The Mushroom Kingdom is not only a paradise of unique and unknown species for ecologists and biologists to puzzle over, it is also home to what we in the soft sciences have termed “parazoological lifeforms.” While the existence of such lifeforms in our own kingdoms are mere speculation, visiting ecologists have long marveled at the undead remnants of living creatures found in the Mushroom Kingdom. While several varieties of undead manifestation exist, the two most common classifications are the dry bones and the boo.
The word “skeleton” comes from the Greek skeletos, meaning “dried body” or “mummy.” This etymological connection between skeletons and mummies may have its roots in the origin of the Egyptian mummy. Prior to the Egyptians adopting man-made mummification as part of their burial rites, dead bodies were simply buried in shallow graves. The dry desert heat and air would dehydrate these corpses, leading to natural mummification. This natural mummification process left behind an extremely dry corpse with visable skeleton, and it would have a profound impact on the spiritual beliefs, as well as the society and everyday life, of ancient Egypt.
Over time, the ancient Egyptians came to define the human soul as existing in five parts, all separate from the body. The reason to preserve the body through mummification was to provide a space for the souls to return one day. Without the souls, a mummy was just a dry bag of bones without animation. The idea of a stalking, animate mummy came centuries later with the Western imagination desperate for monsters. The animate mummy now represented the pre-colonial past, animated by the language and superstition the “enlightened” colonizers had undermined or ignored, and returned to punish those that had defiled its land. The monster was awoken by Hollywood archaeologists, scientists, rogues or vaudevillians who violated the past for their own gain, and it couldn’t be stopped by conventional means. Even then, the animate mummy from these movies was mindless and soulless, a body without true awareness or purpose.
This idea that the body was without awareness after death was not universally shared. Medieval art is filled with images of skeletons capable of passion, rage, joy and other emotions. These expressive skeletons were not usually meant to be joyful to the viewer, but rather to horrify and shock them. Death was not an escape from earthly passions, if anything it would only make things worse. With the divine soul gone, all that remained was violence and depravity. This is mirrored in some ways by the use of skeletons in Japanese folklore, where skeletons and spirits are consumed with an unending hunger for something they either over-consumed or under-consumed in life. Bodies dying of starvation may come back as giant gashadokuro skeletons with endless hunger. Those who died with anger and revenge in their heart may come back as piles of mekurabe skulls and torment their killers with undead staring contests. Whether Christian or Buddhist skeletons, their animation and passion did not mean they possessed a soul, but rather that the earthly body, rather than the divine soul, is the receptacle of earthly passions.
One of the first appearances of skeletons as a representation of death in the Western canon appears in Ezekiel 37:1-14, The Valley of the Dry Bones. Dry Bones, the common name for the animated skeletons of dead koopas, may in fact be a reference to this passage. Dry Bones appear in two varieties, that of the quadruped Terrapene fungus and the upright Pseudeskelone peripatea . Animated Terrapene skeletons behave much like the did in life, animalistic and seemingly mindlessly wandering across the land. The upright dry bones are much more animated. They cackle and laugh when amused, they use bone tools, they respond to those around them, they play games and even drive cars with a competitive spirit. Does this mean that they house the souls of their former lives or is it merely the earthly passions of the body? Dry Bones do appear more active and excitable than living koopas, perhaps indicating that without the divine koopa soul to limit them, the body gives itself over to passions that were otherwise repressed. On the other hand, koopa lives tend to be both strictly regimented and violently short. A koopa can look forward to little more than a tyrannical leader conscripting them into military service, and then death at the feet of a Mario. If their soul remains, it may find that its now nigh-invulnerable dry bones form gives it an opportunity to express emotions and passions forbidden to them in life.
Does the dry bones possess a soul? We may never truly know the answer, and can only speculate. A single piece of evidence that they do not possess a soul exists in when these creatures first appeared. The first recorded sight of a dry bones was by the Japanese in the October of 1988 (it was not described in US games or literature until 1990), a full three years after the first Toadstool-Koopa War of 1985. One of the results of this war was the mass death of hundreds, if not thousands, or Terrapene koopa troopas by Marios. If these first dry bones were the animated skeletons of those troopas killed by Marios in the first war, they may have risen with a specific calling for revenge against their killers, like the mekurabe of Japanese literature. These dry bones would then be soulless, and those who were more evolved upright koopas killed by Mario would retain the earthly passions and emotions. Of course, this is entirely circumstantial. The field of parazoology is entirely made up, and thus has not begun defining its methodology. Without proper tools we currently cannot penetrate further into this biological mystery.
We can, however, turn to anthropology to at least learn how Koopa society considers this question. Archaeological evidence of early Koopa civilizations is scant, but evidence indicates that the earliest upright Koopa settlements were built in deserts. This can be seen in the discovery and investigation of such sites as the Pyramids of World 2 (Super Mario Bros. 3, 1988) and the ruins of the Dry Dry Desert (Paper Mario, 2000). This was further corroborated by the discovery of three new sites in World 2; the Yoshi Sphinx, Sandshifter Ruins and Drybake Stadium (Paper Mario: Sticker Star, 2012). The discovery of mummified pokeys (Carnegiea ambulus) and dry bones at these sites indicates that mummification was part of the ancient Koopa civilization’s burial rites. The discovery of the animated, extremely well preserved remains of King Tutankoopa in particular shows that the bodies of higher ranking koopas were preserved much better than those of simple troopas. It is easy to see how ancient Koopa society mirrored that of ancient Egypt, where the natural process of mummification led to a societal belief that the soul and body were separate. Koopa society today is highly stratified, with a regimented caste system divided by genus. This system may have its roots in this ancient Koopa civilization as well, where the difference in how different species were mummified became the basis and justification for the modern hierarchy of Koopa society. Bringing this back to the original question, we can see how Koopa theology holds that the undead forms are animated by the returned souls of their past lives, not simply by earthly passions.
The second, and more common, form of undead in the Mushroom Kingdom is known as the “boo.” Boos are non-terminal repeating phantasms, and may also be considered a class 5 full roaming vapor. Like dry bones they express the full gamut of emotions, hungers and passions. If koopas come back as dry bones, then what are the boos the phantasms of? They could be the ghosts of koopas who died a different way, but they first appeared at the exact same time as the dry bones and with the exact same need to avenge themselves upon any Mario in sight. In fact, their anger at Mario seems more pronounced than that of the dry bones. Boos will stalk a Mario unless they make direct eye contact with the phantasm. When starred in the face, the creature will halt movement, cover itself in shame, and become slightly intangible. They will remain in this position until their target turns around. Their rage and fear at the Marios is significantly more pronounced than that of the dry bones, which would indicate they had experienced a great deal more violence at the feet of these predators than the koopas did. If there is any species that has reason to hate and fear a Mario more than the common koopa, it would be the goomba.
The goomba is an ambulatory fungus, and as such it does not have a skeleton. Human and koopa concepts of the body and soul being separate entities may have emerged from how their animal bodies exist and deteriorate after death, but goombas do not have the same experience. When a goomba dies, the body collapses and flattens, quickly deteriorating into the soil. When a goomba dies, nothing is left behind for long, either body or soul. What kind of undead would such a creature leave behind if it died full of rage and anger? Why, a class 5 vapor, of course. The face of a boo betrays its fungal ancestry. The boo’s face is nothing but an exaggerated and horrific goomba visage. The eyes have become beadier, the prominent eyebrows sharper, the large teeth sharper and pronounced at both the top and bottom of their jaw, and the two nubby feet of the goomba the nubby “arms” of the boo.
This does not mean that the boo is the divine spirit of the goomba given form, but that the earthly passions left behind take a different form. Perhaps this mirrors the Voodoun concept of the soul, which is composed of two parts. The gros bon ange or “big good angel” is a piece of the shared universal human soul. It enters the body, animates it, and hopefully returns to the universal soul upon the body’s death. The other half of the human soul is the ti bon ange, or “little good angel” and is unique to each person. This part of the soul contains all of one’s individual personality, moral conscience, experiences, reactions, drives and emotions. The ti bon ange is not trapped to the body, as it leaves every night to experience dreams. Upon a person’s death, the two parts of the soul leave the body, and where they go depends on how the family of the dead take care of them. Giving the dead honor and respect insures that the ti bon ange stays in the grave until it is ready to go to the realm of the dead. Failure to do this means the ti bon ange will leave the grave and can cause great misfortune to the living. If the parabiology of the goomba resembles the Voodoun concept of death and the soul, then the boo may be the lingering ti bon ange of the goomba, warped by its rage at an unjust death far from its family and home. A Voodoun sorcerer or bokon, can also use magic to capture and enslave a ti bon ange, particularly those who have died at sea or in far away lands. The Koopa have their own tradition of sorcery and magic, and the boos may have been created by the magikoopa caste as a way of ensuring their foot-soldiers could be reused by the Koopa Kingdom even after their death at the front lines. In either case, the boos tend to congregate in groups that roam a specific building or stretch of land that may have no connection to the location of their death. Goombas rarely inhabit these locations, and when forced to by Koopa military directions, they tend to wear masks made of skulls or pumpkins. This superstitious activity may indicate that goombas feel a need to hide and distance themselves from boos, which would make sense if they believe boos to be the spirits of fallen goombas given improper burial or enslaved by their economic and military superiors.
Sadly, as the entire field of parabiology is largely made-up, we may never learn the truth.