Apocalypse Profane: Revenants, Vampires, Zombies

[This paper was presented at the AAR’s Southeast Regional Commission for the Study of Religion (SECSOR) yearly conference in Atlanta on March 3, 2o12, as part of a panel on “Zombies and Zombie Apocalypses.”]

By Gregory L. Reece

The word “zombie” was popularized in the English-speaking world by Georgian William Buehler Seabrook, journalist, explorer, occultist, and cannibal, in his 1929 book about his travels to Haiti, The Magic Island. He writes,

Werewolves, vampires and demons were certainly no novelty. But I recalled one creature I had been hearing about in Haiti, which sounded exclusively local – the zombie. It seemed…. that while the zombie came from the grave, it was neither a ghost, nor yet a person who had been raised like Lazarus from the dead. The zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life – it is a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive. People who have the power to do this go to a fresh grave, dig up the body before it has time to rot, galvanize it into movement, and then make of it a servant or a slave, occasionally for the commission of some crime, more often simply as a drudge around the habitation or the farm, setting it dull heavy tasks, and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens. (93)

This image of the zombie, the revived corpse made to serve its malicious voodoo master, became a staple of horror films for many years thereafter, beginning with 1932’s The White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi as the voodoo sorcerer who poisons Madge Bellamy in order to kill her and then bring her back from the dead. The weak sequel, 1936’s Revolt of the Zombies, was but one of many zombie movies that followed, most employing similar plot elements, including a malevolent sorcerer who uses his powers to make mindless slaves out of the recently dead. (1959’s Invisible Intruders produced an interesting twist on this theme with space aliens controlling the reanimated corpses to wage war against Earth.)

The zombie of Seabrook and Lugosi is not the same creature that threatens life on Earth today, however. The shambling hordes of flesh eating, rotting corpses that threaten to overrun our planet and destroy our civilization are a lot more sinister, mostly because they are not controlled by an evil madman but by their own murderous urges. Driven not by the machinations of a wizard or megalomaniac, they are instead the product of their basest urge, the need to feed. Since spawned by George Romero in his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead this new breed of zombie engenders a more primal fear. They murder wantonly, devour the flesh of their victims, and are only stopped when we blow their brains out or burn them to ashes. I would argue that these ghouls, (as they are called in 68’s Night of the Living Dead, rather than “zombies”), have a pedigree, not in Seabrook’s Haitian zombies, but in the vampires of eastern Europe who, though sucking blood like their modern counterparts, looked and smelled a lot more like our contemporary zombies.

Belief in revenants, those reanimated corpses that crawl from the grave to haunt the living and spread foul contagion, has a long history in Eastern European folklore. The dead simply would not stay dead, would not stay safely buried, but would wander the streets and attack the unsuspecting.  To stop this evil, corpses were exhumed, eviscerated, and cremated, to make sure that they were finally put to rest. In the early eighteenth century, these reports became more widespread, catching the attention of Western Europe. During this “vampire outbreak,” reports of undead corpses drinking the blood of the living proliferated. It is in these stories of bloodsucking vampires that we catch a glimpse of the zombie corpses that walk the earth today.

One of the most celebrated cases of was that of Peter Plogojowitz, a Serbian who died in 1725. According to a contemporary report, a series of deaths following Plogojowitz’s burial led to the suspicion that he was a vampire. Before dying, some of these victims reported that Plogojowitz visited them in their sleep. According to a contemporary account from a government official, “since with such people (which they call vampires) various signs are to be seen, that is, the body undecomposed, the skin, hair, beard, and nails growing – the subjects resolved unanimously to open the grave of Peter Plogojowitz and to see if such above-mentioned signs were really to be found on him.” (Barber 6) The official described his personal observation of the exhumation thusly:

