Are Zombies Actually Scary Or Are They Just Misunderstood?

Photo: Erica Parise/Netflix.
The Santa Clarita Diet premieres on Netflix tomorrow, and if its trailer is any indication, Drew Barrymore stars as the perkiest zombie to ever grace the small screen. Her undead origins have yet to be revealed, but we know for sure that she lacks a pulse, eats raw (preferably human) meat, and yearns to keep her regular, suburban life afloat, despite these urges. But how does Barrymore's flesh-eater-next-door fit into the larger zombie ecosystem?

It's thought that the word "zombie" stems from the Kongo word for "soul," but the zombie as an entity crystalized in the 17th and 18th centuries among Haitian slaves.

According to Voodoo folklore, a natural death was a way to escape the brutality and subjugation endured in Haiti. It was believed that such a death would send one's soul back to West Africa to truly rest in peace.

However, suicide, which wasn't uncommon among slaves in the region, meant incurring a Voodoo curse that would turn one into a zombie. Those who took their own lives were said to have confined their bodies and souls to Haiti, not quite dead but certainly not alive, left to wander in captivity for eternity.

The original zombies didn't eat brains, try to infect other people, or run really fast. They were simply unfeeling souls trapped in undead bodies. Sure, that's pretty scary, but it's mostly sad.

Since then, American pop culture has appropriated the zombie mythos into a whitewashed horror trope — one that strips the zombie of any perceived humanity. Instead, zombies have become just really scary. They speak to our anxieties about war, widespread epidemics, and, perhaps most chillingly, the threat of violence that our fellow humans — the people who we see every day — may pose to us.

These are valid fears, but they put the zombie squarely in the role of the villain. We're told to fear falling prey to the zombie, rather than dwell on the zombie's own plight.

The Santa Clarita Diet isn't the first TV show or movie in which zombies have been played for laughs, but it's one of the few that asks us to sympathize with them. Barrymore's character, Sheila, wants her normal life to continue, even though she now craves human flesh. It's a far cry from the zombies of Haitian lore, but it appears to be an attempt to humanize the zombie once again.

There are plenty of monsters out there to fear. This just might be the timely reminder we need to stop fearing our fellow man (undead or not), and instead seek to find empathy and understanding.
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