Tag Archives: Zombie

Woodland Creatures

Maybe I watch too many zombie movies, but the story of zombie raccoons was just too good to pass up. A story by Marwa Eltagouri in the Washington Post described a spate of recent “zombie raccoon” incidents in eastern Ohio, not far from where I grew up. While the likely explanation is distemper, one of the behaviors of these raccoons stands out—they walk on two feet. Since I also enjoy the occasional non-fiction book by Linda Godfrey—who’s made a name writing about anomalous animals in North America, particularly bipedal dogs, or wolves—I found this aspect of the raccoons particularly interesting. That’s the thing, you see. Bipedalism suggests other human-like traits. Think great apes. Or penguins. (Although birds are generally bipedal, they tend to be squat and more horizontally inclined than vertical. The penguin not only dresses for our most formal occasions, but waddles around like many of us do after having been a bit too generous at the dinner table.) But bipedal raccoons—now that’s scary.

As a species Homo sapiens seem to have a need to believe themselves unique. Over the centuries any number of traits have been claimed as unique to us. Bipedalism, the ability to speak, being relatively naked so that we have to wear clothing, being able text with our opposable thumbs—we’re not like other animals. We’re special. So when animals that normally go on all fours walk on two legs we instantly think they’re trying to be like us. They want to have all the rights and privileges of our species so they can elect alt-right leaders and destroy everything they’ve built. Uppity critters! We have trouble reconciling ourselves with our animal origins.

Other animals, it seems, are beginning to note the advantages of walking on their hind legs. I’ve watched enough zombie movies to know that it’s the intention that’s the real problem. They want to be like us. Notice the accounts of bipedal animals—witnesses say there’s something in their eyes. Global domination. Yes, they’ve been watching us and now they want the same things we want. They want to take over the world. I know enough about World War Z to know that you can’t save everyone. Hard choices will have to be made. And maybe I’ve watched too many movies, but I’ve noticed the bipeds are from red states: the dog-men of Michigan and Wisconsin, the raccoon-men of Ohio. If we can’t save everyone, we need to make wise choices. Why not let them have Washington, DC? They certainly can’t be any worse than what we’ve got there right now.

Imagining Monsters

WideSargassoSeaAll fiction writing, it is often said, is borrowing. I’m not exactly sure that’s literally true, but the basic idea is that writers often trade with one another. They also borrow against their own experience and observations that others have made. When a character, or set of characters, an author develops become(s) wildly popular, fan fiction can result. There are websites dedicated to “fan fic” where characters from one writer are personalized in another writer’s imagination. Another form of borrowing is the parody. Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies takes Jane Austen far beyond her original scenario while using her novel as the basis of something somewhat new. These borrowings, as the saying suggests, have been around for a long time. I recently read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. The novel from the 1960s is a “prequel” of sorts to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Although spoiler alerts for literature nearly a couple centuries old might seem like overkill, I’ll give one here anyway. You’ve been warned.

Jane Eyre includes quite a lot of gothic mystery. Thornfield has a mad woman, Bertha, the first wife of Mr. Rochester, living in the attic. Bertha is from the Caribbean, and Rhys, although Welsh, was born in Dominica. Taking an interest in the point of view of the neglected, insane Bertha, she decided to tell her story in Wide Sargasso Sea. I won’t sum up the plot here since you may decide to read it. The reason I brought the whole subject up in the first place is the glimpses given of the religions of the Caribbean. Clearly this was not Rhys’ main objective. The Creole of the various races from the slave trade and colonialism, however, did produce fascinating religious amalgams. The zombie, a figure that plays a small part in the imaginative aspects of the novel, is only the most familiar of the creatures.

