We are surrounded by the undead. We are inundated with the undead. The undead crawl amongst the zeitgeist like rats within the walls, emerging every few years to remind us “hey, look, we’re scary!” Zombies always remind me of something Brenda Meeks said in Scary Movie 2. “Shut yo’ ass up.”
Being scared of a zombie is like being scared of a skeleton. They’re shuffling, weakened, falling apart versions humanity that can be escaped with a quick walk and a locked door (I’m a George A. Romero zombie believer.)
That’s not to say a zombie apocalypse isn’t scary. Millions of anything would terrify me. A couple million bottles of wine rolling towards me? Yeah, that’s scary. But zombies do serve a specific purpose, one that fascinates me and something I’ve dabbled in within my own writing – sentience and decay.
The Mind of a Zombie
The stereotypical zombie is portrayed as a mindless toddler who just wants to eat and wander and eat again. While no one really addresses in horror that a zombie would only last a few months at most before all its flesh rotted away, many iterations have toyed with the idea of decaying humans hunting (and I use that word so lightly as to defile the word) and the sustenance they need being nothing more than an insatiable need that underpins their nature, devoid of any benefits, but few have placed cognizance within them to realize the new nature that now propels their actions.
Zombies are fascinating because they are the strictest essence of where humanity draws the line between what is human and what is not. Other monsters have human forms, and may have been human (a vampire, a ghost, etc.) but they are now wholly other in how we categorize them. Zombies, however, are just us but dead. They ask us to really look at where being human starts and ends and how we categorize what is and what is not. If being dead means that you are no longer you, then why do we have such rituals over burial? If you are still you, even though you’ve passed, should zombies be tried in court for their actions like the rest of us?
We assume with zombies that a line has been crossed – but where is it?
Lovecraft’s The Outsider
Lovecraft plays with this notion in one of his most famous works, The Outsider. (Read it here.) In the tale (famously an homage to Poe’s writing) Lovecraft’s The Outsider details the ascent of a being from a ruined castle into our own world. In this castle, the being has never seen light, yet has read of it and yearns for it; nor has he ever seen a human, though he knows of them and believes he is one.
On his ascension up the castle’s central tower, the being finds himself in a church yard (grave, see?) and is dumbstruck by the moonlight. Whatever door he came through has sealed itself shut thoroughly behind him. He remembers the world he now explores and references nepenthe – a rumored ancient Greek drink famed as a “drug of forgetfulness.”
In Lovecraft’s The Outsider this being finds himself facing a new castle he recognizes and, upon climbing through the window, finds humans for the first time. They gasp and flee as the room erupts in a terror the being believes must be right behind him. It is only on the discovery of a mirror – which he only recognizes as such at the story’s conclusion – that he is the monster… he is the outsider.
He then revels in his new understanding by riding with “the mocking and friendly ghouls of the night-wind.” He understands that “light is not for him” and that he is now something other than human.
Finding our Place
While academically speaking this story is wrought with caveats and themes of great importance towards understanding Gothic’s passage toward modernity, for most of us, it relates instead to our understanding of our own place in the world.
At many points most of us have felt like Lovecraft’s the Outsider.
Not only in our seclusion from what we deem to be “everyone else’s world” (the castle above ground) but also in how people react to us. The Outsider condenses this angst into only a few pages, but it captures perfectly something many of us never feel like we’re able to do. While you may not always recognize yourself in the mirror, remember, there’s always “running around with ghouls on the night-wind” to look forward to!
Last Updated on June 18, 2021.