Rise of the zombie

In recent years, flesh-hungry corpses have crawled, lumbered, dragged and (sometimes controversially) sprinted their way from their graves and into popular culture. They have invaded the streets of some of the biggest cities in the world, they have interrupted reality TV, they have been the subject of countless films, they have provided impressive backup dancing in popular music videos, they have appeared in cartoons, video games, novels, art... even Jane Austin’s delectable Mr Darcy has had his run-ins with them.


They are, of course, zombies and at BBC Scotland we have been finding out a bit about them due to an undead invasion of our Pacific Quay building in Glasgow on the 7th of October for Authors Live with Charlie Higson. Please don’t be alarmed though, the zombies in the invasion were actually children from Hamilton Grammar and Airdrie Academy who had dressed up in the spirit of the event.



In the Caribbean, the religious and spiritual practices of voodoo have been responsible for tales of mindless and death-like slaves that relentlessly serve their masters. The word for these slaves is “zombi”. It is thought that some practitioners of voodoo, bokor, are able to revive the dead.


While researching Haitian voodoo in 1937, author Zora Neale Hurston met and photographed a woman who had appeared in a village long after her supposed death in 1909. She pursued this case and tried to uncover evidence of the use of a power psychoactive drug but the community proved to be uncooperative. On the subject she is quoting as saying that medical science would “benefit” from the secrets kept by Haitian voodoo.


The Haitian zombi was once again subject to investigation in 1985, where an American ethnobotanist named Wade Davis published a book called “The Serpent and the Rainbow” that he claimed to be non-fiction. In the book he investigated Haitian voodoo(vodou) and the processes of making zombies through the combination of powerful drugs such as tetrodotoxin, a hallucinogen called Datura, and the strong social and cultural influence that lay in the country’s voodoo heritage.


Davis wrote about the part these factors played in the alleged case of a Haitian man named Clairvius Narcisse. Narcisse was allegedly given drugs to induce a death-like state and after his subsequent burial his body was reclaimed by a bokor(sorcerer). He was then administered Datura, which also causes memory loss, and forced to work on a sugar plantation along with other zombies until the death of the bokor. After his release from the effects of the drugs, Narcisse was eventually able to recover his memory unlike many who had suffered permanent brain damage due to being buried alive and he was able to return to his family.


Due to the dark and mysterious nature of the tales and supposed real-life cases of zombification in the Caribbean, it is easy to see why some of the earliest fictional works featuring mindless, death-like beings found Caribbean voodoo and folklore at the very core of their plots. “The Magic Island” by W.B. Seabrook is one such work, a book published in 1929 which had a central theme of Haitian voodoo and, according to Time, introduced the word “zombi” into the vocabulary of the U.S.


However, the voodoo-inspired zombie fiction waned and in 1968 George A. Romero, who is arguably the father of the modern zombie, directed his classic “Night of the Living Dead” film. Drawing influence from “I am Legend” and “Tales from the Crypt”, Romero’s film featured the beginning of an apocalypse that he would go on to extensively cover as a director.


The surviving humans in this film barricade themselves inside an old farmhouse and are forced to fight off the relentless, slow-moving walking dead. Despite the ample violence and gore, the film is laced with complicated moral and emotional situations in which the main characters struggle to cope. It also left the cause of the rise of the dead a mystery, with an emergency television broadcast providing the theories of surviving religious leaders, scientists and government officials, a mechanism that invites the audience to come to their own conclusions on the origin of the events.


Fear factor

In 1970, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori presented a hypothesis called “The Uncanny Valley”. Mori talks about familiarity(the way we feel towards something) and its relation to robots and other humanoids that exhibit likeness to humans. The “Valley” comes from a dip in a graph used by Mori in order to illustrate his point. It states that if robots and other facsimiles of the human form look and act like humans it causes a sense of revulsion among human observers. Interestingly enough Mori himself used zombies in his graph as an example of a humanoid with extreme negative familiarity.


To explain his theory he uses the example of a prosthetic hand – if one person shakes the hand of another person with an extremely life-like prosthetic hand, they may be shocked to feel a texture or a temperature that they didn’t expect. It is this subtle difference that alarms us.