Since I should not hold these people from the resolution they had made, either with good words or with threats, I went to the village of Kisilova, taking along the Gradisk priest, and viewed the body of Peter Plogojowitz, just exhumed, finding, in accordance with thorough truthfulness, that first of all I did not detect the slightest odor that is otherwise characteristic of the dead, and the body, except for the nose, which was somewhat fallen away, was completely fresh. The hair and beard- even the nails, of which the old ones had fallen away – had grown on him; the old skin, which was somewhat whitish, had peeled away, and a new one had emerged from it. The face, hands, and feet and the whole body were so constituted, that they could not have been more complete in his lifetime. Not without astonishment, I saw some fresh blood in his mouth, which, according to the common observation, he had sucked from the people killed by him. In short, all the indications were present that such people (as remarked above) are said to have. After both the priest and I had seen this spectacle, while people grew more outraged than distressed, all the subjects, with great speed, sharpened a stake – in order to pierce the corpse of the deceased with it- and put this at his heart, whereupon, as he was pierced, not only did much blood, completely fresh, flow also through his ears and mouth, but still other wild signs (which I pass by out of high respect) took place. Finally, according to their usual practice, they burned the often mentioned body, in his case, to ashes of which I inform the most laudable Administration, and at the same time would like to request, obediently and humbly, that if a mistake was made in this matter, such is to be attributed not to me but to the rabble, who were beside themselves with fear. (5-7)

            An even better known tale form the time is that of Arnold Paole, a Serbian soldier whose death and resurrection was the subject of the official investigation and report, Visum et Repertum. Like Plogojowitz, Paole’s death was followed by others and eyewitnesses reported that the dead man was once again walking the earth. Paole himself was said to have been troubled by a vampire during his lifetime and had “eaten from the earth of the vampire’s grave and had smeared himself with the vampire’s blood” in order to protect himself from the evil one. Apparently, however, these measures did not work. Again, according to a contemporary source:

In order to end this evil, they dug up this Arnold Paole 40 days after his death – this on the advice of a soldier, who had been present at such events before; and they found that he was quite complete and undecayed, and that fresh blood had flowed from his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears; that the shirt, the covering, and the coffin were completely bloody; that the old nails on his hands and feet, along with the skin, had fallen off, and that new ones had grown; and since they saw from this that he was a true vampire, they drove a stake through his heart, according to their custom, whereby he gave an audible groan and bled copiously, Thereupon they burned the body the same day to ashes and threw these into the grave. These people say further that all those who were tormented and killed by the vampire must themselves become vampires. (16)

In order to stop the spread of the vampire contagion, the bodies of Paole’s four victims were likewise destroyed. The remedy did not prove to be sufficient. It was later reported that other deaths indicated that a vampire still haunted the village. As Paole was believed to have fed on cattle as well as people, and as the tainted meat was then eaten by villager, it was decided that the disease must have been spread to others in this way. Upon their death, those who had consumed the beef returned to life as vampires. Graves were again opened and bodies exhumed. Once again, the bodies were found to exhibit signs of vampirism.

From these and other accounts, a picture of the vampire comes into focus that is clearly out of line with the one featured in Hollywood films, out of line with the the thin, pale, aristocratic creatures we know and love. These early vampires showed signs of decomposition. Plogojowitz was said to have lost a part of his nose. Others had shed their skin like snakes. It was reported by some that vampires would chew on their own flesh until they were freed from their graves, reducing their hands to bloody stumps. The vampires were often described as ruddy, their color a vibrant reminder of the blood that they consumed. These vampires were bloated creatures, filled with blood, like ticks about to burst. They were said to be without bones, nothing more than blood filled sacks, animated by evil forces. Their opened graves revealed, not well dressed socialites in stately repose, but rotting creatures covered with blood.

Of course, the vampires we all know and love are different from this earlier, coarser variety most significantly because of the influence of Lord Byron, who was the pattern for all vampires that came after him. After John Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, published his tale of a Byronic vampire, the creature would never be the same. Appearing in the April 1819 issues of the periodical New Monthly Magazine, Polidori’s tale The Vampyre used Byron as the model for the title character, Lord Ruthven. The tale of  Lord Ruthven established important features of the vampire story. The vampire rises from the dead and drinks the blood of others, elements derived from folklore and mythology. But the modern vampire is also a playboy and socialite, a suave seducer of women. Lord Byron provided the inspiration and pattern for all vampires that followed. The vampire would no longer shamble forth mindlessly from the rotting grave, but would rather be  a handsome, exotic, mysterious man of the world, a sexual predator as much as a drinker of blood.

