The origins of the undead
Princeton University Press has just published Do Zombies Dream Of Undead Sheep? (£13.95), a neuroscientific introduction to the zombie mind. The authors, Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek, are both cognitive scientists and members of the Zombie Research Society; they are “preparing grant applications to research the coming zombie apocalypse”. It seems clear that zombies, rather than neuroscience, are the main reason for the book’s existence. To quote some popular discussions on Yahoo! Answers: “Are zombies possible?; “How zombies run if there dead?”; and — crucially — “what do you do in case of zombie attack?”
Today’s zombies are quite unlike the original Haitian zombi: a corpse reanimated by a bokor (witch) and kept under their control (significant in light of Haiti’s history of slavery). Zombism in the movies is now usually a virus, and the zombie apocalypse, as attested by various films, books, and uncountable online discussions, means an epidemic of zombism which would end civilisation as we know it. The zombi could be saved by force-feeding it salt, but today’s zombies, which crave human flesh (particularly brains), have to be dispatched with bullets, machetes, blunt instruments or fire.
The fantasy here — being one of a rag-tag bunch of survivors — is not so far away from that of the “preppers”, survivalists who build bunkers and stock up on long-life zip-locked food-like items in case society fails or the government turns on them (see the advertising in Newsmax). For Fela Kuti, a Nigerian singer, zombies represented the Nigerian junta who killed his mother: “Zombie no go go unless you tell am to go . . . Zombie no go think unless you tell am to think.” Slavoj Zizek, in Trouble In Paradise (Allen Lane, £16.99), argues that zombies symbolise the working class: “Vampires are well-mannered, exquisite and aristocratic, and they live among normal people, while zombies are clumsy, inert and dirty, and attack from the outside, like a primitive revolt of the excluded.”
This might explain why the zombie has not quite taken off with the crucial teen girl demographic. There is no direct zombie equivalent to vampire romance behemoth Twilight, hit MTV series Teen Wolf, or even CBBC’s Wolfblood. The teen zom-rom Warm Bodies, and BBC3’s In The Flesh, featuring not zombies but victims of “Partially Deceased Syndrome” may turn out to be exceptions; both of these are atypical zombie stories in that the undead retain their consciousness and memories. These are not zombie-survivalist fantasies.
At least the zombie fans ultimately know they are pretending: in a thread on an online discussion board, user “Kennysucks” asks, quite sincerely, “Do You Actually Want The Zombie Apocalypse To Happen?” His own response: “Personally I think it would be fun to kill a few zombies but overall I wouldn’t want it to happen, watching your families and friends die would be terrible . . . [it] wouldn’t be my ideal kind of life.”