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Oct. 30, 2017 – Popular depictions of zombies abound, from “The Walking Dead,” now in its eighth season, to Starbucks’ newly released Zombie Frappuccino. Paul J. Patterson, Ph.D., associate professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, offers his perspective on why zombies — which have roots in medieval legends and literature — persist in popular culture, and their timelessness as symbols of horror.
The undead have always fascinated the living. Zombies represent our fear of the unrelenting nature of death, the degradation of the environment and the mobility of disease. As far back as the Middle Ages, though, people were fascinated by the walking dead.
In the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, the creature Grendel features some traits of the undead. He attacks the warriors of mead hall Heorot by coming at night to steal away the men and eat them whole:
Then out of the night / came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift (Heaney 19).
While the monstrous nature of Grendel is rooted in his role as societal outcast, he is part of a larger tradition of creatures that resemble modern-day zombies.
One of the closest cultural analogues to Beowulf comes from a series of Scandinavian sagas, including Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, which features a creature called a draugr, which means a revenant. Draugar (pl.) appear throughout Old Norse literature and are undead creatures who had superhuman strength, a stench of decay, and fed on the flesh of the living.
Unlike modern zombies, the transformation of a corpse into a draugr could be stopped through a series of preventative measures. The toes of corpses were tied together or pins placed through their feet to prevent walking should they awaken. Often a “corpse door” was built into the tomb, and a corpse was carried in feet first so it couldn’t see where it was being taken. The door was then sealed with bricks so a draugr couldn’t escape and wreak havoc on surrounding villages.
While many draugar appear in Norse mythology, numerous accounts appear in the writings of Christian authors in the medieval period, as well. The 12th-century monk, William of Newburgh wrote of a corpse that roamed the halls of the monastery and tormented the residents. It was finally driven back to its grave by another monk with a knife. Caesarious of Heisterbach, a 13th-century German monk, recorded similar stories of undead creatures appearing to many people. Even as late as the 17th century there were accounts of corpses coming to life.
The deep influence of Christianity on late medieval and early modern culture likely influenced people’s belief in corpses walking again. Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, and He himself escaped death three days after being crucified.
Zombies and the undead continue to fascinate us. Whether as decaying creatures never stopping in their pursuit of human flesh or in sugary drinks that only decay our teeth, zombies seem to be here to stay.