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June 22, 2005

The Zombie Myth

Yesterday PZ Myers threatened me with an attack by a zombie. Zombies are perhaps the movie monster that I find most compelling. I’ve actually had nightmares about zombies. As a child I was afraid of ghosts, and I am not afraid of zombies in the same way that I was afraid of ghosts, indeed, I am not really that scared of zombies. But the idea does occasionally give me some very weird and unsettling dreams. In addition, I find the idea compelling. I find my self sort of day dreaming about what would happen if the world turned into a Romero movie, not out of fear, but just because it’s sort of fun, really there is no better word for it then compelling. But why is it so compelling?

Horror memes are only successful if they play to some deep seated anxiety in the audience’s psyche. The success of Byron’s Vampire was due to the way it played on Victorian value assigned to a woman’s “virtue” and the prospect of losing it to a rich foreigner, playing on class-ism and nationalism. The foreign Count would sweep the virtuous and unsuspecting British maiden off her feet, into a private area to draw out her blood with his fang.

The older Revenant myths grew up reflecting the fear that people had of isolation from civilization. The Revenant was a spirit that came in and possessed (as in exorcism possessed) people, specifically, people who were far from civilization, not city dwellers. It was primarily a rural myth and the Vampyre/Revenant was a disembodied spirit that only manipulated bodies by possession; it was very different from the Byron version of a Vampire. The idea was that this spirit could come in and possess the body of a dead sinner. The body would then rise and attack the living, possessing the body of those it killed. This reflected the fear that since you were living in such a small community out in the wilderness, you were very much at the mercy of those around you (if they chose to sin). Civilization was far away and if someone went berserk, your whole settlement could be destroyed. You couldn’t count on the constable to come around, because there is no constable. You and maybe two other families are the only people for a couple miles in every direction, and if you’re attacked out there all alone, this spirit could consume everyone. The motif of rising from the dead may have been borrowed from obvious sources and served as an explanation for incorrupt bodies of sinners (incorrupt bodies occur when a natural embalmer is near the grave like lime). In many ways the modern myth of the Zombie is the inverse of the Revenant/Vampyre, adapted for an urban setting.

But before I get into that, let’s talk about what exactly the Zombie myth is. What are the characteristics of the Zombie? First of all, it’s stupid. It cannot talk and cannot reason. It is completely mindless. Second of all, it is infectious. This may or may not be considered separately from the third aspect: there are always a whole lot of them. A whole lot of them. They aren’t always slow. They aren’t always the risen dead. But they are always mindless and there are always lots of them.

So what does that mean? In the Zombie myth, all signs of civilization are turned into markers of doom. All public areas are infested with infected zombified people. You are driven out by them. Abandoned store fronts all hide a horror or a dozen, buildings, parking garages, sewers, all are infested. Your only refuge is to shut them out inside your own domicile, or to flee to the wilderness.

The zombie myth is about our fear of the irrationality in the ocean of people that we all swim in. It is the knowledge that we are surrounded by billions of our fellow humans constantly, and that if they so chose, they could all turn on us as individuals, and no matter what, we could do nothing to stop them (indeed, there are often so many that running out of ammunition would stop you even if you sat on a hill of bullets). The myth reflects this anxiety in the back of our mind that we have when we see how easily the illusion of rationality can slip away, turning us into thoughtless killing machines.

-The Jew

June 22, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

I always thought that zombies ate humans... and basically I think most monster stories are affecting because we fear being something else's food.

Posted by: TJ | Jun 22, 2005 4:26:29 PM

This is about the "movie zombie" myth, which is a relatively minor and harmless phenomenon (after all, nobody believes in these zombies, right?. But in Haiti, where the term originated, is a completely different affair. Not only is the Haitian zombie different, but many people still believes in them and fears the . The "true" zombie is a dead person who is brought back from the dead as a slave by a witch doctor. It's pretty clear how a nation of former slaves could come up with the nightmarish idea of a eternity as a mindless slave.

Posted by: Carlos | Jun 22, 2005 4:56:21 PM

This is about the "movie zombie" myth, which is a relatively minor and harmless phenomenon (after all, nobody believes in these zombies, right?. But in Haiti, where the term originated, is a completely different affair. Not only is the Haitian zombie different, but many people still believes in them and fears the . The "true" zombie is a dead person who is brought back from the dead as a slave by a witch doctor. It's pretty clear how a nation of former slaves could come up with the nightmarish idea of a eternity as a mindless slave.

Posted by: Carlos | Jun 22, 2005 4:56:22 PM

Wait, are these hunting zombies, or are they myopic zombies?

But seriously, have you seen 28 days later? http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0289043/

I very afraid of zombies.

Posted by: theorajones | Jun 22, 2005 5:20:15 PM

Karl the medievalist thinks you might be interested in this. A story I've run across in a few places (Gervase of Tilbury, Geoffrey of Auxerre, Peter the Chanter), but made no particular study of, is this, here drawn from Peter the Chanter's enormously popular twelfth-century Biblical commentary, the Historia Scholastica (trans. my own):

--
“Magi enim mortuos suscitant quibusdam characteribus alligatis sub utraque assella, et loqui eos, et incedere faciunt, sed comedere nequaquam possunt”
[for there are wizards who awaken the dead by means of certain characters tied under each armpit, and they make them walk and speak, but they can never make them eat].

