May of the Dead: Building Undead Cults from Nothing
This post is the second of two entries the Casting Shadows blog is contributing to the May of the Dead blog carnival. This entry pulls back the curtains of misdirection and manipulation which allow the formation of undead cults through mundane not mystical means. The previous entry from this blog can be read here, and focuses on the Risen Dead.
For Want of a Nail: Building from Nothing
In modern tales and games of the undead, particularly those of sexy and edgy vampires, the personal allure of the creatures – their ability to entrance the minds of their victims – leaves little room to wonder how a network of contacts and servants could be built. Without the peculiar support of blood-laden mind control for the convenience of the dead, however, the question of how such cults arise provides a lot more meat on which to feast, and deeper characterizations on which to draw.
Imagine not a Bradstreet creation, tough and virile, posturing in darkness. Imagine instead a grave-rotted corpse, hungry and lost, fixated on vengeance, or a spirit trapped inside its own carefully preserved, wrapped, and hidden body, or perhaps imagine a mage whose warped passions for power and knowledge have driven a quest through the other side of death’s seemingly impenetrable wall leaving a mockery of a living being in its wake. How do beings such as these build up the network of contacts, servants, and aides so vital to maintaining their safety, reaching their goals, and increasing their power? Without overt means of mind control and manipulation, without a magic bullet that voids that problem so that a loyal coven of followers can be assumed, what is to be done?
Know what you want
If the horrific undead creature in your tale is the sort to require temporal power, the first thing they will need to do is recognize what sort of mortal assistance will be required to build and manage the power structures needed. Not all power is created equally. Having one’s hooks in a pliable investment manager may not be the fastest means to obtain the souls of 1000 virgins if that is what one must have. Likewise, being the puppeteer behind a vicious gang enforcer may not be the best means to keep a dwindling family line out of harm’s way. Your undead creature needs to have the capacity to think, plan, and take a longer view than that granted by the ‘instant gratification crowd.’
Additionally, for any sort of network or cult to remain viable, it will need to be built from varying strata of followers: the willing servant, the beguiled servant, and the mindless servant. To survive, the cult must be able to operate and expand consistently on its own, it must be able to lure in those that are needed, regardless of their orientation or outlook, and it must be able to enforce its desires and edicts when the time comes. In this post, we will look at those who can be enticed to serve with a minimum of effort and large portions of both deniability and delusion, those who can be coerced into serving through manipulation or threat, and finally those who serve because you remove their ability to make their own choices.
Group 1: The Willing Dupes
Enabling: Be the route to heaven
To attract willing followers who take on leadership roles of their own within a cult, the true leader must be able to point out how working together benefits the follower as much if not more than themselves. The favours asked must seem small, with the returns directed squarely at what drives the potential cultist. These people do not need to know what is really going on. These people do not need to be led, or even in contact with the undead creature running the show – in fact, they will do their job better under a mushroom theory of management. These people need to recognize a need that can be fulfilled by this ‘organization’ and thrill to be a part of making that pipeline to their dreams bigger and better. This group of servants is in a position to recruit other aides, some of whom may later be drafted into different levels of service, they are in a position to advocate for the undead monster secretly pulling the strings with all the conviction that blissful ignorance can provide. As they believe they are really working for themselves, they will not hesitate to protect their own interests, which mirror those of the cult. If taken out, while a loss overall, they are not in a position to reveal anything which needs to be a secret.
Using Dracula as a field from which to draw examples, we can say that the firm that Harker serves as an estate agent fits this designation. While on the surface they may appear to be simply hirelings, in it for the fees, a closer look reminds the reader that their motivations run deeper in that they seek to be of indispensable service to a foreign noble of great means and influence. They can earn money easily. What is rarer is an opportunity to be of great value to the upper classes.
Group 2: Partners in Crime
The next category serves with varying degrees of autonomy, an understanding of one degree or another of the real nature of their service, and direct hooks to keep them loyal.
Know what they want
Once your undead menace knows who they need, the focus must shift to how to get these chosen ones to recognize that the sun sets and rises at its command. If they are not in service to its masterful plan, they are little people. The surest way to gain control over a person, is to know what they desire above all. This may be an internal wish, such as that a secret be kept, or for one to be revealed, or even to be a part of something greater than themselves. It might be mundane and physical, such as money, sex, or access to things beyond their reach. Knowing how to reach one’s target, and push them beyond the bounds of normal sense, normal decency, and normal caution is essential. One must have leverage over the mind, the body, and the soul – or at the very least, two of the three. Anything less is not good enough – not good enough to persuade a mortal to mortgage themselves in service to the moldering dead.
Don’t give it to them
Once the potential servitors’ and cultists’ desires are known, the last thing on this blighted earth that can be done is to let them have it. Like the mules they are, they must perpetually chase after it as it dangles with tantalizing proximity, just inches from their grasp – always seeming to get just that little bit much closer. A taste to get them started, a whiff to keep them scrambling, and then the perpetual journey of pursuit via servitude, until their usefulness has been exhausted.
These are the fiercely loyal, but not altogether happy servants of darkness, who in other circumstances might be altogether normal people with more acceptable pastimes. They serve because they must, and they serve willingly because to do otherwise leads to ruin or worse. They do not however, willingly delude themselves as to the nature of their service, nor the ultimate end it holds for them. In the case of serving a vampire or a lich, the desperate hope that they can earn the secret of immortality from their overlord before they have outlived their usefulness might be the one thing which makes their miserable lives of devoted servitude bearable. In worlds where undeath is a curse administered by means unknown, there might not be anything but a fear of death itself to keep the servant in line, and in relatively sane straits… if that is required.
Again drawing upon Stoker’s oh-so-influential work, this type of servitor or cultist can be seen in the figure of Renfield. Giving everything of himself, promised everything, yet in the end given nothing that does not come to all of us in time.
