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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 24.3 > The Problem with the Walking Dead

The Problem with the Walking Dead

And How They Flummoxed Science for Centuries

Van Helsing: “I want you to believe.” Dr. Seward: “To believe what?” Van Helsing: “To believe in things you cannot.”

Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897

The undead have been troubling humanity since the dawn of time. The world’s oldest reference to them is a 2,700-year old Mesopotamian clay tablet, which translates: “And the dead will rise up to eat the living, and the dead will outnumber the living!” Fastforward nearly three millennia and these words feel unnervingly modern, summarizing plotline for one of the world’s most popular TV series, AMC’s The Walking Dead.1

Surveys of global folklore confirm the idea of a “global undead.”2 But these revenants aren’t always as we imagine. Take, for example, the blood sucking vampires of Slavic tradition. They weren’t debonair aristocrats with castles and cloaks, like we see in the movies. Instead, they had more of a ghoulish character—dead peasants, rotten and fetid. Greek folklore warns us about the vrykolakas—ruddy corpses, engorged with fresh blood. The Vikings were plagued by the vile and bloated Draugr. In Germanic cultures, there is the nachzehrer, chewing through their shrouds, before sucking the blood of other corpses. There is the Chiang-Shih “hopping vampires” of China and the Arabic ghu¯l (ghoul). In the Philippines, the kalag or aswang can be heard in graveyards, eating newly buried bodies. Even the Indigenous Australians—separated from other populations 62,000 years ago3—have the blood sucking Yara-ma-yha-who.

These weren’t just idle folk stories. Instead, many people were truly paranoid that the dead might arise, taking precautions to keep corpses secured in their graves. The archaeological record bears testament to this grim history. In Bulgaria, for example, there have been reports of 700-year-old skeletons with ploughshares—the hefty blade of a plough—thrust through them.4 In Poland, bodies have been discovered with iron sickles over their throats—a self-decapitating booby trap against the walking dead.5 In Ireland, two 8th-century “zombie burials” were discovered with rocks rammed in their mouths, stopping them from ever biting anyone. 6 Similarly, the “Vampire of Venice” was disinterred with a large brick wedged in the teeth.7 Other times, people were so paranoid they pursued a range of preventive measures. In the English village of Wharram Percy, medieval peasants mutilated, decapitated, and then burnt the bodies of 10 villagers.8 According to Andrew Reynolds, Professor of Medieval Archaeology at University College London, there is “no good reason to doubt…that the primary aim was to prevent the corpse returning to haunt the living.”9

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About Skeptic

PINKER ON POST-TRUTH & REASON Steven Pinker on “Why We Are Not Living in a Post-Truth Era: An (Unnecessary) Defense of Reason and a (Necessary) Defense of Universities’ Role in Advancing it” COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Coconut Oil: Health Food or Health Hazard? by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: The Persistence of Memory… and of the Memory Wars, by Carol Tavris ARTICLES The “Lost” Tribes of Israel • The Pentagon’s UFOs How a Multimedia Entertainment Company Created a UFO News Story • The Problem with the Walking Dead And How They Flummoxed Science for Centuries • The Enigma of Stephen Jay Gould • Why the Human Brain Did Not Evolve to Accurately Represent the True Nature of Reality • Homeopathy’s New Clothes: Release Active Drugs • Pressured Apologies, False Confessions, and Witch Hunts • Two Kinds of Progressive Atheism • Surfing for Truth in All the Right Places: An Empirical Test of the Backfire Effect and How the Internet Can Reduce Anti-vaccination Attitudes REVIEWS Reviews of “A review of Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities” • “Spectacle of Illusion: Deception Magic and the Paranormal” • “The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost” • “Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture” JUNIOR SKEPTIC The Chilling, Changeling Chupacabra!