Well hello, internet! This post is part of AddAltMode’s Creepy Countdown. Cue bat (on the right):
Today I’m going to talk about skeletons; specifically, I’m going to list some of the more interesting ambulatory skeletons in geek culture. Skeletons are a necessary thing for vertebrates like ourselves, dear reader. (If you’re not a vertebrate, then please don’t be offended.) They stop you from being a pile of meat flopping about on the floor, or having to leave a trail of your own mucus on which to glide. No offense to snails, but their preferred method of locomotion is less than dynamic, and it makes a mess on carpet.
The problem with skeletons is what happens when black magic gets involved, and they get uppity and decide to claw their way out from that itchy overcoat of suffocatingly warm meat that they’re covered in and feel the moonlight on their skulls.
So, on to the list…
Jason and The Argonauts
This 1963 cinematic classic was notable for the truckload of stop-motion animated monsters that it bought to the silver screen, from the snakelike Medusa to the… err… snakelike Hydra. Almost anything scary that the Ancient Greeks dreamed up in their mythology came alive on film via the skillful puppetry of animator Ray Harryhausen.
Of course the scene that made this film a legend (terrible joke not intended) was the scene with the skeleton warriors raised by black magic.
Listen out for the Wilhelm Scream at the end.
Spooky Scary Skeletons
You probably haven’t heard of Andrew Gold’s Halloween Howls: it’s largely overlooked among his vast and impressive corpus of work. Gold worked with everyone who was anyone in America’s 70’s pop scene, and produced more records than most musicians can dream of. In 1996, he gathered a few friends together and made a humorous Halloween record. The stand-out track on this album was Spooky Scary Skeletons, which was about… well, what do you think it was about? It certainly wasn’t about karate.
A remix of Spooky Scary Skeletons which appeared on Weebl’s stuff a few years back went sort-of viral. This skeletal earworm (not that worms have skeletons) will haunt your head for days if you dare view it. Spooky!
Skeletor, not to be confused with the Seattle-based true metal band Skelator, is the nemesis of He-Man in
20-minute toy adverts cartoons from the 1980s. I’m not sure he really counts as a skeleton, since he has a skull face but an immense, muscular body, but it’s my list so I’m including him.
Skeletor’s villainous plots were foiled on a weekly basis by his minons’ incompetence, the power of friendship (or some similar Anvilicious Aesop-ery) and He-Man’s huge muscles. Actually, Skeletor regularly underestimated He-Man’s brute strength, which seems like a strange thing to overlook: He-Man looks like he eats ground beef and ‘roids for breakfast, lunch and dinner, yet Skeletor is surprised to find that he is really strong. Seriously, Skeletor? I think you should hand over the keys to Snake Mountain to the metal band.
Skullmageddon (your self-proclaimed Worst Nightmare)
Take Skeletor and turn everything up to eleven, clad him in bone armour, put him on a spaceship/pagoda, give him a legion of martial artist gangsters and 80s hookers as minions and you get Skullmageddon. He is the antagonist of the video game Double Dragon Neon, and he is the main reason that the game is worth playing: his 4th-wall-wrecking witticisms will have you pausing the game to laugh.
Of course, he must be defeated in unarmed combat by the player in order to win, and sings a song of lament if beaten…
The first creature to appear in Magic: The Gathering with Skeleton as its creature type (and in the very first set) was Drudge Skeletons. These bony blockers set the tone for most future creature cards with Skeleton on the type line: they were black-mana aligned, relatively small creatures who were hard to kill. Their tenacity and straightforward refusal to die (so long as you had black mana to pay for their regeneration) meant that they could defend a black-mana-using player from much more powerful attackers – getting right back up every time they were pounded into the ground.
Lich from Dungeons and Dragons
The Old English word “līc”, (lich or lych in more modern usage) means body of corpse (which has cognates in the Germanic and Nordic languages, and possibly might have originated in Old Norse) has assumed the meaning in modern fantasy fiction of a type of undead creature who was a wizard in life, and has cheated death by moving his/her soul out of the body into an inanimate object called a phylactery — effectively hiding their soul from death. Old-school fantasy fiction, like Clark Ashton Smith’s Empire of the Necromancers (first published in Weird Tales Sept. 1932, but published many times since) used the word to mean corpse (Smith loved to use flowery words to make his work feel unworldly and archaic). I believe (but can’t prove, sorry) that the first use of the word to mean an undead, phylactery-using wizard was in Dungeons and Dragons (in the 1976 booklet Eldritch Wizardry). In this booklet, Gary Gygax and Brian Blume described their lich as a skeletal mage with great power and intellect.
Now I can’t possibly imagine where in mythology or fantasy fiction Gygax and Blume got the inspiration for an evil magic-user hiding his soul from Death in an inanimate object to achieve immortality…
Skullmageddon isn’t the only singing skeleton: Tim Burton’s awesome Christmas/Halloween movie stars a protagonist who could clearly stand to gain a few pounds. Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town: a pocket dimension whose entire is centred on the celebration of Halloween, and where the preparations for next Halloween begin on November the 1st.
Jack Skellington is much beloved by children, Kingdom Hearts players and Goths.
The ultimate magical skeleton is the cowled, scythe-bearing anthropomorphic representation of Death itself. This skeletal metaphor for Death gained popularity in 15th-Century England, and was first labelled the “Grim Reaper” in 1847.
Terry Pratchett used Death as a character in his works set in the Discworld setting. Pratchett’s Death was a thoughtful being, with a sensible professional attitude to his work: giving the best possible individual service to each of his clients. He also liked curry, made puns, had a fondness for animals and TALKED LIKE THIS. This character can discuss the absurdity of the human condition from the perspective of a relative outsider, but simultaneously he has a sympathy for humans that belies his career in the field of reaping their souls. Pratchett’s Death rarely acted to end the lives of his clients — he stops a man’s heart in The Colour of Magic, and throws a man off a sleigh in Hogfather (entirely deserved) — but his primary role was to arrive when people die and escort the soul to the afterlife.
Almost all animated skeletons in fantasy and mythology embody death (not Death) and the fear thereof, but none do so as literally as Death. Death himself isn’t a hostile or evil force in Pratchett’s writings, but a necessary part of existence. Pratchett has given Death a sympathetic portrayal that anyone who has to do an unpopular job can identify with. In the
three five novels referred to by fans as the “Death trilogy” — Mort, Reaper Man, Soul Music, Hogfather and Thief of Time, Death is a major character: in fact, in Reaper Man he is unarguably the protagonist.
In the 1996 Discworld II PC game, Death has a crisis of self-esteem and goes on strike, leading to a plague of zombie-ism because no-one can die properly without Death. Surprisingly, given the grim premise, hilarity ensues.
So, geek culture has more skeletons in it than a politician’s closet, and some of them are pretty awesome. I’m sure that I’ve missed at least a few cool skeletons. So, if you think I’ve missed anyone important, or you otherwise have a bone to pick with me, let me know down in the comments.