Maybe it’s happened to you: you’re minding your own business, clicking around the Internet, when suddenly your screen is invaded by a nightmarish scene. A set of human bones, unclothed by flesh and often rendered disturbingly in some sort of outmoded CGI program, waves a sword, or dances, or pumps iron. One, sitting back in a chair with a watermelon slice stuffed in its gaping mouth; sports a hideous epitaph: “summer ‘til I die <3”
It’s a nightmare made reality—skeletons are cool on Tumblr (or at least they were last year). But reanimated remains have danced through our books, rituals and paintings for thousands of years. Their particular penchant for horror and humor has helped us mortals get through some of the toughest times in history, from the Black Plague to World War II.
People have brought bones into their lives since at least 7000 B.C.E., when Neolithic humans painted their dead relatives’ skulls, stuffed the eye sockets with cowrie shells, and displayed them in their homes as art. In Mexico, Day of the Dead, that well-known skeletal extravaganza, has been celebrated for about 3,000 years. Aztec temples often featured thousands of enemy skulls neatly arranged on racks called Tzompantli, themselves sometimes made of more skulls, and Aztec nobility wore skull necklaces and hung skulls in trees.
In Western literature, the walkin’, talkin’ skeleton can be traced back to Ezekiel 37 in the Old Testament, in which the titular prophet has a spooky encounter in the Valley of Dry Bones. In this chapter, the Lord brings Ezekiel to a valley littered with “a great many bones… bones that were very dry,” and orders him to bring them to life via a specific prophecy. Ezekiel obeys, and as he speaks, “there was a noise, a rattling sound.” Soon, “the bones came together, bone to bone.” Skin and other humanizing features soon follow, but for a minute there, we have one of the earliest undead armies in the Western canon.
But it was medieval Europeans who took this bone-on-bone commitment to the next level. Starting in the mid-14th century, the Black Death killed about one-third of the continent’s population. So many people died in every town that, as one Italian survivor wrote, “all the citizens did very little else except to carry dead bodies to be buried,” stacking them in pits “just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.”
Without modern biology, these suffering citizens didn’t know how to explain their miserable luck. Many people turned to religion, figuring some kind of mass atonement was the only way to be spared. Out of this came the massacre of Jews and other minorities, the rise of cults like the Flagellants—and a whole lot of skeleton art. Religious illustrators who had previously focused on heaven, angels, and other sunny rewards literally turned inward, depicting “a world that emerges from the depths of the earth and the interior of the body,” writes art historian Sardis Medrano-Cabral. Deathbed scenes, in which a sick person received a visit from a rather ominous decomposing skeleton, became common. Certain memorial designers even replaced their tomb-toppers, traditionally idealized carvings of human figures, with sculpted skeletons.
After the plague died down, this taste for macabre realism stuck around, injecting previously decadent art forms with a dose of bare humility. This was best exemplified by the popular vanitas, or “vanity,” a style of painting in which perfectly good fruit, playing cards and young maidens were painted alongside skeletons and skulls, lest viewers forget that all life is fleeting, even still life.
Some of today’s most famous boneheads came out of the plague years and their aftermath, including the grim reaper and the now-canonical skeletal version of the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse. But perhaps the most enduring trope was the “Dance of Death,” or “Danse Macabre,” a kind of very-last-hurrah in which a group of cheerful skeletons tango a diverse group of doomed and damned into Hell.
“There are indications that first the dance macabre was performed, then poetized, then finally painted,” Medrano-Cabral writes. By the time these paintings became commonplace in the mid-15th century, the skeletons had developed a taste for irony, and were often captioned with somewhat humorous dialogue. In one early Dance of Dead textbook, from 1460, a skeleton tells the emperor: “Emperor, your sword won’t help you out/Sceptre and crown are worthless here/I’ve taken you by the hand/For you must come to my dance.”
Less amusing, but similarly crowded, was the “Triumph of Death” archetype—best exemplified by Peter Bruegel the Older’s painting of that name, in which an army of animate skeletons overruns a once-pastoral village and murders everyone in a variety of ways that would make even Wes Craven queasy.
