Ah, Skeletons. Your basic bitch bargain bin baddie. When your party heads into a dungeon and you encounter skeletons, then you know your DM is tired as fuck. But did you know skeletons are supposed to be scary? Once the terror of people everywhere, skeletons have now been reduced to kitschy halloween decorations, 2spoopy4me memes and the last resort of a tired ass DM who’s overworked but doesn’t want to disappoint the DnD group making their way to his place (with drinks and snacks!) for a session. What happened? How did the skeleton fall so low in the horror hierarchy that it’s almost tied with sheet ghosts as the least scary thing ever?
If you ask a horror aficionado of the scariest things in the world you probably won’t get Skeletons as an answer. But in the past, somehow, skeletons were supposed to be scary. But why? They’re just…you know, skeletons. We all have them inside us. They’re our bones. They’re parts of our anatomy. I mean, it’s probably not so spooky if I start waving my dick around at Halloween — more like I have to go door to door in the next neighbourhood I live in and tell them I’ve been prosecuted for child molestation and indecent exposure. Clearly, some parts of our anatomy are supposed to be scary, and some aren’t.
Well, what it could be is the divorce of parts of our anatomy from a functioning body. Say for instance you open a door and a skeleton falls out. That means somebody died there. Kinda scary, right? They’re not walking around without their skeleton somewhere in the house, trailing blood and entrails as they shamble around like some sort of biological goop. No, someone — or something — meticulously removed the body parts of our poor stiff until there was nothing left but bones. Now that’s scary.
Imagine if you had opened the door and a hand had fallen out instead. Or an eyeball. Or a severed penis. Still scary. That means that someone was at least mutilated if not outright killed, and we don’t know what happened. We don’t know who did it, or what. We’re on edge — a danger lurks, and we have no idea what happened. Perhaps that is the lure of the skeleton — a reminder that something awful happened to some poor asshole, and you may be next to suffer the same fate, and leave your bones behind as a warning to the next poor asshole who opens a door and has your skeleton drop down on top of them like a bag of Wheaties.
This is actually understandable, if you trace humanity to the way back times of prehistory. Back then you didn’t refer to them as Australopithecus, that was just Bunga in that hut on the river. This was the time when men were men, women were men and everybody united to bring down the wooly mammoth with sticks and stones or it’s back to trudging around in the muck for berries or something unless you want to starve to death. Yes, back then nobody gave a shit about fashion, social media and ill — advised Medium blogs. What people cared about the most back then was survival. And to end up as a skeleton meant that you had failed at this task. You did not survive. Bunga? Bunga’s dead, man. He faced up against that panther and now he’s a skeleton on the jungle floor. I imagine some neanderthal bringing his neanderthal children up to Bunga’s remains and pointing, “Look! Look what happen when you no hunt good! You turn out like Bunga! Eat and shat out by big shadow in trees!”
And the neanderthal children don’t actually know what the fuck they’re looking at. What the fuck is Da — Da going on about now? That was Bunga? Why did he turn into something that looks like a rock? What did that to him — some kind of shadow in the trees? And so they go home, not fully understanding, but they’re now deathly afraid of Bunga’s skeleton and some kind of vague shadow in the trees, and more than once they have night terrors of Bunga walking up to them with his face and flesh slowly melting off of him until he turns into a skeleton.
Actually, that explains a lot of horror. But let’s focus on skeletons for now.
So skeletons lying around is just Bad News Bears. Some undefined — or even defined — threat is lurking around and you better not mess around in this place. Actually, now that I think about it, I have personally felt this before. Not, you know, in reality — in Skyrim. You see, there’s this cave somewhere by a river that has like, a million skeletons in front of the entrance. There’s blood spatters and bones and shit everywhere. Immediately I was on edge. Like, what is going on here? What could have done this to these people? As it turns out, the cave has three trolls inside, and if you’re low level like I was they’d kick your ass seven ways to Sundas, and rip your clothes off and pin you down and — whoops, maybe that part depends on what kind of Skyrim mods you have installed. But yeah, I made my point let’s move on and ignore any questions about what kind of Skyrim mods I had installed please and thank you.
Skeletons are also used as decoration nowadays — or at least, the skull is. Goth edgelords (and ladies, let’s be honest) would love nothing else than a skull ring, or skull belt buckle, or skull underpants. Their rooms are painted black and their dressers are mahogany with ivory skulls inlaid in them. They brush their teeth with skull toothbrushes, wipe their asses with skull print toilet paper, and have trouble typing because they’d replaced all the keys on their keyboard with skulls (a more restrained version of that does sound kind of rad, not going to lie). And this ties back to the second reason skeletons are considered scary, or spooky. As much as a dismembered portion of a person’s anatomy screams danger, a keepsake of that person’s anatomy invokes memory — specifically, Memento Mori.
Memento Mori is a concept familiar to those of us who have heard of it. It means, ‘Remember You Must Die’. It means to remember Death, that it is inevitable, that it comes to all, and that one day the Grim Reaper will approach you, hopefully with a smile around her face, and she will extend her hand towards you and say, “It’s time.” Everyone dies, but not everyone lives conscious of this fact. It’s hard to describe, but it’s true.
You will die someday. I will, too. It’s a journey that we all must undertake, and like any trip it’s possible to take it without being prepared in the slightest bit for it. Memento Mori means making those preparations. It means making sure the stove is turned off, all the appliances are unplugged, and the doors and windows shut tight. It means you’ve packed enough underwear, all the toiletries and maybe a book to read when you get bored. It means being able to stand at the threshold as Death waits outside, look back inside at the life you’ve built, smile, nod and say, “I’m ready. Let’s go.” And you can close the door with finality, and join Death for the next great chapter of your existence.
A skull, part of the skeleton ensemble, is emblematic of Memento Mori. One day you will die. You will be grieved over, buried, and have your features rotted so that all that is left of you is your skeleton, if even that. It happened to the guy whose skull you’re looking at. It happened to the many skulls that lie beneath the ground. It will happen to you. The question now becomes, are you ready? Your Last Ride is coming, no matter what you do. And here you are messing around the place like it isn’t, or it’s way too far away. Who knows when Death will arrive outside, sighing and texting you ‘Yo it’s your ride, I’m outside rn’. Then what are you going to do? All those plans to build up your life are just — whoosh, down the drain. Maybe you’d planned to merge your life with someone else’s’. Nope. Can’t do that. Maybe you’d shouted at someone and don’t want to leave them with the last thing you said to them being “I HATE YOU”. No. Your ride’s here, and if you aren’t going she is authorised to use necessary force to shove you in the car and take you.
Remember when this was about spoopy skeletons?
I suppose, then, that it isn’t that skeletons aren’t scary. Far from it. A skeleton is incredibly scary, just not in the way we normally think about when we ask about scary stuff. A skeleton doesn’t have to pervert the natural order of things and walk and dance and rattle — me — bones to be scary. It just has to be there, and we just have to remember that the skeleton was once a person like you or me, whose Last Ride has come for them. When you realise that, then you’ll realise that you are in no way ready for Death when she comes…and that, my friends, is why skeletons are so scary.