16
$\begingroup$

Zombies do not exist in my universe, at least as far as my planet's reality, maybe in some other place, but not on BlinketyBlink.

My world is very much like Earth, in that different people are at different stages of development. So while on one side of a continent a culture exists that has electricity, telephone, etc (like Earth in the early 20th century), but on another area peoples exist who are still in the middle ages, maybe even a bit Bronze Age-ish.

The people, who are otherwise brave, will flee from the mere smell of death unless they can determine that what they are smelling is an animal corpse, not one of their own kind.

They won't even bury their dead. If someone is so close to death they can't be saved they'll be taken to the pits, if one dies suddenly they'll be burned. You can burn things without getting close to them...

Their firefighters are extremely proficient.

What would best inculcate such a fear in an entire nation/people?

Note: some have no qualms in killing and robbing their victims, but they are hyper superstitious and will wear the weirdest things so their victims can't harm them.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ superstition is not the answer? It doesn't have to be the believe that they will become zombies, if people believe the dead transmit disease or whatever ... and please tell us how advanced your world is $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Sep 25 '17 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 imagine Earth's 1900 1910 $\endgroup$ – shieldedtulip Sep 25 '17 at 11:58
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Because they cannot... like... die? $\endgroup$ – Ivanka Todorova Sep 25 '17 at 17:27
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Consider making it a cultural blind spot. If all of their beliefs fall apart if you consider one's own death, then death will be a mighty scary thing. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Sep 25 '17 at 18:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ halitosis. That and pinkeye $\endgroup$ – K. Alan Bates Sep 26 '17 at 4:14

16 Answers 16

46
$\begingroup$

Contagious infection is the most likely reason such a belief/ fear would arise. Even if the plague was a long time ago, these stories are pervasive and would be passed down through the generations (think of all the superstitions humans held for thousands of years prior to the advent of modern science). A fear of illness from the dead bodies that has become culturally ingrained is the most likely scenario.

$\endgroup$
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ We actually still keep stories about past plagues in modern society. just look at the children's songs like "Ring o' Roses" it would not be hard to image less advanced people doing this to a greater extent en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_a_Ring_o%27_Roses $\endgroup$ – Reed Sep 25 '17 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ Perfect example. You're right. $\endgroup$ – A.G. Weyland Sep 25 '17 at 20:40
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Reed except for that the article you link indicates that scholars generally don't believe the plague theory to be accurate. $\endgroup$ – eques Sep 26 '17 at 18:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yes. the immune system shuts down after death and all kinds of nasties that like to live in us start growing. If they had a plague that used corpses as incubators, no one would go near them. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Sep 28 '17 at 21:11
24
$\begingroup$

You can make fear "real" by having something happening to bodies shortly after death.

A few ideas:

  • There might be some symbiotic organisms that try to leave the body when it gets "uncomfortable" (e.g.: too cold); mixing different "lines" of such symbionts may have adverse effects (e.g.: they will be battling for the "possess" of the human).
  • There are very aggressive decay bacteria, specific for the humans, that makes unhealthy to linger about.
  • Some individuals (and you don't know who) develop a link with some very dangerous animal who will come to revenge as soon as it senses their "buddy" is not there anymore.
  • Natives communicate their feelings through very effective pheromones; sometimes dying people release enough to drive crazy whoever is nearby.

Otherwise You can rely on superstition, after all no "taboo" was actually backed up by real threats.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Hmm, like Ringworld, the dead are left to the "Night Scavengers" to clean up. $\endgroup$ – Ash Sep 25 '17 at 12:42
  • $\begingroup$ "Some individuals develop a link with some very dangerous animal" An interesting treatment of this concept can be found in CJ Cherryh's Rider at the Gate $\endgroup$ – bcrist Sep 26 '17 at 5:25
  • $\begingroup$ I like the pheromones issue. Imagine the insanity bringing violent aggression and then death. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Neely Sep 27 '17 at 20:48
11
+50
$\begingroup$

There are a number of answers I can think of that all boil down to "superstition" the real question then is how did they develop such a strong and lasting belief. The answer that immediately comes to mind is a, relatively, recent history with a plague that is similar to smallpox in that the dead stay contagious for an extended period. Such an illness if it was deadly enough and there were sustained waves of infection, like the black death, could leave an indelible scar on the collective psyche of a people. The fear of dead bodies is a reasonable mark of such a scarring encounter with disease.

Fear of corpses is a common culture bound superstition in a number of native american tribal groups, you may profit from looking into the details of those belief systems also.

$\endgroup$
8
$\begingroup$

Maybe some kind of belief system about ghosts being able to possess the living. When a person dies, his angry ghost wants a new body. It is a well-known fact that the ghost is "tethered" to stay within a certain distance of its own body unless it finds a new one. Only people wearing special gear (some might be actually useful, like gloves, as well as charms and useless fetishes) may safely approach.

This can be:

  • A baseless superstition, perhaps a distorted memory of people catching disease from the dead

  • A biologically wise move because of fear of parasites jumping to a new host

  • Stone-cold truth; either magic or alien technology or mutating cosmic rays have made this sort of thing a real possibility.

