by M Joseph Murphy
Zombies: the Politically Correct Monsters
I grew up in a period called The Cold War. Historians will likely call these years The Age of Terror. We live in a constant state of fear because we don't know who are enemies are. The nice family next door - no matter what their country of origin or religion - could be plotting to blow up the government building. The paperboy could grab a dozen assault rifles on the way to first period. This amorphous, ever-present dread means we have no target for our fear, nothing to point at and say "evil".
Zombies are simple - the perfect monster for a politically correct world. We feel no remorse for them because they are already dead. Zombies are raceless, country-less enemies that allow us to feel zero guilt when we kill them in video games. Zombies have no children. Their only motivation is to kill us, to destroy our world.
When I was a kid, we played cowboys and Indians. Then, as a society, we realized celebrating the mass slaughter of innocents makes us the monsters.
"The terror that is engendered by zombies is not the fear that they can be evil, but the fear that one might become one of them." (Source: Zombies - The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying.)
Zombies: We Are All Zombies
Any horror buff knows our current pop culture image of zombies evolved from Haiti.
In traditional Haitian beliefs, people have two souls: the gro bonanj (the eternal self-less spirit) and the ti bonanj (our consciousness and individual will). For those that die naturally, the gro bonanj goes to the afterlife, what westerners would consider heaven. For victims of murder, their souls are vulnerable (Source: Haiti and the Truth About Zombies)
A bokor is able to capture one portion of the soul, trapping it in a jar for use in magical ceremonies. One such use is the reanimation of the corpse to create an eternal slave, a laborer to work the fields who will never question his owner.
Now take a look around you. Have you ever felt like you're surrounded by zombies? Like 99% of everyone you meet is under the mental control of the 1%? No matter what the government does, the people silently accept it. Very few rebel. Those that do are silenced. Assimilated. It wasn't a bokor that took away our will. We actively, consistently give away our individuality every day.
In Haiti, a country that has known a long period of slavery with the Spanish and French colonizations until their independence in 1804, the fear of becoming enslaved has remained a part of their collective consciousness. The fear of being changed into a slave for the rest of one's life is a fear of being constrained to live without individuality, will, and conscience. (Source: Zombies - Encyclopedia of Death and Dying)
Zombies: Science Out of Control
The first movie I remember that tried to rationalize the Haitian magic into something believable was The Serpent and the Rainbow (link: Serpent and the Rainbow IMDB) in which ethnobotanist Wade Davis explored the science behind zombies. The most terrifying aspect of this movie (aside from being based on a real story) is how completely plausible it is. A mixture of chemicals could easily convince others that a body is dead. Another mixture of chemicals makes the victim extremely susceptible to suggestions.
The majority of zombie stories today, whether its a rampaging bio-engineered weapon like in Return of the Living Dead or World War Z or a t-virus like in Resident Evil, are based on science creating something it cannot control. Something science creates to make our lives better, instead destroys all of civilization. Most people have heard of the fungus that can turn ants into zombie-like creatures. You have to know some crazy idiot out there is trying to find a way to use this on humans. Our species doesn't know when to leave good enough alone.
So where is this fear coming from?
What Does It All Mean?
Maybe it's the ever-present threat of global warming. Maybe it's the increased presence of GMO foods and pharmaceuticals. I've even heard several people are concerned that the rise of ebola is what will cause the zombie apocalypse.Whatever the cause, the abundance of zombie fiction today points to one root cause: something in our gut tells us the world is about to blow up. We're afraid that the comfortable lives we've built for ourselves are on the brink of being destroyed. But that's not a safe fear. Thinking about that too much could drive you insane.
So instead we focus on simple fears: