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On the Supernatural Origins of Zombies

I recounted some of the more scientifically inclined etiological explanations in the previous appendix, but aren’t we talking about zombies here, creatures the continued locomotion of which defies all natural law and therefore destabilize the very notion of natural law [1]? I happen to believe there is a natural order, that we just don’t understand all of it, or even much of it, and that zombies, therefore, must exist within some framework of physics, chemistry, biology, though the universe or god or whatever you want to call it never named them such, nor does it care what we know and don’t know about how shit actually works. So, as I proceed to outline some of the following, less than natural, unnatural, supernatural, or generally metaphysical theories of the zombie etiology, I do hope that at least some of my readers will try to reconcile such seemingly farfetched ideas with whatever principles of science, if any, survive these dark ages. Even some of the people who believed the explanations espoused below assumed the phenomena had some scientific underpinning, though they were hard-pressed to say what that might have been, or, for that matter, when or how the knowns, unknowns, and unknowables might ultimately be reconciled in the very stuff of the mysterious cosmos:

§ Revelation. Plenty of people held some version of a Christian religious view that the zombies of the apocalypse should be counted among the torments prophesied in the New Testament; I surmise that, in better days, many of these had not only accepted but actively worked to bring about the end times, by prayer or political action, and after The Collapse, you'd find pocket Bibles among the rubble or gore of massacres,  at times still tucked away in the pockets of the undead, and within them pages dogeared and bookmarked and highlighted, passages giving them hope, that they themselves simply were not counted in the first wave of resurrections but might surely be among the second. 

1:18: I am he that liveth; and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.

6:8: And I looked, and behold a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Death; and Hell followed with him.

9:6: And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.

9:7: … the locusts … their faces were as the faces of men.

20:5: But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished.

20:8: And [Satan] shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.

20:12: And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God … and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.

20:13: And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged....

The biggest proponent of this view among Plymouth’s crew was Christopher Martin, the ex-college-footballer. There was really no swaying him from his view, which he said came to him on his way to becoming a roughneck. Our corn-fed, born-again zealot claimed to have been hunkered in the loft of a barn outside Walla Walla, Washington, when he looked out and saw a dozen or more bald eagles tearing the flesh from as many rotting corpses, and around the fringes any number of ravens and crows and magpies, hopping in for a nibble, then hopping away as an eagle swung on them viciously. Christopher Martin could see several of the bodies belonged to children, still wore bookbags over their shoulders, one of them facedown in a rut by what appeared to be a rural bus stop, and on his back, facing the sky was a complete likeness of Spongebob Squarepants, grinning feverishly as a prophet up at the heavens.

He was so disturbed by this tableau that he opened up a Bible he had found, just to find something to soothe him, and turned, completely randomly, he claimed, to a page at the back. The first passage his eyes lighted on was Revelation 19:17: “And I saw an angel standing in the sun; and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together unto the supper of the great God.”

That chapter, as some of you might know, resolves with the beast and the false prophet and all his followers in a lake of fire burning with brimstone and “the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh.”

Most of the men who found support for their religious prejudices in various spiritual manuals were at least willing to entertain the possibility that the precursors to an Inquisition by Zombie were at least found in quantifiable facts, that God had wielded biochemical forces to conscript bodies to his cause, but that kind of talk pissed Christopher Martin off. He wouldn’t hear it.

“God doesn’t need tools!” he was overheard shouting one evening. “God’s all the tool he needs!”

Several men laughed at this phrasing, but Christopher Martin, unbent, unbroken, told them they were all “going to fucking hell.”

§ We’re already in hell. Jason, ex-Sierra-Leonean child soldier, immigrant, ex-Ranger, and friend of the now huffing-and-fuming Christopher Martin, patted his big friend on the shoulder, and said he appreciated his testimony and passion. He, too, believed zombies were a spiritual trial, but where he diverged is that he suspected we were not really in the place we thought we were in—that is, a latitude, longitude, and depth once called "western Washington, on the surface of the earth—but that for as far back as we could remember we’d always been in hell, or some similarly spiritual dimension where all phenomenon existed purely as a form of torment, of punishment, for acts committed in life. That night, warming ourselves around the burn barrels, staring into the flames, two miniature flames were flickering in Jason’s eyes when he told us a story I will never forget, and, contrary as it was to the story he told, he was laughing periodically, as if to remind us all it was okay, that he was a child a long time ago, and had come to peace with what he’d had to do.

