Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The American Public's Fascination With the Undead

Zombies aren’t pretty creatures. Popular media depicts them in assorted states of decay. They shamble. They’re insatiable cannibals. And, well, they’re dead. So why can’t we get enough of them?

May is Zombie Awareness Month—just in case you were wondering. Don’t roll your eyes: yes, we need a whole month of preparedness. I too was skeptical, but as the inimitable Christie Wilcox tweeted in response to my disbelief that May would be so used:

I think I must be. Prepared, that is. Surely the plethora of zombie movies, books, survival guides, and even exercise regimens have given me a sense of how to survive the coming zombie apocalypse. If you’ve seen even one zombie movie, I’d be willing to bet that you’re pretty prepared too. If you haven’t, go watch Zombieland. It provides a fair list of “rules” that should boost your chances of survival. For example, "When in doubt, know your way out" and "check the backseat" make a lot of sense. Then again, those might be things you should be doing anyway. And yet, they keep coming: Wikipedia lists seventeen zombie movies scheduled for release this year—and there are already films on the docket through 2014.

Folklore is home to a host of undead characters: mummies, skeletons, vampires, ghouls, and ghosts can be found under one name or another in almost all mythologies. Though closely linked with Vodoun magic and religion, the zombie is no exception: dybbuks, jumbies, djodjos, and duppies all bear some resemblance to the Haitian zombie, which is a composite of African beliefs transported to the Caribbean via the slave trade (1). Slaves from the Gulf of Guinea transported rites and rituals from the classical East and the Aegean, which took root following Haiti’s revolution in 1804 (2). This zombie is a complex creature: though, like it’s cinematic counterpart it lacks consciousness, it is a much more nuanced and manipulated figure. Anthropologist Wade Davis proposed that the Haitian zombie is a pharmacological product created by a bokor (3). A powder created from the toxins found in the puffer fish is administered to induce a lethargic sleep from which the afflicted may be roused and controlled. However, analysis of this powder has yielded frustratingly little information: ingredients appear to vary (including human remains, toads, lizards, millipedes, tarantulas, ground glass, and various plants) as does administration. For example, the powder may be strewn over the path frequented by the intended victim, or on his doorstep—this hardly seems very effective. Haitian traditions allow for the possibility of poisoning, but also posit a supernatural origin: a body is buried and resurrected without cause—it is just called by name by a sorcerer and emerges without will, memory, or consciousness, ready to do one’s bidding (4). Typically, it will work for its creator, either performing labor or serving as a guard of some sort, and may be rented or loaned.

This corporeal zombie—distinguished from the spiritual zombie that Vodoun beliefs also permit—is the basis for the Hollywood zombie, which cannot be controlled and is bent on destruction. In both cases, the zombie is a shade of the human from whom it is derived, however the degradation of the latter’s former humanity is precisely what makes it horror that we can’t turn away from. Much has been written about the metaphors inherent in Hollywood zombies and their ties to capitalism, the Other, and science and technology gone awry (5,6). Yet, zombies capture our imagination because they are extensions of what we know to be human—they provide a glimpse into the breakdown of the social order.

Zombies are not meant to be. We engage in systematic mourning and funeral rites to remove the deceased and his remains from our immediate awareness. While we make allowances for the length of the grieving period, we support the bereaved with the belief (even if it is unspoken) that they will eventually cease to mourn as deeply in a visible way. But we also distance ourselves from the dead because they are a reminder of our mortality. They are gone, after all. And not only that, but their bodies begin to decay. Zombies force us to confront these sorts of issues. In death, the social order does not matter:
Society’s infrastructure begins to break down, especially those systems associated with the government and technology. Law enforcement is depicted as incompetent and backwater (the local sheriff is a stereotyped yokel with a “shoot first” attitude), so people must fend for themselves instead. The media do what they can, broadcasting tidbits of helpful information and advice by way of the radio and television, but the outlook is fundamentally grim: Hide if you can, fight if you have to. In the end, the rigid structure of society proves little help; human survivors are left to their own devices with no real hope of rescue or support. Motley groups are forced into hiding, holing up in safe houses of some kind where they barricade themselves and wait in vain for the trouble to pass (7).
Infectious disease researchers have already determined that in the event of a zombie outbreak, humanity would be up the creek—to put it mildly. In all the models investigated, the collapse of civilization is imminent (8). All but the most aggressive quarantine strategies would fail, and when the dead can come back to life, well, it means that there is an endless source of recruits waiting to be called forth. Albeit a bit tongue-in-cheek, researchers advise that in the face of a zombie apocalypse, quick, decisive action would be necessary: “the most effective way to control the rise of the undead is to hit hard and hit often” (9).