The soucriant, or soucouyant, is a blood-sucker. A figure that combines elements of witches and vampires, the soucriant takes the form of an old woman by day and a blood-sucker by night. (Before you get the wrong idea, there are no zombie or soucriant characters in Wide Sargasso Sea—they are merely mentioned briefly in conversation.) This concept, while derived independently, relates to the succubus but also to the more modern chupacabra. These are all creatures that suck the vital essence from another, be the victim human or animal. The ubiquity of the idea is striking. In the context of the novel, however, such creatures merely haunt fevered imaginations. Our minds, however, are what make monsters real. Although Rhys declines to diagnose “Bertha” completely, it is clear that human mistreatment of one another creates, in its own ways, monsters. That’s an idea, I suspect, that I’ve borrowed.

Working Dead

AmericanZombieGothicPerhaps being born into and reared in a working class environment naturally predisposes me to the populist variety of entertainments. Although this may be true, serious scholars have begun to pay attention to the subjects traditionally classified as “lowbrow,” and particularly zombies. I mention zombies not infrequently because they are monsters with religious origins (although not the only ones). Reading Kyle William Bishop’s American Zombie Gothic (and who could resist such a title?) resurrected all of these interests for a few happy days on the bus. Subtitled The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, Bishop’s study goes back to the beginning with zombies and their religious origins. Since the concept of zombie required the blending of Catholicism with its root African indigenous religions, it seems natural that the concept would emerge in Voudon (voodoo) religions of the Caribbean. What Bishop makes clear, however, is that the zombie is a way of coping with slavery, since, as originally conceived, zombies represent the horrors of enslavement. In other words, they represent a social justice issue.

Dismissed as puerile and unsophisticated, zombies had a difficult time catching on in American culture. Once they caught on, however, they didn’t let go. (They are zombies, after all.) As Bishop shows, this appeal has many bases. George Romero’s zombies were always social critique. Exploiting their shock value made a point, but other filmmakers soon followed, enamored of the potential violence, gore, and exploitation the zombies offered. Then, following 9/11, zombie movies proliferated, demonstrating that even the undead might perform some kind of catharsis. As Bishop notes, zombies were primarily a movie phenomenon, slow to catch on in literature.

Having read a few zombie novels in the last few months, I have pondered this last point deeply. What is believable, momentarily, on the big screen is rendered laughable with the ponderation of reading. When your brain has time to process what slick visual editing denies, it is clear that decaying corpses would have a pretty tough time getting around—even living bodies have trouble with it from time to time. Zombies, after all, are not really ever literal. They are signs, or even prophets. They point to a reality beyond themselves. Zombies, in reality, represent enslavement—whether literal or figurative—that holds us back from our true potential. No wonder they’ve become such fixtures in a world where opportunity has become effaced and terror can breach even secure borders. They may be lowbrow, but having lived the working class life, I have always had profound respect for the walking dead.

Not the Oscars

I could blame this week’s Time magazine for declaring that one thing we don’t need to worry about is an end to the zombie craze, but in truth I really have no one to blame but myself. Having watched White Zombie a few weeks back, I decided to see Revolt of the Zombies, its sequel, this weekend. With holes in the plot large enough for a small planet to pass through, it leaves a great deal of creativity – and imagined continuity – up to the viewer. It’s a movie bad enough to make you want to slap the television in frustration, but it did bring a number of my standard (read “tired”) themes on this blog together.

In this confused romp through sci-fi horror, excused only leniently for having been filmed in 1936, the terms robot, zombie, and automaton are used interchangeably. This is one of the technically redeeming features of the film. The term “robot” was coined to indicate a mindless servant, and in their religious origins zombies shared exactly that function of the automaton. Today’s robots are machines, and the future of the Singularity (posted on a couple weeks back) revolves around this very point: machines will complete the degenerating biological frame. Somehow the zombies will save us.

The zombies of 1936 were surrounded by swaggering, stereotyped caricatures of the helpless female who has very little mind of her own (perhaps less than the zombies who actually do something to better their state). Racist images including a wizened Scot called MacDonald and subservient Asians make the film uncomfortable for present day viewers. One glimmer of intelligence in the film, however, comes from an awareness of the classics. After a rat’s nest of a plot that is essentially one man wanting another man’s girl, old MacDonald gives a commentary on the assassinated master of the zombies. He takes his line from Euripides’ play Medea – an original strong female that the Greeks so feared. “He whom the gods destroy, first they make mad.” Second, I would add, they make watch Revolt of the Zombies.

