Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The History and Horror of Zombies


The History and Horror of Zombies

Since the beginning of time, the human race has had a genuine fear of the dead. The idea of zombies, monsters, ghosts and other idealistic theories stem from our need to carry on some kind of relationship with our beloved deceased. The common idea is the soul is extinguished at death, and a inner life force is wisped away to another dimension. Is the stuff of ghost stories and legends, or is there some other reason why we go through the ritualistic processes of death?

Humans have long understood that death is the eternal rest of the soul and the end of a human being’s natural form of flesh and blood. The idea that the human consciousness can somehow stay attached to its former body may seem vague but not impossible. With that notion, there is a question of some aspect of immortality, whether through the spiritual concept of heaven and hell or, the living consciousness dwelling in another realm. However, there are stories that are littered throughout culture and history that suggest the flesh and blood of a once dead being, can reanimate.  This idea of a living consciousness, clinging to a dead body has long been a part of the emotional turmoil that helps fuel the fear regarding death and the unknown realms of a spiritual body.  

Many cultures, throughout time have rendered numerous tales and documented history of zombie like creatures. To differentiate the stories of evil spirits vs. humanoid-like zombie’s we will address them both here. The examples of evil spirits, and how they seem attached to human bodies can be found in the world’s oldest written manuscripts from ancient Samaria. The Sumerian story, “Epic of Gilgamesh” mentions flesh eating undead as does the ancient Chinese cultures that refer to angry flesh eating spirits that come to life known as the, "Jiang Chi". Similar spiritual possession is also documented in the ancient Greek myths of Cronus, who was the father of Zeus and ate his first five children.

Native American cultures believed that an evil spirit would need to posses a person in order to make them into a zombie. The "Wendigo", is a well known Native American spirit in the Northern United States and Canada. The Wendigo spirit was said to have the ability to posses a person and give them an insatiable hunger for human flesh. A documented case of this form of cannibalism took place in Alberta Canada in 1878 when an Indian Trapper known as “Swift Runner” was executed for butchering his family and eating them, later becoming an official diagnosis for a mental disease known a “Wendigo psychosis”. Another case took place during the days of the American frontier. Eighty Seven people, in what was known as the Donner party, moved from Missouri to California. They where essentially trapped in the bitter winter without resources (much like Swift Runner) and resulted to cannibalism of their dead. 

A depiction of the Wendigo Spirit

A few ancient text of actual humanoid type zombies are well documented in Nordic myths and speak of the furious and unrelenting nature of the Draugr which roughly translates to “after-walker”. The Draugr was said to be the walking corpse of someone who had died. Great warriors and men who held great political attributes in Norse societies gained a potential favor in becoming such monsters do to their responsibilities and obligations. However, the idea of the Draugr was frightful to say the least. A few identifying traits of the Draugr were its undeniable decaying stench, supreme strength and relentless appetite for the flesh of the living. The idea that one had become a Draugr, meant that the monster would need to be coaxed back into a grave or water from which it came. Land and sea Draugr’s where of course characterized by the location in which they where buried or perished.

The word zombie comes from the Haitian language and its literal translation means “animated corpse”. It's believed in VooDoo cultures, that a spell or concoction would give one the ability to control or deliberately consume another human being. West African cultures that practice VooDoo still practice this ancient magic today that is said to create zombies. These are known mostly in America, due to the documentation of slave narratives and the stories told in these African American cultures still alive in many parts of the world. The Voodoo and Haitian stories known today are all derived from the same idea that the dead do and will reanimate.

Whether by choice, charm, or some strange psychosis the idea of humans eating other humans can be a scary and, for lack of a better term, "consuming reality". In the new age of biological warfare and scientific understanding of pathogens, the reality of a biological outbreak regarding a zombie-like virus pandemic is not just a theory, it is already happening. Starting in the middle ages, plagues and outbreaks of illness and disease have long been a staple in human history. Documentations of such outbreaks have been recorded. The Black Plague wiped out more than half of the population of Europe and due to the lack of knowledge and education, most people associated the plague with that of a biblical punishment. In many parts of England, Scotland and Ireland during the middle ages, people buried their dead with stones in their mouths, stakes in their hearts and locked tightly in crypts to ensure that a re-animated corpse did not have a means to escape and reach the living. Many victims of plague and other diseases were in fact, buried alive. Sometimes those unconscious victims would wake in the grave and dig their way out. Exhausted and sick, you could imagine what it was like to have seen the walking corpse of a dead relative. This was so common in the middle ages that a name was given to those zombie-like beings. The “Revenant” was the flesh eating corpse or the spirit of one, that came back from death to torment the living. Though more closely associated with middle age Vampire legends, William of Newburgh documented many cases in the 1190’s in England.

Regarding pandemic, the more recent Spanish Flu or H1N1 strain, SARS, and Bovine Spongiform Encephlopathy (Mad Cow) disease are what we recognize today as global strains of virus and disease that seem to continually come about on the nightly news. These pathogens are a regular threat to human kind and an enemy we have no real way to fight. In the event of a pandemic or global outbreak, with the modernization of technology and study of biological diseases, it’s recognized that with any given number of infectious agents available to infect the human and animal species, the catalyst for such an event is already in favor of an outbreak on an apocalyptic scale. Take for instance the Kuru outbreak in Papua New Guinea in 1950’s. The Fore tribe was a virtually untouched tribe of indigenous people living in the eastern, mountains of Papua New Guinea. They had practiced cannibalism and sorcery for hundreds of years. When Australian administrators where exploring the outlining provinces of Indonesia, they discovered the Fore tribe and they were suffering from minor to extreme cases of  “Kuru” or “Shiver” disease, which was later discovered to be directly linked to cannibalism.

Cannibal tribes in the outer lining regions of Indonesia.
(it's estimated 70 million cannibalistic tribes are undocumented world wide) 

This prion (bacterial) based illness was found to make holes in the spongy material in the brain. Once it reached the brain through the blood stream, the disease causes a number of neurological issues from poor motors skills, jerking, tremors, facial twitches and depression to sudden outburst of laughter which led the Fore tribe to call it “laughing sickness”. Similar prions can be found in pathogens that cause Mad Cow disease, which essentially is the same type of illness, only in animals. Mad Cow disease was discovered in American cattle in 1989, but was proved no risk to humans until 1996 when one hundred and sixty six people died from the illness. The common source in spreading the disease comes from eating infected meats or bi-products used from the meats made from infected brain tissue. This is the same with the Fore tribe since eating the brains of their dead was common for hundreds of years.

With the understanding that our government regulates FDA approved food products, you could only hope that your Sunday roast isn't infected with the pathogen agents that cause such illnesses. However, with the lack of resources in many under developed countries and the lax in official documentation of such disease, even in the most developed countries, an outbreak of a zombie-like virus could be possible and spread rapidly on a global scale resulting in a pandemic. 

Given the nature of the human body, it doesn’t seem logical that a corpse-like zombie would be feasible. Without the proper muscular, skeletal, nervous and circulatory systems to drive it, the human body is not capable of sustaining itself for very long. However, if the body is in working order and the brain, under the right conditions of a virus cause a zombie-like state in a person or even animal, we could be looking at the possibility of some sort of reality to the conspiracy regarding the undead and zombies.

Technology and history has shown us that nothing improvable is compulsory. Still it would be in the best interest of everyone to have a general understanding of epidemics and pandemics and preparedness of a zombie/viral apocalypse. It may be closer than you think……

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