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Horror Mystery and Lore

A Voodoo Practice: Mysteries of Zombification

Digging Up the Origin of Zombies

Hand reaching into the darkness
Photography by Lalesh Aldarwish

While zombies have been on the pop culture radar pretty heavily for several decades now, the history of this undead phenomenon has a history deeply rooted in the Haitian Voodoo religion—in fact, the belief in zombies is still a relevant aspect of New Orleans Voodoo. In our western society, we rely heavily upon our knowledge of what is presented to us in movies and television, but the zombie culture we know and love evolved from a very real magical tradition. Original zombification didn’t involve leaks from biological factories, like what happened in Train to Busan (2016), or an airborne virus as was the case in AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010)—it involved a spiritual, magical, and chemical process that arose through voodoo ritual which required the calling of several voodoo spirits (Loa).

Where we see zombies being portrayed as people who have died then coming back to life, the voodoo tradition it is actually a person who is under the powerful influence of psychoactive drugs. These drugs are usually administered to the unfortunate person by a bokor, the voodoo equivalent to a sorcerer or witch doctor. After being dosed with these psychoactive drugs, the victim essentially goes into drug-induced paralysis which mimics death so profoundly that it is rumored that people have been buried alive after being zombified. This is the case in one of the original, classic zombie films The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), where the main antagonist, is buried alive while fully cognizant—which, needless to say would be incredibly terrifying.

The Process of Zombification

Skulls piled on the ground
Photography Renato Danyi

There is a lot of disagreement about whether or not the person who is to become a zombie is actually deceased or not—some believe that the process revives the recently dead into mindless, soulless automatons, while others insist it’s just the effect of psychoactive drugs that leaves the victim in a state of deep, chemical-induced paralysis, which mimics death to the point that even vital signs are not measurable. Within the Voodoo religion, only bokors have the power to create and control zombies, while the methods and ingredient amounts changes from each individual bokor, the process follows the same pattern. Some processes use voodoo dolls, blood and hair from the intended victim, and others use a “zombie” powder—this powder is a concoction of varies herbs and animal parts, most of which are poisonous, as well as human remains.

This powder can then be administered through ingestion or injection and begins to take effect immediately. Immobility, slowed vitals, and reduced oxygen intake occur within minutes which results in the death-like paralysis where the victim is still fully conscious of their surroundings. Once officially declared dead, the victim is buried alive and within eight hours, the bokor digs up the body to keep the victim from actually dying from asphyxiation. Other procedures follow, which result in a mindless and easily controlled zombie which does the bidding of the bokor who created it. The person remains a zombie until the bokor passes away and is no longer capable of administering the drug that maintains the victim’s zombie-like state.

Clairvius Narcisse the Real Haitian Zombie

Creepy old, overgrown cemetary

Photography by NeONBRAND

Zombification is often referred to as either a solely magical or physical experience, but in truth it is a mixture of both, it’s essential for a person to have a belief in voodoo and the ability to be turned into a zombie in order for the process to work in its entirety. This was the case for Clairvius Narcisse, the man who claimed to be a zombie, but returned home after eighteen years and his story was finally told.

In 1962, Narcisse was admitted to the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, Haiti. He complained of fever, body aches, and ‘general malaise,’ but after being admitted he began to spit up blood. His condition declined rapidly, until two days later when he was officially pronounced dead by two separate physicians. Narcisse’s sister, Angelina, was present when he was declared dead and then notified the rest of the family, a day thereafter his body was buried, and ten days after that a concrete memorial slab was placed atop the grave by his family.

What most the family didn’t know is that Clairvius had actually been pulled out of the grave and resuscitated. He was given the zombie concoction and kept in a zombie-like state for two years, working as slave labor in a region of the country that was much farther north. This was all done at the behest of his brother, after refusing to sell his portion of the family estate to him. After two years of being a zombie, his master had been killed, then he and all of the other zombie-slaves were released from their chemical induced state of submission. Clairvius stayed away from his home for the next sixteen years, knowing that his return would make his brother aware that he was no longer being controlled by another. Once his brother passed, he finally returned home, where he approached his sister Angelina in a local marketplace and introduced himself by his childhood nickname which she and a few other intimate family members alone were aware of.

Investigating the Haitian Zombie with Hamilton Morris

The following six-part Vice production follows the investigation of The Haitian Zombie, with Hamilton’s Phramacopeia, in order to find the truth behind the folk magic and legends of this walking dead phenomenon; Hamilton follows the scientific trail to the origin of the poisons that are said to cause Zombification in order to bring them back for formal chemical analysis.


Please watch the following footage with discretion–there are scenes and images that some viewers may find disturbing.

These videos are meant to be educational in nature.


Part One

This first episode goes into the initial introduction, including the nature of what Zombification entails.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 05

Part Two

The following video contains graphic footage included in a voodoo ritual, in which an animal sacrifice is made for the Loa, please be advised it may be considered disturbing to some viewers.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 06

Part Three

In this third episode, Hamilton goes to find a Bokor in order to witness the process of Zombification, but results in angering the Bokor and being told the deal is off.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 07

Part Four

Hamilton goes to find the main ingredient of Zombie powder, in this fourth episodes, which is a species of puffer fish.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 08

Part Five

In the fifth part of Investigating the Haitian Zombie, Hamilton meets up with another Bokor who possesses the Zombie powder that they have been searching for and witnesses a real zombie.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 09

Part Six

The final installment of the investigation into Haitian zombies, they travel back to the Bokor who showed them what they had been searching for to come through with the final product they paid for.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 10

Knowing what we have learned from different sources, about the process of Zombification, can it truly be said that it is a purely chemical process? These videos in particular have all but debunked the rationale that it can all be chalked up to a chemical reaction, so some aspects of this spiritual process is often contributed to the powerful belief in their magical practices. What do you think about the phenomenon of Zombification? Let us know in the comments below.

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Featured Indie Horror Short Horror Stories

Duology of the Damned: Part 01 – When the Sickness Reached Alaska

Snowed in Cabin
Photography by Laurent Perren

I woke up to the unsettling caw of a raven sitting in a tree near my window. I could feel the sweat that had built up on my forehead overnight and I was feeling greasy, but the prospect of what I had to do this morning grated on my nerves. I rolled over on my other side, having decided to give myself a few more hours to improve my mood. The moment I closed my eyes I fell back into the dreary embrace of blackness.

I was already pulling my boots on when I realized that it had snowed overnight. Again. A glance out of the back window of my cabin revealed the heavily snow-laden trees, they bowed in submission to the densely packed wet slush that persisted despite the climbing temperatures. The quiet stillness that came with a fresh blanket of snow provided an unflappable peace. There was a certain appeal to the idea that Mother Nature cared just as much about the affairs of men as I did. I wrapped the rough brown-dyed moose leather ties around my second mukluk and secured it, right before my annoyingly devoted husky pushed her face underneath into my armpit and flung my arm upward to tell me what time it was.

I set her kibble in front of her, she plopped down, wrapped her front paws around the silver bowl, and began to eat it daintily; it had taken me almost two years to teach her how to be a lady at chow time. Hash-browns and eggs hit the hot skillet with a loud sizzle, I was counting on those extra carbs to give me a bit of a boost of energy today, it was still frigid outdoors and I had a lot to do. A shovel full of the wet snow felt as heavy as lead and the next hour proved to exacerbate my sciatica, but it was the combination of painfully numb fingertips and the sweat running down my back that was the most unpleasant aspect of it all. Nevertheless, if I wanted to get out of my driveway, I needed to clear enough space to give myself a running start out onto the unplowed road.

My stark white pup, Scottie, had begun to run circles around me, her joyful frolic in the fresh snow had not quite come to an end. This was her favorite time of year, she was built for this weather, and then she disappeared into a large pile of snow and reemerged with a goofy, tongue-lolled-out smile.  I stuck the shovel upright into one of the snow berms I had built up and started up my Jeep to warm the engine—that was Scottie’s cue and she knew we were going to town before I could even make it back to the house for my wallet and coat. She was already sittin’ purdy in front of the door.

I stopped on the top step, kicked my mukluks together, and snow fell off in wet clumps. A chickadee caught my eye, as it flew past my head and landed on a nearby branch, then my line of sight was drawn to my neighbors’ cabins. They had been oddly quiet today, each of their cabins had their respective car or truck parked in front when they would normally have been gone by that point. I hadn’t seen them going in or out of their cabin all day either, and I couldn’t see tracks in the fresh snow around their houses and that was strange, to say the least. Then again, I guess it wasn’t any of my business.

I knew the drive out to the main road wasn’t going to be a picnic, but I just needed to get out of that cabin. So today, Scottie and I were going to indulge in our favorite pastime of watching The Price is Right whenever we could make it to the bar by the time they opened their doors in the morning—I had been told that today would be the last day it would be open for at least two months while the rest of the city slept in quarantine. I didn’t understand why they were closing all sit-in establishments, why couldn’t people just wash their damn hands and stay home if they were sick? One bad apple… or something like that. So, this was officially the last chance I would have where I could get out of the house for more than just some colas and toilet paper for a while. I was going to take full advantage of it if I could. 

Cabin fever was a bitch and sitting at home with nowhere to go would be fine for a while, but it was only tolerable if there were brief punctuations of exposure to the outside world. It was barely 10 in the morning, the bar had just opened its doors and somehow the same five regulars were already there for coffee and our morning ritual of the boob tube. Delicate white flakes of snow drifted down from the grey sky when I pulled into the parking lot of the dull red riverboat-turned-bar.

Scottie slipped through my legs into our favorite dive bar as soon as I opened the door and then she made her rounds to greet her favorite people. Her favorite people being the ones who offered her the dog biscuits that were kept behind the bar. When Scottie finally came back around, I had my coffee in front of me and the sound of Johnny Olson’s trademarked, “come on down!” was coming in clear over the cacophony of applause and theme song. Gary, to my left, passed me the local paper once he was done with it and there it was. The headline struck me abruptly; my heart inched further and further up my throat.

MANHATTAN OVERRUN

I swallowed down the lump in my throat and I set the paper aside, because ignorance is bliss, at least for now. A bubbly older woman on the television was bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet as she leaned in to spin the huge wheel for the Showcase Showdown; I threw back the rest of my now cold coffee and fended off the bartender’s attempt to refill my cup.

“I’ll be back later with Trudy,” I mentioned in passing before I pulled my Carhartt jacket on over my sweater, the bartender smiled and waved as Scottie and I opened the door to leave. I had a date with an old lady and a shopping cart, so I knew I would get an earful of the latest news on what was happening in the world from Trudy soon enough. Worrying too much about the headlines right now would just make my mood worse—no need to ruminate.

 I loaded Scottie into the back of my Jeep and in no time at all, we were cautiously pulling into Trudy’s driveway. I popped my head in through her front door to let her know I was there, then came the inevitable shoveling of snow to clear her driveway enough for her to get through to my Jeep without too much difficulty. Tiny Trudy appeared at her front door just as I finished creating a path for her and I held out a hand to her, so I could help her down the rickety stairs. Her frail form moved agonizingly slow over the slick black ice near her door. Her cleated boots made no difference in consideration of her near weightless state. The drive was quiet, except for her unceasing country music and her tar-coated lungs wheezing with each breath. The store was startlingly barren, the panic still hadn’t subsided it seemed—Trudy’s normal complaints had gone into overdrive.

