The old and the new Zombie: the modern delirium

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They emerged from the Haitian hot jungles, from the arid northern plains, from the Gaelic mines, from space and time and arrived on Broadway, in video games, movies and parodies, on the streets of America. They’re everywhere.  And they are among the few creatures that survived,  although they’re outclassed by vampires, Frankenstein’s monsters and other fantastic mythological wonders.

It’s probably one of the most hated and least charming creatures whom I met in stories,  usually horrors.   The horror movie fans love them, since their presence is recurrent in the latest cinematographic creations. Precisely because of this mass culture, zombies are not that scary but rather disgusting.  For many, modern movies that include them in a main role awaken a fear towards those who are brain consumers, with rotting skin and slow movements, that contaminates with death and look like some vile trolls. In fact, zombie is a reminder of our fragile mortality, a symbol of meaningless life or even, at a deeper level, a symbol for fear of immortality and our dark side.

zombi by Iuly Vasile

zombi by Iuly Vasile

“Never say die”

Zombie is one of the few creatures that are not inherited from the European gothic culture. The oldest concept of zombies is literally old: they appear in the oldest literary masterpiece – the Epic ofGilgamesh, who would have declared that the gates of Hell will remove it from its hinges and release death people to come eat the living ones: “And the dead shall outnumber the living”.  But pagan practices haveto do more with these living dead, resurrected for macabre purposes. It is said that a sorcerer, a healer can steal a human soul in order to intensify its magical powers, and the body, which the soul was taken from, remains only a vessel,  it is zombified, and can only die when God receive its soul back. The Wizard can control the body through voodoo magic. The concept of zombies is plausible, given that thanks to some unusual potions and drugs, some people can be taken as dead, then revived under the command of a chief. Specifically, anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston who traveled to Haiti tells such case. A woman appeared in a village, despite to the fact that her family said she died in 1907 at the age of 27. Felicia Felix-Mentor was seen roaming the alleys wearing dirty rags, heading toward her father’s farm. Relatives and the widowed husband confirmed that she was Felicia. The woman was taken to a government hospital to be interviewed and checked up by a doctor.The doctor said about her: “her occasional outbursts of laughter were lacking emotions, she spoke often about herself in the first person and third, without discriminating. She lost track of time and was indifferent to what happened around her” (www.paranormalhaze.com). The truth here is that Felicia apparently died of a sudden illness, which in the Haitian popular beliefrefers to as becoming a zombie. Doctors, however, remained at the rumor that some psychoactive drugs can cause a zombie state, although there is no medical evidence or credible explanation. In Europe, legends say that people who wake up from the deads do this to take revenge or just to visit their family. It is believed to this day. Native Haitians researchers, including anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis have been documented cases of people who claimed to have been sometimes zombies, because of these voodoo practices which required potions, beverages and other techniques to give the patient the impression that he or she was dead. Things are so serious that Voudou was designated the official religion in Haiti in 2003 and voodoo priests must register in order to be recognized by the government. They insist that they’re not only dealing  with black magic…  

necromancer-fullbody, by Iuly Vasile

necromancer-fullbody, by Iuly Vasile

Origin of the terms:

1.   Either from the term “ndzumbi” of the Gabou tribe called Mitsogho, which means “corpse of the deceased”

  1. Or from the term “nzambi” which means “spirit of the dead”.

Wade Davis prefers the second option because he says, in “Passage of Darkness”, 1988:

“Zombie sits on the cusp of death, and beliefs that mediate the phenomenon are rooted in the very heart of the peasant’s being. The zombie existence is the confirmation of a fundamental belief that death has power in the world of the living.”

In Haitian folklore, there are two types of zombies: \

Zombie spirit – they are strong,  fierce, “Bokor” that controls the spirit of the dead and it can infiltrate it in any living creature to control it.      

