on zombies (or, why pop-culturalization of folklore sucks)

The undead have a long and glorious history in folklore and mythology, but zombies in particular come from Haitian folklore. In general, they are dead who have been revived and are under control of the person who revived them. [1] That in itself is a creepy concept.

Zombies in modern popular culture, however, have the added wow-factor of cannibalism, and often associated with apocalypse just to round things out. How did this jump happen?  Mostly, it was the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead.

So what's my beef?  I find the triple combination cannibalism, apocalypse, and being mindless or controlled post-death to be totally absurd.  Each are creepy in a potentially realistic kind of way, but together they form a trinity of absurdity that respects neither folklore nor science.

Consider: one could conceivably be poisoned into a deathlike state and be brought back to life on a hallucinogenic drug and kept in a listless state as a slave.  It could physically happen, and it seems to have actually occurred; that's a little terrifying. Cannibalism also happens. People get hungry with no other options. This is repulsive and scary to a normal, well-fed human.

Pop-culture zombies, by contrast, are both listless, mindless drones and also lethal, cannibalistic monsters. Frankly, the two just don't add up, since I'd imagine it's very hard to kill anyone when you're in a sluggish state. The hallucinogenic drugs could hypothetically give cannibalistic inclinations, but the victims wouldn't be able to do anything about it that would pose a real threat.  So that's the first absurdity...but wait, there's more!

An apocalypse is also a scary, vaguely realistic thing.  It's entirely possible (though not probable in the short-term) that through mismanaging natural resources, natural disaster, a devastating virus, or nuclear stupidity, civilization could be degraded to a more primitive form.  It's a little silly, but I do worry about personally having the skills necessary to survive in such a situation, even if it was localized and relatively short lived.

But...zombies?  Apocalypse causing cannibalism I could understand, but apocalypse being caused by cannibalism?  Or better yet, being caused by a horde of sluggish, mindless people?  Either (let alone both) would be completely bizarre.

So modern zombies irk me a little; they trivialize real and potential tragedies. They fabricate a fictitious facade over folklore and fact.  These pop-culture figures can be humorous or scary, but regardless, they just don't suspend my disbelief the way other science fiction and fantasy characters do.

A world of zombies has no compelling motivations that could not exist with more resonance without them. These more profound worlds are harder to write, and so zombies provide an easy gimmick. Zombie enthusiasts, I'm sorry, but they just don't do it for me.  Please forgive me.

[1] See Wikipedia and Outside Magazine.  Neither are particularly compelling sources, but were you really expecting a Nature citation?

No comments: