The concept of zombies has been around since the times of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. When individuals were captured in Africa and brought over to the Western hemisphere, they took many beliefs and traditions with them. Among these traditions was the practice of voodoo. During this time, zombies were thought to be emaciated, half-dead creatures that were reminiscent of the conditions of the slaves that were overworked by their masters. In voodoo culture, a zombi can be one of two things: an animated corpse without a soul, or a soul without a body. Sorcerers called bokos could use poisonous powders to remove the soul from a person’s body and trap it in a vessel. Once the soul was removed and trapped, that body was under the sorcerer’s control until the vessel is broken, or until the body ate meat, at which point the body would hunt down and kill the sorcerer and then return to its final resting place.
The modern concept of a zombie is very reminiscent of the voodoo culture. Although descriptions can vary, the general idea of an animated, soulless body that is acting more aggressively and maliciously than human beings has been around since the first zombie movie, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, a silent horror film that was released in Germany in 1921. The concept has been prevalent in pop culture from that point, being featured in cult films and TV shows such as Shaun of the Dead and The Walking Dead.
Besides being an important division of the entertainment industry, the zombie also provides an excellent parallel to infectious diseases such as rabies. Both conditions are contracted through bites, and characterized by an increase in salivation. Both exhibit symptoms such as fever and irregular muscle movements. Additionally, individuals afflicted with rabies tend to exhibit changes in mental state, for example restlessness, delirium and even hallucinations. Zombies are generally characterized as having increasing aggressive behaviors and decreasing cognitive function.
The parallels between zombies and rabies (along with many other infectious diseases) have a powerful potential for spreading awareness about these harmful diseases. Using popular culture comparisons to educate the general public about infectious diseases will hopefully lead to a population of individuals that are more able and willing to help to fight for the eradication of such diseases. The fight against infectious diseases can often be very similar to the fight against zombies – you try something, it works for a while then it stops working, you try something else. Hopefully, the general population will be inspired to keep the fight against infectious diseases going as much as they have kept the fight against zombies going. 🙂