Death Challenged

Long before the Walking Dead, and even before Twilight or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, people took the undead seriously. Now, I know ratings are important (they attract advertisers and their money, after all), but when the fear is reality the stakes are upped a bit. Two readers sent me a Guardian story this past week of Yorkshire villagers mutilating the dead. In the Middle Ages, that is—it’s perfectly safe to die in Yorkshire now. The story by Maev Kennedy describes how archaeologists have been studying deliberately defiled corpses, well, actually the bones from those corpses to be precise, to solve a centuries-old mystery. Their conclusion? Medieval folk really did fear the dead coming back from the grave.

Now, Easter’s just around the corner and resurrection’s on a lot of minds. Outside the context of the Bible, however, resurrection of the dead is one of the most ancient and persistent of human fears. Nobody’s quite sure why. Dreams and visions of the recently departed are extremely common. Belief in ghosts is ancient and fairly universal. The destruction of the bodies of people already dead is not. We treat our gathered ones with respect. To me it seems to come down to the puzzle of consciousness. Call it a soul if you like, but I have a feeling things would be getting rather crowded in here if too many distinct entities claimed this body as home. Mind, soul, spirit, psyche, consciousness. We don’t know what it is because it can’t be studied empirically. We know that something like it exists and opinions of what happens to it after death vary. The body, we can all agree, has a more prosaic end.

That’s what makes fear of the undead so fascinating. They are only bodies. Bodies without souls. Rather like leaders of the Republican Party. We fear them because when we look into their unblinking eyes we see no vestige of human warmth or sympathy. Those who walk among us and who don’t care about those of us not yet undead remain a perennial fear. In the case of the Yorkshire corpses these were people already buried. Putting them back in their graves seemed kind of pointless when they would only climb out again. We don’t know what it was like on the ground in the Middle Ages. History, however, has an ironic way of repeating itself. We’re entering a new age when I suspect we’ll want to make sure the remains of some remain well and truly gone once they’ve finally given up the ghost.

Living Undead

Now that autumn is in the air, my thoughts turn to zombies. I’ve read a few monster books lately, and as I pondered the attraction of zombies to the post-modern psyche, I began to wonder if they weren’t becoming, in their own secular way, a religion. Think about it. Zombies, first and foremost, are about resurrection. In a world ruled by rationality and science, we know that resurrection is impossible. What isn’t possible in science may indeed emerge in the world of monsters. The zombie, often not speaking, proclaims a distorted kind of gospel that the end is not really the end. Resurrection is not all that it seems. Zombies are spattered with gore, reminding us that the visceral existence we know as quotidian experience is temporary. Resurrection comes at the loss of a soul. The zombie is the monster of science: the animating principle is no longer spiritual. It’s just physical.

NightoftheLivingDead

Not only do zombies proclaim resurrection, they are the ultimate proselytizers. Their zealous hunger leads them to bite and their biting infects and creates new zombies. Their brainless goal—as they are unthinking consumers—is to convert the entire human world to their point of view. Once the zombies take over completely, there will be nowhere left to go. The way of the undead flesh may be a dead end, but rationality doesn’t always play a role in zealotry. The zombie is all about making more zombies. They are unbelievable, and unbelieving, but they have the making of a mega-religion nonetheless.

As a student of religion, I wonder how belief systems get started. We hold irrational beliefs on any number of things, including our religions. The difference that zombies make is, in real life, nil. And yet we can’t help tuning into the Walking Dead, or watching World War Z. The zombie is the most recognized symbol of the proletariate among the workers of the world—the brainless, soulless drone in the machine. Mega-churches draw in thousands every week for a religion that doesn’t require much intellectual engagement. Keep doing what you’re doing. Think of others once in a while. God really does want you to be rich. And the minions go out and make disciples of all nations. It is a world full of zombies. We see them in our dreams and in our mirrors. And although we think they’re only entertainment, they are oh so much more.

Serpents, Rainbows, and Black Pearls

Riding on a bus with a bunch of coughing commuters may not be the best setting for reading about poisons and zombies. I am also aware that Wade Davis has come into criticism by some of his professional colleagues and that the movie based on his book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, may have led to an aneurism or two among scholars of Haiti. Nevertheless, Borders was closing down and a copy of the book remained on the shelf for an insanely low price, and October would soon be upon us. This past week I read Davis’ intriguing account of his experience with real-life zombies and the fascinating religion of vodoun. A number of issues were raised by his account, not least of which is that the feared religion of “voodoo” is a direct result of the evils of African slavery that brought indigenous gods into the realm of Christianity, and mixed them vigorously. My first “exposure” to vodoun was in the old James Bond movie, Live and Let Die. It terrified me as a child, and even with rational eyes, I’m not sure I fare much better as an adult.

