Pop-Culture Zombies

May 8, 2012

On ABC’s popular show Castle, in an episode titled “Undead Again” (aired April 30, 2012), Detective Beckett summons the show’s writer/consultant namesake to a murder scene where the victim’s body bears severe human bite marks. The only witness also has bite marks that match those on the dead man, and the witness insists their assailant was a zombie!

Of course, he wasn’t really a zombie, as Beckett and Castle learn when they discover the bizarre world of zombie subculture. Unlike the “real” zombie of voodoo folklore (a corpse reanimated and enslaved by a sorcerer), today’s pop zombie is a type of ghoul (a revenant that feeds on human flesh). Following the more popular vampire (a corpse that rises from its grave at night to drink the blood of the living), this zombie is developing its own set of folklore-like motifs (or story elements)

Actually these pop-zombie motifs stem from fakelore (the product of writers rather than of the folk process). Notably, Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954), an apocalyptic tale of plague-produced vampires, inspired George Romero’s zombie films, starting with Night of the Living Dead (1968). Here are three such motifs adopted and developed by Castle script writers.

  • Zombie bite. The bite of a zombie can cause one to turn into such a creature, according to the Castle episode. This motif, now common to pop-culture zombies, is obviously borrowed from that of the vampire, whose bite was invariably contagious. (Indeed, in some historical vampire cases I investigated in Vermont, consumption (tuberculosis) was the clear source, explaining not only the contagiousness itself but also the victim’s lethargy, paleness, and coughing of blood.) In pop zombification, the agent is often a virus.
  • Zombie walk. Also called a zombie march, this activity involves people playing zombie—i.e., dressing the part and shuffling in a group down the street. These events have been carried out by zombie enthusiasts, performance artists, political protestors, festival participants, and the like—even, of course, movie actors and extras. (In my work as a zombiologist, I took part in one walk, filmed for the zombie movie The Final Night and Day, 2011.) On Castle, the detectives happen upon a zombie walk in the course of their investigation.
  • Drug-induced zombification. Supposedly “real” zombies in Haiti have been drugged and enslaved. Certainly the drug scopolamine has been used by Columbian thieves and rapists to render their victims compliant. In Castle, scopolamine becomes the drug of choice among those wishing to experience zombification nirvana.

As these examples show, pop-culture zombies are indeed undergoing metamorphosis—not as humans turning into the folkloric undead, but as fakelore fantasy figures that are constantly evolving. As such they have taken on, so to speak, a life of their own.

* * * * *

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: See Max Brooks, The Zombie Survival Guide (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003, 5–27); Matthew Bunson, The Vampire Encyclopedia (New York: Grammercy Books, 1993, 170, 262–64, 285); Joe Nickell, Tracking the Man-Beasts (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2011, 131–40, 151–55) and Phil Stewart, “Drug Turns Crime Victims into Zombies” (http:www.biopsychiatry.com/scopolamine/borrachero.html; accessed May 2, 2012); and “Zombie Walk” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zombie_walk; accessed May 2, 2012). Thanks to CFI Libraries director Tim Binga and library intern Mandi Ward for assistance.