Ghostvillage.com author interview
Dr. Bob Curran has gained a reputation in the past few years for exploring the roots of those subjects paranormal enthusiasts are drawn to. After tackling the Green Man and Vampires, Dr. Curran decided to point his tireless research and pinpoint understanding at one of the lesser delved into supernatural monsters. The result is Zombies: A field Guide to the Walking Dead. With chapters ranging from grave robbers and half executed convicts to the misunderstood practices of the voodoo practitioners, the work serves as a reference book told in narrative form with some questions that point to who we are as a society. Dr. Curran was gracious enough to take a break from teaching to provide some answers.
Your book covers many different kinds of zombie stories and myths. As you were going through your research, how did you define what a zombie was to know what stories to include?
Dr. Bob Curran: I think it is important to define what we mean by “zombie” since the word has rather pre-conceived connotations – i.e. the figure from Haitian folklore and from modern films. The original title of the book was The Walking Dead, but the publisher decided to change this to Zombies. The main thrust of the book is to look at the more corporeal walking dead in many cultures in order to explore the problems which many ancient cultures had in imagining what might lie beyond death. Although we nowadays tend to think of death as the end of our involvement in the living world, this was not the case for many ancient peoples. They believed that under specific conditions the dead might be able to return in a physical form to fulfil certain purposes. This is a belief which was prevalent not only in Haitian culture but also in many cultures around the world – for example Viking, Spanish etc. In response to the question, this formed the basis of my criteria as to what to include in the book. It would have been tempting just to concentrate on Haitian zombies and the creatures in films such as Day of the Dead but the subject of the returning, animated corpse is much broader and more diverse than that. Therefore I chose to explore a cross-cultural approach – the returning dead person in a number of cultures and to seek to understand why people would wish to believe in them (basic necessity such a belief fulfilled). This has always been the basis for my thinking – it is not “Do these things really exist?” but rather “Why should we wish to believe in them?”
What is the biggest difference between zombies and other creatures you have written about, such as vampires?
In some respects there is very little difference between zombies and vampires since both deal with the question of what happens to us after death and possibly reflects our own innate longing for some form of immortality. However, having said that, our perception is possibly different – particularly here in the West. The vampire, for instance, is often portrayed as the epitome of sophistication – a suave, urbane European nobleman who drinks (in an erotic style) blood from the necks of young girls. His attentions are enough to turn his victims into vampires themselves. This of course, has more to do with the novel by Bram Stoker – Dracula – and the problems with the English aristocracy in the late 19th century (when the book was written). In Romania and other parts of Eastern Europe the moroii and Strigoii (the walking dead and potential vampires) are often seen as peasants or foreigners. The zombie on the other hand, is often seen as a black-skinned slave who has been transformed, either by magic or drugs into a mindless automaton who carries out the will of a local sorcerer. Curiously in some parts of the West it was believed that the bite of a zombie could also “zombify” its victim but this may also owe more to the perceptions concerning the vampire rather than to pure zombie folklore. Thus the differences between the two may be down to a case of cultural perception rather than a fundamental distinction since both may address the same sort of questions. i.e. “What happens to me after I die?” and “Can I somehow become immortal?”
Each culture seems to have some experience in the zombie realm, many more imagined than real. Why are we drawn to them?
It is quite right to say that the zombie ideas are sometimes more imagined than real but this perhaps reflects a psychological aspect to such tales and may explain why we are so readily drawn to them. Part of the fascination with the ambulant dead lies in the idea of, and perhaps the yearning for, immortality. There is in many, if not all of us, a desire to cling on to life, and if we have to leave this world, to leave some part of us behind so that our descendants will remember us and maybe even cherish the memory. This is common in all cultures and so tales of the walking dead can reflect this in a tangible way. Again, the idea of the returning dead can portray different aspects. In Viking culture for instance the draugr simply served as an exemplar of a continuation of a tumultuous life – drinking carousing, fighting and generally making a nuisance of oneself (e.g. Harald Halt-foot); in Japanese culture on the other hand it reflected extreme piety such as the living mummies on Mount Yodono for instance. In Mexico – the Day of the Dead – the returning revenants are welcomed and treated as guests, just as they would be if they were still alive and had returned briefly from living somewhere else, which in the eyes of ancient cultures they were. So we are drawn to the idea of the zombie or the physical walking dead (which can do most things that we can) because they give us a psychological sense of immortality and a feeling that death is not the end. It is merely a point of transition from one world into the next and this may take away at least some of the abiding fear that we have. Plus of course, that the fascination of what lies beyond the grave is pretty much universal.
The stories in this book reach back thousands of years to early cultures. Are there any modern zombie stories? Were you able to interview any modern people who had experiences with zombies?
In the book I wanted to show that the tradition of the walking dead or zombies stretched back beyond Romero’s Dawn of the Dead or even Seabrook’s The Magic Island and that the idea of the zombie has its roots in antiquity. Of course there are modern zombie stories, the most famous (described in the book) being that of Clairvius Narcisse in 1980 which formed the basis of Wade Davis’s research in Haiti. We do not, however, find many modern day zombie stories – such tales have now been coloured by Davis’s books and the film and are now ascribed to medical conditions rather than say voodoo or magic. However, I did come across some accounts of the walking dead and have briefly experienced what appeared to be a zombie myself.
In 1993 my wife and I travelled to South West Fermanagh in Ireland to talk to an old man who remembered his grandfather returning from the grave on Hallowe’en night. The door was left on the latch and as the family sat round the fire after the evening meal, the latch would lift and his grandfather would come in. A chair had been left for him and he would sit down and smoke a pipe of tobacco, which had been left for him, and drink a shot of whiskey. The only difference was that he never spoke or made a sound. The family were not frightened because this was a family member – indeed the old man, who was a small child at this time, remembers climbing on his knee and finding his skin very cold to touch. At the end of the night the family would retire to bed and leave him sitting there and in the morning he would have returned to the grave. There was no reason for the old gentleman to tell me a lie – he was greatly respected in the community and a pillar of the local church.
In 1996, I was a passenger in a car driving along a narrow road in Southern Louisiana, travelling through a bayou area when a huge white shape appeared in front of us. This turned out to be a white shirt worn by a huge black man who stumbled along the edge of the road as though he were drunk. We didn’t stop and soon he was gone behind us into the swamps and the driver told me that he might be a zombie – he said that there was reputedly a cult of the Cochon Gris, the Grey Pig – cannibals, somewhere in the bayous but he thought that might be an old tale.
I was in Japan but the practice of living mummies has been forbidden by the Japanese government since the 1930s – it was considered to be a form of suicide. Even so I did speak to people who had seen one of these mummies when children. The remains were considered to bring good luck – especially in gambling, hardly in keeping with the religious tradition!
Unfortunately, because of time constraints and in view of the political situation there, I didn’t get to Haiti – perhaps that is a book for another day. Much of my research into West African voodoo comes from New Orleans and Charleston and from reading around those areas.
What do zombie stories say about the cultures that create them?
The zombie often mirrors our underlying fears, hopes and fascination with death and certainly the stories concerning zombies have varied with the cultures in which they have emerged or which have adapted them from other parts of the world. In some cultures it was advisable to fear the dead – in early Western culture, for example, the Christian Church taught that the dead might return from the grave to take vengeance on the living for not saying Masses for them, and paying the priest for each Mass said – it was a way in which the Church raised revenue. Certainly in Viking culture, the dead were to be feared but this was because of their violent and unruly nature, perhaps reflecting aspects of Viking life itself; in Mexico the return of the dead was an excuse for a fiesta. There was also another element – some societies were suspicious of strangers and foreigners in their midst and if these people died, there were sure to come back and torment the living. This may well have had its roots in some of the more xenophobic societies e.g. Albania which had uneasy relations with its Turkish neighbours. It is also interesting that in many cultures the returning dead were split into two distinct camps – the good and the evil – as in Romanian notions of moroii and strigoii – reflecting the good and bad elements in living society as well. Those who were strange, different, anti-social and generally not of the community were sure to return. Also a great or much loved person might also return in order to reassure his or her community, perhaps in times of crisis. Also the more traditional the society, especially with regard to its funerary rites, the more likely the dead were to return. The cultural identity of the zombie may well have depended upon the needs, aspirations and prejudices of the community which believed in it.