In these instances, the undead reflect concerns about mortality and social order. Zombies are our creation—whether in the Vodoun tradition or the result of radiation or a viral outbreak, zombies rise because we make it possible for them to do so. But perhaps because they are former human beings, it is hard for us to imagine that society would come completely undone. In recent years, we have seen the rise of a smarter class of the undead, one that can organize. And though that organization seems to make its mission the eradication of "normal" people, these new zombies are more intimidating in that they retain a bit more of their former selves. The film version of I Am Legend, gives us a class of zombie that is frightening fast, strong, and aggressive. They coordinate attacks and set traps—they can retaliate. Stephen King's The Cell features undead who are organized around a leader, and begin a process of "turning" normals (rather than simply eating them). These zombies provide a glimpse of the world to come, a world that we may help create—which is perhaps why we just can't turn away.

All this week Hannah Waters is investigating zombie biology at Culturing Science. For even more zombies, head on over for a bit on the science of zombification.

Photo: Night of the Living Dead

Ackermann, H., & Gauthier, J. (1991). The Ways and Nature of the Zombi The Journal of American Folklore, 104 (414) DOI: 10.2307/541551

Bishop, K. (2006). Raising the Dead Journal of Popular Film and Television, 33 (4), 196-205 DOI: 10.3200/JPFT.33.4.196-205

Bishop, K. (2008). The Sub-Subaltern Monster: Imperialist Hegemony and the Cinematic Voodoo Zombie The Journal of American Culture, 31 (2), 141-152 DOI: 10.1111/j.1542-734X.2008.00668.x

Munz, Philip et. al. (2009). When Zombies Attack! Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection. In Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress. JM Tchuenche and C Chiyaka, eds. Nova Science Publishers: pp 133-150. [pdf]

Shaviro, S. (2002). Capitalist Monsters Historical Materialism, 10 (4), 281-290 DOI: 10.1163/15692060260474486

1. Ackerman and Gauthier (1991): 489. | 2. Bishop (2008): 143. | 3. Ackerman and Gauthier: 475. | 4. Ackerman and Gauthier: 474. | 5. Bishop (2008). | 6. Shapiro (2002)¬¬. | 7. Bishop (2006): 202. | 8. Munz, Hudea, Imad et. al. (2009): 146. | 9. Munz: 146.


  1. I think of the zombie phenomenon as the younger generation's view of their elders' behaviors. It is an expression of young people's fear of slowly but surely being straitjacketed by the demand of modern bureaucratic structures. An increasing percentage of people are being sucked into government and/or corporate structures with their rapidly growing narrow codes of acceptable behaviors.

    In other words, the zombies are not a future apocalypse but a present one that in this time of 'national and/or cultural emergency' is rapidly expanding. Which is why I keep my mojo bag close at hand and listen to Dr. John's music for guidance.

  2. I'm curious. Reference for that infectious disease research? I found this set of arguments pretty compelling, personally.

  3. The sentiment you're describing is a fairly well documented one—see Bishop (2008) and Shapiro (2002). Much has been written about the zombie as metaphor for the confines of capitalism. Newer zombies seem to be breaking with the mold (so to speak) of conformity, however. They retain some ability to think and to organize—hey, perhaps they're actually doing some good by ridding the world of those folks who have been sucked into the corporate structure?

    Want to share the contents of your mojo bag? :)

  4. Bishop will be read as his journal allows free access, Shapiro will remain mute: locked behind the $32 pay gate. Right in keeping with the slogan: those writers locked behind pay gates will slowly have less and less influence on the public conversation.

    A document loosely related to this subject that I have loved for decades is Ismael Reed's novel Mumbo Jumbo. Highly recommended if outrageous works for you.

    My mojo bag consists of a random assortment of small rocks from various rivers and streams along with some special acorns and small meteorites. This combination works best if generously mixed with frequent sunrises, sunsets, star gazing, walks in nature and chats with people who have not been zombified.

    As always, I enjoy your posts and your replies.

  5. Azkyroth, your comment was flagged as spam (likely due to the link, which is hilarious.) The reference you are looking for is Munz et. al. and I've linked to the PDF which is open access.

    Anon, I Googled Mumbo Jumbo, which looks like a fun read. Thanks for the rec!

  6. Yeah the zombie thing is getting a little out of hand. I'm pretty happy about it though. Fuck Vampires, they are for teenage girls. Check out Zombie Informer.