Zombies: Bokor Magic, or Modern Anxiety?

The phenomena of zombies reputably began when the ritual practices of Africa were transported to Haiti and become hoodoo. Accounts vary, but generally a bokor, sorcerer, used a variety of means including witchcraft, powerful psychotropic drugs or other means to bring the dead back to life to perform services for them, or else render a living person so pliable that they would behave like the “living-dead”. Yet the modern zombie of popular culture is at best a distant decedent of these origin myths, and indeed, are more a part of the western psyche than their bokor-spawned ancestors ever were.

Modern zombies embody in the first instance the very modern anxiety of overpopulation. With this anxiety comes the fear of epidemics, dehumanization (either in the form of outright animality or the deskilling of labour), and the aggression that inevitably emerges when too many people are forced into too small a space.

The zombie apocalypse is a major way to sublimate the frustrations inherent in low-end service sector jobs, I know, I’ve been there, and the most avid enthusiasts tend to come from this walks of life, or else those who have a strange fascination with it. The skill of the parody film “Shaun of the Dead” was that it was able to articulate this very sublimation, and put a humourous twist on it (for otherwise, by all accounts it wouldn’t have been accepted).

Conversely, on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the zombie phenomena resonates with the work of modern biology, insofar as it serves to stress biological determinism and the least common denominator of food and reproduction, and industrialized capitalism, insofar as the masses literally eat each other in a dramatic “survival of the fittest”, unable to cure themselves until some stronger force dominates them with technological innovations… usually firearms.

While I’ve not dedicated a great deal of time to the subject, I do think that zombies, like a number of pop-culture creatures, offer up an as yet unspoken critique of our common experience, its anxieties, fears, and maybe even our darkest hopes.

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