The Ice Mummy Apocalypse of Game of Thrones
The unknown is always cited as the root of all our greatest fears, and there is a great truth to that assertion. Body horror, the fear of death, the uncanny, the occult, all our deepest phobias and uncomfortable darkness can all be traced back to the sufferer’s ignorance. What we are truly scared of is based on our relationship with inaccessible knowledge, and to recognize that limit is to stand on the border of fear. Knowledge that rests beyond that border is terrifying in its own right, as it is, by definition, unknowable, and that’s why HBO’s Game of Thrones can access some of the deepest levels of horror.
While Game of Thrones is essentially an ongoing sequence of horrific events, it would be a stretch to describe the TV show as of the horror genre. In Westeros and its surrounding continents dads kill their daughters, about 50 percent of the male population ends up with mutilated genitals at an early age and don’t even get me started on the sexual politics. In short, Game of Thrones is horrific, but not technically horror. That is, except for the mummy apocalypse that serves as the show’s most interesting plot arc. I'm writing, of course, about the march of the White Walkers.
To invoke the undead as an antagonistic force in any kind of narrative is to bring horror into your story. If the greatest fear is fear of the unknown, and if it is impossible to know what lies after life, a creature that is born out of death becomes a symbol of inaccessible knowledge. When the undead are human, there is an additional element of the uncanny at play too. If you mother dies and comes back as a zombie, she’s not your mother anymore despite having the same face and vacant bloodthirsty eyes she had in life.
In fantasy settings, like the one used in Game of Thrones, the fear of the unknown can be counteracted by the existence of magic and the ability for humans to know occulted knowledge from beyond this mortal coil. A major ingredient in much of fantasy is breaking down the real life boundaries of unknown limitations and finding space for creativity. For a character to know the unknown is heroic in that it satiates your craving to be told that order can be found in what we normally see as chaos. It’s why wizards always command the elements. Humans innately see the weather and climate as that which cannot be controlled, and yet we are ruled by them none the less. The same goes for death.
Narratively, undeath often functions as a climatological force. In a zombie apocalypse the unknown elements are, more often than not, plague-ish in nature. A non-human vector, invisible to the naked eye, reanimates corpses. Because we live in an era where viruses are understood, however, modern zombie horror seems to lean much more on the bad things humans do rather than the terror of becoming a zombie. Shows like The Walking Dead half-betray their horror label in this way by presenting a safer, more knowable undead horde. This is why it’s so popular to fantasize about zombie survival plans - we know the fuck out of zombies by now to the point where they have lost some of their edge.
The White Walkers and their minions, however, retain that ultimate fear of unknowing by fitting into the tradition of mummy horror: they gain their power to inspire terror through the holding of forbidden, un-human knowledge.
The tradition of the mummy is one that preys on human curiosity.The old tale goes that some white guy, motivated by treasure and secrets, goes into an ancient tomb of a long dead ruler who’s undergone some kind of unfamiliar or novel preservation process. The orientalist lacks the understanding involved in the forces that govern life and death and his ignorance causes a mummy to awaken and wreak havoc in the modern era using long forgotten knowledge.
The dead on Game of Thrones are reanimated by an arcane knowledge of this nature, one that has been lost to humanity and is only known by blue eyed ice mummies. They never speak and remain synonymous with the weather. When characters spout the series catchphrase, “Winter is coming,” it’s a euphemism for ice mummies. “Ice mummies are coming,” they might as well say, “and they, like the weather, are incomprehensible and indifferent to us.”
In the third last episode of the most recent season of Game of Thrones, titled “Hardhome”, the ice mummies lay siege to a city of Wildlings (a stand-in for the Scottish in the show’s allegorical war of the Roses). Their presence is heralded by a massive and deadly blizzard, and an undead mass proceeds to lay waste to the horrified populace. All the while, as hordes of reanimated bodies gnaw and claw their way through the last warm material in the North, silhouettes stand atop a nearby cliff watching and knowing.
These are the ice mummies, all powerful and filled with lost secrets. They stand in defiance of all that you once took for granted. Death is death only for you, and something you can’t possibly understand is wielding it like a conductor can shape sound from a hundred instruments into an orchestra. It’s the difference between something beautiful and terrifying; order can only be made from chaos if it fits our narrow parameters of the comprehensible.
As the last remaining lives retreat from Hardhome using a small boat, a White Walker viewers have identified as their leader makes eye contact with Jon Snow, the hero of the day. It raises its arms. Nothing is said during the silent stare as a thousand of fresh corpses come to their feet and face in the direction of the living. The undead don’t need words because their existence stands in defiance of our very nature. The mummy apocalypse, like winter itself, is nuanced, ancient and un-human. It is coming to Game of Thrones, let’s hope it never comes for us.