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The American Fascination With Zombies

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Ed note: As Halloween rapidly approaches in the US, AiP will be exploring superstitions, beliefs, and the things that go bump in the night. This post originally appeared on AiP on May 17th, 2011, in response to Zombie Awareness Month—oh, it’s real all right. It’s been slightly modified for this posting.

I think I must be prepared. For what? The impending zombie apocalypse, of course! Surely the plethora of zombie movies, books, survival guides, and even exercise regimens have given me a sense of how to survive in the event of this particular catastrophe. If you’ve seen even one zombie movie, I’d be willing to bet that you’re pretty prepared too. If you haven’t, go watch Zombieland. It provides a fair list of “rules” that should boost your chances of survival. For example, “When in doubt, know your way out” and “check the backseat” make a lot of sense. Then again, those might be things you should be doing anyway. And yet, they keep coming: Wikipedia lists seventeen zombie movies scheduled for release in 2011—and there are already films on the docket through 2014.

Zombies aren’t pretty creatures. Popular media depicts them in assorted states of decay. They shamble. They’re insatiable cannibals. And, well, they’re dead. So why can’t we get enough of them?

Folklore is home to a host of undead characters: mummies, skeletons, vampires, ghouls, and ghosts can be found under one name or another in almost all mythologies. Though closely linked with Vodoun magic and religion, the zombie is no exception: dybbuks, jumbies, djodjos, and duppies all bear some resemblance to the Haitian zombie, which is a composite of African beliefs transported to the Caribbean via the slave trade (1). Slaves from the Gulf of Guinea transported rites and rituals from the classical East and the Aegean, which took root following Haiti’s revolution in 1804 (2). This zombie is a complex creature: though, like it’s cinematic counterpart it lacks consciousness, it is a much more nuanced and manipulated figure. Anthropologist Wade Davis proposed that the Haitian zombie is a pharmacological product created by a bokor (3). A powder created from the toxins found in the puffer fish is administered to induce a lethargic sleep from which the afflicted may be roused and controlled. However, analysis of this powder has yielded frustratingly little information: ingredients appear to vary (including human remains, toads, lizards, millipedes, tarantulas, ground glass, and various plants) as does administration. For example, the powder may be strewn over the path frequented by the intended victim, or on his doorstep—this hardly seems very effective. Haitian traditions allow for the possibility of poisoning, but also posit a supernatural origin: a body is buried and resurrected without cause—it is just called by name by a sorcerer and emerges without will, memory, or consciousness, ready to do one’s bidding (4). Typically, it will work for its creator, either performing labor or serving as a guard of some sort, and may be rented or loaned.

This corporeal zombie—distinguished from the spiritual zombie that Vodoun beliefs also permit—is the basis for the Hollywood zombie, which cannot be controlled and is bent on destruction. In both cases, the zombie is a shade of the human from whom it is derived, however the degradation of the latter’s former humanity is precisely what makes it horror that we can’t turn away from. Much has been written about the metaphors inherent in Hollywood zombies and their ties to capitalism, the Other, and science and technology gone awry (5,6). Yet, zombies capture our imagination because they are extensions of what we know to be human—they provide a glimpse into the breakdown of the social order.

Zombies are not meant to be. We engage in systematic mourning and funeral rites to remove the deceased and his remains from our immediate awareness. While we make allowances for the length of the grieving period, we support the bereaved with the belief (even if it is unspoken) that they will eventually cease to mourn as deeply in a visible way. But we also distance ourselves from the dead because they are a reminder of our mortality. They are gone, after all. And not only that, but their bodies begin to decay. Zombies force us to confront these sorts of issues. In death, the social order does not matter:

Society’s infrastructure begins to break down, especially those systems associated with the government and technology. Law enforcement is depicted as incompetent and backwater (the local sheriff is a stereotyped yokel with a “shoot first” attitude), so people must fend for themselves instead. The media do what they can, broadcasting tidbits of helpful information and advice by way of the radio and television, but the outlook is fundamentally grim: Hide if you can, fight if you have to. In the end, the rigid structure of society proves little help; human survivors are left to their own devices with no real hope of rescue or support. Motley groups are forced into hiding, holing up in safe houses of some kind where they barricade themselves and wait in vain for the trouble to pass (7).

Infectious disease researchers have already determined that in the event of a zombie outbreak, humanity would be up the creek—to put it mildly. In all the models investigated, the collapse of civilization is imminent (8). All but the most aggressive quarantine strategies would fail, and when the dead can come back to life, well, it means that there is an endless source of recruits waiting to be called forth. Albeit a bit tongue-in-cheek, researchers advise that in the face of a zombie apocalypse, quick, decisive action would be necessary: “the most effective way to control the rise of the undead is to hit hard and hit often” (9).

