Zombies and the Undead Throughout History

A Brief History of ZombiesWhen writing books about zombies and stories containing all kinds of monsters, I often find it valuable to go back and read about the original forms of the creatures I’ve become obsessed with. Too often I find myself wanting to write a zombie just by using the freshest version in my head, which usually comes from recent movies or TV shows like The Walking Dead.

This is a shame, because there is so much more to your average monster than what’s popular today. Plus, I get the feeling that a lot of creators, when putting a zombie in a scene, would answer the question: “Why is this scary?” with “Because it’s a zombie.”

This can result in zombies that are only dangerous because the writers assume that they are, not because we, the audience, have been shown that they are dangerous. And this can result in scenes where the monsters are confusingly inept and impotent. You probably know the scenes I’m talking about. Scenes where the big bad monster is attacking and in the back of your head you’re thinking, “Couldn’t the good guys just (insert very obvious and simple solution) and this would all be over?”

Things aren’t scary unless we invest them with that quality. I mean, we’re pretty hard-wired to see bared teeth as a sign of danger, but there are only so many snarls you can use before your audience wonders if your bad guy is all snarls and no bite. A zombie in and of itself is not scary. A zombie is scary because of the peril they can put your characters into, and you as a writer have to work to show that.

At any rate, looking into the history of walking corpses produced some astounding stuff. From Icelandic draugar, to contemporary juju slaves, to Middle English revenants, there are walking dead everywhere and all throughout history. And these undead often possess traits that I, personally, would never think to attribute to a zombie, simply because I’ve never experienced those traits in the stories I’ve read.

If you look through what history has to offer, the undead have done things such as drink blood until they swelled up like leeches, guard their gold, been jealous of human emotions, and appear as a cat that sits on a sleeping victim’s chest and grows larger and larger until the unlucky human in question suffocates.

That last one sounds like the worst death ever.

It’s fun to play with new ideas for old monsters. After all, who’s to say there are any rules except the ones internal to your story? And all too often we assume a set of rules for our world because those are the rules we’ve been hearing in tale after tale during our lives.

But looking over the world of the undead, from ancient Greek’s slipping objects into a corpse’s mouth to prevent them from feeding to Aztecs celebrating with their dead one day a year, can help shake up what your brain has labeled as “right” and “wrong” and help you find some fresh ideas for your spawns of evil.

Just…please no one effectively use that ballooning cat idea. That would scare the crap out of me.