In Authors Live, Charlie Higson highlighted that one reason that zombies are really scary is because “they are us”. This is why they fit so well at the bottom of the Uncanny Valley - certainly they were once very much like us and even still greatly resemble us, yet there are differences. These subtle differences frightens us because we are seeing something we perceive to be familiar, but something just isn’t right.


With all of the deceptive tactics that predatory organisms employ in the natural world; turtles that use their tongues as a worm-like lure to attract fish for example, it could be that we have evolved to be sensitive to subtle differences that could mean the difference between life and death.


Zombies could be very easily mistaken for another human being and this is often used in zombie fiction as a mechanism of fear, aiming to orchestrate a jump from the audience. The scene is often a badly lit room; a shadowy figure stands twitching with its back to the camera, the protagonist calls out “Hello, are you okay?”, the figure remains with its back turned, is it alive… is it one of them? We find out when the protagonist places a trembling and desperate hand on the shoulder of the figure, only for it to reel around – a flurry of teeth and blood.


On further exploration of the idea that “they are us”, we must also consider that potentially this grotesque and murderous fiend trying to feast on your flesh might even be the most beloved person in your life. This creates a very personal horror - it is an idea that is likely to send a shiver down the spine. Can you imagine making the kind of critical decision to kill or be killed in the face of a family member?


On the other end of the spectrum, it could well be your worst enemy – would this make your decision any easier? What exactly would this second death mean to you? Would you be giving this person their final rest? Would you be erasing their last semblance of life? Or would you simply be dispatching another danger to your own life?


Appeal of the Living Dead


What then do zombies have that has propelled them into contemporary pop culture?


It seems that only very recently zombies have made an impact upon pop culture. Why has it taken so long for the zombies of 1968 to make it to the mainstream? One reason could be that “Night of the Living Dead” and the subsequent explosion of zombies in the horror genre has been very popular for a long time with a very dedicated cult following. The kind of dedicated cult following that can encourage very passionate debate among fans – Night of the Living Dead style slow zombies or 28 days later quick-sprinting modern zombies? Charlie Higson and I are both of the opinion that the best kind of zombie is the old fashioned slow moving one that is tireless in its efforts to get you.


A lot of the successful intergration of zombies into pop culture may be owed to the B-movie industry where zombies have been portrayed in a less than serious light. Less the tear-inducing abominations of flesh, and more the laughter-provoking oaf. An example can be found in the demon-possessed dead of the “Evil Dead” trilogy. A series of films that feature a lot of humour, and sometimes almost slapstick scenes where the zombies and “deadites” appear to be clumsy and manic. Perhaps it is films like the “Evil Dead” that paved the way for zombies to be choreographed in the music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The B-movie has given the zombie the invaluable ability to be seen as rather cute in a sense, almost like big dead puppies.


In the era of “geek chic”, where comic books and video games are being translated into highly successful big budget films, where “cult” is synonymous with “cool”, now seems to be the perfect time for zombies to clamber their way into the limelight with some cities in the world hosting organised “zombie walks” where hundreds of people dress up as zombies and make their way down a designated route. This is often in the name of charity or politics, but sometimes it is just done for good old fashioned fun.


Finally, there is a great deal of simple pleasure to be found in the zombie genre – there is nothing quite like sitting down to a good zombie film with friends or splattering some zombie brains across the walls in games like “Dead Rising” and “Left 4 Dead” or keeping them off your lawn in “Plants vs. Zombies”. During Authors Live Charlie Hisgon mentioned that it is the splatter-ability of zombies that appeals to children in particular.


They keep us coming back for more

The rise in the popularity of zombies has been inevitable because they work so well. They are such a plausible, highly personal and extremely creepy horror, yet very adaptable for comedy. They keep us coming back for more.


They appease the primitive beast that evolution left behind in all of us that demands violence and the thrill of a good fright; indeed perhaps they are a reflection of this primitive beast.


Zombies have the power to take us back to a simpler time where one could simply pick up a shovel and start swinging without a second thought to the drudgeries of filing the necessary paperwork to do so.


You can now read a fantastic blog from Craig Jackson about the Charlie Higson event.