Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Role of Modern Magic and Science in our Popular Zombie Culture


(part 3 of a "newspaper article" from the Edgemont Daily Register, and an excerpt from):

Infected: Hacked Files from the GAMELAND Archives

The 1st part of the article was posted here.
The 2nd part was posted here.

Modern magic and science

While occasional references to “rising dead” appear in older historical records, including documents from mid-eighteen-hundred China to as far back as biblical writings of armies of the dead, the lumbering beings of our modern popular culture trace their origin primarily to the relatively more recent Afro-Caribbean spiritual lore and a belief system known as Voudou (or Vodou). A zombie (zonbi in Haitian Creole; nzumbe in the Kimbundu dialect of Bantu) is a ghost, person, or corpse controlled by a powerful sorcerer, known as a bokor. The bokor steals a person’s soul and stores it in a jar, either to grow his own power or to sell to others for their own nefarious purposes. The enslaved being carries out the will of its master and is freed only when its soul is released.

It wasn’t until the 1929 publication of William Seabrook’s The Magic Island, which invoked voodoo for raising the dead, that the term ‘zombi’ entered into the English lexicon. Three years later, the same voodoo themes were employed in the Halperin brothers’ full-length film White Zombie, which starred Béla Lugosi as the clichéd antagonist Murder Legendre. Despite its over-the-top plot and dubious acting, White Zombie is generally accepted as the first serious zombie film ever made.

But it wasn’t until the 1940s — coincident with the introduction of atomic weapons, digital electronic computers, microwaves and color televisions — that we began to see a major evolutionary shift in zombie lore away from its supernatural roots to one couched in rational, scientific ideas — disease, war and technology, to name but a few.

Richard Matheson led the charge when he ripped the horror genre from its Lovecraftian roots and planted it squarely in the modern urban mindscape with his 1954 novel, I Am Legend. The book, on which Romero partially based his film, is credited with popularizing the concept of the zombie apocalypse with a non-mystical origin — disease, in this case. But while natural phenomena (dust storms and mosquitoes) are to blame for the rapid spread of the pandemic in his book, Matheson places man himself at the very core of the outbreak, implying that we have nothing else to blame for our own demise. It is the ravaging effects of our warmongering on the planet which created the perfect setting for an infection of such magnitude and devastation to take hold.

Spurred blindly onward by the Cold War, by competing geopolitical and technological challenges, the next two decades bore witness to the horrific impact of our continued reckless activities on the planet, the rape of its resources, the corruption of pristine vistas. It’s therefore unsurprising that modern day zombie works — indeed, all science fiction — explore such bleak scenarios.

A sampling of the popular zombie culture illustrates how far we’ve progressed beyond the monster’s Afro-Caribbean mystic roots:

  • In 28 Days Later, a virus brings the dead back to life. A virus (T-virus) is also responsible for the zombies in the Japanese computer-animated film Biohazard 4D-Executer, based on the survival horror game Resident Evil.
  • In Resident Evil IV, brain parasites are to blame.
  • Neurotoxins are the culprit in the upcoming  Resident Evil 5 video game, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and the 1988 film on which it is based.
  • And in Michael Crichton’s Prey, we can thank nanobots — microscopic, self-replicating robots that can do everything from repair DNA mutations to spy on our enemies.

They are us; we are them

From these examples and many others not mentioned, a singular theme quickly emerges: zombies personify the prevailing cultural anxieties of the day — technology out of control, diseases evolving and spreading, environments destroyed and species wiped out. The popularity of monsters in general and zombies in particular is a direct reflection of our pessimism about the issues which confound and frighten us.

And why shouldn’t it be so? The popularity of science fiction has always been in the fear of possibilities which we don’t yet know or of realities we do not understand. What better way is there to manifest those fears than with zombies? They are the perfect patsy for our own shortcomings. They represent everything we find loathsome about ourselves. Is it a coincidence that the undead are, literally, nothing more than the darkest parts of our own selves, completely devoid of social or moral restraints, mindless, hungering and feasting without satiation?

By killing the undead, perhaps we are merely enacting our moral obligation to slice away the rotten parts of ourselves, an obligation which we are loath — or incapable — to do in reality.

[[end of part 3]]

Part 4, coming tomorrow:  No monster more malleable

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Infected: Hacked Files from the GAMELAND Archives is a companion book to the epic cyberpunk thriller horror series GAMELAND.

Available at all major ebook distributors

To read a sample and to find out where to get the first book for free, visit Saul's website.

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