Three Views of the Zombie Phenomenon
I’m about done with zombies. There are too damn many zombie movies, zombie TV shows, zombie video games, zombie bumper stickers, and zombie fuck all else these days. I have avoided zombie inspired movies and such this Halloween season for that very reason. When I saw the movie White Zombie on one of my channels last night I glossed over it. It wasn’t until I noticed that it was released in 1932 that I became moderately interested. I decided to give it a view simply because nothing else seemed more appealing (I know that’s not a sound reason to watch a movie but there it is).
I watched White Zombie with no specific expectations. All I did was try to put myself in the mindset to appreciate a movie from that time period. I must say that after one viewing (and it is a movie that I intend to view again) it is a solid movie. What I found most interesting about the movie is it got me thinking about my view of zombies. I grew up with George A. Romero zombies and to this day I will argue that his zombie movies are some of the best. But White Zombie is not in the style of a Romero movie. This movie is more in the style of a Wes Craven movie inspired by Wade Davis’ book, The Serpent and the Rainbow.
The Serpent and the Rainbow, both movie and book share the same name, focuses on the zombie phenomenon. I saw the movie first and it put a serious scare on me (Wes Craven usually does). It also left enough of an impact that I picked up a used copy of Davis’ book a few years later. Davis’ book is an engaging text that addresses the concept of zombies from both cultural and scientific viewpoints. Craven’s movie can best be described as an artistic interpretation that obviously lends itself more to horror than science, but Craven doesn’t exclude science in the attempt to scare the viewer. Victor Halperin’s White Zombie does the same. It has the elements of a classic horror movie (it is a must view if you are a fan of Bela Lugosi), and it also has a few scenes that attempt to provide a scientific reason, albeit thin, for the existence of zombies. This scientific element provides a perspective that makes both movies and the book worth your time.
Zombies are so commonplace in the horror genre today that they are bordering on cliché. In order to find some scary zombies it may be best to travel back to the 1980s for The Serpent and the Rainbow and the 1930s for White Zombie. What makes these selections scary is the sense of what could possibly happen no matter how improbable it seems, and this is what a good scare is.
White Zombie (1932) directed by Victor Halerpin starring Bela Lugosi and Madge Bellamy
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) by Wade Davis
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) directed by Wes Craven starring Bill Pullman and Cathy Tyson
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the iubknown.”
Searching for a Real Scare
Halloween is the one time a year when we search out scares. The rest of the year we avoid them. I started the month of October with a few scary movies, a couple of suspenseful stories, and one haunted house without any real scares. I’m not saying I haven’t had a few startles and jumps, but I haven’t had a, “What’s that in the in the shadow, under the bed, in the closet?” kind of scare in quite a while. Is this because I’ve grown immune to the standard scares provided by movies, stories, and such? Have I been overexposed and desensitized? Has it all become too cliché? Maybe I’m in the minority but I do enjoy a good scare once in a while so this Halloween season is not off to a good start. Then I got to thinking about what used to scare me.
One source of a few childhood scares was a graveyard next to the grade school I attended. I was a latchkey kid (do people still use the word latchkey these days) and on my way home I either walked around or through that graveyard. One cold and rainy fall day (I’d like to say it was during October but my memory isn’t what it was) in third grade a few friends and I were sharing scary stories toward the end of the day. They were rather typical Scooby Doo style scary stories until an eighth grader decided to join the conversation. Most of the common school stories about the graveyard were a bit over the top and populated with demons, ghosts, and other various monsters. These things still scared me a little but I was at that point in my life where I knew they weren’t real. The story the eighth grader related to us was different. Although it is a pretty standard urban legend I didn’t know it at the time. He told us the story of a group of teenagers who drove a car into a tombstone while trying to leave the graveyard after a night of drinking. All of the teenagers, save one, gathered around the damaged tombstone, mocked the deceased, and laughed at the damage they caused. The teenagers drove off and were in another accident, this time hitting a telephone pole. All the teenagers, save the one, died in the accident. A couple of friends and I cut through the graveyard to verify the eighth grader’s claim. There was a tombstone near the access drive that was damaged. We didn’t say much the rest of the walk home. I lived the farthest so those last three blocks alone in the cold and rain were an eerie kind of quiet. That quiet was broken by the sound of skidding tires on wet pavement and the sound of metal on metal. A fender bender in light rain was a simple coincidence, but for a nine-year old it was enough to make me sprint that last half block and turn on every damn light in the house.
I visited my mother yesterday and took her hound dog for a walk. We took a round about way through the neighborhood and cut through the graveyard on our way back. The tombstone is still there (and with 35 years of life experience I realized the damage was from weather). But as I stood before that tombstone my heart began to race. For a brief moment I felt that fear, maybe not the fear but the memory of the fear from that afternoon in third grade. H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” As we grow up and gain life experience less and less remains unknown so less and less remains scary.
I’m not saying there isn’t plenty of unknown out there for me to be afraid of, but for now I’m thinking back to those original scares, that time when there was a little more unknown than known. Instead of movies, stories, and such that simply rehash the known, I’m going to revisit the ones that made me turn flashlights toward the shadows, check under the bed, and keep the closet door open. I’m hoping to bring back some of those old scares. Tonight is Jack Nicholson in The Shinning. What are you watching?
“What scares me is what scares you. We’re all afraid of the same things. That’s why horror is such a powerful genre. All you have to do is ask yourself what frightens you and you’ll know what frightens me.”