I’ll be honest, there really isn’t a smoking gun answer to this question. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun exploring it. One could point to the horror classic by Romero, “Night of the Living Dead.” One could also point to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” or some of the stories coming out of the voodoo culture in Haiti. You could even go back to the Bible—was Lazarus the first zombie?
But one important source that needs to be involved in the discussion is the dramatic way Christians in the west changed their attitude about the freshly dead back in the Middle Ages when, by some estimates, the Black Death wiped out half of the population of Europe. Tiny fleas transmitted bubonic and pneumonic plague all throughout the western world. It was a wicked way to die. Victims first noticed large, painful boils erupting all over their body, followed by a high fever, vomiting blood, and then severe headaches. Many died within forty-eight hours of noticing the first symptoms. Very few survived a week. Depending upon the region, up to half of the population was wiped out. And sometimes entire villages became ghost towns. Because medical knowledge typically did more harm than good, the population was virtually defenseless. Wave after wave swept through the countryside, forcing the church and culture to reckon with death and the brevity of life in incomprehensible ways.
One such group became known as the “Doves,” a band of flagellants who roamed the countryside, torturing themselves with whips made of leather straps and singing hymns in an attempt to appease God, who seemed biblically enraged. When the plague didn’t abate, they took to killing Jews, the popular scapegoat of the age. Others tried leeches, bloodletting, smelly salves, and scary masks to drive the demons away. The most common prescription from the medical experts at the time was to run far, far away. Unfortunately, there really wasn’t any place to run to that was safe. And besides, by the time the plague struck a town, it was too late.
To say that the plague dramatically changed our worldview is almost an understatement. Every aspect of civilization—religion, culture, economics, architecture, literature, art—all of it was affected by the psychological impact of the plague. For example, before the plague, a fragile skeleton was often used to depict death in art in Italy. After the plague this image was replaced with a picture of an old woman dressed in black, with hair like snakes, claws for feet, and a scythe clutched in her talons with which to reap the dead. And indeed, every culture revised death from something fairly innocuous, to something far more menacing. In Tuscany, Giovanni del Biondo portrayed a Madonna as a decomposing corpse.
The Black Plague also heightened the notion that dead bodies, removed from this world in an untimely and traumatic way, became restless, unwilling to make the transition to the next world, and consequently loitered around in this one. Before the Plague, stories abounded of naughty priests who returned to confess their sins so that they could rest, knights who returned to preach against violence, and even a touching story of a baker who returned to help knead bread for his widowed wife in the middle of the night. After the Plague, the returning dead become a little more, well, scary–giving rise to something that becomes popularly known as the danse macabre.
Imagine a spooky cemetery at night, filled with the restless dead who have had their lives taken from them too quickly from the plague. There’s no cable TV, so what do they do? They rise from their tombs and throw a party. And sometimes unsuspecting victims unwittingly crashed these parties, bumping into a collection of zombies with flesh rotting off the bones, skin pocked with holes dug by worms, and mouths pulled back in an evil grin, holding hands, skipping and dancing to unearthly music. And if the humans were spotted, then the zombies came after them, captured them in a trance, led them in a conga-line back to the cemetery, and did unspeakable things to them, dooming them forever.
One such story involved three young men who filled their lives with one party after the next. Wine. Women. Brawls. These forerunners of frat-boys-gone-wild indulged in every vice available to them, all the while scoffing at the world. However, on one occasion as they were returning home from an especially raucous night on the town, the bratty players accidently wandered into a cemetery where they were greeted by three rancid, living, dead guys. The students stopped, frozen in their tracks, their eyes wide with fear. The zombies stank of rancid flesh, their bellies open with entrails hanging out; bones peeked through open gashes in the skin. Only a few globs of hair still stuck to their scalps. Eyes were sunken and black. Cheek bones were exposed through the skin, and their smiles were unnaturally wide. They shuffled quickly, advancing methodically and menacingly, inching closer and closer until just a few meters away. Then, they slowly lifted their arms and pointed with fingers of half bone, half flesh. In an unnatural voice they growled, “What you are, we once were; what we are, you will become.”
Today, if you go over to Europe and visit the cemeteries where the dead from the plagues are buried, you will find this inscription as one of the more popular admonishments from the grave—wisdom from the voices of a generation that learned the hard way how fleeting and fragile life is.