Zombie legends remain a relevant medium that continues to capture the imaginations of modern people. As with any myth or legend, we gain wisdom about ourselves when we endeavor to unearth the symbolic meanings that lie buried beneath the surface. At times, what we find is as frightening as it is illuminating.
With the Halloween season upon us, we might pause to consider the meaning that zombie legends hold for modern audiences. Like any legend or myth, the zombie has been subjected to a steady stream of interpretation and re-interpretation over time, and each generation has tended to project onto it its own imaginative conceptions. This is no less true of contemporary people, for whom zombies have recently been portrayed as the carriers of viral contagion, the harbingers of the apocalypse, a metaphor for mental health, and even the objects of romantic love. But what latent cultural anxieties are bound up in our diverse depictions of these flesh-devouring ghouls? To answer this question, we first consider the zombie legend’s historical origins.
The word “zombie” first debuted in the English lexicon in 1819 in the Romantic poet Robert Southey’s History of Brazil. From that work, zombie (or “zombi,” as Southey had spelled it) was eventually incorporated into the Oxford English Dictionary, which traces it in etymological terms to various African languages, including the Kongo word nvumbi, which means “body without a soul.”
In addition to the passing reference in Southey’s work, many have argued that a forerunner to the zombie legend can be found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which drew on European folklore of the undead in order to critique the promethean spirit of scientific progress that had emerged during the 19th century. As one scholar notes however, Shelley’s monster is technically speaking a distinct creation of the Romantic genius. Although it certainly bears a resemblance to the zombie insofar as it is a reanimated corpse, it nevertheless possesses an innate intelligence and moral imagination that distinguishes it from the mindless beings stumbling after the nearest source of blood and brains.
Notwithstanding Frankenstein’s all-too-human monster, one of the earliest portrayals of what we would think of as a true zombie to Western audiences was American journalist and explorer William Seabrook’s 1929 book The Magic Island, a travelogue-like account of the author’s alleged experiences in American-occupied Haiti. In that work, Seabrook linked the zombie to Haiti’s long-standing voodoo tradition, which was itself a vestige of older beliefs that had been brought to the new world from Africa:
It seemed that while the Zombie came from the grave, it was neither a ghost, nor yet a person who had been raised like Lazarus from the dead. The Zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life—it is a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive. People who have the power to do this go to a fresh grave, dig up the body before it has had time to rot, galvanize it into movement, and then make of it a servant or slave, occasionally for the commission of some crime, more often simply as a drudge around the habitation or farm, setting it dull heavy tasks, and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens.
From these early literary examples, the zombie eventually meandered into the world of film, beginning with White Zombie in 1932 and I Walked with a Zombie in 1943, both of which took considerable inspiration from Seabrook’s sensational account of the zombie as a creation of dark magic and sorcery. These were followed in turn by the first of George Romero’s Living Dead films in 1968, which bequeathed unto the zombie many of the familiar traits that remain firmly embedded in the darker corners of the popular imagination. From the world of film, subsequent decades have seen the zombie incorporated into every medium from video games to music videos.
As indicated by the Kongo word nvumbi, a hallmark of the zombie legend is the idea that the zombie lacks a soul. Indeed, whether we speak of the early Haitian depictions or a great many modern adaptations, the zombie is little more than a reanimated corpse. The flesh and sinews remain, but the essence that distinguishes these from mere matter has long since departed. Hence, we often see that the zombie lacks any capacity for thought or measured action. Its movements, often portrayed as erratic or animalistic, are purely an exercise of the will, detached from any capacity for conscious reflection or restraint. To the extent that zombie legends portray a being that has been reduced to the sum of its parts, they are the perfect medium with which modern man can explore the lingering apprehension that he too has lost his soul and become little more than a walking, talking shell of a human being.
A similar theme of benumbed spirituality is threaded through the eerie stories of the American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who frequently explored the displacement of the traditional conception of the human person as a tripartite harmony of mind, body, and soul by scientific progress, which by the early 20th century had advanced a materialist understanding of life informed by purely biological processes and mechanisms. Consider for example the following passage from “Cool Air,” which recounts a mysterious doctor’s macabre attempts to extend his life-span far beyond its natural limits:
But repugnance was soon forgotten in admiration, for the strange physician’s extreme skill at once became manifest despite the ice-coldness and shakiness of his bloodless-looking hands. He clearly understood my needs at a glance, and ministered to them with a master’s deftness; the while reassuring me in a finely modulated though oddly hollow and timbreless voice that he was the bitterest of sworn enemies to death, and had sunk his fortune and lost all his friends in a lifetime of bizarre experiment devoted to its bafflement and extirpation. Something of the benevolent fanatic seemed to reside in him, and he rambled on almost garrulously as he sounded my chest and mixed a suitable draught of drugs fetched from the smaller laboratory room. Evidently he found the society of a well-born man a rare novelty in this dingy environment, and was moved to unaccustomed speech as memories of better days surged over him.