Whatever fits the story!

$\endgroup$
8
$\begingroup$

Most fears are, at their root, not logical.

It's literally part of the definition of phobia: an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.

Therefore, there may be no logical reason for the fear, at all.

Religious law

  • "Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days." ~ Numbers 19:11
  • "Anyone who touches a corpse, the body of a man who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the LORD; and that person shall be cut off from Israel." ~ Numbers 19:13
  • "This is the law that applies when a person dies in a tent: Anyone who enters the tent and anyone who is in it will be unclean for seven days" ~ Numbers 19:14
  • "He must not enter a place where there is a dead body." ~ Leviticus 21:11

So perhaps your world has a religious law or series of laws that severely punish those who touch the dead. Or that otherwise limits how one must interact with the dead. "Because {god/the gods} said so" can be an extremely powerful force.

Supernatural reasons/Superstition

You specifically rule out zombies. But does your world have other supernatural things? Ghosts, other undead like vampires, etc.? Or more importantly, do the people of your world think these things exist? The reality doesn't have to match the superstition. See also the vampire craze during 18th century Europe.

Medical reasons

Perhaps contagious diseases are rampant in your world. Or carrion eaters are particularly nasty / carry bad diseases. If this is the case, or was the case for a long enough time, fear will be instilled in the beliefs of your people.

Side note

One side note that isn't really part of the answer to your question. But there's a ramification of your fear-of-the-dead that needs to be discussed.

Without a willingness to study the bodies of the dead, two major branches of science in your world will suffer. Medicine and forensics.

Medicine benefited a great deal from the study of anatomy. This study was greatly improved through the dissection of corpses. The history of that study is rather grisly, but without studying anatomy, the science of medicine would be severely hampered.

Would the concept of an autopsy be possible in this world? Without that, finding a cause of death is impossible. You've completely changed how forensic science and police investigations deal with deaths. Murder or accident? Who knows?

Lastly, if you must burn the body, you've just consigned family members to homelessness every time someone dies in their home. When grampa dies, we must burn his corpse. If he dies in bed, too bad, the house just burned down. (If he dies in a restaurant or store, do they set fire to the body, there, in the restaurant/business/store?) I hope you understand what a major impact that can have on society as a whole. (Unless some people are brave enough to move the body prior to the flames?)

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I certainly have considered the ramifications. That's how the why came before the what. $\endgroup$ – shieldedtulip Sep 26 '17 at 16:42
6
$\begingroup$

You need some sort of virus that can be passed from Corpse to a human. Make it something particularly nasty like some form of leprosy. In the ancient world it was taboo to even go near a person with leprosy. They were to be avoided literally like the plague. If there is some sort of virus can be passed from Corpse to Human then it's understandable that they received the same treatment. If you smelled a dead body but we're not close up tell how it died you probably want to avoid it as much as possible as to not contract the plague. Even if you thought you knew how it died you probably want to stay away just in case

$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

Your people have a fear of the cannibals over the next hill. You kill their tribesmen but once every few years one turns up in your village, anyone who dies could be their next meal.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Many (perhaps most) human fears are all just a variation of the fear of the unknown.

For example:

  1. Given that there exist theives, but I don't know if there are theives who are currently planning to rob me. Thus, I fear that theives might be planning to rob me right now.

  2. Given that people die and I am going to die, but I don't know what happens when people die, I fear death. An extension of this is, I fear dead things.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Here is the first idea that popped into my head.

Perhaps they met some of the other, more civilized/ technically more advanced people, and those people told them about the dangers of corpses, in regards to infection and such.

But they did a shitty job of explaining it, or they did a shitty job of listening to it? And now they fear all corpses.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

I have recently seen a snippet from a documentary about sharks where they demonstrated that they just found a way which can make sharks flee any place (and thus make it safer for divers, I imagine). The way they do it is releasing "scent of dead shark" into the water. Allegedly, this is an instinct ingrained into sharks from prehistoric times when they were far from the biggest predators in the oceans. So when they scent "dead shark" they know there is something that can kill sharks and flee. (I have not made research to see whether this is true, btw.)

You could use the same mechanism too. The scent doesn't even have to be detectable by normal olfactory senses; maybe it's just a pheromone which builds up in the body and gets released upon death, so the reaction to it is instinctive and too strong to overcome.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

A. G. Weyland is close but missed the target.

A contagious infection does not explain the fear because the dying would be a lot more dangerous than the dead, yet people are only afraid of the dead.

Instead, what you want is a parasite. Something along the lines of the flea but smaller so people don't notice it. The parasite burrows into the skin and releases a couple of chemicals to avoid the hosts' notice--an anesthetic and an immunosuppressant. Being infected with a few of these parasites is harmless but when you have a heavy infestation the immunosuppressant doesn't merely keep the local defenses from attacking the parasite but ends up depressing the whole body's immune system--and thus you die of some opportunistic infection. Upon the death of their host the parasites seek nearby hosts--getting near such a body is dangerous.

The primitives have noticed that those who get near a dead body are substantially more likely to die in the coming years but the data is sparse enough that they haven't realized that the risk doesn't apply to violent deaths. (It also doesn't apply to catastrophic circulatory events but such a society will know so little about the body's workings they won't understand these.)