“There’s no toilet paper, honey!” She wheezed indignantly, her creaky voice announced both her dissatisfaction and her disbelief. Once she saw the headlines of the scandal sheets, she broke into a brief political tangent. I could tell that she didn’t quite get the panic that had overtaken people—but then again, did any of us understand it? Trudy wasn’t incredibly worried about the pandemic, she was eighty-seven years old, a life-long smoker, and had lived through the pipeline days. If she hadn’t croaked yet, then she wasn’t going to start worrying about it now—she didn’t see the reason for being concerned about “a little fever and breathing problems,” she had told me, “—I’ve already gotten my flu shot!” I had to be careful not to let my eyeballs roll straight out of my head. Her logic always seemed to take me by surprise, but I wasn’t going to complain, after all, I was all she had during the winter.

By the time I sat down at the bar for the second time that day all of the regulars except for Gary had gone. Frail and wispy Trudy, surprisingly, could still get up into the tall squishy blue barstools that towered over her and she settled in. She ordered herself a Carolans and coffee, then paid for another coffee for me—the bartender was always happy to see Trudy, but the gloom over the patrons of the bar was palpably different than when I had been there earlier. I didn’t honestly think much of it until Eeyore incarnate began speaking to me. 

“The end is fucking nigh,” Gary muttered and leaned awkwardly to one side, he hadn’t moved seats from this morning, but it was clear he was already three sheets to the wind. I figured that he must have been mulling over that headline for the past few hours; I watched him sink into his third beer since Trudy and I had arrived. Gary was always a glass-half-empty kind of person so it was pointless to try to cheer him up, but considering I was already dealing with cranky little Trudy, it wasn’t high on my priority list, to begin with.

I must have been letting the alarm of the general population of this small city get to me—or was that sweat gathering on his greying brow? It was too chilly to be sweating. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Gary wasn’t being the normal whiny drunk he was known to be. My thoughts were disturbed by a violent outburst of coughing from Gary who was looking paler by the minute, I was sincerely glad Trudy and I had decided to sit on the opposite end of the bar from him. The last thing I needed was for 87-year-old Trudy to catch the virus that had just been announced on a national level.

“Gary, you might want to think about heading home,” I projected over the low buzz of the conversations of the other patrons. I cast a look at the bartender and then gestured to Trudy, at my side, with my eyes. The bartender nodded, you could see her anxiety even behind her practiced smile—the bartender walked off to use the phone to call a cab for Gary. There was no way anyone in this bar would want to drive Gary home; it’s not that they didn’t want him to get home safely they just didn’t want to do it themselves. Why was he even here in the first place? Was he trying to get people sick, or was he unaware of just how ill he was? 

It was probably too late by that time, Gary had probably already exposed us all to the virus—there were rumors that it was airborne, but the first cases only popped up within the last couple of days and so far all we knew is that some of them were already in the ICU. No one had recovered from it yet, but if it was anything like any other new virus, surely it would take at least a couple of weeks to see what recovery looked like. Regardless, I was worried about Trudy being exposed to whatever Gary was coughing up, so when his cab finally came and he bumbled drunkenly out of the bar the rest of us were able to breathe a little easier.

It took an hour, but I was finally able to convince Trudy to let me take her home. I must emphasize how relieving that was, mostly because I wanted to go home and Scottie was still waiting in the car. She made it down the slick, ice-patched stairs with a little help—but, something was wrong. I just realized that Scottie was barking at something on the other side of the car and that wasn’t like her at all. Scottie noticed us and her barks immediately turned to whines, but I couldn’t see through the dark tint of the back windows. I loaded Trudy into the car, she was so neatly tucked into her fluffy down winter coat. She reminded me of that scene with Ralphie’s little brother from A Christmas Story, where the mom wraps Randy up in so many layers that he’s incapable of moving his body.

I rounded the back of the car, keys in hand; that’s when I realized Gary was slumped against the back driver’s side door of my Jeep, “Gary—what in the hell are you doing?” Gary sounded like his words were garbled—and he groaned, he looked even more pale and green than he had before if that was even possible. Gary lurched forward, swiped his arms as if reaching for me, and upon sidestepping out of his way, he landed firmly on the ground. Gary didn’t waste any time though, he crawled back toward me and tried to grab my ankles this time. That raspy growl would stay with me forever, turned into a half scream as Gary began to rise to his feet and come at me once again. I opened the driver’s side door, jumped in, and slammed it just in time to put a barrier between Gary and us. With a closer look, I could see that his eyes were red and completely vacant.

“What is it, honey?” Trudy was exasperated, her eyesight was fading, her hearing wasn’t what it used to be. I weighed the decision if I should tell her what just happened—better not for right now. 

Walking in a blizzard
Photography by Zac Durant

“Nothing Trudy, we’re just going to get you home.” I tried to sound nonchalant but what had just happened truly freaked me out, Trudy didn’t need to know. She didn’t leave the house without me anyway, so what good would it do her to worry? The news hadn’t reported on this though, it only talked about major panics in smaller towns. When we finally pulled into her driveway we had passed at least a half dozen wrecks on the side of the road and I could tell that they weren’t just due to slick and slushy roads.

Her neighborhood was quiet, I helped her to her front door and proceeded to unload the groceries for her. Once I joined her inside I saw that she was already sitting in her favorite rocking chair smoking a cigarette in the garage. I resigned to put the groceries away, took out her trash, and then said my goodbyes. I didn’t feel right leaving her there on her own, but she never opened the door for anyone else and I needed to find out what was going on. Scottie had hopped into the front seat and was waiting for me when I slid back into the driver’s seat and we were on our way back home. Maybe the local news would give me an idea of what was going on, the paper had been vague at best, what I had seen with Gary had to be newsworthy, but Manhattan was over four thousand miles away, how could whatever that was be happening here?

