The Undead Curse

The Undead Curse

The Undead Curse: one of the most enduring mysteries in the Dark Souls universe. Even long after the end of the trilogy, we’re still struggling to figure out where it came from and exactly how it functions. If you think about it, that’s pretty amazing in the internet age, where our ability to pool our observations and insights has cracked key plot points in works like “A Song of Ice and Fire” and Westworld long before they were revealed. But this is more than a mere plot problem: the Curse exists at the convergence of theme, character, worldbuilding, and plot in the Dark Souls series, making it far more subtle than any of these other stories.

A zombie with glowing red eyes, wearing the tattered remains of a medieval soldier's armor, stands amid stone ruins.
“The fate of the cursed,” as the old woman from Dark Souls 2’s opening cutscene might say.

Nevertheless, I intend to take a pretty good crack at explaining it today. Or rather, I took a pretty good crack at explaining it years ago, and have finally gotten around to polishing it up: this is essentially a revision and repost of an essay I first put up on reddit a few years back. Now, given the work others (primarily Lokey, JSF, and SinclairLore) have done in that time, I don’t think this is nearly as revolutionary as it was back then, but even VaatiVidya’s and Lokey’s more recent work doesn’t seem to have quite made it here yet.

The first thing I need to acknowledge right away is that this is by no means derived from my own observations alone. Quite the contrary, I’ve pieced it together not so much from the games themselves as a few disparate lines of thought tentatively explored by folks like Hawkshaw, Vaatividya, and Candidate. Really, my main contribution here is noticing subtle connections between a handful of obscure item descriptions and snippets of dialogue.

A couple caveats: first, any flaws in the theory, whether due to unsound reasoning or faulty interpretation of the lore, are mine and mine alone. If this thing turns out to be bogus, don’t blame anyone else. Second, this assumes a pretty deep familiarity with the lore of the Dark Souls universe, so if you haven’t taken the plunge into the lore community or even heard much about Dark Souls in the first place, you might want to give this a pass. It won’t make much sense without a frankly ludicrous amount of context.

With that out of the way, let’s get into it.

What We Believed

We—i.e. the Dark Souls community in the broadest sense—have always had this tacit assumption that hollowing happens when your Humanity is taken from you. Further, we assumed that the Darksign causes this to happen, since it brands the undead and distinguishes them from all other beings. Intuitively, that makes perfect sense, but it actually doesn’t fit with any evidence in the first two games, as far as I can tell. In Dark Souls 1, possessing Humanity does nothing to help you reverse hollowing. Only by sacrificing it to the bonfires can you restore your human state. Further, manually activating the Darksign causes you to lose all held souls and “liquid” Humanity, but doesn’t result in hollowing. Neither does it leave behind a bloodstain you can return to to retrieve these lost resources. The same holds true in Dark Souls 2, sans the bonfire sacrifice mechanic.

Shapes like pitch-black ghosts, outlined in a white corona and with white pinpricks for "eyes," hover in darkness.
Humanity Phantoms, larger versions of the Humanity Sprites which give the series its name.

This establishes that up through the end of Dark Souls 2, we had no real reason to assume that hollowing is the same as losing your Humanity, and every reason to believe that the Darksign doesn’t actually cause hollowing. There are just no overt causal links here until we get to Dark Souls 3.

Only in that game do we get confirmation that losing Humanity is part of the hollowing process, but even then, not in the way we thought. The description of the Dark Sigil reads, “The darkness of humanity seeps from this bottomless pitch-back hole, the gap filled by the accumulation of the curse.” So, the loss of Humanity makes room for the Curse. This is the first time we’ve heard the Curse described as a substance which can enter (or, at least, be made manifest) in the body, and that’s a key point, as we’ll see momentarily.

Now, another assumption within many Dark Souls lore videos is that the Curse was inflicted on humans by the gods, hollowing effect and all, in order to force them to feed the bonfires and continually link the Fire. Thus, we reason, finding a way to cure the Curse without perpetuating the Fire-Dark cycle would seem to be our ultimate goal…right? Except, at the beginning of Dark Souls 3, our character doesn’t hollow. If the Curse causes hollowing, and hollowing is the main reason we want to cure it, then why don’t we hollow in Dark Souls 3? Furthermore, Aldia, Vendrick, and Yuria seem convinced that we must embrace the Curse if we ever want to escape both undeath and the firelinking cycle.

