I didn’t sleep well last night. I tend to sleep poorly in general, but some nights are worse than others and this was one of them. When we got up my wife asked me why.
“Stress dreams,” I told her.
“Aww,” she said. “About what?”
“Two words,” I said. “Zombie apocalypse.”
You’d have no way of knowing this unless you know us personally, but my wife is the kindest and most empathetic of people. But if she’d been drinking coffee at this moment she would have executed a perfect spit take. She snorted once, hard, and did that thing where you put one hand over your mouth and make placating gestures in the air with the other. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just…”
“I know,” I said. And I did know: “Zombie apocalypse” is funny. It’s got the “K” sound and the “Z” sound, which is almost as good. It has a mock-portentous ring. And it’s a funny phrase to hear first thing in the morning. But the thing is, I was genuinely rattled, because what I’d had was a pure nightmare. Both things were true: It was funny and I was terrified, walking around in that just-wakened state where the dream is still fresh and vivid and gripping.
Her reaction got me thinking about how zombies have been neutered in popular culture. “Shaun Of The Dead,” “Dawn Of The Dead,” “Day Of The Dead,” “Night Of The Living Dead.” “Left 4 Dead,” “Dead Island,” “Dead Rising.” An incomplete list of zombie games at Wikipedia is 124 entries long. I counted: 124 entries long. But there are zombies and there are zombies, and the zombies of today’s popular culture are Andover freshmen compared to the ur-zombies of voodoo lore. Those boys were nothing to screw around with. Mo Costandi, a neuroscientist who blogs for The Guardian, described the protocol for zombification in Haitian Vodun back in 2006. The emphases are mine.
In Haiti, zombification is a punishment for severe crimes. Coupe poudre is the powder used by a bokur [sorcerer] to induce zombification. The active ingredient of coupe poudre is tetradotoxin (TTX), produced in the liver and ovaries of some species of puffer fish (e.g. Fugu rubripes). TTX is a neurotoxin 500 times more potent than cyanide. It acts by blocking the sodium ion channels which enable nerve and heart cells to produce electrical impulses. In miniscule doses TTX causes a near-death state in which metabolic functions are depressed, so that breathing and pulse rate are undetectable. Total paralysis follows, although the brain and senses remain intact. The victim is thought to be dead and is buried alive… A few days after being buried, the ‘zombie’ is disinterred and given another powder containing atropine and scopolamine. These are toxic and hallucinogenic compounds from the plants Datura metel andDatura stramonium (both known as the ‘zombie cucumber’). This powder, when administered, puts the victim into a permanent state of delirium and disorientation in which they experience delusions and hallucinations. He or she can then be made to do menial work for those against which the crime was committed.
That’s what I’m talking about. These were zombies when being a zombie meant something. The apparitions who had kept me sleeping fitfully all night, waking, dreaming, waking again, were an amalgam of these — what might be called the OGs of zombie lore — and the worst, most bloodthirsty zombies of classic Hollywood. Let me review for you some of what my zombies did when they clocked in for their night’s work.
1) Emerge from their own graves to walk the earth. Tell me this wouldn’t alarm you if you were driving to the store for some pretzels. It certainly got my attention in my dream, where the locale was a back-country churchyard that looked like something out of “Red Dead Redemption.” (Which, by the way, offered an add-on pack in which the bad guys were… Anyone? Correct.)
2) Drool toxic vomit. Regular vomit is bad enough. I mean, it isn’t a thing you’d want to have very much to do with, even if it were issuing from the mouth of somebody you knew. But this stuff had some set of hypertoxic qualities that I couldn’t enumerate in my dream. I knew it was bad, though, and to be avoided at all costs.
3) Feast on flesh. Q.E.D. And I mean feast on flesh, not just eat it. These are creatures who feel about flesh like you and I feel about ice cream on a hot day.
You see what I’m saying? My zombies put the “nightmare” back in “nightmarish.” So how is it possible we came to be so captivated by the dumb, shambling zombies of recent popular culture — halfwits who walk in straight lines like Redcoats, will go down if you hit them one good lick with a shovel, and overall are about as threatening as baby ducks? One of the many great gags in “Shaun Of The Dead” is that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have time to debate the relative merits of a number of old LPs before deciding exactly which old LP they want to throw to dispatch a zombie in their back garden. I mean, these zombies aren’t exactly Predator drones.
Here’s a thought, and I offer it with the caveat that I may already have thought way too much about zombiehood today: The creators of movies and video games have abstracted the horror right out the zombie. In fact, the most terrifying zombies created in recent years weren’t even called zombies. They were called Splicers. Why? We prefer our zombies toothless, metaphorically speaking, because the canonical zombie is, no matter how much we may love our horror stories, too scary. Your real, no-foolin’ zombie, the one who predates George Romero and springs from religious fanaticism, from Congo by way of Haiti, is scary in a deep-down, dark-night-of-the-soul kind of way, a way that illuminates a truth we’d just as soon look away from — that life and death are two sides of the same coin. Who wants to think about that when they go to the movies? Unluckily for me, the subconscious isn’t so squeamish. That’s why it’s uniquely unsettling to dream, as I did, about the undead, and wake to real life — because it reminds us that the margin between life and death is as thin and porous as the one between sleeping and waking.
What I’m saying is, if your spouse tells you he dreamed about zombies, try not to laugh.
I’ll return to cheap gags on Monday. In the meantime: Sleep well!