The road that led to my driveway was still unplowed when I drove back through and my brakes made an audible creak as I slowed to a stop in my driveway. There was a heaviness in my chest that couldn’t be alleviated by coming home, it didn’t feel like my usual home-coming, no relief from being in public, no, indeed the stress lingered. I turned my car off, gave my pup a gentle pat on her back, then began to climb out onto my hard-packed driveway. That’s when I heard the strange sirens coming down my dead-end road and a few strange military-looking vehicles stopped directly in front of my neighbor’s cabin. Soldiers with guns quickly made a perimeter and two people in Hazmat suits stood behind their line. I stood there, awestruck—Scottie, took me by surprise when she jumped down in front of me, her hackles were up.

“Miss, get inside now!” One of the soldiers shouted at me, that’s when my neighbor Rachel emerged from her cabin across the way, against my better judgment I took a step toward the soldiers and Rachel’s cabin—I couldn’t tell if her eyes looked like Gary’s but, her movements sure mimicked what I had seen in the parking lot at the bar. “MISS, I SAID GET INSIDE!” The soldier barked at me again, I hesitantly took a couple of steps back, then signaled for Scottie to go to the cabin. Except… I couldn’t look away, I needed to know what was going on.

Rachel had begun to scream and growl before she lunged at the closest soldier and took a chunk out of his neck—holy shit.

If you liked this installment of Duology of the Damned, then check out Part 02 — The Monster Inside of Me

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Featured Indie Horror Short Horror Stories

Duology of the Damned: Part 02 – The Monster Inside of Me

To catch up on this two-part horror short fiction, read Duology of the Damned: Part 01 — When the Sickness Reached Alaska

Part 02 — The Monster Inside of Me

Such is the unnatural body of this god, which has no kinship with the dust of our world; indeed, it is not flesh as we know flesh, but as crystal or glass, and soft so that during his dreaming death it often breaks apart, but when it breaks it at once reforms itself, held in its pattern by the will of the great one. Such is the unnatural nature of this sleep, which has no kinship with those who were left standing…

It took an effort to open my eyes and when I finally did, I couldn’t see much of anything but a blur—someone was moving in the room I was in. I was feeling groggy and that unbearably painful hangover ache—except, I stopped drinking a long time ago. Didn’t I? Why did I feel so different? What’s wrong with me? My eyes blinked rapidly of their own volition, in an attempt to clear the blur, but my vision barely improved. It wasn’t until I tried to move that I realized I was strapped down and a panicked groan—I suppose that’s when the person realized I was awake.

“Do you know your name?” The pale white blur asked me with a muffled voice, what an odd question, I thought to myself.

“Of course, my name is—,” what the fuck is my name?

“Don’t worry, the memory loss is normal, it’ll come back to you soon,” a flash of white hit each of my eyes, it must have been a flashlight because the pain hit the back of my head. There were more questions, I had fewer answers—the more he probed me for information, the more I realized I didn’t know who I was, let alone where I was. He was talking about my vision and memory coming back as my brain regenerated.

“Wait, what do you mean? What happened to me? Where am I?”

“Easy answers first, I suppose. We’re in Whittier—,” how the hell did I get to Whittier? According to Dr. Blur, it was very nearly the end of the world. The next few weeks were a little more revealing; I slowly began remembering things from before it all happened. I remembered where I had grown up, a small almost-no-name town in the interior of Alaska. I was never used to an abundance of people being around during the early parts of my life. All the same, I would still wake up in a cell and not know where I was for a time. It was all incredibly jarring.

The medical staff weren’t very talkative, which was understandable. The few details I was able to pry out of them painted the picture clearly enough. The contagion had nearly converted all of the human population into mindless, soulless killers—small pockets of humanity were able to somehow hold on to hope long enough to stay alive throughout the last surge of the dead before the cure came. It’s not like they weren’t well prepared, Alaska is an open-carry state after all. A lot of people died. 

My first thought was Trudy, she was the closest thing I had to family, but I was hundreds of miles away from home; there was no way I would know. The beginning of the pandemic was all rumor, but then the major news stations started going off the air, permanently. I eventually remembered the day that our communications systems went down and that’s when I truly felt alone for the first time in my life. Now I remember that day like it was yesterday—the process of infection from the time it hit the United States until it reached Alaska took a week at most.

Cities and other largely populated areas were run through in a matter of a day or two; after the shit hit the fan, doctors and scientists became incredibly scarce throughout the world, not to mention in Alaska. Within the last year in no less than a miracle, they had somehow developed a serum, but I suppose since it wasn’t a matter of money, test subjects were widely available—albeit a touch aggressive—and there were no federal regulations anymore it was just a brassy and ballsy group of nerds who saw a problem and figured out how to tackle it. Without knowing any organized cure was being sought after, the last pockets of uninfected people had all but given up, or at least that was what I had been told. I missed a great deal of it while stuck in a dark cloud of calamitous hunger, the melodious satisfaction of hot copper—it felt like a lifetime ago, but they told me my treatment had started a month ago. I only remember the last week of scientists observing me in their dirty spacesuits, the look of fear in their eyes, and perspiration looming on their temples as they gave me my daily injections.

Although I hadn’t been told much about where I was being kept, I had to deduce based on the limited information I came across. As an example, the armed guards weren’t opposed to taking book requests—since there had been at least a few individuals who had hoarded books for fear of losing humanity completely. That meant that there had to be room for a library. There were obviously cells already present since I was in one. There were dedicated medical rooms and on my escorted journey from my cell to the hospital wing we passed what looked to be a dilapidated and rotting movie theatre. There was also evidence of covered graffiti on the walls, covered in white paint.

I had only been to Whittier a handful of times before, but it was the thick concrete that made up the walls, floors, and ceilings that ultimately gave it away. I was being kept in the Buckner Building. It was created to be a city under one roof, but the last time I remember seeing it, there had been a lot more degradation than this. They must have finally gotten the financing to refurbish the property before everything went to shit and it seemed as if the first steps they took to reclaim the property from the elements was to install all new windows and doors. Or maybe they just painted over the doors, but the ones I was shuttled in and out of looked new to me. I was curious, though, why it seemed as if the jail cells had been refurbished as well—but it was a pretty historic monument to the Cold War, so maybe they had been planning to turn part of this creepy fortress into a museum. Who knows, I just had a lot of time alone in my cell to think and still missing chunks of my memory, even the most boring topics were enough to keep me entertained during those long sleepless nights.

The Buckner Building in Whittier, Alaska
The Buckner Building in Whittier, Alaska
Photography by Mary Farnstrom

After one such night, a metal hatch opened in the door of my cement cell, and I sat up in my cot. A smell wafted in, it was an odor that fell rancid upon my tongue and it caused my stomach to twist. I wasn’t used to this kind of hunger anymore, but being met with the smell of what I used to know as food was enough to make me nauseous. The tray was sparse, just powdered eggs, tomato soup, and no appetite for any of this; I could only assume they were still working with the supplies they could scavenge, but I wasn’t privy to the way things worked just yet. 

“When am I going to be let out of here?” I asked the man wearing protective gear on the other side of the cell door, but I got no response. “Please,” my voice was hoarse, my throat was still raw from the guttural language of ravenous growls and screams that had abused my vocal cords over the last year. Standing up was still a chore, but I blamed that largely on the black and purple swollen mass that used to look like my right foot.

The doctor had told me that it was healing, but it was still immensely painful so I would have to take their word on that. I was one of the lucky ones who hadn’t sustained many injuries. Other than the initial bite that turned me, I was intact, but through the course of traveling with a roaming horde of other revenants, I must have had a bad fall. I hobbled over to the tray of what my brain recognized as food, while my body’s reaction to it argued that it was anything but. “Is there anything else to eat, this smells rotten…” 

“I assure you it’s fresh,” the mousy whisper of the male voice inside the suit infuriated me, “but I heard them say your trial group will be out next week.” I found myself wondering how a meek young man had made it through an apocalypse unscathed when I hadn’t. Maybe he had been here all along. Whittier itself was a port town that was only accessible by boat or through a single-track train tunnel. If they had been desperate enough they could have collapsed the tunnel, but it had been much more effective to simply barricade the entrance and brave the outside world to hunt and scavenge during the summer months. To be honest they probably went the entire time with hardly a run-in or a disturbance until they began the medical trials here.

I took the tray and he snapped the hatch back up so quickly that it startled me; I ended up splashing the red soup down my white jumpsuit. I watched it trail down my front, the lurid clash as it stained the fresh white fabric brought me back to the present; then, a pang of hunger electrified my body. It reminded me of blood, one of the only pleasurable things I could remember in that vast nothingness and aggression that I had been lost in, but then I knew that my hunger being aroused by the thought of blood wasn’t exactly a normal thing. Their cure had restored my logical brain, the one that reminded me I was human, that gave me control over my body, and allowed me to make more than just knee-jerk choices. It had begun the process of healing that was much needed after what the last year of rot and walking death had brought upon my body. Surely if I had been found any later, I would have been amongst those who could not be brought back.

I hear a scream from down the way, it was followed by the sound of footsteps running down the hall and more yelling. I pressed my face against the bars to try to get a glimpse of what was happening. There was a blood curdling, inhuman screech and the commotion just became louder. I heard someone yell, “just shoot her!” and that’s when the gunshots rang through the jail. After that, I heard the head doctor curse loudly, something about what a waste of fucking time. Ten minutes later, they were dragging a body bag past my cell—another incident happened a couple of days later.  It was worrisome, to say the least, they had been here longer than I had. If they were reverting, what did that mean for me?

I only knew as much as I could pull from my brief interactions with the people bringing my meals and the medical staff that came with my daily injection; some of them had hardened severe expressions, but most seemed nervous or frightened that at any moment I might be another failed experiment. The constant feeling of being observed was unsettling, like being stalked on a dark street with predatory anticipation. We were experiments, now—lab rats that could communicate—living only to satisfy their need to control an uncontrollable pandemic that had reduced the world population to just an eighth of what it had been.

The diseased walked freely in more than doubled the numbers of the uninfected. It was easy to see why they approached with such trepidation, but feeling as if I were a rabid dog that would no doubt bite their hand was at best dehumanizing. Falling asleep was getting progressively more difficult as I got closer to having my condition “contained.” That night was no exception, the only difference was that the nightmares started sooner, but I was starting to believe they were memories.


Another week went by of feeling the cool indifference of those who were treating me—it was the day before I was going to be released into a controlled population where I would be observed for my interactions with the uninfected. The discharge process was a five-hour lecture on how I needed to complete my daily outpatient treatments for the following month. The clock on the wall ticked each second by languidly with each new presenter. Considering it had been almost two years since I had last had a joy, I didn’t expect it would be too difficult for me to adhere to their demands to keep the uninfected safe.

Then again, with the whole state of the world still being without much of the former technological triumphs, finding people was more of a chore than finding a cure for the rising dead. In the end, I resolved to keep up my end of the bargain and walk back to the clinic from the rehab facility to get my daily treatments. I was finally allowed to go outside into the fenced yard where I was able to see the other people in the trial treatment with me; according to their limited research, it was not possible to get reinfected, so they weren’t exactly worried about us. I sat in the yard in the shade of a large birch tree that day when a girl a bit younger than myself sat down next to me.

“Did they find your family?” Her voice sounded as ragged as my own, I shook my head and examined the dandelion fluff that I had plucked out of the grass at my side. There was a moment of clarity as I stared at the dandelion, I remembered sitting in an overgrown field during the summer as a child, making wishes and blowing the fluff into the wind. “I’m Elle.” The woman offered her hand to me and I didn’t recognize the urge to shake it, it felt like an alien tradition that was lost to me now.

“Um—Molly,” it didn’t feel like my name either. “Why didn’t they let us out here until today? Aren’t we getting released tomorrow?”

“Yeah, but only because they have to make room for the next batch of… well,” Elle gestured broadly to everyone in the gated yard, “what we used to be. What we still could be…”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I’m not sure, I’ve heard other patients talking about something they call ‘the reversion’ but as far as I know, it’s just a rumor.” Her shoulders rose to her ears and the uncertainty in her voice was clear, “apparently some of the others they thought they cured, the treatments just… didn’t stick.

Oh is that all? No big deal, I guess.


The next day we were woken up early and there was such strange anxiety when they handed me clean street clothes and directions to the rehab house I would be staying in. The sunlight was exceptionally warm on my cold skin and burned my eyes as I stepped out of the lobby of the old fortress. The fresh air was a nice reprieve from the stale, sterile air they had managed to maintain within the makeshift labs. I shielded my eyes and glanced either way down the street; the pavement was devastated, broken, and overgrown. There seemed to be people living across from the Buckner Building when I finally walked out of the front. I turned and saw that the Buckner Building was similarly crumbled—so it was just the inside that they had improved. There were only a few signs of life on the streets outside it was an eerie sort of isolation that left me feeling as if the world were ending all over again.

Photography by Specna Arms
Photography by Specna Arms

I found myself wondering if Elle was going to be at the same facility as I was, it had been so long since I had seen a friendly face and she was the first person to talk to me like a human being since… I don’t know, I didn’t have any sense of time anymore. There were several people outside tending to a community garden as I turned a corner. They all stopped working when they saw me limping by them, I’m sure I was a sight to see—a pale, hobbling former dead girl, walking among them, reborn back into this shit show. I just kept my eyes on the ground in front of me, before I knew it was I standing in front of the house where I was going to be staying.

That’s when the screaming started. It instantly made my blood run cold. Glass shattered in the alley just around the side of the house which caused me to take a couple of steps back. Then suddenly my face met the pavement as I was knocked violently to the ground by the people who had been tending the garden. They had their guns raised and ready as they dashed toward the sounds of struggle, I rolled, dazed, and watched as this large man tore a woman apart in the alleyway—her screams were enough to draw a small crowd of people on the street behind me. Where the hell did they all come from?

One—Two—Three—and a head-shot for good measure. The people behind me were murmuring amongst themselves, “I thought they were cured!” I pushed myself up from the pavement onto my knees and watched the rest of the scene play out, “what if they all change back?”

There were no second chances here.

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Featured Lifestyle Scary Movies and Series

Night of the Living Dead: Social Commentary in Horror Cinema

Night of the Living Dead (1968) was hardly the first zombie film—in fact, it was the fortieth, for those of you who like useless trivia facts—but it is possibly the most memorable of the older zombie classics. It’s not hard to see why it has persisted for the last fifty-three years, enduring beyond the renown of such modern zombie sensations, such as The Walking Dead (2010 – Present) and Train to Busan/Busanhaeng (2016). What most modern films and television shows of the horror genre seem to gloss over is their captive audience. Therein lies the opportunity for commentary on the civil rights issues that are still incredibly relevant in the present day.

One notable exception to missed opportunities for commentary being Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017)—but we can get to that one later. For now, we’ll just focus on the message of Night of the Living Dead. As Tom Gunning explained in his essay, “confrontation rules the cinema of attractions in both the form of its films and their mode of exhibition. The directness of this act of display allows an emphasis on the thrill itself—the immediate reaction of the viewer,” (“An Aesthetic of Astonishment”, 122)—this thrill that we get from controversial messages and images on display within films is one of the main reasons we watch horror. Excitement is king.

They’re coming to get you, Barbara!

Johnny in Night of the Living Dead (1968)
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A line of undead ‘zombies’ walk through a field in the night

What is Night of the Living Dead about?

At face value, this movie is just a story about survivors of a zombie apocalypse stumbling upon one another, clashing personalities, and finally a begrudging combining of forces to fend off the zombie hoard that surrounds the farmhouse that they each found and decided to hunker down in for safety. One by one, these survivors each ends up dying, until we see the last man standing—Ben, emerged cautiously from his secure space in the cellar of the farmhouse to find that police and other volunteers were roaming around, killing the zombies, and reclaiming their land for the safety of the living.

Unfortunately for Ben, these rescuers are less focused on finding survivors and more focused on mindlessly putting down anything they find that moves. While that might simply be interpreted as bad luck for our main character, Romero’s decision for this ending was actually fairly controversial considering the time in which it had been created. Now you might be asking yourself, where does the conversation of civil rights factor into this? Well, buckle up, buttercup—we’re just getting started.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) Movie Poster
Night of the Living Dead (1968) Movie Poster

Controversial Social Commentary

“Curiositas draws the viewer towards unbeautiful sights, such as a mangled corpse, and ‘because of this disease of curiosity monsters and anything out of the ordinary are put on show in our theatres,’” (Gunning, 124). Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) gives us these “unbeautiful sights” in spades. Consider the special effects that were available to directors at that time—the glimpses of a woman with her face eaten off at the top of the stairs and zombies ripping flesh off of bones after an unfortunate accidental explosion of the getaway vehicle were the literal encapsulation of this concept. The intangible concepts within this film are the reflections of society and how little progress has been made since 1968.

