Let me ask you this; have you ever seen a real zombie?
Most of you will say No to such an outlandish question, but what if I told you there are many in history (and even the present) who can actually say they did meet a flesh and blood Walker?
If you are among the living you have probably read or watched a zombie story at some point. Befitting of their infectious nature the undead have infested every corner of popular culture with nowhere to hide! But there’s more to our shambling friends than what we’ve been given in the early twenty first century. What we see now is just the modern interpretation of a creature that has existed in various forms for millennia… but maybe we have more reason to be afraid of it now than we ever did before.
If we jump back as far as possible to where zombies might have first been discussed we’d slip quickly into the realms of mythology, and its rather shocking how many influences probably went into building our modern day Zeds.
The oldest example being the Arabic spirit creature known as a Ghul, or more commonly known as Ghouls today, which were a type of djin (or genie) who inhabited graveyards and were known to consume the flesh of the living! Similar beasts of lore can be found all over the world, with an eerily familiar example being old English ‘Revenants’ which were described as walking corpses that rose from their graves to terrorise the living as far back as the 10th century; probably inspiring the setting for the 1992 classic Evil Dead: Army of Darkness. Also consider the beast known as the Wendigo said to haunt the great lakes region around the US and Canada, described in folklore as a spirit which corrupts human vessels in order to make them commit acts of murder and cannibalism.
So already we have feasting on human flesh, rising from the grave and corrupting living hosts- sounds like a pretty good blueprint for our modern zombie doesn’t it? There’s no denying these ancient tales, along with the more romanticised beasts like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, inspired much of the horror imagery that would later establish the undead. But what about the more true to life inspirations?
To understand where reality may have gotten a little too close to fantasy we need look no further than the 1932 depression era horror ‘White Zombie’, a black and white feature starring Bella Lugosia (of Dracula fame) and yes, this is where Rob Zombie got the name of his band. The movie depicts Lugosi’s mad-eyed mastermind creating a legion of zombies to do his bidding using… what else? Voodoo magic! This was the 30’s after all and America was facing the spectre of cultural integration and all the delightful superstition that comes with it.
But how much of it was based on reality and how much was fearful fantasy? First of all it’s important to know that Haitian faith and many Carribean cultures insist on the existence of magic, both good and evil, and include the stories of dead men being resurrected as killers or slaves. Zombie magic however has never been established as a central part of Haitian practice by their priests (known as Bokors or Houngan). That is however until 1980 when researcher Wade Davis revealed his discovery of a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxi in powder form used by societies of Bokors who would take living people and put them under a ‘curse’ with the powder, in actuality causing significant brain and nerve damage, in some cases rendering them suggestible and of sub-human intelligence. These findings were written by Davis in his book ‘Serpent and the Rainbow’ in which he describes the process and how he came upon its discovery.
Davis’ book and his theories suffered wide criticisms to this day however he remained steadfast in his proposal that Haitian belief in zombie witchcraft was based on the poisoning and mental servitude of Bokor prisoners and this is where the ‘voodoo zombie’ concept originated… something which he claims was real, not myth at all!
Despite this, after White Zombie the undead menace disappeared from the popular culture for decades. Why? Because World War II was raging and almost put horror media as a whole into extinction. It was after the war that a series of events occurred which transformed the ‘zombie’ into a distinctly American cultural product.
It started with a bang as Russia began testing its nuclear weapons in 1949, which began the arms race that defined the decades to come. This sparked a whole new cultural boogeyman; the Atomic fear. Not long afterward the novel ‘I Am Legend’ was published and became the first zombie apocalypse story! While the book set into motion many of the zombie tropes we still see today its undead were much closer related to vampires than any of the ghouls or revenants of the past, being afraid of sunlight and allergic to garlic, even being able to speak.
It wasn’t until 1968 that George Romero stepped up to the task of building all the famous traditions of the zombie mythos in his landmark indie film ‘Night of the Living Dead’. While the various sequels would go on to be bigger commercial successes, with Dawn of the Dead 1978 arguably being the most influential zombie film of all time, the true success of his original masterpiece wasn’t so much the zombies themselves- It was something that made the zombies much more frightening and that’s the human element. Prejudice, distrust, betrayal… all things that are present in these stories and show something even eerier than walking corpses, it shows what people are willing to do to each other when the status quo breaks. What makes this truly horrifying is that we know human beings are capable of doing such terrible things, bringing most of the fear in the scenario out of fiction and landing it square in the realms of reality.
All that said, surely this is where reality must stop? After all as influential as the shamblers are, if we’re honest with ourselves, they don’t really make sense. How would a body move without flow of blood to the muscles and nerves? Why do zombies ignore each other but can always detect human beings? Why would a creature with no need to eat be compelled to gorge on flesh?
Of course the reason behind this is simple; because zombies are a work of fiction. At least most people are convinced this is the case- but there are more cases of real life ‘zombies’ than those previously mentioned from history. Many exist right at this moment, just not in the form you’d expect.
Let me introduce you to something called ‘Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis’, a fungus discovered all the way back in 1859. This parasitic lifeform is known to infect a huge variety of insects and turns them into very real zombies. Infecting the brain and altering their behaviour the fungus will often compel the host to remove itself from the nest and into a higher elevation- growing unpleasant protrusions from the victim’s body until the host becomes entirely consumed by it. The fungus will then dispel its spores down on the rest of the nest, effectively transmitting itself through an entire population, or leave the host in such a vulnerable spot to be consumed by larger predators (including birds or sheep). The reason behind this secondary behaviour is still uncertain, though the fungus can and often does continue to exist inside the predator’s body.
It’s rather unsettling to consider parasites have evolved to have such abilities over other lifeforms, creating a very real zombie disease. You might wonder, could such a thing ever affect humans? And are we doing anything about it?
Actually, the answer is yes. Two of the most powerful control bodies in America, the Centre of Disease Control (CDC) and the US Pentagon itself have released reports on what to do in the case of a zombie apocalypse, including a full military training protocol outlined in Pentagon paper CONOP 8888 of the U.S. Strategic Command. In case you were curious, this official pentagon paper for prepping world-leading military personnel has an image of a shambling undead persons on the front cover. It’s everything you might have imagined.
The paper includes a disclaimer which explains the plan is NOT a joke, however it also shouldn’t be taken at face value. As it happens the hyperbole involved in an ‘end of the world zombie outbreak’ was just outlandish enough, but also tactically conceivable enough, that it provided military planners with excellent practice in critical analysis. For this reason the plan was fleshed out to a complete official paper and is still used for training purposes today.
Reading this you might be thinking that zombies are as old as dirt and form part of the background noise of popular culture. While that might be true I want us to understand that we’re living in the ‘Zombie Generation’, where not only is our media saturated with undeath but the genre has a creepy familiarity with our everyday lives. Why? Possibly because we’re not a communal species anymore.
When it comes to zombies both the satisfying elements and the terrifying ones come from the same place- we ARE them. The undead are just human beings who no longer have their capacity to reason. We can harm them and they will harm us and morality plays no part in it. In their best forms zombies are used as commentary, ranging from the brainwashed human condition to the inhuman extent of our treatment to each other- this is why zombie media has exploded in the USA, where cultural consumerism and the plight of the individual vs the masses are bigger concerns than ever.
As Romero once said the undead represent some kind of “global change” which could reflect any of our modern societal fears, because regardless of what the fear itself is caused by the human animal responds to fear in the usual way- by banding together or breaking apart through blame and cowardice.
Instead of fearing whether the undead will truly rise from their graves to eat us, perhaps we should be more concerned that as a society we’re relating each other more and more with the faceless horde with every passing year.