His voice, if queer, was at least soothing; and I could not even perceive that he breathed as the fluent sentences rolled urbanely out. He sought to distract my mind from my own seizure by speaking of his theories and experiments; and I remember his tactfully consoling me about my weak heart by insisting that will and consciousness are stronger than organic life itself, so that if a bodily frame be but originally healthy and carefully preserved, it may through a scientific enhancement of these qualities retain a kind of nervous animation despite the most serious impairments, defects, or even absences in the battery of specific organs. He might, he half jestingly said, some day teach me to live—or at least to possess some kind of conscious existence—without any heart at all! For his part, he was afflicted with a complication of maladies requiring a very exact regimen which included constant cold. Any marked rise in temperature might, if prolonged, affect him fatally; and the frigidity of his habitation—some 55 or 56 degrees Fahrenheit—was maintained by an absorption system of ammonia cooling, the gasoline engine of whose pumps I had often heard in my own room below.
As a reader familiar with Lovecraft’s use of foreshadowing might be able to predict, “Cool Air” ends when the mechanism that maintains the frigid temperature in the room breaks down, and the strange doctor is reduced to a puddle as his body—in reality an artificially preserved corpse—begins to rapidly deteriorate in the summer heat. Thus, the very human attempt to cheat death through ingenuity and experiment fails, and nature ultimately has her way—though not without leaving a nightmarish impression on the narrator, who concludes that “it is a mistake to fancy that horror is associated inextricably with darkness, silence, and solitude.” Rather, he realizes that horror can be found just as readily in “the glare of mid-afternoon” or amid the “clangour of a metropolis,” where life itself has seemingly come to depend on theoretical knowledge devoid of any higher, transcendent meaning.
At around the same time that Lovecraft’s work was appearing in Weird Tales, the American-British poet T.S. Eliot attempted to depict what he viewed as the sterile spiritual state of modern man in his celebrated poem The Hollow Men, the title of which alludes to the bonfires that traditionally accompanied All Hallows’ Eve celebrations, during which the dead are said to be closer to the living. Consisting of ninety-eight lines spread over five parts, The Hollow Men is typically interpreted as the depiction of a frustrated spiritual journey whereon the eponymous pilgrims have failed to reconcile thought with action:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom
Remember us – if at all – not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.
Like the shambling, perhaps even clumsy, corpses that have become synonymous with the zombie legend, Eliot’s “hollow men,” who have “shape without form” and “gesture without motion,” appear to suffer from the ossification of their spiritual faculties—a theme that is featured frequently in Eliot’s work and that implicates the profound sense of despair that gripped Western culture in the decades following the First World War.
Because the zombie lacks a soul, we find that in many iterations of the legend it tends to feed on the living, perhaps on account of some infernal jealousy directed at those who remain ‘alive’ in the true sense. Here we find an enduring anxiety regarding the transformation of the West from a civilization that has nurtured an authentic, living culture to the so-called “consumer society,” which tries to compensate for its diminished spiritual sensibility by accumulating material things and products. Like the insatiable zombie, however, for which the taste of flesh only sharpens the incipient cravings, no amount of material wealth can ever replace what modern westerners have lost in terms of their cultural inheritance. Consider in this regard the following words of the German essayist Friedrich-Georg Jünger, who critiqued the modern tendency to equate temporal riches engendered by material wealth with the permanent riches bestowed by authentic being:
In all Indo-Germanic languages, riches are conceived as a being. In German, ‘rich’ (reich) and ‘realm’ (Reich) are of the same root. For ‘rich’ here means no less than mighty, noble, regal, as one finds it in the Latin regius. And Reich is the same as the Latin rex, and the Sanskrit rajan, meaning king. Thus, riches in the original meaning are nothing else than the ruling, regal power and force in man. This original significance has been buried, particularly by the jargon of the economists who equate riches with economic having. But no one sensing the truth of the deeper meaning would want to accept so vulgar a conception. Possession of money, the sheer having of money, is contemptible, and it always becomes contemptible if it falls into the hands of that poverty which denotes a not-being. Unfailingly, the mark of riches is that they lavish abundance like the Nile. Riches are the regal nature in man which goes through him like veins of gold. Riches can never be created by him who is born only to eat up—the mere consumer.