The criminals engage in the elaborate protective rituals because they work (because there's actually little risk from violent death.)

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Since this appears to have gained bounty and remained unsatisfied, I want to rehash my favorite answer with some differences:

Most fears are, at their root, not logical

It's literally part of the definition of phobia: an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.

Therefore, there may be no logical reason for the fear, at all.

Based on this truth a good answer could simply be "why not". However, to provide some logical development of this would require something like:

For a specie, separated and isolated by large geographic boundaries (obviously not capable of sharing cultural norms), to collectively have a "fear" requires select evolutional conditions.

In humans, certain fears like fear of the dark or a more rudimentary fear like fear of the unknown could indeed be attributed to our evolution. Back when we were still swinging from trees, things were often waiting in the dark to eat us so the need to be fearful and cautious of the dark became an evolutional necessity to reduce the chances of us being eaten.

With that mechanic in mind:

It could be that in the evolution of your specie something specific to member corpses posed an immediate survival concern. Perhaps the odor released from their carcass attracted a prolific predator. Perhaps an enhanced version of a disease like cholera develops rapidly in corpses and kills rapidly when exposed (enough for one to easily conclude they got lethally sick from the corpse). Perhaps decomposition is so rapid that within days the corpse could explode with microbes and charion insects (I sure as hell would want to burn the dead ASAP if that happened).

As your specie evolved it could then lose these physical constraints but not their generated phobia.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

I believe the case to make it a 'superstitious' reason that you peoples culture has come to is most likely, but you can actually make it a hard reason where it's physically damaging to them just as readily. I'm also playing the answer to the idea you would want flexibility in a story line.

There are actually a ton of chemicals that are released as a body decomposes, a few of which we refer to as 'Odor Mortis' or the smell of death. Good article, though a bit long winded (long winded by necessity, entire process of measuring is well detailed)...list of chemicals are about halfway down:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0379073812002824

Of particular note, there is a large amount of various Benzene chemicals that are released. You could probably isolate any of them, but Benzene's could likely have a tie to allergies (a bit speculative though). Anaphylactic shock towards Benzene isn't common (or even proven), but a slight modification to a common ancestor of these people to suffer from Benzene related Anaphylaxis (or any chemical in the odor mortis spray) would work for a legitimate reason to avoid dead bodies at all cost. Exposure to them would cause quick choking, inability to breathe, and eventual death from exposure to a dead body.

Genetic mutations can produce your 'chosen one', the small group of people that lack the allergy that causes other people to die. Might work well to a story line.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Interesting side note, but the release of decaying chemicals varies based on atmospheric pressures...higher pressure will force more of the chemicals into the soil, lower pressures will see more leech into the air. So the effect will be exaggerated in higher elevations $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Sep 28 '17 at 18:55
2
$\begingroup$

Well, this depends on a few details. Specifically, is this a mundane world or are there supernatural elements, like spirits or magic? Also, is this a world-wide superstition or something isolated to a single culture? Would you prefer the root to be based around a real thing or have this has been a superstition from the very beginning? (Though, since you mention zombies, I imagine that you want this fear to be based around something actually real, even if it's not active in the modern world.)

So, there are loads of possibilities for this which have already been supplied as answers from others. Though, if you want something that triggers a "run for you life" instinct, it'd have to be fairly dramatic. If you're okay with supernatural events being the source of this superstition, you could have it be that there is some 'world of the dead' which is full of 'reapers.' (Perhaps their king is 'the Grim Reaper.') When someone dies, a reaper shows up at their corpse within an hour and takes the corpses into the other world. This is very dangerous for a human because touching a reaper spells instant death. Further, if they travel back to their home with someone standing near, those who are standing near will be taken as well, which also means death. Even if this no longer happens, the absolute embodiment of death arriving whenever a person dies would be enough to trigger a lasting superstition.

Though, having this reaction to death would make for an interesting world. It would definitely change combat and wars. I imagine you would see prisoners being taken more often than people being killed. Ranged combat would be much more massively favored over close combat. Also, primitive psychological warfare tactics, like throwing corpses into cities, would become a lot more effective, I think.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Ahhh, the good old Medieval times warfare... chucking dead bodies over the besieged town's walls. $\endgroup$ – shieldedtulip Sep 28 '17 at 18:56
2
$\begingroup$

There may be a deeply ingrained belief that death is contagious (not a contagious pathogen, death itself is contagious). Even those people enlightened enough to realize that this is not true would be afraid of dead bodies because there are strict laws that anyone who touches a corpse must themselves be destroyed by fire and even being near to a corpse legally requires a long period in quarantine.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

Imagine that people in your world live most of the time in underground tunnels. A rotting human being in this world will release methane and other dangerous gases (most of which odorless) to a much larger amount compared to rotting animals. Coming across a cloud of such gases is likely to result in a deadly explosion. The fire department cannot help much if you ignite the explosive mixture.

The amount and type of gases may depend on the diet of the local humans, who have to ingest certain herbs in order to keep human-specific pathogens at bay.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.