What is a zombie? In Hollywood films, zombies are presented as something that had once been human but isn’t quite a person anymore; undead creatures who look like people but lack any emotions. Worst of all: they feed on human flesh. Yet, there is a lot more to zombies than what can be found in popular fiction.
In nature, zombies are a gruesome form of parasitism. A prominent example is the ladybug zombie: A ladybug is an effective predator. While it deters birds and other enemies by excreting poisonous bitter blood, it can eat up to thousands of vine lice in the course of its life. However, there is the parasitic wasp Dinocampus coccinellae, which injects the ladybug with an egg. The wasp egg then feeds on the food its host is feeding on, hollows it out from the inside and uses the empty shell of the ladybug’s body as a shield while the larva undergoes its metamorphosis. In essence, the wasp has turned the ladybug into a zombie.
Since early history, people have feared the Undead. At the same time, vampires and zombies have always fascinated us and triggered our imagination. What seems particularly scary about Zombies is that they were once like us. They could even be people we once knew, and continue to resemble the people they had once been. Yet, they are empty bodies now; they have no soul or identity. The scariest thing about zombies is the fact that although they still look like people, they lack any human feelings. This suggests that any of us could turn into a zombie who does evil things to loved ones.
And now comes the worst part: human zombies actually exist. The term “zombie” originates from the Central African word “nzùme” an expression denoting the spirit of death. In voodoo, a voodoo priest might mutate a person into a zombie by cursing her or administering drugs which provoke an apparent death. Afterwards the “dead” person is awakened again and turned into a slave. This zombification, which is still legal according to Haitian law, is the result of the use of tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin that can be found in puffer fish. The application of poison also explains the urban legend of people getting “infected” by zombies and thus turning into a zombie themselves.
It is curious, that the legends relating to zombies have often gained attention in times when people felt helpless in the face of political or social tendencies, like for example during the Middle Ages. In Ireland, Archaeologists have recently found skeletons originating from the 8th century who were buried with stones in their mouths. This unusual practice hints that it was feared the individuals would rise from their graves.
To sum up: a real zombie is someone who has been “brainwashed” by “magic” or poison in order to be will-less and controllable. For lack of any sense of the prior identity, zombies become an easy target for hostility and abuse, as they aren’t considered to be people anymore, but are rather dehumanized bodies. In legends, folk tales and popular fiction, a zombie stands for something we definitely don’t want to become: a human body who has been robbed of the quintessence of humanity: the capacity to think and feel.