This is not to say that the contemporary zombie is identical to the pre-Byronic vampire, however. From the earliest accounts, and culminating in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire has been distinguished by folkloric qualities, often from a religious (Christian) context. Vampires, for example, cannot stand the sight of a crucifix, burn at the touch of holy water, and can have their coffins sealed by the power of the host. Vampires can change shapes, transforming into animal form or into the foggy mist. Vampires cannot stand the touch of the sun’s rays upon their skin (A bit of lore added after Stoker’s Dracula, I should say, in which the vampire lord could survive in the daylight but was weakened by it. The idea that the vampire is instantly killed by the light of the sun first appears in the film Nosferatu.) Clearly, these elements are not associated with the contemporary zombie, who operates in a far more secular environment than the vampire.

The transition from vampire to the contemporary zombie occurred in the 1954 novel, I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson. Matheson’s book is, I suppose, best described as a science-fiction version of the vampire tale.  In the novel, and in the faithful 1964 film The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price, a virus has spread across the globe transforming human beings into vampires, both dead and living varieties. The main character, Robert Neville, finds himself the sole survivor of the plague, and finds his nights terrorized by the creatures that congregate outside his door looking for fresh blood. Matheson’s book is interesting for this discussion for several reasons.

First, Matheson’s version of the vampire legend hearkens back to the pre-Byronic vampires. They are not suave, debonair playboys intent on despoiling virgins, neither are they aristocratic castle dwellers. Rather, the vampires that Robert Neville must confront are walking corpses, cowering away by day and stumbling forth after dark to wreak violence on one another and on Neville, if his guard should ever drop. The vampires are not diabolical geniuses who plot world conquest, they are victims, like Paole and Plogojowitz, neighbors and friends who didn’t stay in the ground but wander forth driven by blind impulse. Second, Matheson’s vampire story takes the idea of a vampire contagion, clearly present in the early vampire tales, and expands it to its logical conclusion. The contagion has spread around the globe, leaving Robert Neville as the sole uninfected survivor, the last man on Earth. His vampire story is an apocalyptic tale of the end times, an end of the world story, with vampires standing in for nuclear fallout or other such modern-day threats to our existence. Third, and I think most interestingly, Matheson’s vampires are thoroughly secularized. Neville discovers that the secret of the vampires lies not in pacts with the devil or with an evil curse, but with a contagion, a disease that spreads like the plague or the flu. The supernatural elements of vampire  lore, he finds, have prosaic explanations. Vampires hide from the daylight, not because of a curse from God, but because the sunlight is damaging to the virus, it is a self-defense mechanism evolved to perpetuate the disease. They cower from crosses, not because crosses have any real power, but because the victims of the disease have identified themselves as vampires and adopted the legendary vampire’s weaknesses. They cast reflections in mirrors, but shy from them because they cannot stand to see their own hideous images. Chemicals in the garlic plant are damaging to the disease. They can’t  be stopped by bullets because their bodies rapidly seal any wounds, except those caused by stakes, the resulting open wounds allowing oxygen, an element deadly to the virus, to penetrate the body.

These three features of Matheson’s I Am Legend, and of the theatrical The Last Man on Earth, were clearly influential on George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and, I would argue, on the image of the zombie that we have all come to know and love. First of all, Romero’s ghouls are, like Matheson’s vampires, of the shambling mindless sort rather than the shrewd, plotting, Draculan variety. They are more Arnold Paole than Lord Byron.  Second, Romero’s ravenous revenants attack, not with the sinister plots of Dracula, but with apocalyptic ferocity. The survivors huddle together in a farm house, barring their doors and windows and monitoring news broadcasts, as the government and the military mobilizes to respond. It is world-wide disaster, a threat, not just to the innocence and well-being of a few carefully targeted victims, but to civilization itself. It is a plague, whose threat grows exponentially. Finally, Romero’s ghouls are, like Matheson’s vampires, thoroughly secular monsters. Indeed, Romero’s ghouls are even more secular than Matheson’s vampires because Romero flagrantly dispenses with all of the lore and legend associated with the undead, instead of rationalizing it away as Matheson does in his tale. Romero’s ghouls, soon to be called zombies, are the reanimated corpses of the recently dead, revived by radiation from space brought to earth by a probe returning from Venus.  Unlike traditional vampires, there is no lore and legend that must be mastered to understand this enemy. The rules for Romero’s ghouls are pretty simple: They can be killed by destroying their brains (the part of their bodies effected by the radiation) or by cremating them.  Their contagion spreads, because when their victims die, they too are revived by the weird radiation. They are hungry and ready to devour anything that gets in their way, but especially human flesh.

