The zombie, once the bottom feeder of the monster heap, has soared to unprecedented heights of popularity over the last decade. The Walking Dead have migrated from B-horror films to practically every aspect of modern life from video games and TV programs to the language of business, with zombie banks, zombie corporations, and zombie economics proliferating during our financial morass. At recent Occupy demonstrations, zombified protestors bore placards reading: “Don’t be a Zombie!” As Halloween arrives, zombies are among the most popular costume choices. What is the cause of attraction to this most gruesome of fiends?
The zombie apocalypse is often equated with the wrath of God and biblical end times. Though the origins of zombie outbreaks usually remain indeterminate in the genre, most zombie narratives indicate that we brought this upon ourselves. Whether corporations, the government, or the military are to blame, the average person also bears fault for participating in a corrupt system, just as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were collectively responsible for God’s wrath.
The origin of the term “zombie” is found in Haitian folklore and Vodou (the preferred spelling). All zombies are walking corpses, it is true, but vampires, mummies, or Frankenstein’s monster would never be confused for a zombie. So what exactly is a zombie?
In Haiti, it is believed that a sorcerer, called a bokor, can capture the soul of the recently deceased to raise the body and compel it to do his bidding. Zombies might once have been expected to work the fields, though now they more likely build spreadsheets! It is significant that for Haitians, the true villain is not the zombie itself but the bokor slave-master who created it in the first place-an important distinction given Haiti’s history as a hub of the slave trade and its gaining independence through the 1804 slave revolt.
The French Catholic slave-masters who were cast off during the Haitian revolution attempted to impose their religion upon their African captives. Though Catholicism has since become the official religion of Haiti, the animosity between the former slave population and the Church was palpable in the aftermath of revolution. As risen dead, zombies represent a perversion of the Catholic resurrection. Echoes of Christian propaganda depicting the Haitian religion of Vodou as devil-worship were heard in Pat Robertson’s straight-faced explanation that the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti resulted from a pact its people made with Satan in exchange for their freedom.
The 1960s’ counter-culture and civil rights movements reacted against authority structures-the government, the military, the church-that were perceived to have lost their legitimacy. Since then, the zombie as a mindless thrall driven by the single-minded pursuit of devouring serves as a warning against rampant consumerism and the insatiable appetite of dog-eat-dog capitalist greed. Faith in authority structures has eroded further since the 1960s, as attested by lower voter turnouts, decreasing affiliation with traditional religions, and the recent Occupy movement.
The popularity of the zombie stems from our similarity to that pitiable creature deprived of its soul, forced to labor for the benefit of unknown masters. Yet, what might also persist is the recognition that this state can be overcome with the individual agency and moral responsibility of the masses, the demos at the heart of true democracy.
Christopher Moreman, assistant professor of philosophy at California State University, East Bay, is an expert in comparative religions and popular culture. He recently published “Zombies Are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead” (McFarland, 2011) and “Race, Oppression and the Zombie: Essays on Cross-Cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition” (McFarland, 2011).