Today we will wrap up our “Thoroughly Modern Monster” mini-series (you can find the previous installments here, here, and here) with a monster that’s gained a significant (shuffling and moaning) following: the zombie. Zombies are big right now, and I won’t bore you by naming all the zombie movies, tv shows, comics, books, and video games that have come out recently. They (along with vampires) have been the hot monster a la mode for some time now.
But where did zombies come from? Folks, I’m not going to beat around the bush here. If you’ve read my other monster history posts you may have noticed a pattern: there are some legends that have almost nothing to do with our modern conception of the monster, then someone makes a movie or writes a book about them where the monster is similar to the original in name only, and the movie monster gives us the modern conception. It happened with werewolves in early Hollywood. It happened to vampires in popular 19th century literature (and was then cemented in the public consciousness forever by, yes, early Hollywood). So the question that might be on our mind is “Are modern zombies also based almost entirely off of 1920s Hollywood monster movies?” To which I can confidently answer, no.
They’re based almost entirely off of 1960s Hollywood. With a dash of 30s Hollywood sprinkled on top, for flavor.
“But Mark,” you might object (I can tell you’re the contrary type) “don’t zombies come from voodoo or something? I’m sure I heard that once from a made for TV documentary/book of fun monster facts/back of a cereal box.” To which I can only reply with a sincere “Kinda.” The word zombie does come from Haitian voodoo. And Haitian voodoo does have legends (mostly small and unimportant legends, compared to the rest of the religion) about certain dark voodoo magics that can bring dead bodies to life to serve their masters. But these zombies have nothing to do with modern zombies. Just for starters, voodoo zombies:
-Aren’t rotting corpses
-Don’t feed on human flesh
-Can’t turn other people into zombies
-Can perform complicated tasks
-Arguably aren’t even dead! Not in the way modern zombies are anyway! If you cut one of their heads off it wouldn’t still be moving around, snapping at you!
Voodoo zombies are just creepy slaves. It’s like “Hey, you know how we are all taken from Africa and made into slaves to work the fields till we die? Can you imagine if someone dug up our dead bodies and made them keep working forever? That would suck!” That’s the basic idea behind Haitian voodoo zombies. They aren’t like modern zombies at all.
The modern zombie can be traced back to one film: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968. Now there are a few obvious differences between Romero’s zombies and the modern conception, namely that the zombies were created by radiation from Venus (it makes sense in context) instead of a virus, but almost everything else is the same. Romero’s zombies can only be killed by destroying the brain, they shuffle and moan and stagger about, they hunger for human flesh, and if they kill you then you become one too. It is here, from this movie, that all future modern zombie media takes its source. This is the Ur-Zombie, and it’s only 46 years old.
So why do we call them zombies if they don’t have anything to do with Haitian zombies? Well Romero never actually calls the monsters in his movie zombies. At no point in the film is that name used, and Romero wasn’t thinking about Haitian zombies when he was developing the plot (instead drawing influence from the book I am Legend). It was only after the movie came out that fans started calling the monsters from the movie “zombies,” and the name stuck.
Remember when I said that 1930s Hollywood was also involved somehow? That’s because in the 20s and 30s Hollywood made several horror movies about zombies. And I mean real zombies this time, good and proper Haitian zombies with none of this “brains” business. Movies like White Zombie featured innocent whites being menaced by frightening black people and their voodoo magic. These zombies behave as they should: working hard in a sugar plantation, staring blankly into space, and doing whatever their master commands. It was movies like these that put the word “zombie” in the national consciousness, and why fans of Night of the Living Dead even thought to use the term in regards to Romero’s shuffling horrors.
So, as we can see, modern zombies are terribly, terribly young. But in some ways they are also terribly old. Romero said in interviews later that the idea for his monsters came when he asked himself the question: “what if the dead stopped staying dead?” This idea isn’t new; it harkens back to an ancient fear that seems essential to the make-up of humanity as a whole: the fear of dead bodies. People have been telling stories about revenants for as long as we’ve existed. Dead bodies are frightening, unnatural things.
The only thing that would make them scarier…is if they got up.
Given the magnificent Blood Moon that graced our skies early this morning, a post on werewolves seems appropriate. However, their history may surprise you. Werewolves are not as old as you might think, and the kind we’re familiar with today with bestial, half-human forms, who change at the full moon and can only be hurt by silver, is a thoroughly modern invention.
Let’s start from the beginning.
