

  3. Healing magic augments an ongoing process. My hurt dog was not dying and was healing itself, and its own healing is augmented but it is also several months older. A dog with progressive cancer will succumb to the cancer. The bike gets rustier and the leftover food rots completely. If a zombie is more like leftovers and is slowly decaying, it will rot completely. If it is like the hurt dog and can heal, it will be like case 2.

  4. Healing magic pushes a thing towards its ideal condition. It might push it past its ideal condition to something better along that same path. My hurt dog is unhurt. It might be better than unhurt - lost teeth are back, its torn ear is intact, it runs like it is 2 years old. The zombie dog has more zombie going on - undamaged, more durable, more relentless, harder biting. The bike is like it was when I got it. The Chinese food is truly excellent, like the stuff they serve on the day when the old guy is back in the kitchen.

  5. Healing magic adds life energy. The hurt dog is better, or totally healed. The zombie dog is now just dead, or back to life and sickly, or back to a normal dog depending on how much life energy you add. The broken bike stays a broken bike except the moldy seat is moldier. The Chinese food has become a very small pig and several different tiny live plants.

  6. Healing magic adds weird energy. Maybe the weird energy is the stuff that animates the dead. The live dog is still hurt, but it is back on its feet - it is sustained while it is healing. It is unhurt in the way the zombie dog is undead. The zombie dog may be something different and scarier - dog shaped, moving, but something other than a zombie - maybe whatever the next tier up in the undead hierarchy is. The bike is broken but you can ride it. The Chinese food does not stink, but after you have eaten half you get a strange feeling and put the rest away.

A cool thing about this is that you in effect catch the thing and support it artificially while it heals. I could be grievously wounded but up and running. I could be recently dead but up and running, and still me if the mage got to me quick enough. I could have been dead a while in which case I am going to be pretty mentally impaired when I come back - a zombie.

  1. Healing magic turns back time. The hurt dog is unhurt. It is not healed; it has never been hurt. It does not remember getting hurt, or anything that happened after that. Depending on how much you use, the zombie dog is undamaged, or maybe dead, or maybe a live dog and no longer a zombie, or maybe a puppy with no memory of what it had once been. The broken bike is unbroken, or might be a collection of bike parts. The leftover Chinese is as good as when they brought it, or maybe still raw.

Normally an undead (if made of flesh) will have an expiration date after which it won't be able to function anymore.

Not necessarily true. This heavily depends on how undead are made to function in your world. The "expiration date" is usually only common for:

  • Reanimated corpse zombies. They might continue to decompose yet still move. So at some point it will be physically impossible for them to continue obeying commands.
  • Undead created by a time limited spell. In this case it might be a zombie or anything else and they have an "expiration" which is the time the magic that animates them ceases to function. There is otherwise no "natural" end to these creatures.

So, undeath is not a simple state. Everything has exceptions, of course as there are numerous depictions of the undead. In particular zombies might be reanimated indefinitely. The natural decomposition process halted. If they fight, they'd accumulate wounds and won't heal them (not without some help) and breaking the spell that animates them might end them but otherwise can exist forever.

There are even mundane ways to make a durable zombie. Well, mundane in the context of being able to use magic to make move. One variation is the mummy. It is still a cadaver animated by magic. However, mummy preparation preserves the corpse and so they are more durable.

However, even works without overt magic yet feature zombies might have the zombies exist forever. Many zombie apocalypse scenarios depict the undead as existing A LOT longer than they should have. In the real world the body decomposition works quite fast. A cadaver left out for a month would not be very useful to anybody. After a year, it's not even going to be much of a cadaver. Yet works where somehow zombies exist still show them move around and attack people for years. Even change of seasons should have destroyed them - summer heat is very unkind to dead meat. Winter frost also leads to damage. Not to mention microorganisms as well as macroorganisms taking the opportunity to feast. Assuming a zombie exists, it should be constantly surrounded by flies at the very least but also all other manner of creatures that eat carrion. Yet...that's not usually the case.

