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Mortality and the Presence of Zombies Through Cultures

Mortality and the Presence of Zombies Through Cultures
© Photograph by Mark Alberti

Our fear of death is not only metaphysical, but also practical. Corpses are, simply, bad for our health. Bodies exposed to the environment can pollute the water system and can spread diseases. Whatever the body consists of in life is broken down into over four hundred different kinds of chemicals which are very “aromatic,” to say the least. But there is something even more terrifying than death — when the dead come back to life and become our worst nightmares: zombies. The zombie forces us to not only confront our own anxieties, but to confront the abject body itself. As Julia Kristeva writes: “The corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably come a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance. A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, or decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death — a flat encephalography, for instance — I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live […] There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being.”

The zombie is a living corpse, and therefore does more than just “signify” death. It results in that visceral, abject feeling which forces those confronted with zombies to face their own mortality. As the living dead, it contains the “blood and pus” and the “sickly acrid smell” of decay that Julia Kristeva mentions. It is the “border” of condition because it is both dead and living. It crosses boundaries and reminds us that we are constantly approaching our own death. The zombie is the very embodiment of senescence — the concept that as soon as an organism is brought to life, it immediately begins to age and therefore is constantly dying. The zombie shows that we are always surrounded by the fears of our own mortality.

Zombies also present us with a horrifying reality about the possibility not just of our own death, but of the death of our entire civilization. W. Scott Poole writes, “In an America anxious over the fate of the social order, the zombie offers a talisman, a laughably horrific symbol about a fake apocalypse that keeps at bay real fears about social degeneration and collapse” (203). Through an examination of humankind’s history of zombie anxiety, as well as a discussion of George Andrew Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’, Maximillian Michael Brooks’ ‘World War Z’, and other popular reincarnations of the zombie, this chapter posits that human-created paranoia and social anxieties are really at the core of the overwhelming human fear of zombies. Fear is, in some ways, a social contagion. It does not matter if the zombies actually exist. If enough people think that zombies could exist, their fears become reassured. As anthropologist Kate B. Harding states, “Zombies are not the thing to fear. The thing to fear is what humans are capable of doing when they are afraid”. The confrontation of zombies shows that human nature is often our own worst enemy.

To understand the social and human anxiety surrounding zombies, it is first important to understand the rich history of zombie mythology. Though George Andrew Romero is credited with inventing the slow-moving, flesh-eating zombie as it is known in contemporary culture with his film ‘Night of the Living Dead’, some type of zombie mythology has been around seemingly as long as human beings have walked the earth. Zombies first appeared in what is perhaps the oldest story on earth, ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’, which reads, “I will raise up the dead and they will eat the living. And the dead will outnumber the living”. Historically, a Zombie is rooted in Voodoo and the term itself originated as “Zombi” in Haiti.

Voodoo is a syncretistic religion, and is completely and inextricably tied to the Haitian culture and tradition, which, even after becoming the first free black republic by winning its independence from France in 1804, absorbed many of its surrounding cultures and traditions, including African, Taino, and European. Voodoo consists of a belief in and worship of spirits, with practitioners believing that these spirits have the ability to control everything, including health. The spirits act as intermediaries for a god figure. The Haitian word “Zombi” has two distinct meanings: 1) a person who dies without ever having possessed a spirit, and 2) the living dead. In her book ‘Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica’, Zora Neale Hurston relates her experience and understanding of the Haitian zombie, saying, “This is the way Zombies are spoken of: They are bodies without souls. The living dead. Once they were dead, and after that, they were called back to life again” (179). Zora Neale Hurston explains that, for the most part, zombification occurs in lower-class citizens — peasants and labourers. They were usually slaves to a successful farmer. According to folklore, an evil “papaloa” (shaman able to channel spirits) has the power to transform corpses into mindless, undead servants (Poole 194). The papaloa would make these reanimated corpses devoid of emotion or of any past life in an attempt to create mindless labourers. Zora Neale Hurston writes, “No one can stay in Haiti long without hearing Zombies mentioned in one way or another, and the fear of this thing and all that it means seeps over the country like a ground current of cold air. This fear is real and deep. It is more like a group of fears” (179). She continues, “Zombies are wanted for more uses besides field work. They are reputedly used as sneak thieves. The market women cry out continually that little Zombies are stealing their change and goods. Their invisible hands are believed to provide will for their owners” (197). This Haitian idea does not have much to do with the viral, ravenous, carnivorous horde that we now refer to as Zombies, but it certainly contributes to our understanding of their origins and we can see where the evolution begins.

In fact, some type of zombie occurs in almost every culture in the world. In China, the living dead are called Jiang Shi. This is a hungry ghost from Chinese folklore that returns to devour the living. It wants to attack its own family as retribution for not being properly buried. Like many cultures, the Chinese perform burial rituals to make sure the dead pass safely to the afterworld, and do not come back to threaten the living. In an improper burial, the dead does not get a chance to move on. It lives in torment, and in turn, torments those who caused their suffering in the first place. In seventh-century Arabia, the living dead were known as Ghouls. The Ghoul was most often a female demon who had fallen from grace, usually because she lived a sinful life. In the oldest legends, the demon was a prostitute. She would hide in the desert, and call out much like a siren to passersby. When they approached, the Ghoul would transform into her natural state, which was a horrific, devouring monster.