Indeed, should one ever find himself out and about on a Black Friday, caught up amid the restless shuffle of a crowd as it waits for the stores to re-open after just having given thanks for life’s many blessings, the hapless and hungry zombie cannot be far from the imagination.
A third feature of many zombie legends, not unrelated to their voracious need to consume the living, is the idea that a person bitten by a zombie will soon become a zombie himself. In these variations of the legend, the “zombie horde” typically grows exponentially until only a small bastion of humanity remains, holding out in the remnants of civilization. Here we might think of popular television dramas such as The Walking Dead, or satirical films like Zombieland, in which the fate of humanity rests in the hands of an unlikely group of anti-heroes.
Lurking beneath such depictions we find an apprehension regarding the violent “democratic” or revolutionary mob, which thrives on a destructive energy and tends to subsume those who would stand apart in the name of ideological conformity. As one author explains:
[Z]ombie flesh is available to take the form of all downtrodden, marginalized, exploited subjects, who may at any time enact a faceless march against their oppressors (and maybe even their supporters—remember, they’re mindless), threatening the civilized order within which we desperately if futilely take refuge.
Although the fear of the “masses” has been embedded in the Western consciousness since at least the onset of the French Revolution, which began when the infamous Parisian mob stormed the Bastille on July 14th, 1789, it became especially prevalent throughout the 20th century, as ideologically inspired mass movements originating on both the far left and the far right seemed to be spreading contagion-like throughout the world. In 1929, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset attempted to distill the far-reaching implications of such movements in his work The Revolt of the Masses, which unfortunately remains little known in the English-speaking countries. Far from being a pithy criticism of the burgeoning “lower classes,” Gasset’s señorito satisfecho (“satisfied man”) could come from any social background. Indeed, whether rich or poor, aristocrat or bourgeoisie, he is the living embodiment of that hubristic modern temper that proudly inverts the Socratic maxim. Rather than knowing that he “knows nothing,” the satisfied man believes to the contrary that he hasn’t a thing left to learn. In his zealous but thoughtless assaults on all the customs that have preceded him, he bears an uncanny resemblance to the rampaging zombie that tramples over what remains of civilization. Consider the following passage, one of the book’s most famous ones:
As they say in the United States: ‘to be different is to be indecent.’ The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated. And it is clear, of course, that this ‘everybody’ is not ‘everybody.’ ‘Everybody’ was normally the complex unity of the mass and the divergent, specialized minorities. Nowadays, ‘everybody’ is the mass alone. Here we have the formidable fact of our times, described without any concealment of the brutality of its features.
As a final consideration, we would return the reader’s attention to the old Haitian version of the legend. As noted in Seabrook’s account, the Haitian zombie was the product of witchcraft or black magic that allowed the practitioner to harness the dead for his own nefarious purposes. To the extent that these features have survived in our own depictions of the zombie legend, they expose modern man’s fear that he too is subject to powerful and unknowable forces that are beyond his ken.
Often we see that such fears manifest in pace with our ever-advancing technology, which exerts a not-so-subtle influence on day-to-day life from “beyond the ether.” In this regard, we might think of the negative effects that sensational news broadcasting designed to rile people up and procure the most views has been shown to have on our body politic. Similarly, negative depictions of the social-media addict implicate the fear that our brains have been addled by a never-ending stream of mind-numbing content that is always accessible. In the political realm, our societal reliance on technology implicates widespread misgivings about the influence of “technocracy,” or the idea that a small group of technically competent “experts” has assumed control of the machinery of state and left the individual bereft of the means of determining his own destiny.
On the other hand, such influences may not always stem from menacing, leviathan-like structures, but may come from the small and miniscule: undetectable viruses or bacteria originating at the microbiological plane, perhaps even debilitating cases of depression that have no obvious cause. In all of this, there is a nagging suspicion that we no longer hold the reins over the course of our lives but are, like the zombie, a kind of helpless object that exists to be acted upon by impersonal forces.
In conclusion, zombie legends remain a relevant medium that continues to capture the imaginations of modern people. As with any myth or legend, we gain wisdom about ourselves when we endeavor to unearth the symbolic meanings that lie buried beneath the surface. At times, what we find is as frightening as it is illuminating. Nonetheless, should we muster the courage to get up close and personal with these ghoulish figures, we may yet be reminded that, indeed, “all monsters are human.”
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.