Welcome to Freaky Friday. Today, we’re going to talk about zombies and what makes them scary.
Last Sunday, the Season 2 finale of The Walking Dead aired. The season ended with just enough loose ends to have me excited about next season.
People always tell me they don’t watch The Walking Dead because they don’t “do” zombies. Believe me when I say I felt the same way. That is why I missed Season 1 and the first half of Season 2. I don’t “do” zombies.
I realized the show wasn’t about zombies. It was about people surviving a zombie apocalypse. It makes me think about humanity and what defines it. It makes me ask questions about when the rules cease to matter. The collapse of civilization as we know it is a scary thing.
Zombies are an old, old boogeyman. Something so old has to exist for a reason. I went looking for those reasons and found that zombies–in a way–represent our fear of the breakdown of civilization.
First off, let’s start with the term “zombie.” The term comes from Haitian Creole. A Zombie is an animated corpse brought back by some supernatural means–usually voodoo. The term is also a figurative description of a person who has been hypnotized and who is unaware but able to respond to physical stimuli.
Zombie has become a generic word for animated corpse, and I will use it that way throughout this post. I just wanted to explain the origins of the word.
The concept of the zombie is at least as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh. In that story, the character Ishtar wants to marry Gilgamesh. When she is refused, she really loses her cool and says:
“I will knock down the gates of the netherworld. I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down, and I will let the dead go up and eat the living. And the dead will outnumber the living.” From Tablet VI
As long as there has been civilization, it has been known that the dead do not belong with the living. People have found ways of disposing of human corpses.
Think of the Neanderthal remains found at Pontnewydd Cave in Wales. These remains are 230,000 years old. Even that long ago, the humanoid creatures who walked the earth deliberately buried their dead.
Eighth-century skeletal remains discovered near Loch Key in Ireland tell a story of fear. Baseball sized stones were wedged in the mouths of two of the skeletons.
Vampires did not appear in European Folklore until the 1500s. The age of these skeletons also pre-date historical records of revenants.
[Note: A revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse. It appeared in Anglo-Saxon folklore in the middle ages. William of Newburgh wrote about them.]
The revenant wasn’t the first zombie in folklore. Most—if not all—civilizations have a version of the zombie in their mythology. These tales date back to ancient times, and the zombie becomes the boogeyman of many names.
China: Jiang Shi
The name translates to “stiff corpse.” A Jiang Shi can return from the grave for a variety of reasons. It can be animated by
- supernatural means
- by improper burial
- dying an improper death
- because decomposition did not occur.
- a person can be injured and infected with the Jiang Shi virus, in which case the person turns into a Jiang Shi over time.
The Jiang Shi is so stiff it cannot move its arms or legs; thefore, it must hop to move. The skin is greenish-white and its hair is long and white. The Jiang Shi kills living creatures to absorb their life essence. Sort of like a modern zombie eats people out of hunger.
Arabic folklore: Ghoul
The Arabic ghoul’s oldest existing mention is in 1001 Arabian Nights. The myth of the ghoul derives from Mesopotamian myth of the “gullu.” Gullu was a Akkadian demon of the underworld who kidnapped the god of vegetation and spirited him away to the underworld.
The ghoul is a shape-shifting creature that, in some tales, eats the internal organs of its victims. In one particularly memorable story, two men come upon the ghoul while traveling. She was disguised as a woman. She lured the men apart and killed one of them.
The other man ran from her, and the ghoul caught him. Instead of eating him, she advised he pray and recite verses. When the man followed the ghoul’s instructions, the lightning ripped the ghoul in half.
Norse Mythology: Draugur
Literally translated the Draugur is “one who walks after death.”
The creature possesses superhuman strength, can change its size, and stinks like decomposition. It has an insatiable appetite. In the Eyrbyggja saga, a shepherd is killed by the Draugur and rises the next night as a Draugur.
The Draugur is also associated with burial customs intentended to stop it from returning from the grave. Here are some of the customs:
- Remove the dead person from a home feet first, surrounded by people, so the deceased can’t see where to return.
- The big toes of the deceased should be tied together and needles were driven through the feet to prevent them from walking.
- A pair of open iron scissors might be placed on the corpse’s chest and twigs and branches placed inside his clothes to keep him from rising after burial.
The custom of removing the deceased feet first from his residence persisted into the the 19th and 20th centuries and spread through Europe and to parts of the Americas.
Folklore and mythology illustrate humanity’s historical fear of animated corpses. Now, let’s look at another aspect of what makes zombies inherently horrifying.
Zombies—both the ones from ancient mythology and the modern ones—consume people by eating them. Cannibalism is a great taboo in most parts of the world.
In modern history—the last two-fifty hundred years—instances of cannibalism have been met with horror. The survivors of the Donner Party were not charged for any crime, but they were ostracized. Alferd Packer, who committed cannibalism, was imprisoned for manslaughter. Jeffrey Dahmer both cannibalized his victims and tried to turn them into zombies.
Most people inwardly shiver when they think about cannibalism, even when it is done for survival. Next, we’ll look at the idea of compulsion to commit cannibalism.
Canada in 1879: It was winter, and a man named Swift Runner and his family were starving. Swift Runner’s eldest son had died. Food supplies were twenty-five miles away. Swift Runner murdered and cannibalized the remainder of his family. He was ultimately hanged.
Swift Runner was thought to have wendigo psychosis. The wendigo is a cannibalistic spirit in Algonquian folklore. The spirit can possess humans. Wendigo psychosis was believed to happen when humans are overcome with a need to consume human flesh for reasons other than survival.
The concept is not unlike our modern zombie. The horror of being cannibalized is not the only fear associated with zombie attack. Zombie bites usually spread the zombie disease. This mimics the idea of germs spreading illness.
The Bubonic Plague (or the Black Death) of the Middle Ages wiped out something like one million people. In the early nineteen hundreds, the Spanish Flu (the H1N1 virus) killed fifty million people in three years.
Living through these plagues was like living through an apocalypse. Because this has happened in our history, it is easy to get caught up in the idea of a plague creating flesh craving, unstoppable zombies.
The modern concept of zombie is credited to George A. Romero, who directed a 1968 independent film titled Night of the Living Dead. This film presents the idea of a world overrun by zombies—a zombie apocalypse. The apocalypse theme has caught on, and many zombie stories feature it.
More than half of the zombie moves ever made were made after September 11, 2001. We live in scary times. It’s not so hard to believe the end is coming. Look at
- The Mayan Calendar scare
- Natural Disasters
- The possibility of financial meltdown
- Global terrorism
- Global warming–which may lead to an apocalyptic natural disaster
So why not zombies? And why not turn them into entertainment? They are, after all, the basis of humanity’s deepest fears—death, plague, cannibalism, apocalypse. These four things are, of course, the undoing of our civilization, and nothing is scarier than that.
The Walking Dead depicts the fall of our civilization and brings about questions that have shifting answers. What is humanity? When do the laws of civilization no longer matter? When does survival trump humanity?
Even though I don’t “do” zombies, that is why I watch. At the bottom of it all, we have humanity and a civilization in common. It makes me think.