8:54 AM – Two days with this new Mr. Coffee maker and my addiction pours like methamphetamine waste into South Missouri creek beds. Glorious morning already, featuring chats with mom and Attorney John and Dr. Myles and Dear Abby Leigh, as well as a delightful attendantress at Aggieland Automotive. At one point during our transaction, that Aggie gal rubbed her nose with the flat palm of her hand in a circular fashion, saying, “Ugh, my allergies!” Thankfully she clarified herself, as I figured she was casting a love spell from Bewitched after catching wind of my patchouli. Happens all the time.
DISCLAIMER : Due to length of discussion, I have decided to chop these zombie conversations into smaller chunks and spread them out over more days – six days instead of four. By doing so, I can keep each post under 1,000 words, making them accessible as quick reads on coffee or bathroom breaks. Enjoy.
WHAT IS A ZOMBIE? The best place to start is by defining the term “zombie”. For giggles, I consulted a few philologists’ definitions. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary simply says that a zom*bie (n) is a person who is believed to have died and been brought back to life without speech or free will. The Oxford English Dictionary adds that a zombie ranges from a corpse raised by witchcraft, especially in Caribbean or African religions, to a person appearing lifeless and unresponsive to their surroundings. (The OED also claims that a zombie can be a computer controlled by another unknown party for the purpose of propagating spam, while a zombie may quench those hankering a refreshing mixed beverage featuring rum, liqueur and fruit juice – both proving the the OED trumps MW more times than not.) Wikipedia defaults to Haitian reanimation rituals in their definition, whereas the online Encyclopedia Britannica offers entries for the Haitian zombie and the fictional zombie. (Wikipedia also offers discussions of “Fictional Zombie” as a separate page, but their default “Zombie” page opens in Haiti.)
Max Brooks begins his scholarly tempered The Zombie Survival Guide with a dictionary-like definition: “An animated corpse that feeds on living human flesh.” And, frankly, this definition provides all the context we need for a discussion of literary / cultural zombie identification and such significance. Zombies were dead and are now alive. Period. They’re zombified state is not contagious via bites or scratches, a la Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, The Crazies, or 28 Days / Weeks Later. The confusion is rather simple because in both instances – with the true-zombie and the viral-infected-contagion – both creatures appear decayed and eat people. But we only need answer one question to identify correctly one creature from another: Was this sucker ever dead? If you know it rose from the grave, it’s a zombie. If it got bit or scratch and then transformed slowly, it’s a contagion. And we will discuss contagions in an upcoming post.
Before moving forward, it might be helpful to clarify all these references to Haitian zombie rituals. As you can see above, Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica both offer explorations of the Caribbean phenomena, but, if you are truly interested in learning more about the Haitian zombie rituals, I highly highly highly recommend listening to the How Stuff Works podcast episode titled “How Zombies Work”. The podcast discussion is insightful, but also chock full of interesting little side notes and strange documented stories about loved ones long buried simply returning on the doorstep ready to join dinner. To sum it all up, the Haitian zombie ritual is one staked more in revenge than grief (the latter spellbound emotion was explored by Stephen King in Pet Semetary). In Haitian culture, if a person had fallen behind on debts or had somehow disgraced one’s family, a spell or curse could be placed on that person that would place them in a vegetative though animated state, robbing them of their preferences and rathers (ie, their soul), thereby, making them easy to enslave. In such a situation, the person was usually pronounced dead to relatives, offered a burial celebration, but then they were later secretly exhumed and set to work paying off debts or humiliations. Think of it as an above ground purgatory without the benefits of eventual ascension.
Alright, with all these silly definitions aside, let’s address the burning question that initially brought us here : Why does it matter if the creature eating my face is a true zombie, one of these infected contagions, or my neighbor pumped up on bath salts? The answer to that question is not only vital, it is also very nerdy. Different flesh-eaters potentially pose different sets of questions. Because today’s post is dedicated to zombies, I’ll focus on the questions posed by zombies in zombie film and fiction. And the questions posed by zombies fall under two primary categories : questions of consumption and questions of purgatory. We will explore these questions in tomorrow’s post.