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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 22.3 > Zombies




Our world has been conquered by hordes of zombies! They menace us in video games, comics, television, and movies. They lurch gruesomely down city streets in “zombie walk” events.

After decades of zombie fiction, the walking dead are more popular than ever. Mindless, moaning, hungry for human flesh, zombies may be the ultimate modern monsters. They’ve spread like a virus through tales of terror and horrified imaginings. But where did the idea come from? Were zombies invented for fiction, or do they have a basis in legend—or perhaps even in reality? Could anything like fictional movie zombies actually exist in the real world?

Let’s find out!


People everywhere tell tales of creatures that stir in dark places, lurking ravenously for the unwary. Different cultures imagine a terrifying variety of monsters, but some types tend to reappear in legends, fairy tales, and horror stories told all around the world. Dragon and ogre stories turn up in many places, for example. [See JUNIOR SKEPTIC #30 for more on dragons.]

Similarly, many cultures imagine monsters that look like us. These are often said to be humans who became monsters through some horrifying process of transformation. Countless cultures speak of vampires—fiends who suck the lifeblood from their victims. Werewolf legends are also widespread and have been repeated for thousands of years.

Zombie stories are not nearly so old or farreaching as tales of vampires and werewolves. But like those other creatures, zombies are imagined as transformed human beings. In that transformation, all three creatures lose some essential part of what made them human. Werewolves lose the restraint and reason that make a person civilized. They lose all memory of who they are. They become wild animals. Vampires often keep their intelligence, but lose their conscience (their “soul” in some stories). Other people are mere prey for the vampire’s thirst.

Zombies lose even more: memories, intelligence, purpose, a sense of self, everything that makes a person more than just a body that moves. A zombie is a human with everything human taken out. Everything but hunger.


Modern zombies vary from story to story. Most are slow, but some are fast. Most are animated corpses; others become infected or changed while they are still living. But zombies typically share three features: they’re mindless; they’re savagely violent; and, they’re contagious.

In many stories zombies behave like a fast-spreading plague. Zombies attack and bite humans. This turns their victims into more zombies. The infection spreads. Usually the zombie hordes multiply so fast that soldiers, police, and governments are totally overwhelmed. Civilization collapses. Soon only a few desperate survivors remain to scavenge among the ruins of the old world.

Such “zombie apocalypse” stories are as familiar today as superheroes, wizards, or space battles. Yet it was not always so. Where did the modern zombie story come from? We can find early roots for that story in much, much older tales.

Reanimating the Dead

Flesh-eating zombies are modern monsters, not creatures from ancient folklore. But for thousands of years people have told stories about the dead returning to life—not just as ghosts but as physical bodies. Such stories were an easy leap of the imagination: if a living person can change into a dead body, could that process be somehow reversed?

For example, Greek myths tell of a healer named Asclepius who was so skilled in medicine that he could even cure death. Unfortunately, the gods did not want mortals to have this divine power. Zeus angrily struck down Asclepius with a thunderbolt. But in other Greek tales, the gods chose to return people to life themselves. Similarly, in the Bible’s Book of Ezekiel, God miraculously restores life to dry bones scattered across a valley. With “a rattling sound…the bones came together, bone to bone…and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them…and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.” But the reanimated people in these stories are nothing like zombies. They’re fully alive again. The gods were said to have the power to reverse death completely.

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SPECIAL ISSUE: Did a Mysterious Unknown Advanced Civilization Help Ancient Peoples Build Their Monuments? SPECIAL SECTION — EVALUATING THE EVIDENCE FOR AN ADVANCED LOST CIVILIZATION: Debating Science and Lost Civilizations: My Experience on the Joe Rogan Experience by Michael Shermer; Conjuring Up a Lost Civilization: An Analysis of the Claims Made by Graham Hancock in Magicians of the Gods by Marc Defant; Lost Civilizations and Imaginative Conjectures: An Analysis of the Myths and History of Graham Hancock’s Magicians of the Gods by Tim Callahan. SPECIAL SECTION — AN ACADEMIC HOAX: Failure to Communicate: Why We Published the “Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” Hoax Exposé by Michael Shermer; The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies by Peter Boghossian (aka Peter Boyle, Ed.D.) and James Lindsay (aka, Jamie Lindsay, Ph.D.); More Fashionable Nonsense Some thoughts on “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” Hoax by Alan Sokal. ARTICLES: Big News on Homo naledi: More Fossils and a Surprising Young Age by Nathan H. Lents; The Real Origin of UFOs and Aliens: How the Media Shaped Our Ideas About Extraterrestrials by Tim Callahan; Publicly Funded Stem Cell Research: California’s $3-Billion Experiment in Public Science by Raymond Barglow; How to Tame a Fox and Build a Dog by Lee Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut; Science, Facts, and “Provisional” Knowledge by David Zeigler. COLUMNS: The SkepDoc: Juicing for Health or Torture by Harriet Hall, M.D. The Gadfly: Our Angry Era by Carol Tavris. JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Zombies: The Gruesome True Story of Zombies by Daniel Loxton