Ben giving Barbara slippers in Night of the Living Dead
Ben giving Barbara slippers

Freud pinpoints the appeal of the horror story. He begins by discussing the etymological root of the word “uncanny” in German, a word long associated with the horror genre, demonstrating how both the word and its opposite are very close in definition and usage… ‘it may be true that the uncanny [unheimlich] is something which is secretly familiar [heimlich-heimlisch], which has undergone repression and returned from it, and that everything is uncanny fulfills this condition.’ … Freud … hit upon the key to understanding the core of the horror genre. Horror is dissimilar from much of [the] science fiction genre in which the threatening ‘monster’ (often created because of the interference of science or technology)—whether it be alien, atomic mutant, or cyborg—is portrayed as the Other which must be destroyed or controlled by science, often in conjunction with the military/industrial complex, in order to save humanity. Horror tends rather to concentrate on another type of ‘Other,’ an ‘Other’ which is very familiar and because of that much more frightening, an ‘Other’ which is rooted in our psyche, in our fears and obsessions.

James Ursini, pg. 4 of the Introduction in The Horror Film Reader

The Civil Rights Movement

From 1954 to 1968 the Civil Rights Movement empowered Black Americans and their like-minded allies. They battled against systemic racism (or institutionalized racial discrimination), disenfranchisement, and racial segregation within the United States. The brave efforts of civil rights activists and innumerable protesters brought meaningful change to the US, through changes in legislation; these changes ended segregation, voter suppression for Black Americans, as well as discriminatory employment and housing practices.

The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

There were tragic consequences for two of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. With the assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, and the subsequent assassination of Civil Rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Each of these losses to the movements provoked an emotionally-charged response; looting and riots put even more pressure on President Johnson to push through civil rights laws that still sat undecided.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968

The Fair Housing Act became law on April 11, 1968. It came just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; too little too late, but it prevented housing discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, and religion. It was also the last piece of legislation that was made into law during the civil rights era.

Casting a Black Actor in a Non-Ethnic Role

The way the lead character Ben was written originally with Rudy Ricci. Surprisingly, however, when 31-year-old African American actor Duane Jones auditioned for the part, the decision to cast him was unanimous. Even Rudy Ricci was on board with the change in plans, stating that, “Hey, this [was] the guy that should be Ben.”

Duane Jones—the Anti-Ben

Romero recalled that Jones had been the best option when it came to casting the part of Ben, and remarked that, “if there was a film with a black actor in it, it usually had a racial theme.” He even saw fit to mention that he resisted writing new dialogue for the part just because they had cast a black lead. It was assumed that Jones was the first black actor to be cast in a non-ethnic-specific starring role, but that barrier was broken by Sidney Poitier in 1965.

Interestingly enough, the role of Ben was supposed to be a gruff, crude, yet resourceful trucker. His essence was that of an uneducated or lower class person. On the other hand, Jones happened to be very well-educated, with fluency in several languages, obtained a B.A. at the University of Pittsburgh, and an M.A. at NYU. Jones was the one who flipped the script, improvising through the dialogue to portray his interpretation of Ben as a well-spoken, educated, and capable character. Therefore, as originally written, white Ben was a stereotype whereas Jones turned the character into the antithesis of a stereotypical black ben.

So why was Night of the Living Dead so controversial?

Even though Ben is the protagonist, he was never meant to be the hero—in fact, Ben was supposed to represent just an everyday Joe, who “simply reacted to an irrational situation with strong survival instincts and a competence that, though far from infallible, surpassed that of his five adult companions trapped in that zombie-besieged farmhouse,” (Kane). What we would expect in terms of racially heated arguments, we only witness the palpable tension that displays what goes unsaid. What also may not occur to modern viewers as being controversial, is the portrayal of a black man and a white woman being locked up alone in a house together. Segregation may have begun over a decade prior, but racism doesn’t die overnight just because laws are changed.

The “Final Guy”

The tragic ending of Night of the Living Dead was a commentary on real injustices that were happening at the time, as well as a foreshadowing of an issue that has doggedly limped into the systemic racism of the twenty-first century. The world was facing its end of days. The threat of the undead rising from their graves and feeding off of the living was enough to pull everyone together to stay alive—but racism was still alive and well. Unlike most of his African-American male successors of horror, Ben does not fall victim to the black character stereotype by being the first character to die. Ben makes it to the end—the so-called “final” guy—he was able to save himself when the house was overrun by the living dead. Then, after all of his hardship, he ends up dying at the hands of the gun-toting police officers.

Ben was wielding a gun, he was clearly not a revenant, and the sharpshooter who put one between Ben’s eyes could very obviously see this—his death affected not a soul in that situation, his life in plain language was unworthy of continuing in the eyes of the men who were supposed to serve and protect the living, who instead of seeing a human being, perceived a threat. The ending that Romero’s film allowed to linger in the minds of the audience was controversial because it made people think. It made them look at the social and political issues that were washing over the United States all around them; Romero delivered in that two minutes ending, a message that was unforgettable. It has thusly endured through the culture of horror and has continued to inspire modern horror cinema.

Final Thoughts

If classical Hollywood style is posited as the norm, then filmmaking practices that deviate from it risk becoming seen as “primitive” (such as early cinema) or “excessive” (such as genres where spectacle often seems to trump narrative, including musicals and horror films).

Adam Lowenstein, “Living Dead: Fearful Attractions of Film”

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Interested in watching the full film now that you’ve read this article? Well, you’re in luck—this film is now in the public domain and can be watched online for free.

Work Cited

Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator.” Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, by Linda Williams, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1995, pp. 114–133.

Lowenstein, Adam. “Living Dead: Fearful Attractions of Film.” Representations, vol. 110, no. 1, 2010, pp. 105–128. JSTOR. Accessed 19 Jan. 2021.

Kane, Joe. “How Casting a Black Actor Changed ‘Night of the Living Dead’.” TheWrap, 1 Sept. 2010.

Harper, Stephen. “Bright Lights Film Journal: Night of the Living Dead.” Bright Lights Film Journal | Night of the Living Dead.

Ursini, James, and Curtis Harrington. “Introduction/Ghoulies and Ghosties.” The Horror Film Reader, by Alain Silver, Limelight Ed., 2006, pp. 3–19.

