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A Gjenganger could have several reasons to return from the afterlife. Murdered people could seldom sleep peacefully in their graves. The same went for their murderers. People who had committed suicide often came back as Gjengangere, because Christian tradition held that "self-killers" were fit neither for heaven nor hell. At other times, people came back from the grave because they had left something undone. Most often they needed someone to help them do this, before they could finally be at peace.
The biggest difference between modern ghosts and the Gjenganger is that the Gjenganger in the Scandinavian tradition took on an entirely corporeal form. It normally had no spectre-like qualities whatsoever. In older traditions the Gjenganger was also very malicious and violent in nature, coming back from the grave to torment its family and friends. In the way they acted, and in the extensive precautions their relatives took to make sure they stayed in their graves, Gjengangere are more akin to eastern-European vampires than modern-day ghosts.
This tradition of the violent Gjenganger goes back to the Viking age, where they are present in many of the Icelandic sagas, among others: Grettis saga, Eyrbyggja saga and The Saga of Eric the Red. In this tradition, the Gjenganger was a mortal creature. An example of this is Grettir slaying the Gjenganger Glámr with his sword. These Viking-age Gjengangere were often known as Draugr and the two beings may be variations of one another.
In slightly newer tradition, the Gjenganger remains a violent entity, though in a less direct way, now becoming more of a disease-spreader. These Gjengangere would attack people with their so-called dødningeknip (dead man's pinch). This would result in the living persons skin becoming sunken and blue where the Gjenganger had pinched them, and this often led to disease and death for the afflicted person. The pinch was often administered when the person was asleep. Both the huldrefolk and nøkken were also accused of doing the same, using bites instead of pinches, often aimed at the victims face. This belief in beings attacking people in their sleep was used as a warning against going to sleep in specific places (near the graveyard, mountains or water respectively).
In later Swedish folklore, a distinction is made between the traditional Gjenganger and another type of ghost known as gast. Whereas the Gjenganger looked virtually identical to a living human, the gast was known to be transparent and/or skeletal in appearance, sometimes it also had sharp fangs and claws, thus making it impossible to see who the phantom had been while alive. And whereas the Swedish version of the Gjenganger (unlike its counterparts in other Scandinavian countries) were usually said to be rather harmless, it was the gast who was known to cause diseases. They were also known to cause accidents and scare people for no apparent reason other than that they enjoyed doing so.