In ancient times there were some stories about men becoming wolves, but these fell almost entirely into two categories: curses and witchcraft. Ancient legends abound of men and women who were turned into wolves as a punishment by the gods for some slight or another. Other cultures have stories of witches and sorcerers who, among their many magic abilities, could take the form of an animal. However this is far from the werewolf as we understand it today. After all, Sirius Black from the Harry Potter books could turn himself into a wolf (well, a big dog) by magic yet we would not consider him a werewolf but merely a wizard with magic powers. And modern werewolves are not impious pagans who were cursed to take the form of a wolf because they cheesed off a deity, especially since the legends indicate that such punishments were permanent transformations, not temporary or reoccurring. With that in mind it’s safe to say that these ancient legends are only tangentially related to werewolves as we think of them.
The Middle Ages Of course after the pagans came the Catholics. What did Medieval peasants think about werewolves? You might think that here is where the werewolf legend began, among those superstitious, ignorant, and unscientific Medievals. However the truth is that your average Medieval peasant didn’t believe in werewolves. Heck, they didn’t even believe in witches! It was the official position of the Medieval Catholic church that witches, sorcerers, warlocks, and other supernatural types were pure pagan superstition. To be sure you could still find some of the old legends of witchcraft related wolf transformations, but only in the pagan pockets of northern and eastern Europe, places like Scandinavia or Lithuania where Christianity had yet to arrive in force. Stories of men transforming into wolves were for ignorant pagans: good Christians knew better than to believe such rot. “Now Mark,” you may be asking, “How can this be? After all, weren’t the Medievals notorious for burning witches at the stake? It’s in Monty Python and everything!” Well that brings us to the next stage of the history of werewolves, and were things really get started…
The Age of Superstition (Better known as the Renaissance)
Though we typically think of the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and superstition that ended with the re-arrival of reason and logic with the onset of the Renaissance, the fact is that the Renaissance could be easily be renamed “The Age of Superstition.” The period between the 15th and early 18th centuries was characterized by a mania involving all things occult, magical, or supernatural. It was during this period that the famous witch burnings of Europe occurred, as well as the majority of the notable witch trials (including America’s most famous one in Salem). It was no coincidence the interest in Alchemy and Astrology had its height during this period as well. No longer were magic circles, curses, hexes, and animal transformations dismissed as superstition. Books were published about how to identify witches, and with them treatises on the nature of werewolves. It is during this period that we begin to see the beginnings of werewolves as we know them today. Many during this period seriously believed that some men could transform themselves into the form of a wolf, and would set themselves upon their fellow men, ripping and devouring. There were actual werewolf trials were individuals were convicted of being werewolves, but most of these convictions came down alongside general convictions of witchcraft. That’s because these werewolves were still not the ones we know today. While modern werewolves acquire their curse by being bit by another werewolf, the lycanthropy of this period had to be sought out. People supposedly had to actively try to become a werewolf, and there were a variety of possible methods: rubbing the body with magic ointments, making a belt or coat out of a wolves skin and putting it on, drinking water out of a wolf’s footprint, or making a pact with demons in exchange for power. Of course there were stories of people who became werewolves against their will, but not from being bitten. Instead it was said that if a child was too harshly abused by their parents they might run away to the woods and become wild werewolves, or that those who died in mortal sin might rise from their graves in the form of a wolf: a strange cross between a werewolf and a vampire, though we’ll get to the history of the latter another time. Werewolves were different from modern ones in a few other key aspects: for one, they all became wolves instead of half-wolf half men monstrosities like we see today, it was said you could tell a werewolf from a regular wolf because a werewolf had no tail, and some believed that if you cut a werewolf in his human form you would find fur poking out of the wound, as if the person’s skin was merely a covering for the wolf that lived within. However belief in werewolves began to die down by the onset of the 1700s, along with belief in witches, sorcerers, alchemy, and the rest of the baggage of the “Age of Superstition.” The Enlightenment was coming, and there would be little room for such silly beliefs in the years to come, though a few scattered werewolf trials continued in rural parts of Eastern Europe for some time. From there werewolves would be forgotten until the mid-19th century where they, like vampires, would start to feature vaguely in Victorian horror literature. Which brings us to the werewolf’s final chapter:
The Modern Period to Today
Most of what we know about modern werewolves comes from 20th century horror movies. Turns into a wolf under the full moon? Hollywood. Werewolves are half-man half-wolf creatures that walk on two legs? Made up so that makeup and special effects would be cheaper. Werewolves can only be killed by silver? Not seen in any account of werewolves before the 20th century. The curse being spread by bite? There may be some legends that had elements of this, but it didn’t become the primary method until quite recently.
The funny thing about all this is that most of us might assume that the werewolf is a very old monster, going back to ancient legends like the vampire. But we find that it isn’t so. For hundreds of years the werewolf was simply a particular kind of witchcraft, not a proper monster in its own right at all. In many ways the werewolf is a thoroughly modern monster, a horror that was invented in the last hundred years or so.
Still, the full moon can give you a bit of a chill when the night is right; and when the forest rings with the sound of howling, who am I to say that werewolves are too young to be real monsters?
Happy blood moon.