Theorizing Zombies

[This paper was presented at the AAR’s Southeast Regional Commission for the Study of Religion (SECSOR) yearly conference in Atlanta on March 3, 2o12, as part of a panel on “Zombies and Zombie Apocalypses.”]

By Kate Dailey-Baley

The zombie genre is ubiquitous in the postmodern apocalyptic landscape (in film, literature, graphic novels, video games, miniseries, etc). This genre represents a postmodern myth which is resurrected again and again in various incarnations to embody a particular audience’s current anxieties. As Bruce Lincoln notes in Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship, myths “are not snapshot presentations of stable taxonomies and hierarchies” (150). A myth is the result of collective efforts between narrators and audiences. Given this explication, the zombie genre presents an excellent medium through which to observe how myths are constructed and negotiated. In myth, the goal of the narrator is to convince the audience that one’s innovative representations are reality. Lincoln illustrates how skilled narrators do this by stating that they “use instruments that most often assist in the reproduction of the socio-taxonomic order to recalibrate that order by introducing new categories, eliminating old ones, or revising both categories and the hierarchic categories in which they are organized” (150). The zombie genre smacks of categories and recalibrating run amuck, and provides students of theory with an ever expanding mass of material through which to witness category negotiation. Two widely divergent representations of the zombie, the historical zombie and a modern incarnation of the zombie as presented in AMC’s new miniseries, The Walking Dead, demonstrate how one category of constructed beings reflects the resounding anxieties of the contexts in which these constructions were born.

The Haitian Zombie

Despite the ever-expanding gulf between the historical zombie and the American culturally colonized version, the image of the possessed body is one that continues to haunt the Western political mind. In his chapter, “Zombies of the World, Unite: Class Struggle and Alienation in Land of the Dead,” John Lutz remarks that “… the metaphorical significance of the zombie as a representation of a victim of exploitation can be traced back to its origin in Caribbean folklore” (125). Lutz alludes to Mimi Sheller’s version of the Haitian zombie as “‘a living-dead slave deprived of will and physically controlled by a sorcerer,’ [which] functions as ‘the ultimate representation of the psychic state of one whose body/spirit is consumed’” (1126). The Haitian zombie originates from a complex historical context in which racial, political, cultural, and religious identities are contested. One telling aspect of this genesis is the religious context in which the ‘zombie’ comes to life. According to The Harper Collins Dictionary of Religion, “Voodoo, or Vodou, is the African-Christian new religion born in Haiti, whose followers ‘serve the divine spirits’ in life and rituals and accept possession by those spirits for healing and spiritual guidance”(1125).This religious tradition has been viewed as subversive, at least from the perspective of imperial powers, from its advent. According to this same source, “voodoo served as the organization and sustenance of the slave revolt leading to Haitian independence” (1126). Colonialism and slavery played an influential role in the creation of the political dimension of this religious phenomenon. Racial, political, religious, and economic fears of plantation owners and managers were embodied in the form of the zombie. However, perhaps the more troubling character in this narrative, which is notably absent from most modern renderings of the zombie, is the mastermind controlling the zombie… the sorcerer. The sorcerer in this context was not only representative of a challenging political and religious order but also posed a serious threat to the economic investments made by imperial powers. In short, these sorcerers jeopardized the entire colonial enterprise in Haiti… because they were competitors for control of the minds and bodies of the slave population.

The Walking Dead

AMC’s blockbuster, The Walking Dead, is the latest embodiment of the apocalyptic zombie phenomena in American popular culture. This miniseries, now filming its third season, is based on a comic book series of the same name written by famed Robert Kirkman and illustrated by Charlie Aldard (2003). The miniseries follows a band of survivors through North Georgia as they try to come to terms with the zombie apocalypse and the subsequent breakdown of society. The zombie in this narrative is greatly changed from its sociopolitical and religious form of 18th century Haiti. The zombie in both narratives is also a husk of its former self with no will of its own, but the catalysts for zombie epidemics in the respective scenarios are radically different. Historical zombie tales emphasize the sorcerer’s power to reanimate the recently dead and the sorcerer’s power to control the zombie. Zombies in The Walking Dead, known as ‘walkers,’ are the result of a worldwide virus, not founded in an overtly religious context, and are all-consuming cannibals (undoubtedly influenced by George A. Romero’s ‘ghouls’/zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968). ‘Walkers’ unlike their Haitian zombie forefathers answer to no master other than their ravenous desire for live flesh. The rules of contagion (strung together throughout the series) stipulate that anyone coming into close physical contact (resulting in bites, scrapes, or deep wounds) with a member of the infected zombie population risks becoming a zombie themselves upon death. A number of the refugees are torn by the new taxonomy. Survival is the goal but what constitutes ‘survival’ is hotly contested.