 

In 1995, I was 13 years old. The rebels came to my village in the night. My family ran, but we were separated from my parents near the river. They took my brother and me, but I do not know what happened to Kisimi in the days after. The RUF sergeant back at base gave us amphetamines and brown-brown, cocaine and gunpowder. Once we were high, they made us kill. Another boy named Solomon, he made me shoot a farmer in his cassava field. Right here. Below the eye. Through the cheekbone. I had to laugh. Had to. Or Ishmael, he would have killed me, too. This is the problem of all the theories I have heard here tonight. The zombie is man without thought or conscience? What thought or conscience? What man with conscience makes children do such things? Hutu slaughtering Tutsi? or the Holocaust? or the Khmer Rouge? or Columbus? did you know this man you celebrate made his men chop off the hands of Arawak people if they did not bring him enough gold dust from the river? He made piles of their hands. His own priest said so. Zombies, they are innocents by comparison to this. I think we have been in Hell a long time, friends. Zombies are a reprieve, something the Devil throws at us when he is on vacation, bots of this Hell we are fighting to save. Their existence is absurd otherwise. 

 

The divisions on this perspective largely had to do with what horrors people had witnessed in life prior to The Collapse. If they had seen or read about the great horrors of the 20th and early 21st centuries, they knew, and agreed; if they had seen no horrors, or if everything they knew about the world’s atrocities came from textbooks they had skimmed or completely neglected to read—or, hell, even if they read them but simply were not made to imagine personal horror amplified by thousands or millions—they assumed he was simply exaggerating, as if “former child soldier” were not an explosive phrase full of specific histories of terror and trauma almost beyond comprehension for most, but only synonymous with “cute kid holding rifle."

§ Demonic possession. Some others speculated that zombies were all just possessed by demons. There is no particular reason, once you’ve accepted the notion that demons exist, to discount this theory offhand, except that no one ever lobbied for this perspective seriously, only sort of halfheartedly, and not all that convincingly; indeed, no one stands out in my mind as being this position’s advocate, and one only need ask why demons, which are terrible in their own way, would ever need to possess human bodies in order to carry out their program of violence, almost incognito. It’s a bit roundabout, to say the least.

That is, unless you take the more reasonable position that possession actually comes from some dark recess within our mind or being. Then it gets interesting, for, if we are possessed by some evil inside ourselves, a secret desire to eat our fellow people, wouldn’t it twist us, contort us, even make our skin start to slough off out as stalwart superegos tried to regulate rampaging ids? Like I said, no one really championed that argument, yet, as I said in Appendix A: Zombology 101, there were those few among the hordes who would look at you and you’d know they were zombies though in every other respect still quite human. What made them walk with the hordes? and what made the hordes accept them? Surely some inner emptiness, some internal evil, with which we will all eventually have to reckon. Isn’t that, too, a kind of demon?

§ God’s likeness. There was another controversial though essentially Christianity-based theory I overheard—I don’t even remember from whom, or maybe I came up with it at some point—based on John 3 that says, “My dear people, we are already the children of God, but what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is, that we shall be like Him because we shall see Him as he really is.” According to this theory, we would morph to match not what we believe Him to be, but what He truly is beneath the veil of our mortal ignorance. The implication, of course, is that His true nature is that of a soul-devouring, self-replicating enemy of consciousness, a consumer of sentient compassion, and that, in order to reconcile ourselves with His true nature, we have to endure this terrible but necessary period of transformation, of self-transubstantiation.