--

So, this is another kind of zombie. If you're interested in such things, I suppose the best place to start might be, not the Wikipedia article, which is, well, just okay, but Jean-Claude Schmitt's (in trans.) Ghosts in the Middle Ages. I dispute the notion that incorrupt bodies might be drawn from observing actual incorrupt bodies just because I don't buy these kind of just-so stories. Rather than looking for that kind of explanation, think of the cultural work that incorruptability does: for this, you could look -- although it's pretty much a specialist work -- at C. W. Bynum's classic The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity: she sees incorruptability as a way to resist what she once called "the ontological scandal of change."

Posted by: Karl the Idiot | Jun 22, 2005 5:21:03 PM

Fuck a duck. Not Peter the Chanter. Ironically enough, Peter the Eater. (or Peter "the Glutton," depending on how you read Comestor, which might, after all, just be a funny Latin transliteration of a French surname that sounded sort of like "Manger.")

Posted by: Karl the Idiot | Jun 22, 2005 5:24:08 PM

The fear of the masses is an interesting theory! Although if zombies are in fact armies of the dead rising back to "life", well, that plays off another anxiety entirely. If it was possible that my grandma or uncle or -- good lord -- cat could come back from the dead and start eating flesh, that whole swirl of emotions surrounding grief and closure would be fairly upended. In very unpleasant ways. (Although, it's true, the fear of being something else's food would probably be first on my mind.) But then again, I don't know if zombies are dead people rising up or living people infected by zombie-hood. Or both.

Actually, scratch the whole undead cat thing. Poor Charlie Brown was pulverized by a Mack truck and probably couldn't do much harm now, even if he did become zombie-fied.

Posted by: Brad Plumer | Jun 22, 2005 6:03:22 PM

If you're in the mood for a romatic zombie horror comedy I highly recommend Shaun of the Dead. Scary and hilarious at the same time. Excellent movie.

Posted by: J.R. | Jun 22, 2005 6:18:56 PM

JR:

Would that be a romzomcom?

Carlos:

I suppose I should have been more specific as to separating the old Voodoo meme from what I am talking about here, but like the old Vampyre myths, when we talk about Vampires today, we are really talking about their reinterpreted 19th century version rather then the “true” vampire myth. Still, excellent analysis of the symbolism of the Voodoo myth.

A couple people:

While I haven’t seen it, I understand Shaun of the Dead rejects 28 days’s interpretation of the Zombie myth. I disagree with Shaun’s makers. I specifically was referring to 28 Days Later when I said that zombies were not always the risen dead. 28 Days Later (which I have seen) really boiled down the myth to its essence, they were not cannibals, they were not dead, they were mindless and it was infectious.

Posted by: TheJew | Jun 22, 2005 6:52:47 PM

may i recommend my own monograph on this very subject, and then ask if you find any illumination in it, to help me get a job writing stuff like this, because as of friday i am unemployed with a family to feed. thank you.

Posted by: r@d@r | Jun 22, 2005 6:55:01 PM

28 Days Later = best zombie movie ever.

Posted by: Dadahead | Jun 22, 2005 7:28:53 PM

Yeah, but the zombie I threatened you with was a long-winded academic who would just hit you with long-winded arguments loaded with high-brow references and many parenthetical digressions. And then he'd eat your brains after you were mercifully unconscious.

Besides, you deserved it.

Posted by: PZ Myers | Jun 22, 2005 9:33:30 PM

Thanks for the praise. I pointed it out because, even though most of the commenters here (and most people in the USA probably) see voodoo (and afroamerican religions in general) as "old myths", the fact is that in the rest of the Americas (especially the Caribbean and Brazil) they are very present, even today. I live in South America and it's very frequent to hear evangelical preachers promise their followers to protect them from witchcraft(macumba, especially), for example.

Posted by: Carlos | Jun 23, 2005 12:36:49 AM

I'll second the Shaun of the Dead recommendation. It's probably the best film of 2004. Americans probably won't get some of the in-jokes, however. It was made by the people who made Spaced, one of the best British sitcoms of recent years, but one that is full of mostly British pop-culture references. Still, zombie movies are universal.

Ezra, what's your take on Dawn of the Dead? For me, the whole appeal of that movie is that the zombies are so unthreatening. It turns the whole premise of zombie movies on its head by putting everything at the survivors' disposal - guns, ammo, food, security doors, you name it. Also, Romero's take on the zombie is probably atypical in that his zombies explicitly evolve.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jun 23, 2005 6:46:12 AM

Dawn of The Dead was worth watching...right up until the point where that old guy chainsaws that chick to death in the torso. That was the dumbest thing I've ever seen in my entire life. I spent an hour or so watching it at that point and had to turn it off right when that happened because it was so stupid.

Posted by: Adrock | Jun 23, 2005 1:02:34 PM

Shaun of the Dead is a riot, yes.

I think Zombies are particularly unpleasant for the reason that they are humans at their most base - the thinking brain that reasons and feels compassion is gone - and all that is left is a shell that walks funny and wants to eat your face off...a mirror image of humanity that shows the mindless animal, the vicious predator within, without convenient cover of a monsterlike appearance or other changes that distract us.

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 16, 2007 9:40:58 PM

Pyrrhic victory

Posted by: BAILEY | Nov 28, 2007 3:49:26 PM

Red-handed (caught)

Posted by: MAGGIE | Nov 28, 2007 3:50:58 PM

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