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What Can Zombies Teach Us About Humanity?

I'm an author of a book of essays. My poems, essays, and short fiction have appeared in magazines and anthologies.

Understanding Zombies

Why are zombies so popular throughout history?

Why are zombies so popular throughout history?

The Popularity of Zombies

There is a pandemic of zombies ... in a way. Zombies have infected all forms of our media--books, comic books/graphic novels, movies, TV shows, music, cartoons, and video games. There are even scholarly books on culture or philosophy about zombies. They are everywhere.

There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of zombie-themed books, movies, etc. They run the gamut of genres--horror, comedy, romance, spoofs. There is even a Scooby-Doo animated movie aimed at kids.

A TV show about zombies, The Walking Dead, has had the highst ratings of any cable TV show throughout its run. The recent movie, World War Z, was a bona-fide box office hit.

Zombies are so omnipresent that some people are confusing fantasy and fiction. The Center for Disease Control, a government agency, had to issue a statement saying zombies do not exist. Then they decided to take advantage of the craze. They printed up a comic book, Preparedness 101: The Zombie Apocalypse. It seems that the preparations one should make for a zombie apocalypse are the same as those one should make when preparing for a natural disaster, like a hurricane.

The Night of the Living Dead

The movie which is widely credited with having started the current interest in zombies is George Romero's The Night of the Living Dead which came out in 1968. (See the trailer below. You can also view the full movie on YouTube because the copyright was allowed to lapse.)

The movie has been remade twice. The first remake was in 1990 and was directed by Tom Savini.

The second remake was a 3D film directed by Jeff Broadstreet.

Trailer for "Night of the Living Dead" (1968)

Give Your Opinion

A Zombie in Haiti

A Haitian woodcarving of a zombie, at twilight, in a field of cane sugar.

A Haitian woodcarving of a zombie, at twilight, in a field of cane sugar.

The Mythology

In Haitian folklore, a zombie is an animated corpse raised from the dead by witchcraft.

It is generally believed that the concept originated in Africa, and was brought to Haiti by enslaved Africans. However, African cultural ideas about zombies may have been intermingled with similar ideas found among Haiti’s indigenous Taino people.

The zombie is reanimated by a bokor, a sorcerer who uses the zombie as his personal slave, most often for evil purposes. Zombies are under the complete control of the bokor and have no will of their own.

Zombies are often associated with the Haitian religion of Voodoo, but they are not part of its formal practice.

The Psychology

Zombie stories are a sub-set of horror stories. Psychologists say the appeal of horror stories is catharsis for our fears. We live with a lot of anxiety because in the back of our minds, we know that something bad could happen at any moment—a traffic accident, a mugging, a heart attack, etc. to say nothing or more mundane disasters such as losing a job.

A horror story gives us a focus for our fears. It scares us because we identify with the characters, but at the same time we know we are safe. It allows us to experience our fear (albeit at a much reduced level compared to what we would feel in reality), enjoy the excitement of a little adrenaline rush, and feel relief when we survive it. Thus, the horror story serves to reduce any free-floating anxiety we may have.

When a character suffers some bit of nastiness or dies, it is them and not us. It’s similar to the scene of a traffic accident when we feel a compulsion to look. When we do that is it because it could have happened to us, but it didn’t? We have to see the horror in order to feel the relief.

In a zombie apocalypse story, we know who the enemy is—the zombies are the enemy. The zombies may be symbolic of all the enemies we have in real life. When the characters in the story kill the zombies, usually in very large numbers, it is like we have vanquished our own enemies.

Another appeal of the world of the zombie-apocalypse is that it is a much simpler world, in many ways, than our current world. It may reflect a longing for a pre-industrial era life. Life may be hard for us in the real world, but it is simple in the world of zombies: We have only two goals--find food and shelter and kill or escape from zombies.

Philosophers Talk about Zombies

Philosophy is relevant to the understanding of the appeal of zombie stories.

Philosophy is relevant to the understanding of the appeal of zombie stories.

The Philosophy

Zombie stories raise a number of philosophical issues. What does it mean to be human? What is human nature? What is the proper role of society or community?

Most philosophers agree that an essential part of “humanness” is consciousness. René Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” Modern philosophers talk about “the zombie problem.” Would an exact physical duplicate of a human being, different only in that it lacks consciousness, be human?

The poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson famously wrote in his poem, In Memoriam, “nature, red in tooth and claw.” This phrase is often associated with the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who believed that human nature is essentially the same as the nature of brute animals. He proposed “the social contract” theory which states that humans form governments to impose rules to save us from ourselves.

What happens after an apocalypse when government no longer exists? Is the greatest danger in a world filled with zombies, not the zombies, but other humans with their bestial natures no longer under control?

Is evil in our DNA, ready to surface as soon as societal controls are gone? Most scientists who study the relationships between behavior and genetics believe that just as our genes program us to “look out for #1,” there is also an instinct to cooperate. The philosophical question is: How do we keep these two instincts in equilibrium?

Is the zombie apocalypse an allegory for our current civilization? Is it a reflection of our fears about a breakdown in societal norms? In zombie stories, the worst danger from zombies is their tendency to swarm. Does this represent our fears of mob violence? Mobs not only swarm, but they exhibit rage and react as if they lack individual consciousness, instead being controlled by a sort of “groupthink,” like a swarm of angry bees.

The zombie apocalypse may also be a manifestation of our fears about terrorism. Acts of terrorism stir our fears of “the other”—our fear of people who are not like us. Zombies are people who are “the other” who want to commit violence upon us.

Zombies could also be an allegory for our fear about technology taking over our lives. For instance, in Steven King’s novel, The Cell, a cell phone pulse puts everyone who hears it into a zombie-like state—initially enraged, but eventually enslaved, lacking any higher-order brain function.