§ Curse or spell. There were those who talked about how this might have been the work of sorcerers, that it was very much akin to the Tibetan ro-lang, or to the zombi of Haitian voodoo who is brought back from the grave to work and work endlessly, a magical splitting and capture of various types of the human spirit, but none in our crew specifically espoused this idea. I found it strange to think that here we had a readymade explanation, one that had existed long before The Collapse, and that people were that much quicker to reject it on its face. What besides racism or at least ethnocentrism could account for that? Indeed, the Haitian notion of the slave zombi had given rise to the Americanized horde-version of cinema, and it was as if that very cultural appropriation had not only erased some crucial bit of world colonial history but forever wiped out our very ability to conceive of the zombie in that way ever again. Looking back, I seem to remember men going to great lengths to avoid it, being more willing to entertain the idea that it all owed to some kind of magical anglophile wizard, some great, pointy-hatted Brit in the Merlin tradition, casting reanimation spells while riding around on unicorns, than to accept that maybe impoverished Haitian voodoo practitioners knew something American scientists and Christians were too stupid and blinded by arrogance to see.  

§ Gaia’s revenge. Besides any particular naturalistic catalyst for zombism, some people think the whole phenomenon came about because Earth got sick of us and is trying to wipe us out, because Gaia—or Anu, or Durga, or Pachamama, etc.—as an anthropomorphizing of earth, recognized how uniquely gifted we are at wiping out lifeforms, and sicked us on ourselves. There’s poetic justice in that notion, and, since I’m inclined to see aesthetics as a form of moral truth on par with thermodynamics or quantum mechanics, I tend to gravitate toward this idea, even though the idea of tangible deities strikes me as patently absurd.

One night, several of us were standing around a burn barrel, warming our hands. Someone had just been talking about fungus as a cause, and someone else said the mold theory was “pretty earthy.” One man, an irritating little troll of a man who called himself Huckleberry, tilted his head toward Chief and said, “Ask Geronimo here.”

The implication was obvious: Chief was a Native American of undetermined origin and, as such, was expected always to represent for the naturalistic point of view, to cry a single tear if someone littered. But Chief didn’t cry a tear here. Chief just looked at this little man who called himself Huckleberry and yawned with boredom.

Starbucks, however, was standing with his chin against his chest, looking deep into the flame. Up until then, he hadn’t contributed much to the conversation. But that changed here.

I majored in environmental studies in college. I remember there was this pretty strawberry-blond girl in a lot of my classes, I think her name was Madison, or Maddy. I don’t remember how it got started, but one day she was talking about how messed up it was that people were expecting there to be 100% certainty about everything about global warming before we did anything to try to stop it and then it would be too late. She said, “What if it was zombies? Would we wait 50 years until 100% of everyone agreed they were zombies and why they were here before we started fighting back?” And there was this other girl in the class, I think her name was Amanda, or maybe she was the one called Maddy—anyway, she didn’t talk much but that day she said, “I think you’re totally right but isn’t it also kind of a colonialist attitude?” Everyone was like, “What the fuck is she talking about?” They turned to this other pretty girl Leah who was, like, Tulalip or something, like they wanted her to settle it. She said, “Don’t look at me. I’m not like the boss of what’s colonialist.” And the other girl goes, “Hello, everyone: I look white, but I’m Nisqualy, not that it matters, and what I’m saying is that shit’s colonialist. I mean, you’re wondering why we have to have 100% scientific agreement before we do anything and what I’m saying is it’s sorta fucked up we have to have any percentage of scientific agreement before we do something. I’m not saying it because I think I’m Miss Nisqualy Earth Princess or anything. It’s just because I’m not stupid. It’s so obvious. We didn’t even have to wait for scientists to tell us societies can’t just keep growing and pumping more and more shit out into the environment forever. There’s a limit even if we don’t want there to be. It doesn’t take a bunch of scientists to tell us what’s obvious anyway.” Or something like that. I learned a lot in that class. Not just about science.

 

§ Aliens. I had assumed Chucho, being a practicing Catholic, would ascribe to one of the more religious etiologies. But he didn’t. What he ascribed to was aliens.

“Those little dudes….” he said meaningfully one night after everyone else had gone to bed down or took their posts.

“What little dudes?” I asked.

“The ones from space,” he said.

“What ones from space?”


“The little green pendejos behind all this bullshit.”

“I’m skeptical,” I said. “I believe they could exist, but that they’re here? Seems far-fetched.”

“I saw it, man.”

“And people see Jesus in toast.”

“And I saw this.”

“What?”

“The night my mom died.”

“You never told me about how it happened.”

“And I ain’t gonna either. All I’m saying is I saw what I saw. In the shadows.”

“An alien?”

“Right behind my mom. Like her shadow. But doing its own fucking thing.”

“What was it like?”

“Skinny. And my mom wasn’t never skinny. She liked her own cooking, you know?”

“What happened?”

“What happened happened. And she was turning. And I saw that little dude leave the wall and, like, cover her, swallow her up. That’s when she turned.”

“How do you know it wasn’t a spirit? a ghost?”

“Cuz I looked up before I had to—nevermind. Anyway, I looked up.”

“And?”


“And I think I saw it.”

“What?”

“A circle of red lights. Way up high. Then it was gone. Just like that.”

“What? a spaceship?”

“Or some kinda space station.”

“Doesn’t your religion frown on that thinking?”

“I don’t see how.”

“It’s a little roundabout, don’t you think? God using aliens to control shadows to possess us and kill us?”

“Whatever, man. Ain’t you ever heard God works in mysterious ways? But whatever. I know I coulda been imagining shit. I mean, my brain was fucking out of it. That was my mom, you know.” Here he crossed himself. “But you gotta admit: none of this shit makes any sense. And you don’t know shit either.”

§ Computer simulation. Neo, who had been a bigwig in the tech sector, offered another interesting opinion. He said he thought there was a chance that none of this was really happening, not the zombies, not the lives we thought we’d been living. He said he thought there was a chance we might all be living in a computer simulation, a created world that we were programmed to perceive as being real, when, in fact, reality existed in a room where the computer was stored, where some being was playing a game.

“Like Sim City?”

“Sure. Like Sim City. Only on a bigger scale. And more real. With zombies.”

I asked if he had any evidence.

“Shit gets repeated,” Neo said. “It’s like in The Matrix. Déjà vu. Have you ever seen the same zombie twice? You shouldn’t. People are all different. But I’m pretty sure I have. Even five or six times, same zombie. I can’t prove it but I think I’ve seen it. And what if I’m right? Maybe this is all in our heads. Maybe we can still, like, crack the code and escape."

 

§ Death of George Romero. I heard several men at various times over the course of the years suggest that the rise of zombies followed a little too uncannily on the heels of the death of zombie-movie icon George Romero. They seemed to believe that the death of the guy who had spawned the whole modern American zombie genre must have had some kind of magical cantilevering effect so that, as the director of Night of the Living Dead fell, the living dead rose, and as he closed his eyes, they opened theirs. This was patently absurd for a number of reasons no thinking person should be expected to enumerate [2]—yet for being such an obviously stupid position to take, there were definitely those who thought it made a certain amount of metaphysical or at least aesthetic sense. 

§ Self-fulfilling prophecy. Last, but not least, I come to the theory that is dearest to my own heart: the self-fulfilling prophecy, a series of real-life choices in which people lead themselves inexorably to ends they themselves imagined. Yes, I can’t help but think there might be an almost supernatural component to the prophecy that led us to a zombie apocalypse, a kind materialization of things dredged up from the depths of our collective unconscious.

In the days before it all began, I remember the curious, morbid fascination people in our culture generally had with violence and specifically with zombies; so, too, do I remember riding the bus to the university, when I looked out the window and saw a procession of zombies walking down the sidewalk in the U-District, covered in fake gore, dragging viscera made from sausages and plastic bags covered in canola oil and food coloring: it was a zombie walk, which was actually a popular thing at the time, something thousands of people, many of whom would never even amass to protest or even to vote, would do in a kind of ongoing competition between cities to see who could get the record for largest zombie mob in the books—a very strange phenomenon, looking back—and I remember debates about a TV show called The Walking Dead that took over entire literature classes, students articulating literary archetypes vis-à-vis characters named Rick, Daryl, Carol, the Governor. Who had enough time to dress up like a zombie and stumble around for hours with no purpose other than to dress up like a zombie and stumble around for hours? and what the fuck did zombies have to do with the stories of Flannery O’Connor? They made associations and created parity where there was none, leveled the playing field where it was clearly not level, not by elevating the zombie to the level of literature, but by butchering literature and reducing it to the level of the zombie.