In these instances, the undead reflect concerns about mortality and social order. Zombies are our creation—whether in the Vodoun tradition or the result of radiation or a viral outbreak, zombies rise because we make it possible for them to do so. But perhaps because they are former human beings, it is hard for us to imagine that society would come completely undone. In recent years, we have seen the rise of a smarter class of the undead, one that can organize. And though that organization seems to make its mission the eradication of “normal” people, these new zombies are more intimidating in that they retain a bit more of their former selves. The film version of I Am Legend, gives us a class of zombie that is frightening fast, strong, and aggressive. They coordinate attacks and set traps—they can retaliate. Stephen King’s The Cell features undead who are organized around a leader, and begin a process of “turning” normals (rather than simply eating them). These zombies provide a glimpse of the world to come, a world that we may help create—which is perhaps why we just can’t turn away.

Images: Wikimedia commons, Night of the Living Dead | Wikimedia commons, White Zombie

 

Referenced:

Ackermann, H., & Gauthier, J. (1991). The Ways and Nature of the Zombi The Journal of American Folklore, 104 (414) DOI: 10.2307/541551

Bishop, K. (2006). Raising the Dead Journal of Popular Film and Television, 33 (4), 196-205 DOI: 10.3200/JPFT.33.4.196-205

Bishop, K. (2008). The Sub-Subaltern Monster: Imperialist Hegemony and the Cinematic Voodoo Zombie The Journal of American Culture, 31 (2), 141-152 DOI: 10.1111/j.1542-734X.2008.00668.x

Munz, Philip et. al. (2009). When Zombies Attack! Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection. In Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress. JM Tchuenche and C Chiyaka, eds. Nova Science Publishers: pp 133-150. [pdf]

Shaviro, S. (2002). Capitalist Monsters Historical Materialism, 10 (4), 281-290 DOI: 10.1163/15692060260474486

 

Notes: 1. Ackerman and Gauthier (1991): 489. | 2. Bishop (2008): 143. | 3. Ackerman and Gauthier: 475. | 4. Ackerman and Gauthier: 474. | 5. Bishop (2008). | 6. Shapiro (2002): 77. | 7. Bishop (2006): 202. | 8. Munz, Hudea, Imad et. al. (2009): 146. | 9. Munz: 146.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Jerzy New 4:08 am 10/27/2011

    One reason may be Max Brook book “World War Z”. I’m not usually interested in zombies, enough real danger around, but it is not really about zombies. The premise is nonsense, but the description of inefficent bureaucrats, gravy train interested professionals, ruthless businessmen and panic-mongering media is chillingly realistic. Not to mention brave samurai-sword-welding geek. ;) Basically, good social commentary. One wonders, if humanity was really in danger from some global catastrophe, would it cope?

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  2. 2. David N'Gog 9:02 am 10/27/2011

    It is easy to explain why the public likes a Zombie or two.

    Humans like to feel superior. It is why there is racism, sexism, etc. It is why almost every joke is at the expense of someone.

    The modern “smart strong zombie” is just a fad/horror plot device and not so much in common with the traditional zombie- but for the whole fascination with the zombie it is easy to see why they appeal and transcend generations (unlike, say, the vampire that comes and goes from the mainstream every 5 or 10 years).

    The traditional zombie is stupider than us, slower than us, not as alive as us, weaker than us, uglier than us (except the girl in the movie poster above). We can mock their cannibalism (less moral than us).

    What, for an egotistical human, is not to love about a zombie? We’re better than them in everyway- and yet- they are still a dangerous threat that can wipe us out- so plots can be found to tell stories.

    It is easy to love a zombie movie because it makes us feel better and more secure about our own selves.

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  3. 3. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 9:38 am 10/27/2011

    This is a common theme, Jerzey—equating the zombie apocalypse with concerns about the economy. Slate recently did a piece on this that might be of interest. I’m all for armed geeks, by the way ;-)

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  4. 4. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 9:46 am 10/27/2011

    Hey David, I’m not sure I agree that the smart, strong, fast zombie is necessarily a fad. I think they represent a refinement in how we think about this threat—sort of how we now “know” that vampires can go out during the day, if its foggy (which is why there may be a number of them living in Forks, Washington.)

    I do agree that humans may like to feel superior—history, after all, is littered with examples of this sort of thinking, as well as examples of the fall out from the consequences of how wrong we’ve been. Zombies seem to be a bit like ants: their strength, even if they’re the traditionally slow variety, stems from numbers and their dogged determination to feast on braaaaaains. Humans rarely seem to come out on top, though, which is a bit worrying for such a superior group!

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  5. 5. bigbopper 4:07 pm 10/27/2011

    As Steven Colbert pointed out last night, Jesus was the first zombie.

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  6. 6. Jerzy New 6:25 am 11/1/2011

    @Krystal D’Costa
    Zombie as a white-collar worker nightmare? I am not sure, the “World War Z” describes many white-collar people dealing with zombies.

    I think zombie is based more on common human fear of crowds and fear of losing identity – become one of a crowd of thoughtless, identical acting zombies. Not so different basic from many dystopias when humans are turned into automata.

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  7. 7. cinque_verdi 5:34 pm 04/20/2012

    Simply put, zombies are on fashion nowdays.

    Today is a zombie, tomorrow will be another monster. There must be something to keep us entertained, and if not we create one.

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  8. 8. boos mode 10:09 pm 11/9/2012

    i wish scientists would make zombies like inject people with alot of just pills or something we all know zombies will happen one day (our lives need to be more intresting)

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