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Featured Horror Books Horror Mystery and Lore Women in Horror

The Morbid Feminist Voice Behind the First Sci-Fi and Dystopian Apocalyptic Horror Novels

Mary Shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Why on earth would a delicate woman of your stature write about such awful, disturbing, and blasphemous things?

As the daughter of the brilliant feminist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin as the reformist writer and philosopher William Godwin, Shelley is famously noted for her 1831 introduction to a reprint of Frankenstein. Her explanation that, “it is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing…” shows exactly how significant they were to her self-image.

The Liberating Feminine Voice of Horror

It is genuinely not surprising that the daughter of the renowned mother of the modern feminist movement was a feminist herself. Mary Shelley’s life reflected by the inspiration she took from her mother’s radically forward-thinking when it came to equality on the basis of sex. Her mother’s best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, lived on through Shelley’s own lifestyle and unstoppable life-force, but how did that translate into her own voice as an author? There is a lot of dialog between scholars as far as interpretations of her motivations behind the wonderfully disturbing work she created in her lifetime. Some suggest that Frankenstein is a horror story of maternity as much as it is about the perils of intellectual hubris.

From the time that Mary ran away with Percy Shelley all through the time she spent writing Frankenstein, Mary was going through maternal horror of her own—she was ceaselessly pregnant, confined, nursing, and then watching her first three children die at young ages. It doesn’t help matters that Shelley’s life was haunted by the fact that her mother died only ten days after Mary was born. Truth be told though, it was unsanitary practices by the attending physician, Dr. Poignand, and not through any fault of Shelley’s. It was Puerperal Fever, caused by doctors moving directly from autopsies to births without any means of sanitation, that took Shelley’s mother from her.

The tragedy of her mother’s death so early on in her life influenced Shelley greatly and losing three of her own children just compounded upon her morbidity. She used this mindset to her advantage though and translated her message of what it felt like to be born without a right to history—for, “what is woman but man without a history…” as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar stated in The Madwoman in the Attic. We can see Mary Shelley in Frankenstein’s monster, as a creature born without a history, or at least without an unalterable or supported history. Both Shelley and Frankenstein’s creation shared the feeling of being born without a soul, “as a thing, an other, a creature of the second sex,”—for being a woman in the time that Mary Shelley lived was to be a second-class human being.

A Symbol for Early Equality

Shelley can be considered a symbol for both feminism and equality of sexual orientation; a less discussed topic than anything else of her life, there is evidence that shows that Mary sought the company of women after her husband’s death. This is an important topic to mention, as it is signifies the very secretive intimate history of homosexuality and how big of a part it actually played during the Romantic era.

Life From the Bed of a Grave

Writer Sandra Gilbert insists, that Mary Shelley’s, “only real mother was a tombstone,” but she didn’t mean it figuratively—when Mary was a child, her father brought her to the churchyard where her mother was buried and she would continue to visit on her own after that. This became especially true when her father married their next-door-neighbor Mary Jane Clairmont, a woman who could never replace her own mother and who made Shelley’s home life unbearable. In her earliest years, Shelley used, “reading … [as] an act of resurrection,” due to feeling excluded from her father’s household after his marriage. In a sense, it is said that she “read,” or knew her family then determined her sense of self through her mother and father’s literary works. She would endlessly study her mother’s works during her younger years while sitting at her mother’s graveside.

The burden of this type of childhood was also expressed through Mary’s first work when she included a scene wherein Victor Frankenstein visits the cemetery where his father, brother, and bride were buried before leaving Geneva to search for the monstrosity that he had created. “As night approached, I found myself at the entrance of the cemetery … I entered it and approached the tomb which marked their graves … The spirits of the departed seemed to flit around, and to cast a shadow, which was felt but seen not, around the head of the mourner,” where Victor ultimately calls for revenge against his creation, “O Night, and by the spirits that preside over thee, I swear to pursue the daemon … And I call on you, spirits of the dead; and on the wandering ministers of vengeance, to aid and conduct me in my work.” Godwin passed on his idealization of books being a sort of host for the dead, that to read a book by a departed author would be to know them entirely. Then again, Godwin was also fiercely interested in communicating with the dead, another trait that he passed to his daughter through that fateful visit to her mother’s grave.

[The dead] still have their place, where we may visit them, and where, if we dwell in a composed and a quiet spirit, we shall not fail to be conscious of their presence.

William Godwin, Literary Tourism, And the Work of Necromanticism

Necromantic Preoccupations of Her Father

Like father, like daughter; Shelley picked up her father’s proclivity for intrigue in the dead. Godwin often tried to connect his readers to the dead by encouraging the placement of illustrious graves. In his eyes, such a grave would honor them in their place of rest and give both the deceased and their mourners a way to stay on speaking terms, of sorts. He even expressed his desire to do so himself in quite an illustrated manner, when he said, “[he] would have [the dead] … around [his] path, and around [his] bed, and not allow [himself] to hold a more frequent intercourse with the living, than with the good departed.” He meant this of course as a means of conveying his desire to communicate with the dear ones he had lost in his lifetime and not in a sexual context.

The Morbidity of Her Truest Love

Mary may have strayed from that viewpoint in a way, after she was introduced to an impassioned devotee of her father’s, Percy Shelley. The two spent much of their time together at the grave of Mary’s mother, where her father likely believed they were conversing about their reformist ideals. The truth lay a bit beyond that, however, as it was by her mother’s grave that she lost her virginity and pledged herself at sixteen to a twenty-year-old Percy. While it may seem creepy, to Mary the cemetery was more than just a resting place for the dead, she saw it as a place where all of life converged for her.

Learning all of this about Shelley definitely brings us some clarity on how she possessed the wit and imagination to create two new genres within literature—that of Science-Fiction horror, along with the brilliance of the first Apocalyptic Dystopian styles.

Index of Sources