Skeletons in the cabinet.
It's the true Skeleton Government
. That is, a government staffed by actual undead: liches
, undead spirits and the like.
It comes in several flavors.
- Malevolent, both the rulers and the subjects are undead.
- At least partially decent, both the rulers and the subjects are undead.
- Malevolent, undead rulers, living subjects.
- At least partially decent, undead rulers, living subjects.
Malevolent examples are frequently used as The Horde
(although living subjects might be more sympathetic
). If you come across a city or fortress named Necropolis (Greek for "city of the dead") in a fantasy setting, chances are you're dealing with this trope. Stay away from these places
If they have a military structure, the mooks are probably undead too
A Sorcerous Overlord
who is also a Lich
would be an example, as is a Magocracy
of undead wizards. Societies led by Vampire Monarchs
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Anime and Manga
- Vampire Hunter D: Count Magnus Lee effectively rules a Kingdom. Technically he doesn't rule it any more - people just fear him too much to actively fight against him, but he can't really go and order them around like he used to, either.
- In the original worldwide vampire nation the vampire population density was relatively high, but humans remained a major group of second class citizens, who could be treated anywhere from decent subjects to mere cattle depending on their local vampire lord's personality.
- Trinity Blood's New Humankind empire. The living 'Terrans' are second-class citizens, but the most of the ruling vampire nobles try to treat them decently.
- The titular extraterritorial concession in Dance in the Vampire Bund is more or less a miniature vampire nation sitting in Tokyo Bay. As of Volume 8, there are even people in Tokyo seeking to get bitten in the hopes of moving there.
- Kami-sama no Inai Nichiyoubi has Ortus, a city for the deceased with over a million undead inhabitants.
- Monsieur Mardi-Gras Descendres is a French comic by Eric Liberge featuring purgatory as a city populated with skeletons, which is the appearance of dead people un-living there, surrounded by a lunar desert and ruled by a strange Kafkaļan bureaucracy.
- The Necropolis Litharge from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman: a great metropolis where the only job that anyone seems to have is the ritual disposal of dead bodies. Their entire society is funeral-based, and it's almost all they do. Its crypts are haunted by important and scary voices.
- Judge Dredd:
- Mega City One becomes this during the "Necropolis" arc, turning into a complete slaughterhouse after it's conquered by two ghosts and four walking corpses from another dimension. The Sisters of Death blot out the sun to prevent all daylight and the Dark Judges take command of the Hall of Justice. They declare all life illegal, brainwash the Judges to gun down civilians constantly, and cull 10,000 citizens themselves every day, while disease, chaos, and death spreads throughout the city in general. Before they are overthrown by Judge Dredd they have reduced the population by some 60 million people.
- The Dark Judges' home dimension Deadworld also qualifies itself, given that it's a giant graveyard ruled by Judge Death and his lieutenants and haunted by the souls of their victims.
- Magic: The Gathering examples:
- The Alara block has the plane of Grixis, a hellscape ruled by demons and lich lords.
- Over in the city-plane of Ravnica, there's both the Orzhov Syndicate (a Corrupt Church ruled by a council of ghosts) and the Golgari Swarm (which ended up with an undead shaman as its leader). The Golgari take care of Ravnica's farms, too — they provide a very notable part of the food for the whole plane. While they have their bad apples (Savra is very ambitious, and the Sisters of Stone Death can be pretty callous when ticked off), they are for the most part extremely decent and friendly people, even welcoming the Elves of deep Shadow who were kicked out of Selesnya simply because of their connection to black magic without question. Hell, the Golgari were one of the two guilds (the other being the Wojek offshoot of the Boros) who actually watched out for the people during the Decamillenial crisis, whereas all other guilds (as well as the Boros legion proper) were too busy with their power struggle nonsense.
- The Innistrad setting has towns ruled (read terrorized) by vampire nobility (though innistradi vampires aren't undead per se, but alive and aging at a glacial pace). On the other hand, there are also benevolent ghosts protecting some places.
- In the Conspiracy core set, Fiora is ruled by the ghost king Brago, and the custodi are a semi-theocratical church oriented towards spirits.
Films — Animated
- The Horned King of Disney's The Black Cauldron is an undead lich ruling from a dark fortress. His human minions are quite alive, but the King desires to rule over a world of mindless undead warriors because he wants to be worshipped as a god by his subjects. Made quite clear when he triumphantly declares that "our" time has come as he raises the skeletal army.
Films — Live-Action
- The 2010 movie Daybreakers postulates a near future society much like our own but governed by vampires, after most of the population turn into vampires. The remaining humans who have refused to be turned are farmed/hunted down for their blood.
- In the Blade movies, ruling vampire aristocracies are seen who control the rest of vampirekind. The first movie had the society divided by House, while the second movie shows vampire lords residing in Europe. They also have human servants, so-called "Familiars" who are more or less property of their vampire master/second-class citizens of their society.
- In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the Confederate States are in fact run behind the scenes by a vampiric bureaucracy led by the first vampire, Adam, and the slavery system is there to provide them with a regular food source.
- The autocratic empire of the Necromongers in The Chronicles of Riddick is governed by the "Holy Half-Dead" Lord Marshal Zhylaw. He's no longer merely a man after he visited the underverse, and can control souls. The rest of the Necros (except for the psychic Quasi-Dead) are actually living humans, just part of a crusading death cult.
- In Two Serpents Rise, Dresediel Lex is ruled by Kopil, a lich. There's also a mention of lands in the North ruled by "Dread Koschei".
- Angmar from J. R. R. Tolkien's world is ruled by its Witch-King (a wraith, which is basically undead). He had a few lesser ghosts under his command (as well as the other Nazgūl, presumably) but his forces were mostly Hillmen and Orcs.
- The history of Angmar isn't detailed in the core material (at least, it isn't detailed in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales or Lord of the Rings) so the precise nature of its government and populace is unknown. It was a human kingdom, though. They had annexed and allied with two of the three kingdoms of Arnor (Rhudaur and Cardolan) and apparently turned their dead as well. Angmar and its armies were annihilated some time before the events of the LotR, when the Witch-King commanded parts of Sauron's army but would have held no kingdom of his own.
- The city of Minas Morgul was a fiefdom of Mordor and former part of Gondor ruled by the Nazgūl directly, so that counts as a straight Type III.
- High Cromlech from The Scar by China Miéville. Most of the population and all the administration are Revenant Zombies. This has interesting impacts on the culture, such as the city's language having dialects suitable for use by individuals whose mouths have been sewn shut and whose voiceboxes have decayed. A significant population of living humans is found there to do the jobs that aren't so suitable for the non-living (though these are not detailed) but when the opportunity arises the upwardly mobile members of the living middle class shuffle off their mortal coils to improve their social circle and prospects.
- Also notable in that there is an undead (or rather, ab-dead) underclass of the city's impoverished and hopelessly addicted blood-drinkers, who are treated with scorn and pity by both the living and truly undead residents, in stark contrast to vampires' ordinarily high rank in such settings. It's a bit of an embarrassment for any vampir (spelling intentional) trying to set themselves up as the 'aristocracy of the night' anywhere else in the world.
- The social mobility in High Cromlech suggests that it is probably one of the most reasonably-ruled and egalitarian city states in Bas-Lag, which fits Melville's usual Deconstructor Fleet style.
- The Zombie Master in the Xanth novels wasn't evil. He was quite a good ruler, in fact — he was just a zombie.
- In Discworld, Uberwald is identified as not so much a nation as a geographic argument. It's said in the past Uberwald was mostly united in the 'Unholy Empire' (one of whose emperors had a man's hat nailed to his head as a joke) and described by Vimes as apparently the whole show being run by vampires and werewolves with everyone else being lunch. It broke up when the non-undead dwarfs became too powerful.
- Also in Pyramids, Djelibeibi very briefly became one: a living ruler (Pteppic), but with several thousand years' worth of mummified relations advising him on what to do.
- England in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series toggles back and forth from malevolent to somewhat decent. The subjects include both vampires and "the warm". The former can be good, but the ones who wind up in authority tend to be somewhat self-serving.
- The vampires in The Dresden Files novels:
- The Red Court vampires (big bat-like monsters that can disguise themselves as humans), despite how pleasant they can seem on the outside, have exploited chaos in some parts of Latin America to set themselves up as strongmen with a steady supply of food. They mostly get those followers through Mind Control saliva.
- The White Court vampires (psychic vampires, who do the incubus/succubus thing) officially rule as the most human (relatively speaking) of the vampires, they manipulate and mingle into human society just fine and graze at the edges, encouraging the attitudes and emotions they feed off of instead of keeping docile herds for themselves. Many think they should have the right to feed when they want and how much they want, without interference.
- The Black Court vampires (the rotting-corpse, vaguely Dracula and Nosferatu types) are too few to have a coherent society, thanks to Bram Stoker's cleverly disguised monster-hunting guide; they have a habit of wiping the minds of their living subjects and remolding them into blank, easily-commanded, and violent mooks nicknamed "Renfields."
- In Robert A. Heinlein's novels Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land it's implied that Mars is ruled by the Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence "Old Ones" ruling over the still-corporeal regular Martians.
- A variant of this (crossing over into Magocracy territory) is shown in Clark Ashton Smith's story "The Empire of the Necromancers". The titular necromancers (all two of them) are in fact alive, but manage to set themselves up as rulers of an entire undead nation by the simple expediency of finding a long-dead desert kingdom and using their arts to reanimate everybody whose bones or mummy they can find. The necromancers are arguably evil, but lazy; their subjects, on the other hand, are more hapless victims 'living' again in a hazy, dreamlike state than anything else.
- Parodied by the batshit-insane Helmacrons from Animorphs who are led completely by the dead. Not the undead, the dead. They believe that the most important thing for a leader is that they make no mistakes, so as a result every Helmacron in a position of authority is ritually executed as soon as they're elevated to their position.
- The Vampire world from the Necroscope series. Those inhabiting the nightside of the planet are either vampires, or partially-vampirised slaves. Those inhabiting the dayside are just slaves (and occasionally rebels). At the end of the final book This model is successfully exported to Earth.
- In Michael Shea's story "The Pearls of the Vampire Queen" Queen Vulvula rules over a human nation and rejuvenates herself yearly in a ceremony called The God-Making Of The Year King, where she devours her human husband. Apart from that, she is depicted as an effective and benevolent ruler.
- Doctor Who:
- In "State of Decay", a planet was ruled over by evil vampires, and the rulers had been dining on the mortal population for so long that it was down to a single small village.
- The Cybermen are often treated functionally as a technofantasy version of this.
- Xanxia in "The Pirate Planet" is the secretly undead secret ruler of a nation.
- Dungeons & Dragons has many examples of this trope:
- Eberron provides a few variations:
- The half-dragon lich Erandis d'Vol, better known as simply Lady Vol, sees herself as the inheritor of the whole world. Only the Blood of Vol and the Karrnathi loyalist group "The Order of the Emerald Claw" truly believes her.
- The Deathless of Aerenal rule the island-nation of the Elves, serving as a sort of gestalt deity-figure. Not truly Undead, but rather a good-aligned version which uses positive rather than negative energy.
- King Kaius I of Karrnath is a vampire, turned through a deal with Vol which fell through. He replaced his Identical Grandson, the real Kaius III. Almost nobody but a few trusted high-ups know this, as undead, while revered in Karrnath, don't get property rights under international law, and he would have to forfeit his crown. While he is by alignment Lawful Evil, he's the one amongst the inheritors of Galifar who has been pressing for peace. Another nation's leader, Aurala, despite Neutral Good alignment, is a warmonger.
- The Forgotten Realms has a few too:
- Thay is now ruled by Szass Tam, an undead lich with thousands of undead followers.
- While the main Orcish god is Gruumsh, Yurtrus is the Orcish god of the undead.
- The Ravenloft campaign setting oozes with this. Many Darklords (domain rulers) are undead creatures, such as:
- Strahd (vampire) in Barovia.
- Lord Soth (death knight) in Sithicus.
- Vecna (lich) in Cavitius
- Kas (vampire) in Tovag. For 4E, Kas got rebooted as a vampire. He rules a kingdom in the Shadowfell and a dominion in the Astral Sea.
- Azalin (lich) in Darkon. Azalin doesn't really give a damn about his subjects but would rather not be distracted from his escape-attempts by rebellions and pogroms and other nonsense.
- Anhktepot (Greater Mummy) in Har'Akir.
- Tristan ApBlanc (Ghost/Vampyre) in Forlorn: Undead-by-night ruler (long story), living but curse-transformed goblyn subjects.
- Death. No one can live in his domain (literally), and he's batshit insane.
- Mavet Rav
- Warhammer has several examples of this trope:
- The Tomb Kings are nice for undead, since they mostly stay put in their pyramids. Several city states have large living populations ruled by mummies (part of their motivation is a desire to bring life back to the desert, after all).
- The Vampire Counts often masquerade as normal kingdoms, out to take over the Empire. The funny thing is, the Vampire Counts include a bloodline called the 'Necrarchs', making it a Necrocratic Necrarchy.
- The irony there is that, of all Warhammer's Vampire bloodlines, the Necrarchs are by far the least likely to desire temporal power, authority or status. They're a family of reclusive, usually insane, scholars and wizards whose grand plans generally involve killing all the world's mortals rather than enslaving them. The lordly, aristocratic Von Carsteins, however, embody this trope perfectly. In their homeland of Sylvania they rule openly, as feudal lords over the terrified inbred peasantry. Technically, since the Vampire Wars five centuries ago, Sylvania is now a part of the Imperial province of Stirland, but the count of Stirland's officials have long since learned never to go there asking for taxes and the like, so it is still effectively ruled by its vampiric masters. A similar arrangement applies to the Bretonnian city of Mousillon.
- It's strongly hinted that the Immortal Emperor of Cathay (Warhammer's China) is either a powerful but benevolent Vampire or Liche.
- In the Warhammer Enemy Within campaign introduces a city that is ruled by necromancy. Actually, the rulers are alive as well. But subjects who die are converted into undead to serve the living. The people quickly adapt, especially since the city is close to the chaos wastes and the undead army vastly increases its ability to defend itself.
- Nagash, the great necromancer, is literally trying to kill everyone in the world and make them his undead puppets. Since he has taken up the mantle of "God of Undeath", he has 9 Mortarchs to reign as Kings under him (with two members from the aforementioned Von Carstein bloodline and at least one Tomb King Liche Priest). So far he has also successfully subjugated the Tomb King nation of Khemri and the Vampire Count's Sylvania.
- The Necrons from Warhammer 40,000 are a futuristic version of the trope. They're an updated version of the Tomb Kings from Warhammer Fantasy, an entire race of the spirits of long-dead aliens encased in metal skeletons by the C'Tan. They inhabit the dead Tomb Worlds in the galaxy, and have a carefully structured imperial hierarchy, with Necron soldiers at the bottom, (Over)Lords in the middle, and the Phaerons at the top. The C'tan were shattered into pieces for tricking the Necrons into becoming their slaves.
- Mage Knight miniatures has the Necropolis Sect. The rulers are all Vampires, and the ruled are either Necromancers, Dark Elves on their way to becoming vamps, or lesser Undead and golems of various sorts.
- Wraith The Oblivion has the plane of the dead. They still have slavery and some rulers have actually been dead long enough to remember when it was in fashion.
- Geist The Sin Eaters, a Spiritual Sequel to Wraith, has brought in the Dominions of the Underworld — strange kingdoms that lie beyond the Rivers, each one ruled by the Kerberoi and with specific rules on the interaction between their ghostly serfs and the Sin-Eaters.
- In Exalted, the fact that it's possible to walk to and from the Underworld means that death is no bar to kingship. The necropolis of Sijan, City of Ten Thousand Tombs, is ruled by its ghosts, who are relatively benign. The Deathlord known as the Silver Prince runs a flourishing kingdom by reanimating corpses to serve as slave labor — but it's a cover for his long-term evil plans.
- Thorns became this when the Mask of Winters invaded and pulled it into the Underworld. Now zombies and ghosts roam the streets and the living are second-class citizens.
- The Resurrectionists in Autochthonia want to make Claslat into one of these...for the greater good, of course. They just have no understanding whatsoever about the nature of undeath.
- GURPS recently put out the supplement Banestorm - Abydos, which features a necromantic citystate in their default Fantasy setting of Yrth.
- Iron Kingdoms: Cryx. While the supreme ruler, Toruk, is a dragon and so is technically alive (for certain values of "alive," anyway), the hierarchy is dotted with titles like "Lich Lord", "Necrotech", "Iron Lich" and so on. While they do have living models and even living warcasters, the first mental image most people in and out of universe have when "Cryx" is stated involves a tide of cyborg skeletons backed up by undead mages and war engines forged from iron and bone.
- Pathfinder's setting features the kingdom of Geb. Run by a once human wizard king also named Geb, it was at war with the also wizard-run neighboring kingdom of Nex. When Geb, an expert of necromancy, sent a deadly fog through Nex to kill the populace, king Nex vanished. Geb brooded for years over this ambiguous victory, and eventually took his own life. But even death could not grant him peace, and he arose as a ghost whose Unfinished Business is knowing whether or not the mighty Nex is alive or just hiding. Now Geb (the nation) has various forms of undead making up most of the nobility, skeletons and zombies tending the fields, and even a slain demigoddess raised as a lich to serve as queen. It's a pretty miserable place; the upper crust are all unliving monstrosities, who never age or die and are evil to the core, the peasants must live with the knowledge that they are are worth as much dead as alive if they step out of line (literally; official policy is that when you die you are reanimated as a mindless slave), and a depressed ghost on the throne, still unable to accept whether or not he truly won a battle centuries ago.
- The Scourge from Warcraft III is straight-up evil, while the Forsaken from World of Warcraft are not really nice, but negotiable with.
- In Final Fantasy X, the leader of the church of Yevon is an Unsent, a ghost whose soul was never put to rest by a summoner. His idea of leadership is to kill people on a regular basis in order to keep the peace. He is well aware that this is a stopgap solution at best, but refuses to try anything else because it might not work. He's also entirely resistant to the idea that his people might be better off with a living leader instead, insisting that the consistency and stability of his leadership is preferable to any kind of freedom, truth, change, or justice.
- The Undead in the Heroes of Might and Magic series.
- The very enjoyable undead campaign in Heroes of Might and Magic IV is a prominent example. The Protagonist of the story is Gauldoth Halfdead, a very philosophical and - as the name suggests - Halfdead necromancer that rules his kingdom (consisting of both living civilians and an undead military and workforce) more ethically than most of the supposedly 'good' factions. He's apparently popular among the people too.
- Plain Might and Magic, as well. Deyja and the Jademean Necromancers' Guild have both living and undead subjects, and can be reasoned and negotiated with, and aren't completely untrustworthy.
- Deyja plays with it. It gives this impression during the events covered in Shadow of Death and The Restoration of Eratha, but when you get to visit it in Might and Magic VII, however, the current king is a living human male (who later gets replaced with a living elven male), and there is no sign of discontent from the king's status as being perfectly alive. If anything, Deyja is a Magocracy, just one with a strong indirect cultural tendency in favour of the ruler being undead (the monarch is supposed to be a powerful necromancer, and most powerful modern necromancers aspire to lichdom).
- Taken to an extreme in Disciples. The Undead Hordes are composed entirely of the undead, from bog-standard zombies and ghosts to exotic Liches, Werewolves, and Vampires. Their leadership is a cadre of undead priests who worship and are the direct subordinates of their undead deity, the "fleshless goddess," Mortis. Her Start of Darkness is heartbreaking, and establishes her horrifying appearance, her overall goal, and burning hatred for the dwarves of the Mountain Clans.
- The Dead Nations in Planescape: Torment are an alliance of skeletons, zombies, and ghouls all ruled by the Silent King. It turns out that the Silent King is just the regular kind of dead.
- In Jade Empire, it turns out that Emperor Sun Hai is actually a ghost.
- The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion: The Count of Skingrad is a vampire, yet remains one of the most reasonable counts in the game, though vampirism in The Elder Scrolls is a (sometimes) curable disease.
- Kain's empire in Legacy of Kain (specifically shown in Soul Reaver).
- The Civilization mod Fall from Heaven II has two module civs that are this trope: The Legion of D'Tesh and the Scions of Patria.
- Age of Wonders expansion Shadow Magic has a Dark Elf leading the Undead, at one point.
- The Empire of Magnagora in Lusternia. There are a lot of liches in the upper echelons of society (and as a Nihilist Priest, it's practically expected of you), but there are ordinary mortals among the aristocracy and the serfs. Still, they're all decidedly malevolent (except for the poor slaves).
- In Darksiders II, the Kingdom of the Dead, ruled by The Lord of Bones and his (equally bony and ghosty) Chancellor.
- In The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, undead King Igos Du Ikana still rules over his dead kingdom from his palace long after it was destroyed. His subjects now consist only of skeletal warriors and mummies. The Ikana military is still intact and led by Captain Keeta, a giant skeleton. His soldiers generally want to take leave of the oath they swore him so they can pass on.
- Vornstaag in Dawnofthe Dragons has lived with a peaceful mixture of living and dead citizens for a long time, many living nobles choosing to become vampires because they don't want to die (though this act is considered distasteful), and many peasants getting paid in advance to sell their bodies as materials for reanimation after the natural deaths.
- The Gittish Empire in Dragon Quest IX is a straight Type 1.
- Looking for Group: Richard, the undead warlock of the group, is mayor of a small town up the coast, inhabited entirely by the living dead.
- The Order of the Stick':
- Xykon is a lich, his subjects are mostly a mix of undead, goblinoids, and undead goblinoids.
- Malack reveals an intent to turn the Empire of Blood into a vast empire governed by a vampire aristocracy, wherein thousands will be sacrificed every day as a divine offering/as a food source for the ruling class.
- Skin Horse Colma, California is home to a society of approximately one million zombies ruled by Emperor Norton I. Most of them are pretty decent people.
- Baron Dark's empire of titular Skeleton Warriors in the short-lived animated series. Half the planet's population was instantly rendered undead at the beginning of the story, forcing the human heroes to go into hiding and form a resistance movement. Since the skeleton armies are functionally immortal, and they don't need to eat or sleep, and Baron Dark can change captured humans into new undead recruits, the war's presented as a surprisingly bleak and one-sided affair for a Saturday morning cartoon. The good guys still win in the end, though.
- In Aladdin: The Series, the Land of the Black Sand is populated only by zombies, although its ruler, Evil Sorcerer Mozenrath, is likely not undead. (Although he has a Dead Right Hand, so he's not exactly a normal human being either.)
- A thoughtful exploration of the concept comes from 4Chan (no, really)
- In his HBO special "Red, White & Screwed", Lewis Black proposes that America elect a dead person to the presidency (his suggestion: Ronald Reagan) in order to Mind Screw terrorists.
- The Death gang from Fallout Is Dragons is a mix of all four types, though mostly type 4. Their leader, named Death, is a lich, and most of their members are living necromancers who use zombies in their raids; however, while they are raiders they don't seem to attack without need and Death has actually become something of a mentor figure to Xencarn, one of the player characters.
- Christopher Hitchens has referred to North Korea as a Necrocracy, Thanatocracy or Mausolocracy because, while Kim Jong-il (and now Kim Jong-un) are the head of the army and head of the communist party, the "Eternal President" (legally the head of state) is Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. Of course, unless the guy's ghost is actually in there running things, it isn't a literal example.
- Now that Kim Jong-il is dead, he's still the head of the military and party.
- A number of democratic countries have systems where if candidates die during election campaigns, their names remain on the ballot and their parties can select a new person to fill their positions if they win. The most celebrated recent example was Mel Carnahan, who was killed in a plane crash three weeks before being elected US Senator for Missouri in 2000. His wife was appointed to fill his seat.