Zombie Sorcers & Apocalypse
Sorcerers, Scientists and
With zombies showing up everywhere from the most action-packed FPS games to gay fiction novels, writers have a lot of leeway in coming up with origin stories for their undead antagonists.
Even more, there’s a great deal of freedom in how the writer can use their scenario to examine how the abuse of power can lead to horrible outcomes and how the disenfranchised might be the best ones to rely on when social structure collapses completely.
Roots to Branches
Over the years, zombies, once almost universally portrayed as supernatural creatures, at least to some extent, have become more scientific in their origins.
Where wizards, mystics and sorcerers used to defy taboos and erase the line that separates the dead from the living, scientists, more often than not, cause the mayhem these days.
The original concept of the zombie has its origins in Vodou. The Vodou zombie is a sort of lost soul, captured by a sorcerer, who might use his captive spirit—and its body—for good or evil.
Where the pop culture phenomenon is concerned, those original stories have proven influential. From White Zombie, a 1932 film starring Bela Lugosi, to Wade Davis’s book The Serpent & the Rainbow, made into a film by Wes Craven in 1988, the mystical zombie has played a significant role in shaping how the creatures are portrayed in today’s fiction.
In most zombie stories, much of the horror derives from defying the natural order. It might involve a metamorphosis from life to a sort of undeath or, in some of the best recent books about the zombie apocalypse, a complete restructuring of the original victim’s body into something downright inhuman.
As the supernatural and gothic began to lose favor to sci-fi horror books and films in the 1950s, zombie stories evolved. The typical venue for creating zombies moved from graveside rituals to cutting-edge laboratories.
What didn’t change is that those who hold power in society are often the same people guilty of the excesses that upset the natural order. In traditional societies, mystics hold both power and authority. In modern societies, those privileges belong, in many regards, to scientists and, when they go mad, things tend to go wrong rather quickly.
Science Is the New Sorcery
Zombie apocalypse books often focus on large-scale events that utterly destroy society, leaving behind only carnage and chaos. Some of the first science-oriented raising the dead tales were more intimate, however, and similar, in some regards, to the traditional stories of mystics giving life to the deceased. Shelly’s Frankenstein, of course, is the most well-known of all, but there are others.
HP Lovecraft parodied Frankenstein in his 1922 tale Herbert West—Reanimator, but took a far more serious tone later in his career.
In Lovecraft’s Cool Air, first published in 1928, the protagonist meets a doctor who, figuratively and literally, chills the narrator to his bones. The doctor has defied death but not completely. He relies on constant refrigeration to prevent his nearly two-decade dead body from decomposing. Notably, this undead creature rose under his own volition and, far from being a victim, the doctor basically zombified himself, though he retained his personality.
1956 saw Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film that invoked elements of zombie stories and blended them with science and Cold War paranoia. The zombies in this film weren’t undead, but their victims were replaced with chilling parodies of human beings. Importantly, the process by which the transformation happened was, though bizarre, scientifically explicable.
By 1968, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead brought us undead that were the result of science gone awry, starting with a probe sent to Venus that returned with contamination, which caused corpses to rise from their graves.
Today, science is still quite often both the culprit and the salvation for the protagonists in films and books about the zombie apocalypse, but the horror is still all about transformation, defying taboos and surviving the aftermath of both.
An element that is quite often invoked in these stories is someone who enjoys a great deal of authority and social privilege bringing about their own ruin and, sometimes, the ruin of the entire power structure that supported their elite status through their own ignorance, arrogance or a lust for more power.
Death, Evolution and Revolution
The horrific transformation, more often than not in today’s zombie stories, completely erases the boundaries that both restrict and define us. This gives the stories a powerful significance when examined through the lens of sociobiology theory.
Whatever influential forces and boundaries might be identified by adherents of ecological models of human development, the most fundamental boundary of all is the one between what is living and what is not.
Once a character with the power to do so asserts their will over nature’s power to give and take life, what follows is often even more interesting than the raising of the dead.
The Outsiders Become Empowered
The mystics in the original zombie stories violated the line between life and death. Later, scientists, accidently or deliberately, are portrayed as doing much the same.
Both of these types of characters enjoy a great deal of authority in their cultures. The mystics are often very powerful figures. Most certainly, anyone with the title “doctor” enjoys significant social sway.
When those in authority bring down the very structure that gives them power, those who were outsiders are quite often the ones best equipped to discern the most meaningful lines of all.
For example, in The Walking Dead, Darryl, certainly not a guy who’s likely to have a lot of queer theory books on his shelf, begins to identify with a couple of gay characters, as they’re all outsiders in the Virginia suburb where the group has taken shelter. That suburb is something of a recreation of pre-apocalypse society, with authority figures, divisions of labor and so forth. The notion of insiders and outsiders, and the accompanying access to and disenfranchisement from power that goes along with it, has reasserted itself.
Queer theory has long engaged in a very real social taboo, deconstructing the heteronormative cultural values that have traditionally put gays on the outside of society. The aforementioned Walking Dead characters have seen the society that constructed that taboo torn apart by outside forces and, thus, bond based on something nearly as primal as the line between life and death: they’re adept at differentiating between good and bad people.
Even without a standard social order, the line between a good person and a bad person remains, and the people who were once outsiders are the ones best equipped to see where strangers stand relative to that boundary.
Perhaps More Significant than Life and Death
In many of these stories, the zombies really result from a simple lack of judgement on the part of people in power. Whether its scientists or mystics, intentional or accidental, somewhere, someone crossed a line that shouldn’t have been crossed.
In that situation, the people who were as far removed from power as possible before it all happened seem to be the best ones to rely on to discern where the most meaningful boundaries are, and to know in advance who might be willing to cross them.
In some of the most interesting books about the zombie apocalypse, the power supported by a structured society enables arrogance to bring about the end of it all. In that scenario, the people who have long been outsiders are oftentimes the same ones who come to power. It’s not due to tradition or education, but because of the time-honed instincts an outsider develops from constantly being disenfranchised from the power structure, and from their knowledge of how power can be abused. The zombies might be new, but the arrogance that made them certainly is not.