Examining how we treat the dead and what we have to learn from those who return and those who don’t has moved medicine ahead. Explain how the zombie has helped to advance the medical field as we now know it in Europe and Haiti?
It is probably quite correct to say that the ideas of the returning dead has in part contributed to the development of medicine. I think this has come about that as we become more “civilised” we often show a greater sensitivity towards the dead – it is a sign that we are “cultured”. However, this is not to say that the medical knowledge gained from the dead and the idea of the returning dead has not been invaluable. For instance latterly the idea of execution, still in place in some parts of America, has become more humane. This has come about through the “half-hanged” – those who were not properly hanged and were revived after they were cut down from the scaffold. The idea of the Resurrectionists, repugnant though such practices were, nevertheless allowed the expansion of surgery and laid the foundations for much of modern medical practice. Further we understand more about such medical phenomena such as comas and catalepsy because of the “reviving dead”.
In Haiti much of the ideas of “zombification” still remain shrouded in mystery but the debate there has been opened and there have been some advances in the field of psychotropic drugs. The “zombie poudre,” a supposedly essential ingredient in the zombification process, however, still remains elusive. Davis has suggested that it was an extract of the toxic puffer fish or else a derivative of the calibar bean but tests in this area have proven inconclusive and many academics have turned their back on Davis’s research because of his sensationalist claims and florid writing style. Nevertheless, his work has opened up some interesting possibilities which some chemists are still exploring.
How did Article 246 in the Haitian Penal Code change the legal face of zombie culture?
This probably links in with the question above. There was a story (which may have been little more than folklore) which circulated in the 1700s/1800s (and even persisted as late as the 20th century) that a number of plantation owners had entered into agreements with local bokors, hougans and mambos, local witch doctors and witches, to drug potential slaves in their own communities and use them for work in the sugar cane fields. Such slaves did not have to be fed, it was said (they could work like automatons without food) and were exceptionally complaint (there were continual fears of slave revolts as in some cases voodoo was regarded as a Nationalistic slave religion with rebellious overtones). This rumour was brought to the surface in the 1930s by William Seabrook in a chapter of his book The Magic Island and which was reprinted in many American magazines entitled “Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields.” In this he alleged that local plantation owners used zombies to work for them and made reference to a group known as the Culte des Mortes who raised the dead and sold them on to the owners (whether or not such a cult even existed has long been a matter of speculation). However, Article 246 of the Condigo Penal de Haiti in 1835 preceded this and was probably a response to the rumour, which may have been true or may have been no more than an urban myth, and as an attempt to protect the communities within the island where bokors and houngans flourished. The Article itself may not have been a major piece of legislation (it may just have been included to curb local fears and it is unclear whether anyone was actually prosecuted as a direct result of its enactment. There might have been one or two local cases based on hearsay and gossip and centred around localised superstition) but it certainly came to the fore following the publication of Seabrook’s book. Here, it was argued, was incontrovertible legal proof that zombies actually existed and that they were being used as cheap labour. Whether this was actually true is a matter for debate but it has certainly fed into the zombie myth and has been exploited both by writers and film-makers. I’m not sure if Article 246 still remains on the Haitian statute books (it may have been removed during the Duvalier regime – I’m not certain) or if it can still be used in law.
If the zombies in all cultures were to battle it out, who do you think would win?
It’s a tough one. I suspect that the Japanese, being from the Buddhist tradition, wouldn’t battle at all though. My money might be on the Scots zombies (although I suspect the Irish could give them a run for their money) who are perhaps descended from the Norwegian draugr. I was in Glasgow not all that long ago and I think I saw some of them battling it out down a side street. But it’s a tough one – I’ll leave you to decide, but choose carefully! You never know which of the dead you might offend! Some of them can be very touchy.
Click here to buy this book now.