Zombies are usually taken as the fictional living dead, sometimes called the ‘undead.’ The idea apparently originates from Haitian voodoo legends. Zombies are found in B-movies (notably The Night of the Living Dead), the horror genre, folklore, urban legend, music videos, video games and even academic papers. And various alleged explanations of the phenomenon seem closely related to belief.
Turrell Wylie notes, for instance, that some believe “a zombie is a corpse which has been brought into a state of animation through supernatural power by a necromancer.”¹ Another understanding is that a person’s soul is magically stolen by a master of the dark arts, making the victim appear to be dead. The buried body is later exhumed by the soul-thief; the body then becomes a spiritual slave to the evil master.
Folklorist Alison Jones says that Haitian law actually prohibits burying and exhuming live persons, which has lead some to believe that evil voodoo priests use poison to induce a coma in their victims.² This leads to a variant from primarily paranormal beliefs. Combining the occult and the pharmacological, some believe that, after exhuming a poisoned comatose victim, a wicked voodoo priest then subdues his victim with psychedelic drugs. The victim is then trapped in a drug-induced slavery.
An even more horrific variant of the zombie legend suggests that victims’ flesh is sold by sorcerers for human consumption. This is apparently easy to recognize because human flesh decomposes faster than animal meat. In such instances the victim’s soul wanders the land in the hope of witnessing or bringing about retribution.
Mythologist Stuart Gordon says the term zombie originates from the African Congo word zumbi, which means ‘enslaved spirit.’ Gordon adds that souls bound by a wicked master cannot discern good from evil.³
Philosophers tend to be interested in the idea of zombies from a purely hypothetical standpoint. For instance, E. J. Lowe asks what a being would be like who looks and acts like a human but lacks “the light of consciousness.” Moreover, Lowe asks, quite seriously, whether such a being could exist at all.4 As Lowe puts it:
It may be difficult to determine whether zombies really are possible, but the issue undoubtedly has far-reaching implications for the metaphysics of mind.5
In pop culture, Michael Jackson’s Thriller video has become something of a modern classic in Zombie lore, along with science fiction ideas like the Borg. More recently, the idea of a “Zombie Apocalypse” has taken off, capturing the imagination of many.
¹ Turrell Wylie, “Ro-Langs: The Tibetan Zombie” in History of Religions, Vol. 4, No. 1, (Summer, 1964: 69-80), The University of Chicago Press, p. 69.
² Alison Jones Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore, New York: Larousse, 1996, p. 468.
³ Stuart Gordon, The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends, London: Headline, 1993, pp. 760-761.
4 Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 2nd Edition, ed. Ted Honderich, Oxford: 2005, p. 970.