Why We’re Wrong

A knight lies on his back, propped up on one elbow, facing a bizarre creature seemingly made of wood and surrounded by fire.
Aldia, Scholar of the First Sin, who “sought to shed the yoke of fate, but failed”…

Could it be true, then, that there’s more at work here than we suspected? Vendrick, Aldia, and Yuria all tell us that Hollows are the true “face” or “shape” of mankind. That seems to imply that the Darksign alone, while clearly a creation of the gods, has only a tangential relationship to the hollowing process. Indeed, if anything, the Darksign seems to suppress hollowing, keeping us from assuming our “true shape.”

Wait, what? The gods didn’t actually want us to hollow, and the Darksign is really intended to suppress hollowing? What the hell is going on here!?

A woman robed all in black, with a helmet and visor completely covering her head, stands in a corner of a cave. A Japanese-style sword hangs from her hip.
…and Yuria of Londor who, after countless cycles and thousands upon thousands of years, finally succeeded.

This is where things get interesting, because there’s a link between the Curse, the Abyss, and the Pus of Man in the third game whose full significance has, heretofore, gone unnoticed. It’s a tenuous link, to be sure, but I think it ultimately holds:

  • The Corrupt Pygmy Lord we encounter in the Ringed City says, upon death, “May the Abyss’s curse take the gods.” This is huge, because it tells us that the Abyss either has been cursed, or else can be viewed as a curse in and of itself. I tend toward the latter interpretation, as it jives eerily well with Vendrick’s dialogue in the second game.
  • The Follower Torch from the Ashes of Ariandel DLC tells us: “Some forms of the Abyss manifest as pus within the body, treated from ancient times with fire.” This is another revelation: not only does it appear the Abyss can physically manifest in the body, but that such manifestations take different forms, and this “affliction” is common enough to have an age-old treatment.
  • The Pus of Man enemies show that this Abyssal pus can and does build up in (primarily) Hollows, giving full expression to the strengthening Dark. This gels with the description of the Cleric Set, designed to prevent wearers from becoming “seedbeds of spreading darkness.”

Now, think back to the Dark Sigil: “The darkness of humanity seeps from this bottomless pitch-back hole, the gap filled by the accumulation of the curse.” Let’s make an educated guess and assume that the “curse” referred to here is the Undead Curse. Let’s also assume that the “Abyss’s curse” and the Undead Curse are ultimately one and the same.

If these assumptions hold1And I think they’re the only way to make sense of the distinction between the Darksign and Dark Sigils., they represent a revolution in our understanding of the most important part of Dark Souls lore. It unequivocally shows that hollowing represents not a loss of our Humanity per se, but the taking into our bodies and souls of a truer, deeper darkness: the Abyss itself. Furthermore, this very condition gives Hollows the potential to usurp the First Flame, the source of Gwyn’s power and the foundation of his kingdom. Viewed in this light, the Curse is no curse at all, and Hollows do (in a very real sense) represent the “most honest shape of man.” A shape that petrified Gwyn.

A twisted creature composed of some oily black substance with the occasional horn or bone sticking out of it, as well as red eyes, stands amid medieval-style ruins.
The Pus of Man, a fearsome example of what happens when the Dark runs wild.

Suddenly, the advice we keep getting to embrace it makes a hell of a lot more sense.

Before moving on, though, we must admit that this leaves us with some pretty unsettling truths. It means that we should embrace, not fear, turning into a mentally broken walking corpse. That’s…unsettling, both on a visceral level and a thematic one; the despair in Vendrick’s voice when he asks, “Only…is this our only choice?” is deeply moving when we see things from this vantage point. Is this sorry fate truly the only path forward?

Well, yes—and no. It may be the only path forward, but it may also lead somewhere very different than Vendrick feared, in the end. To explain, I’ll need to weave a new tale for you: the true story, at long last, of the Dark Souls universe.

The Truth(?)

When Aldia and King Vendrick peered “straight into the essence of the soul,” what did they see? Agdayne tells us that “Once, humans were one with the Dark,” implying that our fundamental nature was very different long ago. Aldia says the same thing: “Once, the Lord of Light banished the Dark, and all that stemmed from Humanity. And men assumed a fleeting form.” I believe that the Darksign is far more than a simple magical brand or shackle: just as the Abyss can manifest in the human body, so too is this seal of Fire a literal manifestation of the First Flame in the human body and soul. What else could keep the Abyss from rising within us but its diametric opposite, and what else could transform humanity at so fundamental a level?

A tall figure in elaborate armor and a cowl holds a flaming sword over its right shoulder. In the center of its chest is a pitch-black hole surrounded by a seal of fire.
A Ringed Knight. Among the earliest humans shackled by Gwyn.

