The Living Dead
In every almost every mythology there exists an avatar for death. Whether personified as the Grim Reaper or Hades, theme of mortality permeates all human consciousness as a necessary part of life. Language denotes a symbolism of death in synonyms such as passing, departure, and laid to rest. However, there often exists an in-between state that explores the ambiguities of mortality where humanity’s fear of the unknown can manifest itself. They can go by many names: the undead, ghouls, specters, and zombies, to name a few. These creatures existing somewhere between life and death, are often connected to another state of being, whether an afterlife or something worse. In this essay we will briefly analyze the meaning of one such story and how it has changed in the annexation into the American culture and the implications of this change. This is the story of the zombie.
The “zombie” originates from Haitian Vodou where it was believed that a bokor, a sorcerer, could trap a person’s soul and turn them into a mindless slave. The bokor’s victim would fall into a coma-like state for days, and be buried under the assumption of death, after which the bokor would retrieve the “corpse” shortly before it reanimated (Wilson). At least one man claimed to have been the victim of a bokor’s “zombie powder” sparking scientific interest in the possible medical mystery, but no conclusive evidence in zombie rites was found (Wilson). The folklore of the zombie was transported to America by authors such as Zora Neale Hurston where it became entangled with other imaginary practices of “voodoo” such as voodoo dolls (Gallaher). America quickly became fascinated, or terrified, by the idea of zombies.
Zombies have since lost most of their connection with their magical origin. They no longer work on plantations at the command of their master but instead hold an insatiable appetite for human flesh (Brooks, 18). The rites of zombification are no longer administered by a mystic, but are instead forced upon a victim through contact and infection, through virus, radiation, or chemicals (Wilson). The infection “is 100 percent communicable and 100 percent fatal” and it only takes one individual zombie to begin an outbreak (Brooks, 3). Films such as Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later have cemented the zombie as an object of terror and fascination.
The horror of hordes of undead is nothing new or exclusive to American society. Other popular monsters, including vampires, werewolves, and mummies, all share similarities to the current manifestation of the zombie and analogues to these creatures can be found worldwide. The epic poem Gilgamesh makes mention of zombie-like creatures:
“Ishtar said, ‘Please, Father, I beg you,
give me the Bull of Heaven, just
for a little while. I want to bring it
to the earth, I want it to kill that liar
Gilgamesh and destroy his palace.
If you say no, I will smash the gates
of the underworld, and a million famished
Ghouls will ascend to devour the living,
And the living will be outnumbered by the dead.’” (Mitchell, 136)
The apocalyptic scenario presented here follows the same plot present is most zombie stories with humanity suddenly facing the grim reality that for the first time in ages, they are prey. Often, survivors find that they themselves are a greater threat to their survival than the slow moving zombies as stress and hysteria set in and cohesiveness disintegrates.
In this telling of the zombie story, the zombie no longer represents a supernatural threat, such as vengeful gods or powerful sorcery. The agents that transform them are now the same terrors that we must face: mysterious pathogens, radiation, chemical mutagens, all transmitted by people we used to love and trust. The zombie can represent cultural apprehension and ethical dilemmas in the same way as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which has also enjoyed success in the mythologies of film (Cole). The zombie shows us the incompetence of our governments; heighten the discord of our society, and the inevitable collapse and consumption of the things we love (Cole). The undead terrify us because they are us, transformed into something we scarcely recognize, devoid of humanity (Brooks, 15). Zombies make us face the things we fear most.
A zombie apocalypse is the ultimate disaster. Although it is likely, and hopefully, a completely fictitious possibility, that has not prevented organizations from utilizing the ghoul as a tool for activism. The Zombie Squad, an emergency preparedness advocacy group, utilizes the metaphor of undead hordes to promote emergency preparations, stating,
“Zombie Squad realizes that it is quite possible for someone to live their entire lives without encountering the undead nuisance. However, we hold fast to the belief that if you are prepared for a scenario where the walking corpses of your family and neighbors are trying to eat you alive, you will be prepared for almost anything.” (Zombie Squad)
In addition to the Zombie Squad and survival guides, the zombie horde has become a parade of sorts, with participants being “bitten” by a growing zombie mob, converging on a location, and then dispersing (San Francisco Zombie Mob). Occasionally these events take place to draw attention to a public event, such as a mayoral debate (San Francisco Zombie Mob).
For as long as any cultural malaise exists, we are likely to only see an increase of the undead in our lives ― hopefully only as a hypothetical.
Wilson, Tracy V. . "How Zombies Work." Howstuffworks. 11 Dec 2007
Gallaher, Tim. "Zora Neale Hurston." 1996. 11 Dec 2007
Brooks, Max. The Zombie Survival Guide. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 2003.
Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh. New York, NY: Free Press, 2004.
Cole, Liz. "Zombies." GreenCine. 2005. 11 Dec 2007
Zombie Squad. Zombie Squad. 11 Dec 2007
"San Francisco Zombie Mob." San Francisco Zombie Mob. 30 Oct 2007. 11 Dec 2007
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