No matter what one thinks of Wade Davis and his work, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a fascinating work. One of the most interesting aspects Davis raises is the continuing issue of defining death. Premature burial may sounds like the hysteria of a Poe-induced nightmare, but, as Davis shows, most methods of measuring death are susceptible to being fooled. Those who are termed “zombies,” in the vodoun sense of the word, are people declared dead by medical professionals, yet who are later found, after their burials, very much alive. Many readers will find this difficult to accept, but it is a phenomenon that goes back to Seabrook’s swashbuckling adventures of early last century and even before. If Davis is to be believed, it is thoroughly documented.

Paradigm shifts are seldom welcomed. We prefer to live within the comfort of the universe in which we grew up. Science and religion agree on this point—things are not what they seem. Zombies in the Walking Dead sense do not exist despite the fact that they are the kind most popularly known. We like them because they can’t hurt us; they lurch through the streets of our nightmares and our zombie walks, but they are not real. It could be, however, that our understanding of our world is woefully incomplete. Confronted with that which challenges our tidy universe, whether it be quantum physics or Haitian religion, we must consider the benefits of a mind kept open to the possibilities. Do vodoun priests in the hidden shadows of the Caribbean enslave the living dead? Disney answered with a resounding yes in Pirates of the Caribbean, but then, in Hollywood it is sometimes preferable to have the zombies in front of the screen.

Black and White Zombies

One of the sweetest privileges of a school-year weekend is the Saturday afternoon movie. The advent of relatively cheap, boxed sets of old films has opened the realm of many forgotten classics for me. My wife recently purchased one of those 50-movie boxes of classic horror films for me, and I’ve been making my way through it weekend-by-weekend, and occasionally there is a gem among the tailings. Yesterday I saw White Zombie for the first time. Back in the days when Bela Lugosi claimed a faithful following after his trend-setting interpretation of Dracula, he played a voodoo doctor with the power over zombies in this widely panned movie. In these days of the Walking Dead, it may be hard to appreciate that White Zombie was the first full-length film about our undead friends.

With the exception of the always professional Lugosi, the acting in the film received a well-deserved trouncing. Interestingly, the “van Helsing” of the drama, the doctor who overcame the monster, was a missionary. White Zombie is authentically set in Haiti, and it is never made clear whether the undead are really deceased or simply mindless. But the goofy, pipe-smoking missionary is the one who defeats evil at the end of the day. As noted elsewhere on this blog, monsters frequently emerge from the dark realms of religion, and the zombie especially so. Today, however, the zombie is all the scarier for being secular, unaffected by God or human deterrent. Originally it was a case of voodoo versus Christianity.

In what is perhaps an unintentional irony, the character who comes across the most sympathetically in the film, apart from the fetchingly pouting Madge Bellamy, is Murder Legendre (Lugosi). The missionary wins out by dim-witted happenstance, while the character responsible for the actual death of the zombie master is a partially aware zombie fighting against his fate. It may be assigning far too much credit to assert that the film had intentional social commentary, but White Zombie has had an often unrecognized impact on what has today become the symbol of corporate America: the once humble zombie.

A typical zombie

All You Zombies

Not being a cable subscriber bears a burden all its own. Not only would paying the extra monthly fees for television prove a hardship, but the constant temptation to watch it would rate as a deadly sin. So on this “All Saints Day” I find myself wondering if the world is still out there after last night’s much-touted “The Walking Dead” premiere. The new AMC series has been written up in local papers and this week’s Time magazine. The latter calls it “a zombie apocalypse.” The fascination with zombie goes beyond holiday-fueled monsters. As James Poniewozik states in his Time article, zombies symbolize society’s insecurities: pandemics, terrorism, economic instability. The unrelenting undead remind us that death is perhaps not the worst thing to fear.

The religious side of this trend is fascinating. Revenants have no place in traditional Christian, Jewish, or Muslim theologies. Perhaps the closest semi-sanctioned version is the golem, a soulless protector of persecuted medieval Jewish communities. Traditional zombies are inextricably connected with magic, a means of manipulating the physical world through supernatural means. Like modern vampires, modern zombies have shifted from supernatural to biological, or at least scientific-sounding, explanations. Even Night of the Living Dead had an errant satellite to blame. The zombie has been reborn in a secular context, making it safe for religious believers to add it to their repertoire of fictional ghouls. And yet, the religious aspect has not completely vanished. The “apocalypse” that accompanies “The Walking Dead,” whether it is Armageddon, 2012, or Ragnarok, is a religious concept. Humans simply can’t face the end of the world without religious implications.

Audiences feeling a little let down after October’s terminal scare-fest, however, might find some cheer that Halloween is an end, but also a beginning. It is the start of the darkest time of year. Very soon not only do we drive home in the dark, but light will not have dawned by the time we start the car for work. In northern reaches of the globe, people can’t help but feel a little stress at finding our accustomed visual assessment of our world a little bit impaired for months at a time. And when we see that shoddy-clothed stranger straggling along in the half-dark, it may be time to remind ourselves that despite the naturalized zombie, there are still those who prey on their fellow humans. They may not be the undead. They may dress well and drive expensive cars and live off what they can legally draw from that stranger on the street. They may be the true harbingers of the apocalypse. They are the ones we should really fear.
Whose apocalypse?