They are undead creatures but are capable of healing and regeneration, something a corpse shouldn't be able to do. And that brings the problem "how are they undead"? They regenerate so they don't decay. They can move like a living being. In some cases they can reproduce.

Aside from how your undead function, you are now mixing this with vampires. And vampires in folklore as well as fiction work in drastically different ways. The most common thing between different types of vampires are that they are medically dead (no pulse, organs don't need to work, etc) and they feed on the living (doesn't even need to be blood). Yet even these have various exceptions between depictions.

There is simply no one way to talk about vampires. Some might be undead, others might not. Yes, some might be able to regenerate, others might not. Some might not decay, others might not. Some might reproduce, others might not. The whole reproduction thing is a mess, as well - some can reproduce sexually but it still varies - perhaps they can have a child with a human, or perhaps they can only have a child with another vampire. Or the reproduction is limited to turning somebody else into a vampire.

Still, if we take the more common depictions that have vampires which don't decay, regenerate and keep their appearance, then it's actually not really that much that they "heal" in the biological sense. Usually these vampires are captures in stasis - their appearance never changes, they remain the same throughout the ages. So, they don't "regenerate" as much as they return back to their normal state.

If a wizard were to cast a healing spell on a regenerating undead, would it even have an effect? Would it heal the undead or damage it? Or is the undead now reanimated so it's fully alive?

It depends on how magic works in your world and how your undead work:

  • Healing magic does help the undead.
    • But then it's a general purpose healing magic that can restore anything similar in biology.
  • Healing magic simply fails.
    • In that case, it's helping the living to regenerate faster but not the non-living.
  • Healing magic harms the undead.
    • This plays on the opposition of life and death and sometimes even good and evil. Opposites harm one another and to "heal" a corpse would be to return it to it's real non-living state where it doesn't move or act. Conversely undead healing means might harm the living.

Overall, there is no One True Way to depict the undead. Because they don't actually exist, thus we can't really say how they function or not. Each work implements their own rules and might even break them at times. Almost no two works have undead or vampires work the same.

  • $\begingroup$ Healing magic harming the undead and harm-causing magic healing the undead is a pretty well played out fantasy gaming trope. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 10:29
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs more of a D&D convention where positive energy heals the living and negative magic heals the undead. The two have the opposite effect if flipped. It seems like it propagated from there into other mediums but it's still not the "default" of how healing works. Too many depictions with too many different rules. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 13:53
  • $\begingroup$ Reminds me of a game I played with an evil cleric that could heal one ally by causing necromantic damage to another. Didn’t take him long to realise he could heal two allies at once... if one of them was dead. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 20:04

They must drain energy from the living.

Living beings generate their own life force and use it to grow and repair themselves. Undead creatures are not alive and cannot do this. Some powerful undead can drain life force from living beings and use it to seen temporarily alive.

For example vampires suck life force out when they drain the blood. Another example is powerful undead wizards who know a life drain spell. Both can be starved and this results into them rotting and eventually losing their mind and turning into run-of-the-mill zombies.

Healing magic:

Let's suppose healing magic draws power from an external source, and converts it into life energy. Then you could take the zombie's dismembered arm and cast the spell to have it grow back together. A more powerful spell might restore the zombie to sentience temporarily or restore a starved vampire. The main difference is the sort of injuries the living and the deal encounter, as the living are vulnerable to fleshwounds but the undead aren't.


On one hand you could say this is entirely up to you, but if you look at the difference between undead and ressurection you can see a very clear difference: resurrection essentially restores the person to its original form and personality. Undead has something take control of the body, often radically changing it, and in only some cases take (pieces of) the personality of the former host. Fysiology is often also different in the food they consume (if any).

So you could use that. Undead is simply a different thing. Like a Golem its animated through non-biological means and will not be healed by magic that heals biological things.


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