Thinking Zombies

Religion seldom makes as big an impression as when it concerns itself with the undead. Popular culture has gone after zombies to such a degree that they have engaged academic discourse well beyond the field of African-Caribbean religions. In fact, religious specialists tend to shy away from the topic in a kind of first-date embarrassment. Perhaps it’s because zombies in popular culture are so much cooler than their Vodou forebears. Within the past several months, however, zombies have shown up in Time, on the Center for Disease Control website, and now in the Chronicle of Higher Education. An article this week explores the academic implications of a paper by neuroscientists Bradley Voytek and Timothy Verstynen on the zombie brain. The two took on the project as a lark at the behest of the Zombie Research Society. Science fiction writer and head of ZRS, Matt Mogk gave an interesting take on zombies. He’s quoted in the Chronicle as saying, “Zombies are rooted in science, not superstition and myth.”

At the risk of sounding extremely uncool (one that I take rather frequently, I fear), I would point out that exactly the opposite is the case. Zombies are rooted in superstition and myth, i.e., religion. The entire idea that a person can be made to rise from the dead—originally to be made a slave—comes from that heady blend of Christianity and African religion that developed as part of slave culture. Slavers were notorious in not wanting slaves to accept Christianity because that might make slaves think that they were equal with their owners. By suppressing Christianity among slaves, the African religions in which many were raised came to blend with the Christianity that they’d garnered. One of the bi-products was the zombie. The zombie partakes of the Christian concept of resurrection, but in a twisted way. Once the new vision of the zombie presented by George Romero took off, yes, they did move into the realm of science fiction, often the forerunner of science.

A very serious issue underlies the zombie myth—the very religious concern about death. While not all religions comfort with an afterlife, they all in some way deal with ultimate issues. The end of life is about as ultimate, from our limited experience, as they come. Science loudly and repeatedly insists that death is the final frontier. We don’t cross back this way again, according to the available evidence. Scientists do not study ghosts or souls, and are very cagey about near-death experiences. The zombie, who is now threatening the careers of young scientists, is a most religious monster. Everything about the zombie points to its origin as a religious trope. Voytek and Verstynen wanted to interest people in science by taking a comic look at zombie brains. The problem is that zombie brains are brains on religion, not science.

8 thoughts on “Thinking Zombies

  1. Yes, but…

    The modern zombie of film and video games evolved from vampires, not the Haitian zombie. George Romero made Night of the Living Dead as an adaptation of the vampire novel I Am Legend, that gives a biological explanation for the vampire sickness. He took that concept and ran with it, creating a truly biological monster.

    The “zombies” in NOTLD were not called zombies by the filmmakers or audiences at the time of its release. That term was assigned to them almost by accident years later.

    Haitian zombie expert Wade Davis agrees with George Romero that the flesh eaters of Night of the Living Dead should never have been called zombies in the first place:

    “The zombies in movies like Night of the Living Dead have no connection at all to the zombie of Haiti. It is not a correct or fair use of that word.”

    And Davis has an unassailable point. From a dramatic standpoint, there is no connection between the voodoo zombie and the modern zombie. From a factual, anthropological, religious, or historic standpoint, there is no connection between the voodoo zombie and the modern zombie.

    It’s as misguided as asserting that the protective cup that athletes stuff in their jocks when playing contact sports is closely related to a coffee cup because they share the same name. And then using that as justification to include the athletic cup in an academic study of the history of the Peruvian coffee bean.


    • Steve Wiggins

      Well said, April.

      Yes, I knew of Romero’s story and the subsequent growth of the zombie aspect. I was using it more for rhetorical reasons than historical ones, but I appreciate the corrective nevertheless. Thanks for stopping by!


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  4. Nothing about your post suggests you “knew of Romero’s story” when writing it.


    “Zombies are rooted in superstition and myth, i.e., religion.”

    When the modern zombie is NOT rooted in superstition and myth. That’s exactly the point of the monster that Romero created.


    “Everything about the zombie points to its origin as a religious trope.”

    When almost nothing about the modern zombie points to a religious trope.

    In fact the reason that zombies are so popular today is exactly because they are both not superstitious / mythical, and they are inherently grounded in modern biological concepts, rather than religion.

    You’re missing the forest through the trees. Maybe your degree is blocking your view?


    • Steve Wiggins

      No, April, please do not mistake my rhetorical use of zombies for historical confusion. The best way to get a sense of what I’m doing is to read several of the posts here on this blog. The very concept of zombie has religious origins. Even though it was applied to Night of the Living Dead after the movie was released can’t change that historical reality. The zombie in the modern world fulfills a religious longing and I problematize the concept for just that reason. We may disagree as to why zombies are popular today, but it has nothing to do with mistaking historical developments for reality.

      Thanks for your comments!


  5. Pingback: Thinking Zombies | Sects and Violence in the Ancient World | Vulbus Incognita Geek Zone (GZ) |

  6. Pingback: Thinking Zombies | Sects and Violence in the Ancient World | Vulbus Incognita Magazine |

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