The final group to round out one’s network of aides and servants is that poor set of victims taken roughly in hand, stripped of those innate things which make them human, and turned loose as horrors which mimic the foulness which creates them. Sadly… or perhaps mercifully for this group, sanity is not an asset to be nurtured. Collecting an assortment of servitors of this type takes commitment, callousness, time, and keen insight into the workings of the mind and the underpinnings of the soul.
Some minds can be bought with sufficient force. Brutality and the clear communication of helplessness can be the window to the complete domination of the weak minded and the abused. Navigating the twisted pathways of the brain which make the beaten cling to those who beat them takes finesse and coldness of heart to carry out without rendering the victim useless. It does not need to take much time, but it does take dedication and abject cruelty. The undead creature must make it their mission to erode and rebuild the world of the victim, replacing it with one where they are god, and the victim is the lowest worm, undeserving of anything but service.
Once beaten into submission, the undead cult leader finds themselves in ultimate possession of a tool that can be set in a direction and left to fend for itself. Whatever it knows or does not know about its master is of no real relevance as their broken nature works directly against their credibility (much as it did also came to do for the once-trusted Renfield at the end) and against their ability to communicate anything beyond the most inane and insane ramblings. Serial killers, trendy tribal drummers, threatening message givers, and meat shields can all be drawn from this pool of broken and otherwise disenfranchised people.
In our literary source, these are the beasts which answer Dracula’s call, and perhaps some among the fierce gypsies who protect the Count as he races toward his homeland to escape.
Force is just one tool of many, and if one finds oneself with the need of a pawn and has the time to shatter reality instead of flesh, then more’s the better. Breaking the mind can have the same sort of effect as breaking the spirit, but rarely requires battering the body and weakening the will. Stripping away the blueness of the sky, the wetness of water, and all the other certainties of life can upend the apple cart of a prospective servant’s belief that they live in the ‘really real world’ and so make them amenable to service. With no foundation of the reality of the world to rely on other than what the undead villain wishes them to have, their entire system of logic can be twisted until service to the Leader is all that makes sense. These are the assassins, the priests of the temple, the willing sacrifices, and the ones who will claim responsibility for all the crimes of the cult if they are but asked. From time to time, they may get out of control and need to be reminded what their limitations are, but for the most part, they are fodder for the plans of the cult, and the grist in its mill.
These servants and cultists attribute all manner of strange and wonderful powers to their benefactor and leader, and will throw themselves into their calling as befits their gifts with complete abandon. Some among the poorly defined servants of Dracula would seem to fit this pattern, and one might even be willing to posit that Harker himself was headed in this direction. Unlike Renfield who sought to become like the Master, and willingly embraced that maddening pursuit as he waited for the blessing of immortality which would never come, Harker was not one to give up on all of his morals before losing hold of his sanity.
Great skill and control are necessary to spawn the final group of potential servitors – the zombie. Not the risen dead, possessed by spirits and controlled through so-called voodoo, and certainly not the popularized victim of disease or radiation seeking brains, but rather the extreme extension of the beguiled victim above; a person so distraught and confused that they are unwilling to even retain a sense of the reality of their own reality. Nothing more than a tool, but one that has its own fringe benefits, the zombie not only serves as the final line of defense and the last word in raw, brute force, it also marks the cult as having access to powers beyond the ken of most men, and serves as both promise and threat – even though it is nothing more than a sham illusion brought on by hardship, disorientation, and the complete subjugation of the person who once walked like a human being.
The zombie in this sort of cult is not created by real supernatural forces, but rather by chemical and psychological ones so cruel and so inhumane that no trace of the victim’s persona is left for retrieval. Like the fabled zombies of film and legend, neither pain nor injury will sway them from their course, only the death it seems has already claimed them will put them down for good. Unfeeling, unthinking, uncaring, these living automata rot while still alive through neglect and the power of the mind over the body. At their core these victims believe they are dead, and so dead they will be, even though they move.
In the mystical world that Stoker presents, these are the lesser vampires created by Dracula to serve him, such as Lucy Westenra, and to a much lesser extent the three brides Harker faces in his exploration of the castle. In our grittier hypothesis where the undead creature lacks supernatural means to bind allies or create other creatures in their likeness, we really have no direct reference, but the role is the same. In other sources of fiction a direct example can be found in the films ‘The Believers,’ ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow,’ and perhaps even such films as ‘End of Days’ and ‘Devil’s Advocate.’
If you want something done right…
Of course, most creatures with the tenacity to rise from the cold grip of death, be they lich, or vampire, or mummy, will not be long in realizing that some things have to be done by themselves. Whether from a lack of resources, or because one has driven all of one’s cultists batshit crazy, there comes a time when one must mark one’s own gold, drive one’s own coach, and cook for the first time in hundreds of years~
One question a GM might have as they read over this entry is, “Ok… but how can I use this in my game?” The simple answer is that getting to know your villain, stripping them of all the easy and overdone powers of latter day vampires and the like, and having them work like vile things in the darkness toward their goals provides you with a ton of hints, clues, disappearances, Wolframs and also Harts… (Wolves, Rams, and Harts?), paper trails, blood trails, and other viscera which can serve as a proactive way into an investigation or tragic prevention of untold horror by your crew. Additionally, planning these stages out can give you confidence and lots of detail to provide players as they begin to unravel the undead onion you have decided to plague them with. Viewing the characters around the PCs as resources that a villain might need to harvest for reasons of their own, helps establish a natural and organic onramp to adventure, and helps avoid the villain of the week syndrome that can kill fun so easily.
Again, in honour of this being May of the Dead, this entry includes some possible traits for the living zombies described above for Ubiquity and Call of Cthulhu.
Darken others' doors: