Last week we took a look at the dregs of undead. Those that despite looking gross and being irredeemably evil, aren’t going to make any adventuring party shudder in fear. It’s hard exactly to put your finger on it, but last week’s monsters were all missing something.
This week though, we’re looking at Fifth Edition Monster Manual entries that really send a shiver down your spine. These ghoulish creatures go beyond a dreadful visage and cursed existence. Be it with unique abilities, terrifying lore, or devilish intent, these undead find a way to produce horror.
My first impulse was to write the shadow off as a boring alternate ghost, but let’s consider how a shadow feeds. It slinks through darkness towards it’s target and grasps them without warning and immediately begins draining the very goodness from your soul. Perhaps it’s inky hand is over your mouth stifling your screams and cutting off your breath. Because the shadow is amorphous, it slips in openings just an inch wide. This means it can decide to attack you when you’re most vulnerable. Perhaps you’ve paid a couple silver pieces to buy a nice warm bath at an inn to wash off weeks of accumulated road grime. You exhale deeply and slide down in the warm wash tub so happy to finally have a moment away from you loud, oafish companions. This is when the shadow springs forth- when you’re alone.
Clocking in with a challenge rating of 0, this is the single weakest undead in the 5e Monster Manual. But its combat abilities aren’t what separates it from its fully assembled zombie cousin. Rather, the crawling claw taps into fears of dismemberment- the dissonance that comes from finding a unliving, writhing hand crossing your path. It’s small enough that it could easily creep up to you while sleeping and clamp onto your throat in the night. It’s size also makes it able to wriggle into places you thought were otherwise safe from intruders.
As scary as a crawling claw (or group of them) is coming for you, imagine happening upon one that wasn’t attacking. The moon is climbing high into chill fall night. You’re sitting outside a tavern enjoying a few drags from your pipe enjoying the crisp air when suddenly out of the corner of your eye you sense movement. At first you assume it must be a rat or massive spider, but you quickly realize it’s a rotting hand dragging itself around the edge of light spilling from the tavern windows. Your hand quickly moves to your dagger readying your defense, but after a few moments, no attack comes. You can no longer see nor hear it. It must be gone. It’s off into the night in pursuit of some foul business.
When you add in added lore about having to be made from the hand of a murder, you’ve got a wellrounded, low-level creature perfect to freak out the party.
Now we get to our first truly intelligent creature. Vampires have that special, unnerving blend of animalistic hunger combined with charisma and the ability to craft devious schemes. Their monstrousness is not solely due to their basal desire to drain the blood of the living. Rather their desire to control and manipulate make them truly abhorrent. Unlike ghouls and zombies, vampires have the ability to charm mortals into doing their bidding. Failing that, a vampire can raise the creatures it slays as thralls to do it’s bidding- the very definition of a fate worse than death.
The vampire is also legitimately dangerous to even seasoned adventurers. It has a bevy of abilities to draw from including regeneration, morphing into a bat, and escaping as a mist if not killed in its coffin. It’s resistance to non-magical damage makes it an extremely formidable foe in combat.
But vampires have a lot of lore related weaknesses. Like in the movies, D&D vampires can’t enter a residence without being invited, are damaged by running water, and vulnerable to sunlight. This bevy of drawbacks can give you a sense of hope when dealing with them and a starting point to defeat them.
Bound to something in its life, ghosts are doomed to haunt the world until their unfinished business is resolved. This opens us up to all manner of horrifying options. A ghost could a victim of grizzly torture (as suggested by the Monster Manual), a tragic lover who leapt to their demise, or any hapless gudgeon of cruel fate. While ghosts can’t turn you into one like wights or vampires, there’s always the chance that someday you’ll be unlucky enough to be trapped on this plane of existence.
Their flexibility is what makes them so frightening. They can manipulate their environments to spread sadness and despair, toy with the sanity of the living, and even possess their very bodies.
From a mechanical standpoint, ghosts have no shortage of powers. They are extremely durable with seven different resistances and outright immunities to cold, necrotic, and poison damage. They’re also the first entry on this list to impose the “frightened” condition on unlucky foes with its Horrifying Visage ability.
For an unsuspecting party, a single ghost could have them at its mercy until they resolve whatever is forcing it to linger on after death.
There’s something extremely unnerving about a creature of pure spite. It’s even more troubling when a malicious spirit is juxtaposed by a bright, playful exterior. It’s easy to mistake their glow for a friendly lanturn or a helpful sprite. These luminous orbs may appear harmless, but they’re actually the spirits of evil beings that died in abject agony. In death, they lurk around forsaken lands like swamps or deep forests hoping to lure unsuspecting travelers to their doom- be it quicksand, a witch’s lair, or patch of carnivorous plants.
While not the most formidable combatants, they can release potent shock on anyone who gets too close. The wisp might have nothing worse than some poison ivy to lead you through, but the real danger with will-o’-wisps comes when they partner with black dragons, evil big cultists, or powerful demons. And that’s what makes them so scary. You can never tell what it has in store for you, but you can be certain danger is near.
Mummies might be the best kept secret of 5th edition. I can’t recall a major Wizards of the Coast release that has prominently featured one, and I actually can’t recall coming across one in homebrew either. Despite this, mummies are dripping with incredible lore and powerful abilities.
According to the Monster Manual, a mummy has no say in the process after their death. A cadre of shadowy cultists carry out a dark, macabre ritual that imbues the subject with wrathful magic. The entry for the nature of the mummy’s curse is rather vague, but it causes the mummy to desire vengeance against those who transgress against it. The most common trigger for this seems to be entering a sacred tomb or removing an artifact of value from the creature’s homeland. Aside from the mummy itself seeking revenge, I think it’s fair to infer the curse would have other more far-reaching implications. Perhaps a swarm of locusts, literal darkness falling over a region, blighted crops. The ways to play out its curse are limitless.
The mummy’s signature ability is its contagious rot. Creatures who fail their save against this attack, spend the next few days withering from the inside out. After a short while, the affected creature’s body turns to dust. A brave fighter might think they’ve outlasted the mummy’s best offense, only to find themselves slowly wasting away the next morning.
Like vampires and liches, a mummy’s physical form will regenerate even if completely destroyed. Their essence is housed in a ceremonial vase along with its heart and assorted viscera, which were preserved as a key step in the ritual that created it. Its heart must be burned to ash in order to end its curse.
Unlike vampires and liches, however, the mummy didn’t necessarily ask for this and don’t need to have lived a wicked life. The mummy can be imbued with an element of pathos. Thy could have been a tragic ruler, who met an untimely end at the hands of scheming courtiers. Or maybe it’s not so dissimilar from the players. They could be the remains of a virtuous paladin that failed to thwart the aforementioned dark cult. For their failings, they’re now forced to do whatever bidding the evil sect commands.
In looking at the common threads these creatures all share, you start to see recurring themes. Frightful origins, dastardly desires, and unsettling appearance make them the total package. When thinking of which undead truly evoke horror in the player, it’s important to note that a rotting/skeletal appearance or combat potential on their own isn’t enough. The interplay of intention, method, and origin all play a part in making a creature scary. The above creatures have it all in spades.