Humans have always been fascinated with death. Death with a capital D. Since the dawn of consciousness, human tribes have had one form or another of cult of the dead. Early paleolithic tribes would bury their dead with some belongings – this custom extended into the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs and nowadays, most cultures have some form of ritual worship of the dead which brings closure and finality to a process which, by definition, is not understood by anyone on Earth!
In the realm of the human consciousness, however, there is also guilt. A lot of it. Religion plays to the existence of this guilt and appropriates it and encourages it, in order to yield submission.
Catholics will tell you to feel guilty for having been born (since everyone bears the mark of shame of original sin), Islam will tell you to feel guilty for thought crime, and a long etc. Many of the more repressive religions share among them a morbid obsession and infatuation with ‘sexual sins’, telling followers to basically abstain from sex, hoping to control humans by controlling one of the most basic human instincts.
What does guilt have to do with death?
In early Judaean culture, on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, people would literally gather a goat, laden him symbolically with their sins and drive it into the desert to die in the wilderness, thereby removing themselves of responsibility for their actions. The rite is described in Leviticus 16:10. The parallel with the medieval Catholic notion of indulgences is striking.
So by driving an innocent animal to its death, early Middle Eastern cultures relieved themselves of the guilt for having done something wrong. A legal loophole, of sorts, in a book which commands people in unambiguous terms how to behave. So you can sin, if you like, because all you need to do is load up your guilt, your shame and your sins onto a poor goat and drive him into the desert.
Christian mythology is strongly infused with this same sense of death as a liberator. Christians morbidly celebrate the death of Jesus of Nazareth – his sole purpose on Earth being to save humanity for its sins.
Speaking personally, I would never have agreed to let a man die for the sins I myself have committed. The passion and the fervour with which this event is celebrated is, on cursory examination, sickly and plain wrong. Conservative-smut peddler Anne Coulter famously referred to Christians as ‘improved Jews’ (the terrifying implication being that Jews can be ‘improved’). In one sense, this can only mean that instead of taking responsibilities for themselves for the sins they have committed, Christians 1-up the Jews, not by murdering a goat for liberation from guilt, but by letting a perfectly healthy (although questionably sane) man be executed gruesomely.
Christians morbidly celebrate the death of Jesus of Nazareth – his sole purpose on Earth being to save humanity for its sins.
It raises, of course, the question: if the Son of God himself sacrificed himself for the sins of his puny human followers, why in god’s name are Christian denominations still obsessed with sin in every form? This will perhaps lead to a series of inane and vacuous theological interchanges so I hope that I’m going to spare myself the trouble by tackling this question on another occasion.
The morbid fascination with the grisly torture and execution of Jesus of Nazareth does not stop the moment his heart ceases to beat. Because then, in possibly Jesus’ most spectacular ‘miracle’, he returns to life.
Or does he? Because nowhere in the New Testament does it specifically note that Jesus resurrected. The women who were mourning him open the tomb (for some reason) and find there is no body, which they find hard to explain as there was a guard mounted throughout the night.
Later on, chronologically, bible verses talk about the return from death of Jesus but at no point did they actually explain how or indeed whether. We only have their word to take much after the alleged event occurred.
Unable to think of ways to smuggle out a body from a cave, the disciples decide that Jesus resurrected. Then, for the next 40 days he makes appearances to his disciples and then ascends into heaven.
One can almost see the Daily Mirror headline:
HIS BODY NOT FOUND – IS JESUS A ZOMBIE?
It’s quite surprising, within the context of the morbid obsession of later Christian cults with sin and with guilt, that they allow in their stories for the ultimate scapegoat to return. But perhaps it isn’t so surprising. If a scapegoat ever made it out alive from the desert he would bring back with him all the sins he was meant to take away to the Underworld and with it all the guilt it bore.
So, a light, superficial analysis of Christian mythology such as mine brings to the surface a number of interesting happenings which tell us a lot about the preoccupations of the human consciousness. We’re desperately guilty and we’re worried about our death.
To humankind, death is a moment of closure and grief… but it can also be a moment of burial of secrets, an expression for turning the page on unfortunate occurrences and shameful events. Burying a dead body is as much a sign of respect as it is a prison – the body is placed under the weight of the Earth itself to stop it from ever returning.
Fear of Death is as much a fear of the unknown as it is a fear of exposure of one’s secrets. Most human cultures have a moment of judgment after death, of some form or another. Even Buddhism requires one to be in a state of material nothingness – there’s nothing left to be guilty for if you renounce the reality of the material world, an escapist philosophy of sorts.
The world’s largest religion reveres what can only be described as a zombie, it’s not surprising we’re terrified of them.
Zombies are therefore a powerful allegory for the return of our sins, for the monstrosity of our shameful actions and the brutality of the consequences were they ever to return. The world’s largest religion reveres what can only be described as a zombie, it’s not surprising we’re terrified of them.
Zombie apocalypses are as much stories of B-movie horror films as they are metaphors for a gigantic cashing in of guilt, the consequences if everyone’s secrets and sins were let out to the surface at once.
Wade Davis is a Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist who is famous for a number of essays and a book about his experience in Haiti, visiting actual zombies.
According to Davis, shamans hold an enormous power over villagers. It takes only to cross the path of the shaman for him to zombify a person – void them of their humanity and transform them into submissive slaves – after killing them!
It turns out that debtors and adulterers would get poisoned with two powders – the first, the coup de poudre, consists of tetrododoxin (which is the poison found in the famously poisonous pufferfish) and the second would include dissociatives such as datura. The combination of these two allegedly drops the pulse of the victim to near undetectable levels and bring them into dead, zombie like trances where they would submit entirely to the will of the shaman.
Of course, the powders are merely complimentary to the real poison – the religious and shamanic conditioning from birth, the psychological effect of which being far more potent than any powder.
Haitian zombification is a crude yet effective means of expressing absolute power, as a shaman. A shaman’s authority is left unquestioned, lest villagers start becoming mortified into inhuman husks, shells of former beings.
Popularly, the supernatural component to the existence of zombies hinders taking them seriously. To be honest, this is entirely sound.
But it’s when we examine the meaning of zombies to us on an immaterial level, when we ask ourselves about a zombie’s inherent hostility (the feeling is usually mutual), when we analyse the roots of our fascination for death and for people and things who have seen the other side and returned to tell the tale, we stumble on a deeper examination of a collective human consciousness.
Zombies are the headaches after the rise of human intelligence. They’re unevolved spasms of a primitive guilt and a primitive fear. We’re still incapable, as a species, to owning up and taking responsibility for our actions – we’re terrified should they ever come back to haunt us.
Fear-mongering and guilt-mongering in religions appeal perhaps inadvertently to these base instincts because deep down, all figures of authority in religion know, just like the Haitian shaman, what happens next.
One day, hopefully, we humans will collectively realise it’s not going to take the sacrifice of an animal to rid us of our shameful actions, or the execution of an innocent human being (the Son of God no less!) to his death to cure all and end all. It’s going to take work and effort and balls to own up to one’s past deeds. Only once we’re capable of lifting our gaze to look each other in the eye, to take responsibility for what we’ve done in our lives, the clergyman will preside over empty pews indeed.