Now, this mutation had immense repercussions. As long as the First Flame remains ascendant, humanity cannot harness the true power of the Dark. As we learn in the Ringed City, the arms and armor of early men were forged in the Abyss, but now, merely setting foot there can spell death for us. Indeed, Gwyn’s meddling may be the reason humans in Dark Souls even look like something other than walking corpses: this fairer appearance could be the direct result the seal of fire, a side-effect of the fundamental change in our nature. Now we are not only closer to the gods in nature, but in appearance as well—but only while the First Flame remains strong, and then only until we aged and died.

“Fleeting form” indeed.

Regardless, this is certain: Gwyn hoped that by placing this seal upon humanity and altering the “logic of the world,” true Dark would be locked away forever, and no Dark Lord could ever rise against him. That’s why the Curse only appears when the Fire begins to fade, and that’s why sacrificing ourselves to link the Fire banishes it for a time. It’s also why glutting yourself on the souls of all these powerful beings gives you great strength, but ultimately does nothing to lessen the Curse’s hold over you.

Alas, when the Fire began to fade and the first undead to appear within Lordran, Gwyn would have perceived the terrible flaw in his designs, and once again “trembled at the Dark.” His only option if he hoped to salvage his plan was to revitalize the First Flame, and the only way to revive a fire is to feed it new fuel…in this case, the mightiest soul in creation. His soul.

Yet, he would have also known that this solution was temporary: if the Flames could fade once, they’d do so again, and so he needed a way to ensure a steady stream of sacrifices. Seeing the undeads’ pseudo-immortality, he conceived the prophecy of the Chosen Undead, destined to “succeed” him. They alone stood the best chance of surviving enough adversity, gathering the power necessary to fuel the First Flame, and then actually reaching it. He likely enlisted the help of Nito in devising the bonfires2Nito, after all, possessed the Rite of Kindling (or did, until Pinwheel stole it), and all this plan requires of him is to continue spreading death. The more an undead dies, the more Humanity it has to feed to the bonfires, after all. , fueled by the bones and Humanity of the undead, serving as tributaries to the First Flame itself, thus linking it irrevocably to humanity.

Worst of all, he commanded his children and his trusted councilor, the primordial serpent Frampt, to spread lies about hollowing and the Dark throughout human society. Having caused humans to fear the Undead Curse and hate those afflicted by it, Gwyn and his immediate successor Allfather Lloyd3Thanks to Lokey, we know that “Allfather” here is something of a mistranslation. “Allfather” is just a term that refers to whoever is king of the gods at any given time. Thus, when Gwyn was king, he would have held the title “Allfather,” just as Lloyd did after him., founder of the Way of White and a famed hunter of the undead, used this false mythology to “shepherd the humans,” all but ensuring the eventual rise of an undead who could fulfill the “prophecy.”

A shriveled, corpse-like creature draped in mangy white hair cowers in the grass.
The Corrupt Pygmy Lord. There’s a damn good reason why he despises the gods so much.

The genius and subtle cruelty of this scheme is astounding, and it is this plan that Aldia and Vendrick eventually uncovered as Drangleic bent under the weight of the Undead Curse. Because most Hollows appear to go mad (though not all of them, as Londor has taught us), and because of the now-malignant nature of the Abyss, humans would have had every reason to believe in these legends. Worse, those legends are built on Gwyn’s own treachery, which sundered humanity from the Dark and made the Abyss so deadly to us in the first place!

This interpretation of the lore can explain so much, most of all why the Age of Dark never seems to last, why choosing the Dark Lord ending in the first game doesn’t matter. If the First Flame is irrevocably linked to humanity, and all of Gwyn’s lies woven into the foundational mythologies of human society, what chance would a Dark Lord have of maintaining power? The First Flame can never fade entirely as long as humans work to sustain the bonfires, and few would willingly embrace going hollow as an alternative. The only way a true Age of Dark can come about now would be if—just to pull a random example out of the air—a firekeeper armed with eyes that have seen the end of Fire, smothers the last remnants of the First Flame.

And yet, even if we choose that ending in Dark Souls 3, we’re told, “One day, tiny flames will dance across the darkness, like embers linked by lords past.” Why? Isn’t this exactly what Kaathe wanted in Dark Souls 1, a true Age of Men? And if it is, why didn’t he mention something about new flames arising in some far-flung future?

Here’s the problem: the Age of Fire was built on the fundamental principle that Fire holds the mastery and Dark is subordinate, pushed aside, tamped down. Would it really be so different if humanity or the pygmies took over? In Dark Souls 3, we see that the answer is likely “no.” Londor, an entire civilization of Hollows who have somehow managed to remain lucid despite their loss of self, hardly sounds like a paradise for humanity. We hear of the “suffering and conflict of Hollows4Ref: Dark Blade spell description,” of exiles fooled into carrying the despicable Atonement spell, and, most disturbingly, of a magical tome which “offers salvation to all Hollows, and conversely curses all things living.”5Ref: Londor Braille Divine Tome.

