Zombies are the most popular monster of the modern era because they address perennial questions of religion argues Karen Willows.
‘There’s no more room in hell’ goes the famous line, lifted from Romero’s infamous ‘The Night of the Living Dead’.
For decades, the zombie has fascinated public consciousness and caught the imagination of authors and filmmakers. The zombie has always been a metaphor however, and behind the shambling walk and the slow groan, lays a wealth of commentary on modern society.
Religion Dispatches published articles that looked at what they termed ‘zombie theology’, indicating that discussions on decaying corpses and religion may overlap – particularly on the question of what it means to be human.
Zombies however, from their roots to modern incarnations, have consistently posed difficult questions about life, death, morality and the end of the world.
The word zombie, and the origin of the zombie mythos, can be traced to Haiti. The religion of the islanders is infamous the world over – voodoo, or for technical scholars of the religion who are keen to distance it from misconceptions, ‘Vodou’.
Vodou is a religion unique to the Haitians, though it has links to West African religions and is influenced too by the period of forced conversion to Christianity during the eighteenth century. Vodou is a religion with a great good god, but one so distant and so transcendental, that he is unknowable. Instead, lesser gods, the loa, are worshipped.
In the Vodou tradition, a zombie is not a flesh-eating monster, but a human being who has forgotten who they were, and been made subject to the will of a sorcerer, a bokor. They were mindless slaves, a description that is not incidental, according to US journalist and academic Amy Wilentz, who argues that the “zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery”.
Haiti, after all, is populated by former slaves, brought over to work in horrific, inhumane conditions, for no pay. Their lives, ambitions, and futures were stripped from them and were instead replaced by the daily toil of cotton picking and manual labour.
William Seabrook, the writer and itinerant journalist, recounts in The Magic Island an experience of meeting a field worker with a vacant look in his eyes, unresponsive and docile – a supposed zombie. The rumours recorded by Seabrook and others tell of how nefarious sorcerers exhume dead bodies, resurrecting them and reviving them into a half-life and then subjecting the zombies to their own will.
This was an understandable nightmare scenario for Haitians, especially the slaves who spent their lives working the fields. Wilentz argued the zombie myth grew out of this environment, “to become a zombie was the slaves’ worst nightmare; to be dead and still a slave”.
To Be Human
The Haitian zombies were immortalised in Western consciousness with movies such as The White Zombie, but it is a very different type of zombie that is familiar in the modern era.
It all began with I Am Legend, a novel about the last man alive following the spread of a virus that turned humans into vampire-zombies. The author, Richard Matheson, created an entire genre. The zombie went from being supernatural to a plague. I Am Legend also introduced idea of the “zombie apocalypse”.
George Romero, inspired by I Am Legend, directed The Night of the Living Dead, a movie that put the final touches on the modern zombie with its depiction of hordes of slow walking human-flesh eaters.
The zombie has come a long way from its origins. Yet whether a Haitian zombie or Romero zombie, both pose a question about what it means to be human.
In Vodouism, the human being consists of the physical and the spiritual. The spiritual is further divided into the gwo-bon-anj and the ti-bon-anj. The former, translated as Great Good Angel, is the life force, whereas the latter, the Small Good Angel, is the self, or the memories and experiences and idiosyncrasies that make a person unique. To create a zombie, the bokor captures the Ti-Bon-Anj, rendering the zombie an empty shell.
The Abrahamic religions tend to envisage the human as mind, body, spirit, but modern zombies seem to appeal to a more Cartesian view of the self. The viruses that begin the zombie infection are explained variously as somehow ramping up aggression levels, or otherwise disabling higher brain function. The zombie is a human being who has somehow stopped functioning
This begs the question – what is a human being? And what is missing from the zombies that mean they no longer fit the definition of human beings? As many have pointed out, the zombie metaphor is one about being almost human, almost entirely human. They look like us, dress like us, and just about sound like us, but something separates them and us.
Many religions turn to the soul to explain the question of what makes a human being unique – the soul is the true self (the ti-bon-anj of Vodouism). It is otherworldly, subtle and often indefinable. It makes us who we are.
