Zombie Liminality from a Fantasy Dick Author
Chris is an eclectic type of guy and has written a pretty neat debut novel, Dick Richards, Private Eye . As you may have guessed Dick is about a….Dick. A gumshoe, a flat-foot, a PI. The twist here is that the universe Dick populates is not 1940s Chicago or Hollywoodland, but somewhere much more magical.
Chris and I are doing guest posts on each other’s writing blogs and he had put together the following on Zombies as liminal characters. Pretty deep stuff but very interesting. :
Zombies, ghouls, revenants, vampires–the undead. They’ve been used as metaphors for consumerism, tools of philosophical inquiry and on occasion sparkle. But for all that, the idea of undead–beings who stalk the boundaries between life and death, devouring those unlucky enough to cross paths–is old, and these creatures are as much mythology as tales of Greek or Norse gods.
As mythological figures, they’re more than simply terrors which bump in the night. They’re archetypes : expressions of the murky depths of the human psyche and clues to what people are and can become. There’s the brave hero, the wise elder, the arrogant villain, wisecracking sidekick, forgiving priest…and the undead.
In anthropology, there’s an idea of liminality, characterized by Arnold van Gennep and further explored by Victor Turner. Basically, in tribal societies, there are three parts of rites of passage:
- Separation, where people are stripped of their social status and secluded
- Liminality, or the liminal period, where people are in a fuzzy in-between state while they learn about their new role
- Reassimilation, where people are brought back into society in their new functions
For example, for boys about to become men, they may be mock kidnapped and taken to a sacred place where, for all intents and purposes, they don’t exist. They’re no one and nothing. Who they used to be is now gone forever. That’s separation.
Then in the sacred place, during the liminal period, together with others about to become men, they learn the rights and responsibilities of manhood, how they’ll need to live from now on. What they can expect from others and what’s expected of them.
Finally, having learned what they need to learn, they’re brought back into society as their new selves. Men, not boys. Sometimes they’ll even get new names.
And it’s not just for boys becoming men. Any big change in life can be accompanied by a rite of passage, and the echoes still exist in U.S. society. The pomp and circumstance surrounding graduation. Retirement parties. Military basic training. The endless Hallmark cards commemorating the passage from your 20s to your 30s, 30s to 40s. The 21st birthday bar blitz. They may not be deep ceremonies, but people still feel the need to mark significant transformations in their lives.
The Void Beyond Life and Death
One of the mythological characteristics of the liminal period is that it’s the void between, the place where reality meets dream and each chases the other like a serpent swallowing its own tail. It’s the chaos before creation, dangerous and potent, where anything is possible. And it’s where you have to go to change.
But what does this have to do with the undead?
There are two major, irrevocable transitions in every human being’s life: birth and death. There’s no way around either. Mythologically, they’re often taken as two sides of the same coin. Death makes way for new life. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. In the grand drama of existence, they can be seen as parts of the ultimate rite of passage.
Death is the separation, where who you used to be is no more in as absolute a sense as you can get.
Birth is the reassimilation, where someone new is brought back into the world.
But what about the liminal period, the not-darkness between life and death from which everything comes and everything goes? And what happens if you get stuck there?
There are many tales about creatures like this, existing without being real, unable to be fully described, dangerous and with agendas inscrutable to mere humans. H.P. Lovecraft focused on them a lot. I would put undead in the same group, but instead of vast cosmic powers churning blindly, they’re examples of what can happen to humans who, when confronted with the cycle of life and death, decided they want out (vampires). Or something went wrong (zombies).
Life and Death in Mythology
It’s important to remember that in mythology, many times “life” and “death” aren’t literal, scientific life and death. They’re also metaphors, symbols of something larger.
Joseph Campbell once said that “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” That sense of immediacy, of connection, of living versus merely existing–that’s mythological life. Being happy. Being present. Being fulfilled. Being you.
Opposed to that is mythological death. The gray men. People so lost in what they “have” to do that they never find happiness or their true selves. It’s the nightmare of being just a number, tolerated as long as you support The System. It’s the confusion, the fear, wondering if you have it in you at all to bear this.
Mythologically, these two states are connection. Through death, life. In order to learn who you are and be happy (life), you need to pass through a stage of feeling lost and confused and afraid, where you just don’t know (death).
In this view, the undead symbolically represent people who are unwilling or unable to do that.
Vampires and Zombies
Take vampires. While they’ve changed a lot from their original depictions in folklore, that’s what archetypes do. As societies and cultures evolve, their archetypes evolve along with them to match the new world.
One of the common themes is that people have to choose the vampire life, drink the blood of the vampire that drained them, and they typically do so because they’re afraid to die. Translated into mythological terms, rather than letting their old self go and face the confusion involved with finding their new self, they cling to being somebody they no longer are. Keeping up appearances at the cost of happiness, rather than take the plunge into something new.
And what happens? The vampires in modern fiction show our society’s attempt to answer that question. Vampires can turn jaded, feel like nothing’s worthwhile anymore. They’re both disdainful and envious of the mortals around them. They desperately chase the things which make them feel alive, but those same things leave them feeling more hollow than ever. It’s not a particularly good place to be.
And zombies? If vampires are humans who’ve chosen to avoid death, zombies are those who don’t know how to “die.” Who don’t know how to navigate the gray world where nothing makes sense and you don’t even know who you are anymore. If you don’t know how to shed your old self, you can’t become someone new, and that’s also not good.
If you go by the depictions of zombies, that leaves a void inside you, a hunger that, no matter how you feed it–whether you try consumerism, sex, drugs, video games, or anything else–is never satisfied. It’s just feeding and feeding and feeding until you fall apart.
The undead may be vicious, corrupt and even mindless, but the reason they’re so compelling is because in some way they’re dark reflections of ourselves. As archetypes, they’re infinitely complex, much more so than any blog post could fully address, and the ways various writers treat them are part of how society grapples with its dark side.
Not everything human beings can become is good, and some stories are as much warning as they are entertainment.