Probing Question: Why are we so fascinated with zombies?

“Night of the Living Dead” poster

With his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, George Romero brought the concept of the slow-moving, flesh-eating zombie into mainstream American culture. From Michael Jackson's Thriller video to recent films like 28 Days Later, the zombie has continued to thrill and horrify audiences with the idea of the undead roaming the earth, searching for brains to devour.

Is there any evidence of real zombies existing? And why are we so fascinated with them?

Peter Dendle, author of The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia and associate professor of English at Penn State Mont Alto, studies zombies in movies and folklore. He believes that although it might be possible to produce a zombie-like state pharmacologically, Hollywood's zombies are a product of our imaginations.

Ethnobotanists and anthropologists have investigated reported cases of "zombification" in Haiti, says Dendle. They've found that some traditional healers and practitioners of Voodoo in that island nation produce a "zombie powder" using tetrodotoxin, a very potent neurotoxin found in puffer fish. Tetrodotoxin is so poisonous that reportedly the amount found in a single puffer fish can kill thirty people. Death occurs from electrical signaling in nerves shutting down, leading to muscle paralysis and respiratory failure.

In Japan, fugu, the flesh of the puffer fish, is a sought-after delicacy, though it can be lethal if prepared incorrectly. Sixty percent of fugu poisoning victims die within hours. If a victim survives more than 24 hours, he or she is expected to recover. But because tetrodotoxin poisoning can put people into a coma-like state resembling death (while the sufferer remains fully conscious but completely paralyzed), there are stories of some fugu victims being laid out next to their coffins for three days in order to verify death.

Could such a poison be used to create a zombie? Highly unlikely, says Dendle. "The amount of tetrodotoxin would have to be within a very specific range, enough to put the person into a comatose stupor but not actually kill them. In other words it doesn't seem like something you could rely upon controlling very well."

In any case, Dendle believes that focusing on whether zombies could exist misses the real point. "Let's say this state has perhaps occurred a few times in history, maybe once every generation," he offers. "The more interesting thing is the importance of the story as a cultural artifact, the way that we shape our communities and shape our behavior based around this set of stories."

In Romero's Night of the Living Dead, the director combined the idea of the undead zombie with the ghoul, or flesh-eater, creating the modern zombie we see today in various film, television, and even video game adaptations.

"The scary thing is this idea of entropy, that they're contagious," says Dendle. "They bite you and then you die and turn into a zombie, so it's going to spread. It becomes this global Armageddon with only a handful of survivors trying to escape. But you can't, you're fighting this uphill battle against a maddeningly relentless foe."

"Zombie movies tap into our apocalyptic fears and anxieties very effectively," Dendle continues. "They de-romanticize the connections between human beings and reduce humanity to its lowest common denominator, focusing on power relations in their most brutal human form. It's 'I will exert my will over you.' It's very Nietzscheian," he says.

Since Night of the Living Dead, the zombie has been used as an allegory for society's ills. Romero's 1979 sequel Dawn of the Dead is seen by many as a critique of capitalism, with zombies roaming around a mall, the place they remember most from their life, shuffling past storefronts in a daze. Dendle also sees horror films using the zombie as a barometer of our cultural anxieties.

"We're on the defensive—everyone's an attacker, everyone's threatening, shoot first, ask questions later," he says. "They may look nice, but you never know if they're a zombie or not, so you just have to act as though they are until you know different. The zombie movies play that up a lot and characters are scrutinized in this paranoid, defensive way."

While the vampire seemed to dominate many horror films of the 1990s, he notes, the zombie has become the go-to creature of the last few years, with recent remakes of the Romero franchise and films like 28 Days Later, in which zombies attack London following the accidental release of a deadly virus.

Dendle suggests this is because the zombie character stands so clearly opposite our multi-tasking culture. "The zombie is slow, mechanically inept, it can barely use tools, it's a Luddite, it's technologically challenged," he explains. "I think that's exactly part of the point, that this technology-saturated generation has fixated on this creature specifically because there's fascination as well as repulsion. There must be something viscerally satisfying about the simplicity of the zombie's cravings and impulses. And we also must find something unacceptable about it, about its general demeanor, how slow it is and how old it looks."

Perhaps what is most frightening about zombies is that unlike most creatures in horror films, the zombie is us.

"There is something about the fact that, unlike space aliens or demons, zombies look like sick people," Dendle acknowledges. "They look like diseased, unhealthy, contagious outsiders. And yet human. So it does hit home in that sense."

Peter Dendle, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Penn State Mont Alto. He is author of The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia and Satan Unbound: The Devil in Old English Narrative Literature. He can be reached at pjd11@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 29, 2007