While the zombies in movies and pop culture obviously aren’t real, there may be some reality to the idea of the dead rising. Indeed, from people mistakenly buried alive to animals living with zombie-like parasites, the living dead are real.
Zombies remain a pop culture fixation, but where did the idea of the dead rising from their graves to attack the living originate from? It turns out there may actually be some valid reasons as to why some people believe that corpses can reanimate.
A Brief Look at Zombies in Pop Culture
Whether you’re a fan of the fast-moving zombies in 28 Days Later or you prefer the lumbering dead from the classic Night of the Living Dead, zombies are here to stay in pop culture. The popularity of the TV show The Walking Dead has solidified our love of brain-hungry, undead monsters.
According to pop culture and folklore, a zombie is usually either a reawakened corpse with a ravenous appetite or a person whom a zombie has bitten and infected with the “zombie virus.”
Whether they are overwhelmingly fast like the zombies in World War Z or just wander around aimlessly like the mobile-dead in Warm Bodies, zombies across pop culture have one major thing in common—they want to eat flesh or brains. Yes, their mission is to endlessly dine, and to feed is their sole need. Most don’t talk except to emit occasional grunts.
The Origin of the Zombies
A belief in the dead rising may date as far back as ancient Greece, where bodies have been discovered loaded down with heavy stones and other objects. The assumption is that these corpses were weighed down to keep them from rising upon reanimation. But then again, it may have been a more sinister method to keep the living from getting away while being forcibly entombed alive.
The place where zombie folklore has been most prominent for centuries is in Haiti. West African zombie folklore dates back as far as the 17th century. The zombies of Haitian tradition don’t rise on their own, though; they are brought back to life via necromancy. A sorcerer or witch known as a bokor raises the dead to use them as slaves.
Haitian folklore also mentions astral zombies that can be turned into slaves. One type of zombie is flesh without a soul, and the other is a soul without flesh.
The idea that people can come back from the dead is found in many tales, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Even the notion that an Egyptian mummy can get up and walk again has occurred to the human imagination. Creative minds took “zombies” and stories based on voodoo magic and turned them into fictional stories that invoke fear and curiosity. Science is often baked into these stories; for example, strange illnesses or toxic medicines are sometimes used as a scapegoat for a zombie outbreak.
Zombies of the Animal Kingdom
It isn’t just humans who face the risk of walking around one day as an undead monster. In the animal kingdom, “zombie” animals exist—creatures that are technically dead but still animate.
For instance, some types of fungus infect ants, sending chemical signals through the bugs’ bodies to control them. The fungus’ sole purpose is to spread, so it directs the ant to attach itself to a leaf and hang there until death. The fungus eventually reaches the ant’s head and shoots out spores that attract yet more ants.
Some wasps lay eggs inside other bugs. The bug in question becomes the host of the baby wasps and is eaten from the inside-out once the larva hatches. Many bugs and parasites use different species as hosts, leaving the original bug essentially dead.
One of the most interesting—and possibly the creepiest—instances of “zombies” in the animal kingdom are the poop-eating snails that pick up a parasite from the dung they snack on. The snail becomes a host to the parasite’s babies and takes on a monstrous appearance with the small worms moving about inside its body. Still weirder, the snail may actually survive the process.
While the zombies in movies and on TV may not be real—instances exist in real life wherein creatures’ minds are overtaken or their dead bodies are used in the service of something else.