A giant serpent with almost comically over-sized human teeth looms large in the center of the frame.
Darkstalker Kaathe, whose plans finally come to fruition in the Lord of Hollows.

That sounds an awful lot like what Gwyn did, just in reverse, and this the deeper problem at the heart of the Dark Souls universe: simply put, everyone views Fire and Dark as locked in a zero-sum conflict where the ascendancy of one means suppression of the other. But does it really have to be this way? No. As Lokey has revealed, the civilization of Lost Izalith taught humans a very different philosophy: if you have a healthy fear of Fire, yet remain captivated by its great beauty and power, we can teach even you, beings of Dark, to wield it for yourselves. Even more significantly, the Profaned Flame in Dark Souls 3 hints at a synthesis of Dark and Fire which can create an ever-burning fire.

Because Kaathe is behind Yuria’s plan to usurp the fire, we must infer that he either changed his mind as it became clear a Dark Lord could never maintain power, or else his machinations in Dark Souls 1 were simply prelude to the ultimate usurpation of the Fire6Given the self-contained nature of the first game’s story, there’s also reason to think it was originally intended as a standalone title, in which case this could just be an inconsistency born of the attempt to “complete” an already complete narrative.. Whatever the case, it’s clear that the original, sequential vision of “Age of Ancients —> Age of Fire —> Age of Dark” was mistaken…or, at least, not ambitious enough.

No, if we’re to have even a chance of escaping this doomed, oppositional worldview, we need a vision like the one Vendrick and Aldia arrived at. We need a way to “inherit Fire, and harness the Dark,” to reconcile and unite the Abyss and the First Flame—one hell of a tall order, as no being in history has ever mastered these fundamental forces as fully as Gwyn7Seriously, this is the Dark Souls equivalent of studying and literally rewriting the fundamental laws of physics..

Aldia and Vendrick discovered what needed to be done, paving the way for Yuria and the pilgrims to figure out the how. The Dark Sigils are Londor’s invention, and appear almost identical to the Darksign, both visually and narratively, but lacking Gwyn’s seal of fire. This, I believe, sidesteps the seal, and strengthens our connection to the Abyss beyond that of even the most hollow Undead. That, in turn, gives us the power to absorb the First Flame itself8What role the “marriage ceremony” with Anri plays is still somewhat mysterious to me, but it might be that merging with another soul in this perverse fashion, a soul just as steeped in the Abyss as yours, is the only way to gain enough Dark Sigils to successfully usurp the Fire. That’s pure speculation though; it’s a weird scene..

A black shape not altogether unlike a Humanity Phantom hovers in darkness, infused with fire and surrounded by sparks.
An Ember, Humanity Sprites infused with Fire, clearly foreshadowing the unification of Light and Dark in the “Usurpation of Fire” ending.

I can think of no better way to round out the Dark Souls trilogy. Only this leads to something truly new, only this fulfills the promise of Aldia’s haunting words: “There is no path. Beyond the scope of Light, beyond the reach of Dark…what could possibly await us? And yet we seek it, insatiably. Such is our fate.” We are beyond their reach, because we’ve mastered them both. In this form, the Abyss can never be fully consumed by the First Flame, nor the First Flame be entirely snuffed out. Now, having an essentially infinite source of fuel, the First Flame will burn softly and steadily forever. I’d argue that this is what the Hollows of Londor mean when they beg you to “Make Londor whole” at the end of Dark Souls 3: your task as the Lord of Hollows is to alter humanity’s fundamental nature once again, transforming beings of pure Dark shackled by Fire into creatures within whom those two forces are made forever equal and balanced.

The implications of this transformation are staggering, and would require another essay just to begin exploring; if this interpretation is correct, it’s easy to see why Miyazaki called Dark Souls 3 a turning point for its universe, rather than an ending. All I can do for now is provide some resolution to the conundrum Vendrick left us with: “Only…is this our only choice?” Yes, embracing the Curse was our only path forward, but now it’s led us somewhere completely new, to a place where the two fundamental forces of the universe are united within humanity. In this new world we’re ushering in, to be Hollow is to be a vessel not just for souls, but for a portion of the First Flame itself. I think we’ve finally, finally transcended that state, and thus cured the Curse, strangely enough, by embracing it.

That, too, was one of Aldia’s predictions: “Young Hollow, do you wish to shed this curse? Then accept the fate of your ilk, and face the trials that await you.”

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