 

We talked about what we’d do when everyone died at once, not so much to prepare ourselves for some inexorable reality as to conceive it, just as expansionists had coined Manifest-Destiny to drive pioneers westward in the long-ago, just as Custer cursed Moby-Dork to drive himself onward in our time. Is it any wonder, with this tendency in our blood, that we woke one day to see real gore where we expected to see fake gore? that is, dripping from the mouths of so many costumed U-District walkers? as the zombies of our imaginations became the zombies at our doors? In other words, we wanted shit to fall apart, to kill our neighbors for being unthinking monsters, and so it did, and so we did; and in other other words, it had been easier for us to imagine a zombie apocalypse than a new and better world, so that’s exactly what we got, a slippery slope all the way down to hell. 

Still, what specific hands guided us to the slope? what mechanisms did it use? All the best people who might have told us seem to be dead or so hidden from view, so deeply bunkered, that we’re likely to ever get a square answer. However, sometimes, sitting here, typing away in my library holdout—my bibliobunker—pretending to have one-tenth of the minds that first inspired me to try to answer the deep questions the world is always asking, I often wonder if it is better if we don’t get an answer, because an answer often has the power to lead toward change, even a clawing-back of humanity—but unless we can learn something from our mistakes, unless we can temper the worst aspects of humanity and foster the best, unless we can figure out why we were so damned excited, so damn “pumped” to see the world fall apart and see zombies devour our neighbors and friends and families just as they devour our enemies and enmities, it’s probably for the best if the last lights of so-called civilization keep blinking out one by one until night is black but for starlight and moonbeams, or for forest fires burning as fires have always burned, without meaning or metaphor, or for fireflies, or the glow of jellyfish near the surface of the sea.

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[1] Let me explain the logic here. The word “unnatural” refers to a state antithetical to the natural order; however, to defy said natural order, there must first be a natural order; and yet, if there is such a thing as a natural order, then that order cannot, by definition, be broken, because it is the order of nature, the architecture underpinning all phenomena. So: there either is a natural order or there isn’t; if there is, there is no such thing as unnatural phenomena; if there isn’t, then there is no order, and chaos reigns.

[2] First, Romero didn’t create zombies with Night of the Living Dead but only appropriated, modified, and popularized them. Second, he didn’t create the genre of zombie films, but only appropriated, modified, and popularized it for a new generation. Third, even if we were to qualify our statement and simply declare NOTLD the first zombie film of a kind, Romero can’t be said to be the unqualified father of the zombie film, because he fathered this first progeny with another man: John Russo (of Return of the Living Dead fame). Are we to retroactively disregard Russo’s zombo-paternity? No, that’s not at all fair. However, this last bit brings me to another point I heard once when explaining all this to a man who believed Romero’s death breathed life into the undead. When I told this man all the above points, he decided that maybe what created zombies then was not Romero’s death that powered-on the zombies, but rather the strange tension that existed for years between Romero and Russo, as if the tension remained like a tether between them, following the one man into the grave and, in spanning the life/death barrier, provided zombies or zombo-animating spirits a kind of tightrope of tension to walk on out of the nether realms. I know this sounds nuts, that is nuts. And yet it spurs me now to a further proposition, one even nuttier but simultaneously no less nutty than any other theory people put forth, a proposition that it took me some years of sitting alone in my bibliobunker to consider: that the willingness to entertain these thoughts and the deep concentration that we dedicated to spinning zombo theories is itself zombifying, in that a dude dedicating all his mental powers on a convoluted theory like the aforementioned Romero-Russo-Tension-Tightrope Theory has made of himself a zombie. He might think he’s exercising that uniquely human mental acuity, but in truth he will be endlessly caught-up in a loop of triviality, like a brilliant writer pouring all his or her talent and life force into working on an ad campaign for a new kind of blanket. That gap between the potentiality of a mind and the actual use of a mind: perhaps that is the space in which the zombie arises.