These themes also play out in many of the zombie films and novels that followed, Stephen King’s Cell being a prime example. His zombies are of the mindless sort, with their mindlessness driving them to violence and, of course, cannibalism.  (Though in time they develop a sort of hive mind and are able to develop plans and coordinate their activities.) The rise of the zombies is, likewise, of an apocalyptic nature. Civilization crashes, government, law enforcement, and the military cease to be a factor in life. Survivors are on their own in a terrifying new world.  Finally, and significantly, King’s zombies are of the thoroughly secular, non-supernatural variety. Technically I suppose, King’s zombies are not zombies at all because they are not dead, but rather normal living and breathing humans who have their minds wiped clean by a pulse sent over cell phones.  King’s living zombies are just an even more secularized variety of what we have already seen, however, dispensing with the need to explain the return from the dead, removing yet another “supernatural” element from the scenario.

(There is a telling scene in King’s novel which illustrates well the secular nature of his zombie apocalypse. Not long after zero hour, the main characters, Clay, Tom, and the teenage girl Alice, are confronted by a woman who wishes to bring a decidedly Christian interpretation to the apocalypse. The encounter goes like this:

“The Vial of Insanity has been poured into the brains of the wicked, and the City of Sin has been set afire by the cleansing torch of Yee-ho-vah!” the plump lady cried. She was wearing red lipstick. Her teeth were too even to be anything but old-fashioned dentures. “Now you see the unrepentant flee, yea, verily, even as maggots flee the burst belly of – “

Alice put her hands over her ears. “Make her stop!” she cried . . .

The plump woman was starting to work up a sweat, Bible raised, eyes blazing, beauty-shop curls nodding and swaying. “Take your hands down, girl, and hear the Word of God before you let these men lead you away and fornicate with you in the open doorway of Hell itself! ‘For I saw a star blaze in the sky, and it was called Wormwood, and those that followed it followed upon Lucifer, and those that followed upon Lucifer walked downward into the furnace of –‘”

Clay hit her. He pulled the punch as the last second, but it was still a solid clip to the jaw, and he felt the impact travel all the way up to his shoulder. The plump woman’s glasses rose off her pug nose and then settled back. Behind them, her eyes lost their glare and rolled up on their sockets. Her knees came unhinged and she buckled, her Bible tumbling from her clenched fist. . . .

Clay was suddenly closer to undone than at any time since things had started going wrong. Why this should have been worse than the throat-biting teenage girl or the knife-wielding businessman, worse than finding Mr. Ricardi hanging from a light fixture with a bag over his head, he didn’t know, but it was. He had kicked the knife-wielding businessman, Tom had, too, but the knife-wielding businessman had been a different kind of crazy. The old lady with the beauty-shop curls had just  been a . . .

“Jesus,” he said. “She was just a nut, and I coldcocked her.”  )

In conclusion, let me summarize my argument. Twenty-first century zombies, the zombie apocalypse sort of zombies, are not really the cultural descendants of the Haitian voodoo zombies popularized by William Seabrook and Bela Lugosi. They are instead more closely related to the vampire, especially the vampires of the eighteenth century, who were pretty much just walking corpses with a thirst for blood. The vampire, of course, has taken on other baggage over time, including an identification with Lord Byron that left them highly sexualized and cultured and an association with a variety of religious and folkloric elements that granted them supernatural qualities beyond the fact that they are walking corpses. I have argued that it was Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend that marks the transition from Gothic vampire story to the zombie apocalypse. Matheson’s tale is marked by three themes that have remained prevalent in succeeding zombie films and fictions. First, Matheson’s vampires are a return to the pre-Byronic mindless revenant. Second, the rise of Matheson’s vampires brings about an apocalyptic scenario, in which the spread of the contagion brings about the end of the world as we know it. Finally, Matheson’s vampires are secularized, explained scientifically and shorn of their religious, supernatural, and folkloric elements. These elements: the mindless revenant, the apocalyptic scenario, and the secular nature of the menace are all prominent themes in the contemporary zombie apocalypse.

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