On October 30, 2010, there was an unusual gathering in Asbury Park, New Jersey, U.S. About 5,000 zombies were seen marching together on Asbury Park Boardwalk, dressed in bloody, torn garments, and moaning for brains. The march was just like that of zombie films, normally quite a terrifying sight. Nevertheless, the general atmosphere at Asbury Park was rather pleasant, even strangely festive. The gathering was in fact one of the many “Zombie Walks” in North America, gathering a Guinness record-setting number of zombie enthusiasts, all very much alive and human.
One way to endure the summer heat wave is immersing oneself in scary stories of monsters and ghosts. Among all monsters of the horror genre, zombies in particular have gained an immense popularity since the 1960s, becoming some of the most frequently encountered monsters in popular culture. Outside popular culture, it appears that zombies have had a considerable influence on human language, too. However, why have they become so popular? What are they in the first place? In attempting to answer these questions, an overview of zombies’ current popularity will be conducted as well.
What Are Zombies? Nowadays, most people have at least heard of “zombies,” the most common description being that of “flesh eating, mindless ghouls created by some infection.” This common conception of zombies is mostly derived from zombie films. Unfortunately, the cinematic vision of zombies is too superficial, although quite sensational. It helps the public recognize what zombies “look like,” but not quite what they “are.”
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Zombies may be defined in two different manners. The original definition of zombies is in reference to the traditional Voodoo religion, practiced in parts of Africa and the Caribbean, notably Haiti. One possible etymologic explanation for the word “zombie” is that it was derived from the word “nzambi,” meaning “god” in the Congo language (Kikongo). The corresponding Voodoo conception of zombies is much different from the common image today. Voodoo zombies are more like reanimated corpses and possessed living people, controlled by witchcraft. According to the Voodoo religion, sorcerers are able to bring back dead bodies to life through witchcraft. The bodies thus revived have no independent will, the sole purpose of their existence being labor in the sorcerer’s will, deprived of all human reason and emotion. Living people may also be zombified by sorcery. Overall, Voodoo zombies are mindless victims of witchcraft and slave labor. They do not inflict any harm on others, without any elevated tendency for violence, physical prowess, or taste for human flesh. In appearance, they are quite like normal human beings.
On the other hand, zombies as now commonly known did not appear until 1968. In this year, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead introduced zombies as mindless living dead craving human brains. Initially without commercial success, it later on received critical acclaim, and became a powerful inspiration for cinema and other cultural genres, leading to the popular understanding of zombies today.
Romero-style zombies are quite distinct from the traditional Voodoo zombies. Romero created his version of zombies using the Voodoo legend as the basis; the idea of reanimated dead bodies was borrowed from the Voodoo legend, alongside their mindless state and lack of self-awareness. Meanwhile, he abandoned the characteristics of complete submission to a sorcerer, slave labor, and the general victim-like nature of Voodoo zombies. Romero’s conception of zombies was then complemented by elements of other horror figures, mostly vampires and ghouls, including tendencies for reckless violence, accompanied by grotesque physical appearances, the particular “zombie” walking, and the obsession for cannibalism.
Since 1968, Romero’s idea of zombies has undergone many modifications, which made the creature even more hideous, yet more realistic. Zombies developed a particular preference for brains. Pseudo-scientific explanations were provided, concerning zombies’ creation and spread. The idea of a failed biotech experiment has been the most popular one. Such variations of Romero-style zombies are highly popular in modern days, and some even speak of a metaphorical “zombie invasion.” It is also this specific type of zombies dealt with here. The term “zombie” in the following paragraphs will refer to Romero’s idea.
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Zombies in Popular Culture
When looking at modern popular culture, there seems to be some justification behind the term “zombie invasion.” Table 1 lists zombie-invaded cultural genres.