Another technology issue concerns robots and the possibility of human-like androids and the cloning of humans. Will androids and clones be the real-life manifestation of the philosophers’ “zombie problem”? Will they have consciousness? And how will we know?

Good and Evil

Zombies stories are often about moral dilemmas and the co-existence of good and evil within the same person.

Zombies stories are often about moral dilemmas and the co-existence of good and evil within the same person.

The Morality

Does a zombie apocalypse require us to rethink our morals and our definitions of good and evil?

The first question is: “What is the moral way to treat zombies?” Most of us believe that it is moral to kill in self-defense, but should we wantonly murder every zombie we can?

The morality about killing zombies may revolve around the issue of consciousness. If a zombie is strictly a corpse being manipulated through witchcraft, no more than a puppet with strings, it is probably best to send him back to his eternal rest as soon as possible.

But what should we do if the zombie is an actual resurrected dead person with some actual brain function, even if it is only enough to walk and eat? What is the moral response if a supernatural agent or perhaps a parasitic invader of the body brings the dead back to a kind of life? Would zombies in this scenario have consciousness, perhaps as much or even more consciousness as a person in a coma? If so, is it moral to kill them?

Would zombies have enough brain function to have an "inner life,” even though they are incapable of communicating? Could they feel pain? Would they have memories? If so, would it be fair to compare them to someone with extreme mental disability? The answers to these questions will surely affect our decision about how our morals play into how we treat them.

What if zombies are merely sick people—they have never died, but they have some sort of infection or brain disorder that accounts for their zombie-like behavior? Should we consider the possibility of a cure? Would they deserve compassionate care?

Would it be harder to kill a zombie who used to be someone you loved--a close friend or family member? If so, why would it be harder? Would you consider a "mercy killing" to put your loved one out of his misery? Is that something you would do in the real world? If your answers to these last two questions are different, what is the difference between the two situations that leads you to say "yes" to one and "no" to the other?

Let’s consider morality as it relates to our fellow survivors. We would expect to see a wide range of moral and immoral behavior among these people just as we do in real life. When is it permissible to steal from, hurt, or kill another survivor? Can we kill only in direct self-defense—that is, when someone is actively trying to kill us—or can we kill if we think (rightly or wrongly) that there is a strong possibility that this person might kill us? Can we kill in order to obtain the resources necessary to stay alive? What if we take from someone the resources he needs to stay alive leaving him to near certain death?

What happens to morality if we kill so many zombies (or other humans) that we become inured to killing? What happens if we kill so much that we are not much better than a zombie?

The popularity of the TV series, The Walking Dead, is surely due in large part to its emphasis on the moral dilemmas the characters face. It's other people (strangers and sometimes members of their own group) that the characters need to fear, even more than the zombies.. A TV series has an advantage over a movie, and even a book, when it comes to positing moral dilemmas, because they have so much more time to tell the story.

Reality Check

Could there really be a world-wide zombie apocalypse?

Could there really be a world-wide zombie apocalypse?

The Reality

There is no science to support the theory that dead people can be resurrected and walk the earth again as zombies. None!

There is however, a very small possibility of a pandemic illness that could cause people to act like zombies. The use and misuse of antibiotics, for instance, is causing major changes to the biota that affect both the bacteria we want to eliminate and the bacteria we need for our body to function properly. Some in the medical profession believe that it is possible that these changes are leading to the large increase we are seeing in such problems as allergies and auto-immune diseases. It may be possible for a disease to occur that would make people exhibit zombie-like behavior.

Imagine a microbe which produces a disease like rabies. Imagine that this microbe incubates, leaving the infected person symptom-free for a few days so that infected people could travel from one country to another. Imagine further, that unlike rabies which is transmitted through a bite (just like zombie-ism is transmitted in some zombie stories), this microbe spreads through the air. Finally, imagine that unlike the flu, this disease does not keep us bedridden, but instead turns us into a wild furious animal, like a dog with rabies. Imagine the zombies are not the slow clumsy kind depicted in some stories, but the kind who move really fast as depicted in other stories, and the infected individuals run amok on a rampage spreading the disease even further. We have now imagined the conditions for a zombie apocalypse.

The flu pandemic of 1919 killed up to 100 million people—2-3% of the world’s population. How many would be killed by a pandemic of zombie-ism?

Stop imagining. It’s very, very unlikely to happen.

Other UnDead Types in the Horror Genre



An apparition of a dead person

"The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (movie)


An evil creature that eats dead bodies

"Ghoul" (book by Brian Kene and movie)


An artificial human being endowed with life (Hebrew folklore)

"The Golem" (book by Isaac Beshevis Singer)"


A resurrected dead body that was preserved by the ancient Egyptian embalming process

"The Mummy" (movie)


A dead person who leaves the grave at night to suck the blood of living people

"The Southern Vampire Mysteries" (books by Charlaine Harris) and "True Blood" (HBO series based on the book series)

The first zombie film was White Zombie. It was directed by Victor Halperin and released in 1932.

The popular TV series, The Walking Dead, premiered in 2010. It was based on the comic book series of the same name written by Robert Kirkman and illustrated by Tony Moore. The first issue came out in 2003.

Michael Jackson's music video, Thriller, was released in December 1983. It was MTV's first world premier video. The video begins with a disclaimer saying it "in no way endorses a belief in the occult."

I've Been Zombified

The author gets transformed into a zombie. Actually, this is just how I look when I haven't had my morning coffee yet.

The author gets transformed into a zombie. Actually, this is just how I look when I haven't had my morning coffee yet.

Just for Fun

Here is a link you can have some fun with.

Want to see what you would look like as a zombie? Go to and upload a photo of yourself.

I did it and you can see the results in the photo above. lt's not a pretty sight.

© 2014 Catherine Giordano

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