The Ghoul was so compelling a figure, the word “ghoul” became the name of George Andrew Romero’s zombie in ‘Night of the Living Dead’.

In Norse mythology, the Draugr was a well-known, undead Viking who had an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Draugrs were people who had come back from the dead as unstoppable machines. The only way to stop them was to somehow lure them back into the ground. They retained some of their intelligence, which made them even more frightening because the Draugr knows and delights in what it is. Generally, even Norse heroes were not strong enough to stop the Draugr.

In the twelfth-century England, the cleric William of Newburgh wrote about spirits called Revenants who became the hungry dead and needed to feed on the living. Newburgh is popularly considered history’s first “zombie hunter.” He was the first to try to understand why the undead might exist. He believed Revenants were real, and that they were on a mission to destroy humanity. He wrote, “One would not easily believe that corpses come out of their graves unless there were many cases supported by ample testimony.” His writings became very important to the church at the time, because they were trying to understand, identify, and exterminate these monsters that were returning to plague the earth. Newburgh wanted to find out if there was some way to understand this horrible need, because if there was some way to understand it, perhaps it could be stopped.

In many cultures, the living dead are viewed as being unhappy that they are dead. They want to prey on the living for what they don’t have — life. Generally, it is accepted that those who die either experience a “good death” or a “bad death.” A good death opens the doors to the next world, whatever that may be. A bad death — one of humanity’s biggest fears — closes those doors and locks the spirits (or bodies) where they are. This is the basis for many of our monster beliefs. A bad death — which could be caused by a gruesome end, a sinful life, or the wrong kind of burial — causes a spirit to remain on earth as angry and vengeful.

Because of this paranoia and fear of the return of the dead, human beings learn to dispose of death very quickly. Burial was traditionally a way to ensure that bodies were to remain dead. In a lot of beliefs, prevention from using the mouth was crucial in burials, by using rocks or bricks to cover the corpse mouths. The ancient Greek word, “maschalismos,” means “to mutilate the body” so it does not come back from the dead. Maschalismos occurred through removing internal organs (such as the heart, liver, or brain) in order to prevent the vital function of the body if it were reanimated. Historically, the Chinese physically restrained every corpse in preparation for burial, binding and pinning them in the coffin. If done with even the slightest error, the monster would come back and would have to be stopped with rituals and magic. The Norse had a “corpse door” in their homes. After a person died, the body would be moved out of the house feet first to confuse the dead, so they would not look back at the house and recognize where it came from. They would then seal up the corpse door so the dead could not find their way back. Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth-century, it was still common in Europe and even part of the Americas to carry the corpses out of the home feet first so they could not look back and beckon the living to come with them. Even today, many of our burial traditions come from these rituals. Coffins are nailed shut. There is a part of humankind that is afraid of something getting out, even if buried under the ground — and even if that fear seems irrational. The proper handling of the dead has always been a widely held human belief. When the dead are not treated with respect, they may come back for revenge.

One of the inherent fears when it comes to a zombie attack plays on the idea of neighbour against neighbour, loved one against loved one. One’s daughter could turn into a zombie, or the child could turn on the parent to save herself in the event of a major zombie outbreak. The psychological aspects of the zombie plague are more damaging than the direct effects of the contagion. In the event of a zombie attack, people would be fighting something that would look like loved ones, but are no longer the same people. This facing of one’s self or loved ones as a zombie is reflected in Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’ (‘Das Unheimliche’). In this essay, Sigmund Freud explores the spooky literary conventions of fiction writers, but also derives a larger psychological category of feeling strange, not at home, not secure, and not quite right. The “heimlich,” usually translated as “homely” or “familiar,” becomes the “unheimlich,” the “unhomely” or “unfamiliar.” But more importantly, what is now uncanny was once something familiar which has become foreign. It is a form of emotional and cognitive dissonance: “It is undoubtedly related to what is frightening — to what arouses dread and horror” (Freud 217). In his essay, Sigmund Freud discusses some dominant elements of horror: severed limbs, disembodied spirits, evil doppelgangers, and the fear of being buried alive. These fears are explained by his psychoanalytic theory, which proposes that one’s early psychological life (the psyche) is dominated by the narcissistic pursuit of pleasure (the pleasure principle), whereas one’s later psyche is more accommodated to a world indifferent to one’s particular ego satisfaction (the reality principle).

One comes into the world wanting everything, but a person is dealt the repeated blows of the reality check that they are not the centre of the universe. Repression, an internal punishment, is the mechanism by which the early narcissism is reeducated, overcome, and subsumed into the later psyche. Such repression begins externally, in the form of parents disciplining the child’s cravings and behaviours, but soon the disciplinary authority takes up residence inside the child’s mind, becoming the conscience. The original desires and cravings of Id and Ego do not, according to Sigmund Freud, evaporate and disappear, but instead submerge below the conscious surface into the deep fathoms of the unconscious (Asma 189-90).

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