The Haitian zombies lost their humanity by losing their agency, a metaphor for slavery. Romero’s zombies are sometimes presented as having lost their humanity a long time ago by becoming slaves to consumerism. In one of his most famous sequels, Dawn of the Dead, the survivors flock to a shopping centre, only to find themselves besieged by zombies, who do in death what they did in life, and flock to the mall. Zombies have repeatedly been used as a way of critiquing society, and questions of humanity.
To Be Good
A reoccurring theme in the spate of zombie films released in the past two decades has been morality. The cataclysmic events following a zombie apocalypse have been explored in movies such as 28 Days Later (2002) and World War Z (2013), as well as the successful TV series The Walking Dead.
The zombie apocalypse scenario provides a unique context for asking perennial questions of religion – what does it mean to be good? In a world where civilisation has ended, and perhaps nearly the human race, does morality change? Can actions such as murder, theft, and even rape, ever be rationalised? 28 Days Later, the British zombie movie that injected new life to the genre with its depictions of rage-filled sprinting zombies, presented the audience with these questions with the fullest brutality. We encounter groups of survivors who consider the new world needing new moralities, and who are willing to abduct and abuse others to continue surviving.
Religions have often been advocates of the view that there exists an objective good and evil that remain fixed regardless of context. The zombie apocalypse challenges this idea. If stealing and killing another band of survivors was the only way you could secure your own family’s survival, would you? The apocalypse destroys civilisation, and the pre-existing authorities. If there are no police, no state, no society, does being a good human being mean the same thing?
Some however argue the zombie genre allows for an unrestrained, guiltless violence. The zombies are beyond redemption and no longer human, so unfathomable actions can be taken against them without a second thought. This allows for an incredible amount of violence on screen, a level that would otherwise be seen as incredibly evil. In Matheson’s I Am Legend, the author reveals at the end that the monsters killed by the book’s protagonist were in fact a new society – they were cognizant and not simply mindless monsters. The protagonist had turned into the monster, creeping into homes and killing the sleeping monsters when they were most vulnerable.
The allusions to modern warfare, in which our enemies are dehumanised, and turned into monsters who are mindlessly aggressive but lack agency or will, are clear and have been explored by some thinkers as being analogous to the zombie hoards.
“I will knock down the gates of hell,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors buckled,
and I will let the dead return to eat the living,
and the dead will be more than the living.”
Ishtar in the Epic of Gilgamesh
These lines from the Assyrian Epic of Gilgamesh echo the famous lines from The Night of the Living Dead, “there’s no more room in hell”.
Life after death is a perpetual mystery for humanity, and no matter how far we develop, it remains a mystery. Zombies address a deep unease within us – what if there is something after death? And what if it is worse?
The zombie represents a ‘liminality’ between life and death, neither here nor there argues Kelly Baker of Religion Dispatches. ‘Zombies are inherently liminal, that strange place betwixt and between. They are ambiguity’ An ambiguity that invokes an uncomfortable dread in us. Of course resurrection after death is a common motif in religious traditions, and a sign of Divine power and mastery over the human experience. Zombies adopt this motif but invert it – rather than being a sign of the good god(s), the zombie is from somewhere more evil.
The modern world has meant zombies are now more commonly associated with viruses and plagues than the supernatural. But perhaps as a sign of a postmodern turn in moviemaking, the demonic role of the zombie has reasserted itself in recent years. The remake of Evil Dead (2013) returned the zombie to the fold of the supernatural, and the cult-hit [REC] (2007) combined the scientific with the supernatural telling of a virus which is itself a carrier of demonic possession.
The fear of death, particularly the unknown that lies beyond, is a unique part of the human experience. Zombies force us to stare death in the face, almost quite literally.
Few monsters epitomise the twenty-first century quite like zombies do. We see ourselves in them, fearing our slow shuffle into a mindless routine; we see our worst fears in them – the loss of humanity for a more base desire; and we can see the big questions of our time posed through them – what it means to be human, to be good, and what life after death might look like.
Zombies are set to dominate our media for the coming years, especially with a new series of the Walking Dead and several sequels planned. Zombies may be dead, but zombie stories are alive and kicking.