Monster of the Week: The Tall Man ('Phantasm')

The Tall Man... image via

At first glance, the Tall Man might not seem all that monstrous at all. After all, he's just an unnaturally tall mortician with a penchant for processing human corpses into undead slave labor.

Live and let live, right?

But the Tall Man -- or at least the entity that assumed the guise of Jebediah Morningside -- is quite extraterrestrial and inhuman in origin. Think of him as the royal center of an undead colony or hive.

The Spheres

First let's consider those flying silver spheres of death.

(image via

The Tall Man processes the brains of the dead to power these spherical sentries and protect his operations from meddling outsiders.

You can think of these as a defensive soldier class, not unlike the clonal soldier-morph larvae produced by certain parasitic wasps (such as Copidosoma floridanum). These larvae do not molt into adults. They don't feed. But they do possess strong mandibles, which they use to kill competitor larvae as they patrol the host.*

And so the silver spheres of the Tall Man patrol his mausoleums, serving no purpose but to defend a parasitic colony -- and human civilization is its host.

The Dwarves

But if the spheres are the Tall Man's soldier morphs, then the dwarves (or lurkers) are his worker caste.

These cloaked monstrosities constitute the majority of the hive and slave away both on Earth and on a mysterious high-gravity planet connected to ours by space-bending portal. This is key to the dwarves' manufacture, as the Tall Man crunches down human corpses into a compact form more suited for high-gravity labor.**

The Gravers

Finally, the Tall Man employs a third caste: gravers. These undead beings retain their normal human size and wear gasmasks to hide their rotten features and avoid undue attention. Their purpose is essentially reproductive -- perhaps making them akin to a drone -- as they exhume corpses and transform each into spheres, dwarves and/or gravers.

And so the cycle of un-life continues...

* Soldier larvae morphs are also found in certain aphids.

** As an aside, I should mention that spiders of the Uloboridae family also compress their prey, using an estimated 80 metres of silk to cocoon them into a more compact bundle. In fact, the cocoon is so compact that the prey's legs break and eyes buckle inward. Biologist William Eberhard believes this compression makes it easier for the spider to cover its prey in vomited digestive juices

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.