The Living Dead

Oct 282003
Authors: Meg Burd

In light of Halloween being just a few short days away, I think

should make a confession. I am scared, no, terrified of zombies.

Perhaps it’s the proliferation of movies and spooky stories that

spring up this time of year, but whatever the reason, nightmares

about these living corpses are keeping me up at night. Weird as it

all is, I can’t be the only one who finds these creepy creatures so

terrifying. Myths of the living dead such as zombies and their

monstrous cousins, vampires, can be found frightening to many

people in many different cultures. In examining these legends,

important ideas about why these monster myths are so powerful and

why they scare us collectively may surface.

Perhaps the greatest legend of the living dead is that of

Dracula, a vampire found in both ancient European folklore and

modern day movies. Described by the book “In Search of Dracula” as

an authentic 15th century prince in Eastern Europe called Vlad

Tepes, he was demonized and turned into a blood-sucking monster in

popular legend due to both his bloody actions and the peasant’s

feelings of being sucked financially dry by monarchs such as


His legend found rebirth in modern times with the publication of

Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” in 1897. Called “a great transitional

novel” by writer Brian Aldiss, Stoker’s Dracula was an “ancient

thing” when “like a disease (he) arrives in London. A barrier has

been crossed; the infection has entered the modern vein.” In this

sense, the power of the vampire to scare audiences in the Victorian

era rested upon Stoker’s Vlad as a harbinger of the terrifying

disease of (in Victorian eyes) foreign forces, and the shocking

sexuality that Stoker’s Dracula represents.

Vampire myths, like Dracula or even modern ones found in Africa,

deal with these fears, and add to them concerns about the power of

dominating forces (such as colonialists in Africa) to sap a person

or community of its “life blood.” Embodying the fear of either

powerful or sensual intrusion, these myths perhaps allow people to

channel their concerns about “outsiders” into something tangibly


Zombies (in my opinion the most terrifying of the undead) are

also a feature present in global cultures. Most prominent in

Haitian voodoo societies, zombies there are, as ethnobotanist Wade

Davis describes them in his fascinating book “The Serpent and the

Rainbow,” an actual feature of Haitian culture. These factual

zombies were people who were “cursed” by voodoo sorcerers and after

which “died” only to be resurrected in a mindless, hazy state of

slavery. Davis suggests that many of these “zombies” were in fact

victims of a psychotoxin made from puffin fish venom or a plant

known as “zombi cucumber,” the effects of which are a death-like

trance followed by an awakening of amnesia, confusion and delirium.

Davis says that the Haitian zombie myth provided a “template upon

which cultural beliefs and fears could go to work” with the toxin

promising to “amplify these processes a hundred times.”

More modern zombie myths and movies rest on fears present in

modern culture. Movie critics point to films such as the new “28

Days Later” as a play on contemporary terrors of bio-contamination

(remember the anthrax scare?) and concerns about the destructive

power of mindless rage that seems to be growing in our society. In

the zombie classic “Night of the Living Dead,” the dead are

resurrected as soulless brain-eaters by a nuclear spill. By

encapsulating the concerns of the day in a monster myth, we are

able to look at them and fear them in a different, less direct


Both these monsters, the authors of “Blood Read: The Vampire

Metaphor in Contemporary Culture” assert “touch on the basic fears

that make us all vulnerable.” While varied in setting and reason,

vampires and zombies remain terrifying because, as writer David

Skal says, “very little about the underlying structure of horror

images really changes, though our cultural uses for them are as

shape changing as Dracula himself.”

Meg is a graduate student at CSU. She will be busy this

Halloween barricading her house out of fear of zombie attacks




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