Lincolnian Zombies

According to Lincoln’s advised protocol for tracking mythic recalibration, one method is to “establish the categories at issue in the mythic text,” and to examine the relations between established categories, ranking systems, as well as the logic behind such ranking (150-151). In The Walking Dead series, the appearance of ‘walkers’ causes a dramatic shift in social categories such that no longer is society divided by class, race, or political allegiances. Suddenly characters have divided the population into those who are still human and those who are now ‘walkers.’ ‘Walkers,’ while still retaining some semblance of the humans they once were, at least physically, are completely mindless husks which have neither memory, will, nor language. In the first season, this bifurcation becomes the new taxonomy. In the second season, however, the ordering system is challenged again and a new categorical system arises from the crisis. There are still ‘walkers’ and humans but now the human category has been divided into two subsets… the community on the farm and another group of survivors, a lawless and radically dehumanized gang. The brief ‘communitas’ between fellow humans engendered by the initial attack of ‘walkers’ devolves quickly into other humans, albeit sadistic and murderous ones, being labeled as a liability and potential threat to the farm community. As the series enters its third season, viewers can continue to view the systematic dehumanization of their most beloved characters, whose fate may be worse than that of the ‘walkers,’ and those of us with a theoretical eye can track the various taxonomic shifts present in this mythic ‘text.’

Despite the surface resemblances of Haitian and American zombies, as symbols of social anxieties they suggest disparate fears and emerge from divergent cultural contexts. While the Haitian zombie symbolizes resistance against colonial and racial oppression, the American zombie suggests a society fearful of difference which imagines itself on the brink of a cataclysmic event (the breakdown of systems and the apocalyptic War on Terror). As a genre, horror depends on meta-narratives (religious or not) to frame the world, but horror is also contingent on the failure of said meta-narratives to categorize all phenomena (i.e. zombies). Zombies are dead and yet alive, they are monsters but they are also victims, they are completely Other and yet were once just like us. If zombies are categorically uncontainable (if they are fractures in the meta-narrative), then there can be no proscribed action for dealing with them. They are the horde… masses of nameless and mindless bodies which threaten to overwhelm seemingly stable systems of categorization.  Whereas the Haitian zombie represents the horrors of systematic oppression, the American zombie represents the terror of having no systems at all.

Discourses of Fear

Despite the varied cultural contexts, one dominate feature in both tales of Haitian zombies and America’s zombie apocalypse genre is the tone of the rhetoric deployed in these ‘texts.’ In a sense, the message is not just in the myth’s content but also in the telling features of the medium and motivating forces that mold that medium. Both types of narratives are driven by fear. Radical changes in American media have restructured how knowledge is authorized and ‘news’ is disseminated. The popularity of blending ‘news’ media with entertainment (i.e. John Stewart, The Colbert Report, etc.) reflects a complexified epistemological structure in American media. Reflecting back on Lincoln’s myth recalibration theory, the goal of the narrator (in myth and news) is to convince the audience that one’s innovative representations are reality. While zombies may not be ‘real’ in the American context, the discourses of fear which perpetuate interest in this genre are remarkably real. If American news and entertainment are dominated by a discourse of fear, should we be surprised by a surge in popular culture’s interest in zombies? While Haitian and American zombies may represent opposite ends of the zombie spectrum, the myths that contain them are both constructed through a discourse of fear.

This entry was posted in Kate Daley-Bailey, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Theorizing Zombies

  1. Pingback: Theorizing Zombies | Bulletin for the Study of Religion | The Daily Zombie

  2. Randi Warne says:

    I’d like to use this in my Advanced Evil course next term. May I?

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