Zombies outside Popular Culture
Ultimately, the concept of zombies is used beyond the Voodoo legend and popular culture. Due to frequent exposure through media, the public has become familiar with zombies. Now the “zombie invasion” has branched into human language as well, becoming a recurring feature of daily usage of language, as well as in academic terminology. The linguistic usage of zombies refers to their essential characteristics of the following: their mindless nature, their uncertain status between living and dead, their blind obsession for one purpose accompanied by sheer violence, and finally, their grotesque appearance. Table 2 shows various usages of the term “zombie,” often outside the horror context.
When one comes to think about it, however, what is it that people see in these gruesome, flesh-eating monsters? Why should they enjoy such immense popularity, much more so than other fictional characters? After all, Romero-style zombies have a fairly short history compared to that of the more classic horror figures such as ghosts and vampires, who have been around for centuries. Moreover, there does not seem to be much element of romance or glamour in zombies. Vampires and ghosts may be scary, but that is not the only impression one has of them, considering the romantic vampires of the Twilight saga and the friendly ghosts in Casper. Meanwhile, when seeing zombies, the dominant sentiment so far is repulsion. Yet people watch zombies, some even imitate them, and the concept is widely used. There are some psychological and social explanations for this phenomenon.
One reason behind the popularity of zombies is that they are highly effective in gripping attention and stimulating fear, ultimately leading to an exciting diversion. Three main factors make zombies particularly fearsome.
Loss of humanity is one of men’s greatest fears, and zombies touch upon this particular fear. Human beings have always tried to distinguish themselves from all other creatures, defining themselves by unique attributes of humanity. The coordination of heart, head, and body is the core of humanity. Elements henceforth derived like morality, intellect, dignity, and physical beauty are the essential virtues that establish human identity and existence. In order to remain truly human, it must be certain that men are not deprived of these crucial ideals. This means that human capacities to think, to feel, to aspire for beauty, to judge, and accordingly decide his actions are to be safeguarded. Loss of these human qualities is extremely terrifying, sometimes more so than death, possibly explaining why some incurably ill patients choose deathwith- dignity over “meaningless” prolongation of life. Such decision is an attempt to protect their humanity from tragic demise throughout physical degradation, such as entering vegetative state or becoming brain dead, in which it can be challenged whether the patient is truly living as a human being. Refusing amputation of a leg at the risk of losing one’s life may be understood in a similar light.
Zombies represent the ultimate contradiction of all human attributes. They incarnate the complete destruction of humanity and the most horrible perversion possible of mankind. Their appearance is simply hideous, utterly devoid of physical beauty. In addition, most zombies are without human emotion and reason. They are not capable of feeling joy, pain, or of appreciating art. Neither are they able to think, to contemplate their existence, or engage in any intellectual reflection. In fact, they cannot possess humanity as it would be paradoxical: if they are indeed able to think and feel, they would themselves destroy their own kind. Their reason would enlighten them of their deplorable degradation and complete lack of humanity; then consequent emotions of sorrow and horror would overwhelm them. Moreover, zombies are not masters of themselves, and they are governed solely by their instinctive desire for cannibalism, another direct rejection of humanity. In short, zombies incite great terror as they provoke men’s most profound fear of losing humanity. They are the worst nightmare come true, and the fact that they still conserve the silhouette of men only intensifies the horror.
The pandemic nature of zombies adds to the fear. In non-zombie horror stories, the reader is able to distance himself from the horror. The stories’ unlucky victims are specified individuals. They do not share direct connection with the reader. For example, the haunting story of Poe’s The Black Cat is an isolated incident, and it is not generalized.
With zombies, however, the victims come from an unspecified, general public. According to many Romero-inspired conceptions of zombies, one is “zombified” by somehow contracting the “zombie virus” or mutagen, for instance when bitten by a zombie. Zombies are hence contagious, with unspecified victims, and zombie stories have the quality of generality. Thus the terror is not isolated to “somebody else,” and the distance is reduced between the reader and the horror, heightening the fear. Basically, zombie stories are scary because they may happen to anyone in general. In the words of Max Brooks, a renown zombie novel writer, “Other monsters may threaten individual humans, but the living dead threaten the entire human race.... Zombies are slate wipers.”
The fear of rapid advancement in science and technology is another factor to be considered. Albert Einstein once said that, “it has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Indeed, after witnessing the destructive power of atomic bombs, the public became weary of scientific advancements, which were now too fast and sophisticated to keep track of. Science became inaccessible for the general population, while its power continuously grew. The incomprehension resulted in an uncertain fear of science and technology. The world was now aware of the significant dangers of scientific advancements, and it realized that technology may actually lead to destruction of mankind. Consequently, the themes of nuclear apocalypse, and mad–scientists-threatening-the-world became highly popular.
The fear of zombies can be viewed as yet another example of fear of science. Living in the post-nuclear era, people are now witnessing great developments in the field of genetics and biotechnology. Since Watson and Crick found the double helix structure of DNA in 1953, genetics has undergone some dramatic advancement, including the Human Genome Project, which decodes the human genetic structure. Breakthroughs in theory gave way to rapid progress in biotechnologies. Men are now able to do extraordinary tasks, like creating chimera living forms through transgenesis, and some are even speculating about the possibility of immortality through stem cell research. Such power of modern science is often referred to as “godlike,” as it takes humanity into domains previously unimaginable and thus deemed divine.
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Despite many benefits of advance biotechnology, there exists a definite fear among the public. Biotechnology is equally or even more complicated than nuclear technology, out of reach of ordinary people. With its rapid developments, men are once again overwhelmed and threatened by science. Unsure of what men can do with their knowledge, unsure of whether men will be able to control the technology, people fear that biotechnology may, in fact, be the Pandora’s Box. The possibility of human cloning and biological weapons add to the fear. Zombies may be an expression of such fear, as biotechnology is often employed to explain zombie outbreaks. The ideas of viral pandemic and failed experiments are frequently employed in zombie stories, alongside themes of mad scientists and mutations. These elements add a realistic dimension to zombie stories, and at the same time represent the dangers of scientific progress beyond proper human understanding, combined with the long existent idea of humanity’s self-destructive apocalypse. Portrayed as the consequence of biotechnology abused or gone out of control, zombies successfully express people’s uneasiness with rapid progress. This aspect amplifies the horror of zombies, as well as their popularity.
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The Current Social State
The popularity of zombies may also be explained in respect to the current social state. Society today has great diversity, which makes it very complicated. Nothing is simple anymore, as there is a lack of empathy and common ground. Moral judgments are difficult, as one now has to consider the different contexts and relativity of moral values. Contrary to such social context, zombies are extremely simple. Everybody can condemn zombies, as they are the absolute crystalloid of perversion. Zombies offer the most simplistic dichotomy, and all men are justified in fighting zombies, even with violence. Without having to reflect, zombie stories act as outlets of men’s instinctive rage and aggressiveness.
In addition, zombies reflect another characteristic of the current social state, the fact that society is losing its humanity. Edgar Allen Poe once said, “I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. Man is now only more active –– not more happy –– nor more wise, than he was 6000 years ago.” Poe’s pessimistic perception of social progress still draws much agreement today, as many deplore that human virtues are lost in modern times. According to them, current society is too preoccupied by material progress and consumerism that people have come to forget essential human values, such as compassion or philosophy. Indeed, more “active” in their pursuit of success, yet unhappy and not really wise, today’s society appears to be “zombified.” Devoid of humanity, and obsessed with one purpose of surviving, zombies correspond to the current state of society and human mentality, which is why the concept is so popular.
Future of Zombies
Zombies have come a long way so far. Once harmless victims of Voodoo sorcery forced to labor, the cannibal monsters have now become common features of popular culture, human language, and terminology. Their continual existence was made possible by their popularity, explained by their fearful nature and characteristics of modern society.
Nonetheless, zombies’ evolution is still in continuation. The definitions and arguments provided here may soon have to be reestablished. For instance, there are some recent novels that portray zombies capable of loving and thinking. Whether such vision of zombies will acquire popularity, we shall see in due time.