Zombies and resurrection

by John MacBeath Watkins

Those resurrected in the Bible bring no terror with them back from the dead, but those in zombie movies bring nothing but terror back with them.

Lazarus lay dead in his tomb four days before Jesus resurrected him, so why was he not a zombie? A later reference to him speaks of him dining with Jesus at his sister's house, and his main trouble seemed to be that the chief priests wanted him put to death because the miracle of his resumed life has caused people to follow Jesus.

And when Jesus rose from the dead, with the wounds that killed him still famously visible, people experienced awe and wonder, but not terror, according to biblical accounts. In fact, he seems to have had rather pleasant conversations with his friends following his death.

So when did it become a bad thing to come back from the dead?

It is usual to trace the mythologies of zombies to Voodoo practices imported from Africa, but I think the modern incarnation goes back a different direction. After all, nothing in Voodoo belief says zombies will experience an overwhelming need for nutritional and tasty brains. That sort of zombie is a creation of popular culture, which in my opinion goes back to practices in European culture, not in Africa.

The 18th and 19th century resurrectionists can't have helped. Medical schools needed cadavers to dissect, and even laws that consigned the bodies of those executed to dissection could not supply the need. Medical schools began paying people to bring them corpses, and not inquiring too closely into where those corpses came from. The gravediggers were, with dark humor, called resurrectionists in Britain.

A buried corpse did not legally belong to anyone, so digging it up and selling it was in a legal gray area, frowned upon but not something you could do time for.

Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, Frankenstein, tells the story of a doctor who can animate the inanimate, and while the story of his monster's creation is left ambiguous, the fact that he makes the monster eight feet tall so that the bits he needs to make won't be too tiny suggested to later interpreters that he made the body from parts purchased from resurrectionists.

The ghoulish associations with those returning from the dead can only have increased with the Burke and Hare murders of 1828.
William Burke and William Hare were Irish immigrants to Scotland. Hare's wife operated a lodging house in Edinburgh, and when a lodger died of natural causes owing 4 pounds, Burke and Hare filled the casket with dirt and stole the body, selling it to Dr. Robert Knox, who made is living giving medical lectures that featured the dissection of human cadavers. He was paid not by the university, but by the admittance fees paid by students to enter the lecture. It was a bit like a band playing for the cover charges collected at the door of a bar instead of a set fee.

No cadaver, no paying audience. So, Knox didn't mind paying grave robbers.

But Burke and Hare didn't stop there. Once they found out there was a market for corpses, they felt no need to wait on nature, and began killing people they assumed would not be missed -- a prostitute here, a mute boy there, a retarded teen known as "Daft Jamie," who students recognized as soon as Knox uncovered the body. Knox denied Daft Jamie was missing, and quickly dissected the body before inquiries could proceed.
Burke and Hare killed 16 victims before they were caught by tenants at the boarding house who became suspicious, found a body hidden under a bed, and contacted the police.

This sort of thing affects the culture on a level of which  we are seldom conscious.  One of the assumptions that built itself into our minds was that we had done something to the dead that might not please them. That assumption was behind ghost stories that had been with us for probably thousands of years, but the resurrection of the dead was a notion that gave them the possibility of corporeal form.

Now, Voodoo gave us the word "zombie," but it gave us a very different sort of zombie from those that now exist in popular culture. The Voodoo zombie was revived by a bokor, or magic practitioner, and because the zombie lacked a will of its own, it would do the will of the bokor.

In 1937 Zora Neal Hurston tried to track down how zombies were made -- she was pretty sure it was some psychoactive drug -- but was unsuccessful. A Harvard ethnobiologist named Wade Davis wrote two books on the subject, The Serpent and the Rainbow in 1985 and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie in 1988. His findings remain controversial, but in any case, they dealt with the Voodoo zombie, not with the flesh-eating monster of popular culture.

Flesh-eating zombies did not arrive on the scene until the 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead. The film didn't use the word "zombie"  to describe the soulless, aggressive, and comestible-challenged risen dead who featured in the title. The notion that the risen dead would eat brains didn't come along until Return of the Living Dead in 1985.

Zombies now live in the uncanny valley, where things not quite human horrify us. The uncanny valley is a concept from robotics, that tells us as things become more human, they become more likeable, but only up to a point. Beyond that point, graphing the likeability of the created object goes into a valley before resemblance to humans increases and likeability increases again.

The Brave Little Toaster is likeable because it is more human that a real toaster. Damon Knight wrote a 1988 short story called Masks in which a man has his consciousness implanted in a prosthetic body. The first body isn't very realistic, the second is more so, but less successful, and the man complains to the technicians, “The first model looked like a tailor's dummy; so you spent eight months and came up with this one, and it looks like a corpse.”

But the corpses of Voodoo did not want to kill people; they had no will of their own. It is the culture of the resurrectionists that invented that sort of monster. The modern zombie does not answer to a bokor, or serve anyone at all. More likely, it is a creation of science or a disease visited upon mankind from some virus that science is helpless to defeat.

Scientists by their very nature trifle with forces they don't fully comprehend. It's their job. Trifling with forces you do understand is the job of engineers, technicians and doctors. Those professions take what science has learned an use it to control our world.

Our culture's anxiety about science is the fear of the unknown, the fear it may awaken some force that we cannot overcome. It is the fear that we will lose the control that science promises. The zombie of modern popular culture is Frankenstein's monster writ large, a vengeance against the hubris of science.

And, of course, for the bored and self-satisfied, there's that business of wondering how you would cope with disaster. Reassuring fantasies of survival like Robert Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold have entertained us for many years, and survivalists and preppers have shifted from fallout shelters in case of nuclear war to dreaming of that economic apocalypse that will sweep away all the detritus of civilization and let people of true worth survive while the parasites fall.

The zombie apocalypse makes this fantasy comfortingly remote. It allows people to dream of the day when science can't save us, the politicians are spineless, the military is all bluster, but we can survive because we have the good character and the survival skills to do it.
Or not.