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.