The body rose from the dead –   “Bokor” is the one that controls the spirit of the dead and can see into any living creature or lich: 

zombie pair, by Iuly Vasile

zombie pair, by Iuly Vasile

“The Monster That Keeps Coming Back”

After the attacks of 9/11 in America, there was a so-called “zombie renaissance”, which can be described as resistance of the audience towards the macabre showing of mass fear and paranoia (fear  induced by infectious wounds, infections, alienation, chaos in social order or the defragmentation  of the society), but also the fear of death and insignificance. Zombies are creatures that have made the leap from local folklore in popular culture without going through the validation by the literature. Instead, numerous papers and testimonies often enriched by anthropologists or by people, provides the first written references of zombies. Rich descriptions of Voudou’s occur in 1929 in the paper “Magic Island” by William Seabrook, after which followed other exaggerated memories of former soldiers serving in Haiti. The first mentions of “Zombie” on stage and on screen were in  1932 by Kenneth Webb‘s song “Zombie”, but also by Halperin Brothers movie, “White Zombie”, which dealt with the seductive theme of possession, the relationship between master and slave, between the possessor and the possessed. This relationship was further increased by the following movies oft he 30s-40s, in which the idea of zombies and voudou was linked with voyeurism and fetishism, using possessed women for sexual purposes (“Ouanga” and “Voodoo Man”) and racial minorities were discriminated (“I Walked with a Zombie”).

Two factors have cancelled the power of a Zombie to scare people:

– Being in parodies and comedies

– The appearance of other fears and social anxieties (nuclear annihilation, communist rule)

They also went through comparison with aliens, became monsters that think, transfigured ex-boyfriends and by the 60s they suffered a metamorphosis.  Zombie becomes a matter of identity and cohesion.   What about the breakdown? Beginning with Rafael Portillio’s movies “Aztec  Mummy” (1957) and “The Plague of the Zombies” (1966), zombies became wandering, decrepit and decomposing corpses, but before these depictions, zombies were simply automatic, with thread bare clothing and human features. The zombie first appeared in George Romero’s film, “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968. After this movie were made a bunch of others of the dead and zombies.The zombie is a modern cannibal. Romero didn’t imagine to be so successful by implementing this creature in the movie script, giving birth to the dead! Later, the zombie lost its master. The role of the master was taken by the cannibalistic desire of eating human flesh. Over 60 films followed in the following years which took over this feature of cannibalism. Also, Romero popularized the idea that they can only be killed with blows to the head and brain. Often these animated creatures are mistaken with the intelligent corpses with supernatural powers, recognized as the lich – they are more like skeletons and lead the unfortunate armies of zombies. The ones that know the story, know the differences, too.(Heroes fans, anyone?). Zombie has no intellect and is controlled by the necromancier (aka wizard revived lich).

Other references: Modern zombie was further highlighted in the horror novella by H P Lovecraft, Herbert West –Reanimator (1922). The story inspired by that of Frankenstein, but here, the doctor is a mad scientist who doesn’t create a conscious and rational being, but creatures driven by instinct, extreme violence, that bite people – without transforming them in turn. Zombie genre is still strongly influenced by Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954), where the zombie plague doesn’t kill people, but rather transforms them into modern vampires. They suck blood, do not eat meat and maintain their reason without being violent. From here it was modern myth started: that you cannot become a zombie thorugh death, but infestation.  

Who are the zombies, today? Zombies are mass consumers. Movies from the last decades have influenced social anxieties related to individuality and collectivity, so that: – indigenous natives terribly feared to be taken from their community and becomeThe One (zombie) – the consumerist audience identified with the characters of the movie, have a terrible fear of losing identity, individuality and becoming part of The Many.

Psychologists even define a modern zombie as a person that walks through life without experiencing essential moments, thresholds and emotions. Of course, this creature doesn’t eat its peers, it is just a syndrome called “the walking corpse syndrome “ – The Cotard delusion discovered by Jules Cotard in 1882 – in which patients believe they died, that their flesh is rotting or have lost a vital organ.The delirium is kind of similar with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Some attempt suicideto verify if they are immortal, others are starving, fortunately few suffer from this disease.

Zombie creature resisted better than others because it is considered in the modern collective consciousness as a victim of cruel experiments of the government or the corporate greed. It seems that zombies have their only chance in video games because they are very versatile and popular among young people that often play with such characters, see Diablo or Warcraft.  They are also appreciated in games for being “guilt free monsters to kill”. In New York or San Francisco, there are festivals where people disguise themselves as zombies, and being drunk they roam the bars in the name of fun without reason. And what’sreally interesting is that for some “fall guys for a range of paranoid theories” zombies are a community even after death.  

Illustration by Iuly Vasile

Source: Dissecting the Undead—Psychological and Political Meanings in Zombie Films, de Shawn McIntosh, Columbia University, Strategic Communications Adjunct

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