Unlike most of my columns, this one addresses a specific, current controversy in the town where I live. Usually my submissions run on the Religion page. This one was given above-the-fold placement on the Editorial page. I’m putting it on my blog because I think some of the points in it have general application.
When I first read about the Zombie run planned for October in Lititz, I had a mild reaction of “Eww, that’s weird,” and then thought no more about it. No more, that is, until a friend called to ask what I thought, posing the question, “Are zombies satanic?” That prompted me to do some research, the results of which I shared with my friend. Letters to the editor make it clear that others have similar concerns, so I have done more research and am sharing the results here.
First, some history. In the Voodoo (also Vodou, or Vodun) animist religion brought from West Africa to Haiti, the zombie (Haitian: zonbi; West African: nzumbe) is a reanimated corpse, revived by mystical means. The zombie has no will or consciousness of its own, but is controlled by the sorcerer or adept who performed the ritual of revivification. Zombies were believed to be kept as slave laborers. In one version of folk belief, it was also said to be possible to create astral zombies by capturing the soul of the deceased and placing it in a bottle. These were used as good luck charms, but the spell was effective only for a limited time. Then their god would rescue and reclaim the soul.
Haitian folk tales speak of zombies working the fields at night. South African stories tell of trains staffed by zombies that ran through the countryside. Night travelers were believed to be in danger of being abducted, murdered, and perhaps turned into zombies themselves. While researching Haitian folklore in 1937, author Zora Neale Hurston was told of a woman whose family claimed she was a reanimation of a family member who had died in 1907. Medical examination, however, disproved this claim.
Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist, published two books in the 1980’s claiming to have discovered a pharmacological explanation for how a living person could be reduced to zombie-like behavior. The neurotoxin that he described as the key ingredient does not, however, cause the trance-like state characteristic of a zombie. Other researchers consider Davis to have been far too gullible in accepting the idea of a medical cause for these folk beliefs.
Historically, then, the zombie takes its place with the golem of Jewish folklore and other such supernaturally animated beings. They are slave creatures having no independent will and thus no capacity to initiate actions for good or for evil. Neither are they objects of worship or devotion, nor representatives of the supernatural.
The zombie of popular culture, though initially inspired by Haitian folk tales, bears little resemblance to the zombie of Vodou belief. These film creatures are kin to Godzilla, King Kong, Hitchcock’s Birds, and every other horror-movie monster that ever threatened celluloid humanity. Though zombies were mentioned in entertainment as early as “The Magic Island,” a 1929 novel by William Seabrook, critics attribute their current popularity to George A. Romero’s 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead” and the many sequels and spin-offs it has inspired.
Completely drained of any religious or folkloric significance, the 21st century zombie is a blood-soaked ghoul with a taste for human flesh and brains. For those who enjoy their entertainment with a huge helping of violence and a large dose of the macabre, the zombie is an ideal monster. As one commentator has noted, they can be killed with total impunity and no guilt, since they are already dead. Indeed, it appears that psychological and sociological analysis of the popular fascination with zombies has become a whole subgenre of commentary.
The zombie as currently depicted is threatening, malevolent, terrifying. But is it satanic? On that I must conclude a firm No. Satan as understood by the Abrahamic religions is a threat to the eternal soul. Satan tempts his victims into damnation by offering a grand bargain, by promising to his targets their hearts’ desire. The satanic is alluring, saying, “Forget the path you are on. Come and follow me, and I will make you rich, beautiful, powerful beyond your imagining.” Only when it is too late is the spiritual danger apparent.
Popular zombies are anything but alluring. The danger they present is immediately recognizable, and it is aimed at the flesh of the living. The threat and the struggle to resist are purely physical. Having long ago been purged of any spiritual content, they have no capacity to jeopardize the eternal soul. And even within the old Vodou religion from which their name derives, they are victims, not authors of evil.
What, then, should we think of this zombie run that is planned to take over the streets of Lititz for a day in the fall? It seems to me that it is a day of play-acting. And in play-acting, some have to be the good guys and some have to be the bad guys. You can’t have a satisfactory game of “cops and robbers” if no one is willing to be the robbers. So some will dress up like “zombies” and some will dress up like potential victims. They will race through the streets shouting and grabbing for scarves, and while doing so they will be raising money to benefit the Lititz Springs Park.
Apparently such zombie costume races are the latest fad in community fundraising. A quick internet search shows that they are being held across the country. Are they silly? Perhaps a bit. Are they dangerous? Well, there is always the chance of a fall, with attendant scrapes and bruises, but one hopes that the organizers will take whatever measures are needed to make it a safe event. Are they creepy? Depending on one’s general attitude about monsters and horror movies, maybe yes, maybe no. Are they satanic? There is simply no evidence that they are.
So if zombies or play-acting or racing are your thing, come out and enjoy the fun. And if not, there is always the Chocolate Walk in October for a whole different experience of downtown Lititz.