Kinemortophobia, or the fear of zombies, is surprisingly common. Zombies play a major role in horror fiction from novels to Hollywood films, and are a staple at most major Halloween events. The term "zombie apocalypse," which refers to a pandemic in which zombies take over the planet, is a relatively new concept. Zombie fears, however, are much older. The modern image of the zombie draws from a multitude of sources including West African voodoo lore and more generalized ideas of the undead.
Zombies and Voodoo
The word "zombie" is a derivative of "zombi," itself a Creole variant of Nzambi. A serpent god in some forms of West African and Haitian voodoo, Nzambi appears in a multitude of snakelike forms. Although Nzambi is invoked in many voodoo rituals, zombification is a ritual that takes place outside of traditional voodoo practice. It is considered a form of black magic, and is performed by a bokor, or sorcerer, rather than a voodoo priest or priestess. Some remote tribes are believed to practice an offshoot of voodoo in which zombies play a larger role.
According to lore, these zombies are normal humans who undergo a spell or potion-based ritual. The victim dies, only to be reanimated as a mindless entity under the control of the bokor. In some traditions, the victim's soul is retained in a bottle kept by the bokor, which may be sold as a good luck charm. It is generally believed that the soul is eventually reclaimed by God, at which point the victim will find peace.
Reports of this type of zombie continue to surface today, particularly among remote Haitian peoples. Some researchers believe that the zombification ritual actually involves powerful neurotoxins and psychoactive drugs. When used in combination, these drugs could induce a state of suspended animation followed by a psychotic reaction that dulls affect and memory, making the victim pliable and subject to control. This explanation lends credence to the theory that it is possible, although rare, for zombification to be "cured." There are some stories of a zombified person coming to his or her senses when surrounded by people and objects that, in life, held a strong emotional bond.
Undead in Other Cultures
Long before the term "zombie" was popularized in the 1920s, numerous cultures worldwide had myths and lore involving the undead. These creatures included skeletons, ghouls, mummies and revenants. In many traditions, they are mindless servants under the control of a necromancer, but in some cases they are motivated to return by their own emotions. Common motivations include a thirst for vengeance or a strong emotional tie to a person or situation. These mythical beings may have served as the inspiration for later vampires as well as zombies.
Zombies in Popular Culture
Although it is not technically a zombie novel, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published in 1818, had a strong influence on the modern zombie myth. Rather than a mindless corpse reanimated by a sorcerer, the monster is constructed from a myriad of body parts by a scientist who then rejects him. Alone and afraid, the monster demonstrates the very human emotions of humiliation, anger and vengeance, as well as love, joy and hope. The monster makes his own choices and carves his own path through life. He seeks an education, reading his way through classics, and tries desperately to find acceptance. Lacking in guidance, he is prone to murderous rages. Eventually he chooses to end his own life rather than subject the human race to his appearance and moods.
The idea of a zombie as the creation of a mad scientist rather than a sorcerer proved popular, with numerous novels following a similar path. In the 1930s, the concept of zombification as an illness took hold. In 1954, I Am Legend set the stage for the zombie apocalypse, turning Los Angeles into a ghost town overrun with ghoulish victims of a plague. The creatures of I Am Legend drink blood, making them more akin to vampires than modern zombies.
Today, Hollywood films continue to refine the basic concept of a zombie. Some movies cast them as slow-moving creatures driven only by primal instincts, while others portray them with average or even above-average intelligence. Some zombies are able to be controlled, while others are not. But virtually every modern Hollywood film uses concepts introduced in the 1968 low-budget classic, Night of the Living Dead. That film established the modern zombie as a semi-intelligent former human who has fallen victim to an unknown virus. The virus spreads far and wide, leading to the utter breakdown of society.
Modern Zombie Legends
The term "zombie apocalypse" has entered the popular lexicon, with innumerable books and websites dedicated to teaching people how to survive a zombie infestation. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has even gotten in on the act, publishing a website with directions on how to proceed in the event of a zombie apocalypse.
Coping With Zombie Phobia
For many people, a zombie apocalypse is recognized as a metaphor for the social and economic breakdown of society. Zombie popularity seems to increase during times of economic or social strife. But for some people, the concept of zombies is literally terrifying.
Any phobia of a mythical creature, such as zombies or vampires, can be difficult to admit. Unlike agoraphobia or claustrophobia, the confession of a zombie phobia is often met with laughter. Zombie imagery is everywhere, and it can be nearly impossible to avoid all references to zombies. If your fear causes undue stress, seek advice from a mental health professional.Sources:
Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Emergency Preparedness and Response. May 16, 2011. Retrieved February 27, 2012 from http://emergency.cdc.gov/socialmedia/zombies_blog.asp.
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.