by Ericka Johns
(While writing this post on zombies, I could not stop thinking about the scene in “The Office” where Andy sang “Zombie, zombie, zombie, iiieee, iieee “, so feel free to have that scene playing on a loop in the background as you read the following):
The belief in zombies is the belief that it is possible for a human body to function without a soul, that a human body lacking consciousness can imitate the movements of a human body with consciousness, and that a dead person has the ability to come back to life. Besides horror movie fans and dooms-day preppers, philosophers like Todd Moody and David Chalmers also believe that the idea of zombies is not far-fetched 1. The mention of zombies can be dated back to 1697, where they were described as spirits or ghost in literature. The inclusion of zombies on-screen began in 1932, with the release of the film “White Zombie” and characters such as Frankenstein and Dracula, who appeared around the same time. These depictions of flesh-eating, blood-thirsty zombies are quite different from the earlier depictions in the 1697 literature. As the years have gone on, and technology has improved, zombies have appeared more gruesome and gory 2. With the continuation of film and TV adaptations into today’s age, zombies, and the belief in them, remain prevalent in society.
Perhaps the most alarming part of all of this is that zombies actually DO exist…just not in the form you’re probably thinking of. In the Haitian religion of Vodou (not to be confused with Voodoo, the New Orleans rendition of the religion which is a variation of hoodoo and conjure), there are sorcerers for hire called bokors who will turn people into zombies for the right price, but not with magic! As a Vodoun practicioner Dorian David Leigh describes, bokors administer “zombie powders” (a mix of various poisons and hallucinogens) to the individual, and through this, the bokor is able to create a complacent, paralyzed, and brain-damaged human. These “zombies” are used by the bokors and are sentenced to a life of servitude, doing whatever it is the bokors command. Bokors aren’t the only ones with this “ability” to turn people into zombies, there are also secret societies within the religion that use the powders as a form of punishment. Since killing is forbidden in the most common form of Vodou, Afrique de Ginen, the societies punish those who commit crimes punishable by death by turning them into zombies 1. In Haiti, the zombies themselves are not feared, the idea of being turned into a zombie against one’s will or doing something terrible enough to warrant being turned into a zombie is feared 3.
In academia, the zombie issue is also ever present in the form of what is called “p-zombies”, with philosophers like Dennett, Moody, and Chalmers (mentioned earlier) chiming in on the argument of zombies (human body without consciousness behaving like a human body with consciousness) and the possibility of their existence. Dennett holds the position that if a body is indistinguishable from a person in its behavior and mannerisms, then it is indeed a person, not a zombie. Moody and Chalmers, on the other hand, believe that a body CAN be distinguishable from a person, due to the stipulation that the body is not conscious. This topic is debated in philosophy because philosophers do not believe, or do not want to believe, that consciousness can be broken down into just a few materialistic functions 1. The field is generally split into two sides: those who believe that zombies can have cognitive capabilities but not be conscious, and those who do not. This is an issue explored further by philosopher Declan Smithies in his article “The Mental Lives of Zombies” 4.
So far, I’ve discussed three types of zombies: those who are dead and come back to life, those who are created by the bokors and secret societies of the Vodou religion, and philosophical zombies (which can apply to machines, or anything for that matter). So, are proponents of these forms of zombies misinformed? Yes and no. If you believe that the dead can come back to life, you’re not alone, so did the ancient Greeks who buried their dead with heavy rocks over the corpses to prevent them from reanimating. The only thing is: how we generally learn about zombies, such as these, is through pop culture references, not real life. This means that pop culture shapes our beliefs in this type of zombie and perpetuates the narrative, without any real proof that they are possible. On the other hand, the creation of Vodou zombies has a scientific/medical basis, as opposed to a more supernatural basis, and it is a normal practice in their religion. The issue of the philosophical zombie (p-zombie) will likely be debated for many years without any true, beyond-a-doubt conclusion, so a person taking either side would only be wrong or misinformed in the eyes of the opposition.
As I mentioned earlier, there are many film and TV zombie plotlines, lots of them involving an apocalyptic theme and zombies that are reanimated corpses. There are some funny depictions of zombies, like Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead, and some more serious depictions can be seen in films like World War Z and shows like The Walking Dead. Works like these is what keeps the belief in zombies prevalent in today’s society. I also mentioned earlier that dooms-day preppers might have a strong belief in zombies because they are preparing themselves for the apocalypse and any form that takes, which involves being ready for anything. TV and Film keeps the fear and possibility of zombies alive (no pun intended), and the idea that they could indeed cause an apocalypse, despite the lack of evidence.
As for our obsession with the idea of zombies, where did it begin? Well, Stanford literary scholar Angela Becerra Vidergar believes it is history itself that drives our obsession. She says that large scale disasters, like the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cause people to think about their own deaths on a mass scale and with a focus on survival of the fittest 2. This seems to be a plausible explanation for our fascination with zombies: when we see a zombie film, we are prompted to start thinking of what we would do to survive if we were in that situation. This can be the driving force behind our obsession, but multiple explanations can justify our obsession as well. Do you believe in zombies? Do you think they can cause an apocalypse one day? Are you obsessed with zombies like the rest of the world? Let me know in the comments.