Starting in the mid-16th century, the plague now a generations-back memory, death was less of a sentence and more of a cycle again. The human skeleton became an important scientific tool “while retaining long-held connotations,” writes science historian Anita Guerrini. Anatomists worked closely with artists to produce careful engravings of skeletons and skinless “muscle men,” often dancing, holding hands, or engaging in suspiciously mortal contemplation. This positioning added pathos and moral messages to the drawings, and allowed the anatomist and the artist to each practice their skills. By the 18th century, it had become faddish to have a real live skeleton in your office or laboratory, which led to a thriving corpse-stealing, bone-fusing industry (underground, of course).
Eventually, different dark creatures got their eras in the spotlight (vampires in the 18th century; ghosts in the 19th; etc.). The skeleton age didn’t come around again until World War II, when the Allies made a series of propaganda posters that prominently featured skull-headed Hitler, skull-eating Hitler, and Hitler wearing a necklace made of small, decorative skulls. At one point in the mid-1940s, for a mission called “Operation Cornflakes,” the U.S. Office of Strategic Services airdropped false propaganda mail in Axis countries, including stamps showing “death’s head” versions of the Führer. In another time of uncertainty and death, these stark and unsubtle images were used to rattle the populace into action.
In the past decade or so, we’ve had our own parade of iconic skeletons—Skeletor, certain undead pirates, and a jewel-encrusted platinum skull, to name a few. But today, the skeleton’s grotesque-but-amusing legacy is best unearthed in the weirder crypts of the Internet, particularly on Tumblr, where a bonafide Skeleton War has been raging for a couple of years, aka an online eternity.
The Internet had already loved skeletons for a while, thanks to a 4Chan meme called “2Spooky,” which mostly involved trolling people with videos featuring a 1996 novelty song called “Spooky, Scary Skeletons.” “Spooky, scary skeletons are silly all the same,” the deep-voiced singer intones over a tinny organ. “They’ll smile and scrabble slowly by/and drive you so insane!” So which is it? Insanity? Silliness? “It’s semi-serious,” the baritone concludes, reaching into a higher register and sweeping us back into the Danse Macabre.
By the time famed “Weird Twitter” user @dril invented the Skeleton War in 2013, Tumblr was primed to enlist. Soon, there was an ever-expanding mythos, fueled by users eager to participate. When it joined up with another meme—that of the “fuckboy,” a specifically unlikeable jerky dude—it was unstoppable. As the Daily Dot explained last Halloween, it drew on the same culturally repentant and democratic impulses that drove the Black Plague skeleton fervor:
“The overwhelming popularity of the Skeleton War can be broken down into three factors. First of all, pretty much everyone on Tumblr is already in agreement that skeletons are awesome. Second, it’s entertaining to tell ridiculous stories about destroying fuckboys using a skeleton army. And third, the prevalence of plastic Halloween skeletons means that you can easily create your very own Skeleton War photo.”
Contemporary Halloween memes tend to walk a fine line between dumb and sinister (2013’s model, which valorized spelling mistakes, is another example). Illustrations from the modern-day skeleton pantheon hit your funny bone and then kind of creep gently up your spine, rather than terrifying outright. Rather than tempering their horror with humor, as in the plague years, it’s their insistence that they are scary that becomes funny.
Evan Trusewicz, the proud creator of many goofy, gory skeleton-scapes, has spent the past several years moonlighting as the artist for pioneering Facebook page Scary HQ, the self-proclaimed ”NUMBER ONE PROVIDER OF SCARY ON THE INTERNET.” Scary HQ was never involved in the Skeleton War—Evan says he might be ”a little bit too old” for Tumblr—but Evan has found inspiration in the campy horror movies of his childhood, particularly a 1997 film called Wishmaster. ”In the opening scene, this one skeleton becomes conscious and escapes from this guy’s body, and, you know, it’s very very bad,” he says. “It’s not scary.” This, of course, is what makes it so good.
Trusewicz and site creator/writer Jesse go for the same faux-seriousness in their website: whenever anyone expresses amusement at Scary HQ, “we’re quick to shoot them down and make sure that they know that it’s the most terrifying thing that they’ve ever seen,” he explains. He walks a similar line while making his images, which he constructs on a program called Poser 9. Because the software is old, he had to install it on an old laptop, without any of the amenities he uses in his day job as a photo retoucher. “I just do it on my bed and use a tracking pad, which is really arduous,” he says. “I’m torturing myself while creating these terrifying images.”
Scary HQ considers skeletons “the ultimate monster,” and not just because they are easy to direct with CGI posing software. “Personally I think it’s kind of hilarious because they’re just bones,” Trusewicz says. “And really, what can bones do to you?”