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?

Exorcists, Serpents, and Rainbows

Tuesdays are release days for many new media products. I’m not sure why, but I accept it. This past Sunday’s paper ran a couple of stories by Stephen Whitty concerning the Blu-ray release of The Exorcist, counted by some critics as the scariest movie of all time. The press around the original release of the film in the early 1970s was enough to prevent me from seeing it until I was in my forties. I’m done using the word “release.” In an interview with Linda Blair, the iconic Regan MacNeil of the film, Whitty quotes her as noting that the rumors of “curses” on the filming of the movie were without basis. “But other people seemed to be trying to find something that didn’t exist,” she said. That sage statement could refer to considerable aspects of a society hungry for religious answers, but ill-educated on the religious facts-of-life.

Although sorely critiqued at the time by those whose religious sensibilities had been offended (Blatty is no theologian), Whitty nevertheless notes, “It may be a film full of gross obscenity. But in the end, ‘The Exorcist’ is a recruiting poster for that old-time religion.” He correctly observes that beliefs in possessing demons and that challenged social conventions will lead to evil permeate the movie. Traditional Catholicism wins out over that foreign Pazuzu every time. Even for those with more progressive beliefs, the film is difficult to watch. Religion, in addition to criticizing films, also provides some of the best plots.

Not to be counted among those best, but illustrative of the point, is Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow. Ever since my days at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh students have been after me to watch this film. Confused, dream-like, and at times difficult to follow, the movie opens with a claim to have been based on a true story. It isn’t the typical zombie movie either, although it features zombies. More of an attempted scientific thriller, the film explores the dangers of tetrodotoxin, “the zombie drug” when in the wrong hands. Understated in the movie, however, is the religious nature of Voodou. This is perhaps the most obvious failing point in the story. If the movie were to be really scary, the viewer has to believe that this is possible. The skepticism of science blocks the potential for unbridled religious expression. That is perhaps why The Exorcist has retained its power over all the years. Unlike more rational explorations of the world, it allows the audience to believe in personified evil that only old-time religion can cure.

Origins of the Undead

With all the talk of organ harvesting in New Jersey (see any Jersey paper over the past couple of days — you can’t miss it), my mind naturally turns to zombies. I have to confess to having enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, Quirk Books, 2009) very much, particularly when the Bennett girls form the “Pentagram of Death” at a ball. Like most creatures representing humanity’s deepest fears, however, the undead have religious origins.

The evils of the slave trade and missionary work concocted a dangerous brew in the West Indies. Shamanistic “voodoo priests” claimed to have the ability to arrest a person’s soul, making that person an unthinking mercenary of their bidding. (The mind again turns to missionaries!) A similar idea enlivened the golem in medieval Jewish lore, only dirt was used to construct a golem rather than an already occupied fleshy apartment. The concept of the inculpable perpetrator of revenge in West Indian religion was first introduced into popular consciousness by the writing of William Seabrook, a noted traveler and author. Seabrook spent some time in Haiti and his account of zombies in The Magic Island captured the public imagination.

The undead aspect of zombies is largely due to the unexpected success of George Romero’s 1968 cult hit film, Night of the Living Dead. In an interview Romero noted that the zombie idea had been applied to the film rather than having been its driving plot device. The undead are called “creatures” at several points but never “zombies.” The zombie connection nevertheless took off from the movie and landed the undead directly into the supernatural monster pantheon. As people continue to struggle with death and all its implications — one of the largest psychological roles of religion — it may seem difficult to believe that zombies have only been with us since the 1960s. William Seabrook committed suicide after having committed himself to an asylum in his later years. In one of his travelogues, Jungle Ways, he describes in detail the experience of eating human rump roast while in West Africa. Perhaps he was well on his way to becoming a zombie (or at least a New Jersey public servant!)?