About a year and a half ago I attended UnCon, a convention in London held by the ‘offbeat’ (read: occult) magazine, the Fortean Times. There were people wearing tin-foil hats, and multiple presentations on searches for famous cryptids (creatures whose existence is rumoured but not confirmed – they almost found them, they swear). A couple months ago, a professor of mine (an ordained minister/spitfire) asked me why there were so many zombie shows on television, and why the next big movie was Warm Bodies, the zombie movie filmed partially on the McGill campus.
Believing in ghosts, zombies, and your friendly neighbourhood monster is backward, isn’t it? Stories of Bigfoot, the Yeti, the Chupacabra, hauntings, spirit possessions, and séances – all are shams, the tools of charlatans and con-artists, traps set for unsuspecting marks or the mentally weak. We know enough about the world that these supernatural phenomena are improbable to the point of completely impossible, and it’s conspiracy theory to entertain seriously the idea that they might exist. Just like the markings on medieval maps “Here be Dragons,” we have explored and claimed enough of our planet to be able to debunk factual aberrations of this scale. We may find a new snail in the Amazon, but a nine-foot bipedal mammal wandering around in Oregon? No dice.
I think that it’s generally a bad idea to assume that cultural phenomena catch on because people are stupid, or are easy marks. The people at this conference were not all frizzy-haired basement dwellers throwing their money at spirit mediums. There were some academics, notably one man presenting his currently-quite-popular book The Psychopath Test, in which he concludes that many corporate CEOs have psychological profiles exhibiting psychopathic tendencies. Also notable was a medievalist presenting illuminated drawings of Blemmyae – monsters with no heads and their faces on their bodies. Presenters considered their work to be a concerted rejection of a body of scientific and cultural beliefs, and an effort to explore their limits. As one Yeti hunter put it in his presentation, “the rule is that you search for the unknown. It doesn’t say, ‘only if you find something.’”
The first part of this rule is second nature to any scientist who has ever dissolved into rapturous visions of discovering a cure for cancer, or a new element. The second part often gets ignored. Isn’t our acquisition of knowledge, our search for the absolute truth of the universe, moving toward a definite goal? Aren’t we all Stephen Hawking, trying in our own small way to find the simplest most elegant Theory of Everything? You have to find something to justify the search. There must be some determinate ground upon which to stand, or at least to hope to stand upon.
Erwin Schrödinger’s famous cat in the box thought experiment illustrates the principle of uncertainty, that there are some things we can never know, and that there is a necessary limitation on our physical knowledge. Since we cannot observe it, and cannot collapse the wave of probability to one particular state of being, we must consider the cat in the box to be both alive and dead (though as author Neil Gaiman points out, if no one opens the box to feed it, it will be two kinds of dead). Uncertainty and indeterminacy seem built into our physical and intellectual universes, but still with limits. No ghosts! No dragons! Absolutely no Yetis!
I am not saying that the Chupacabra is roaming St. Urbain, waiting for us to sacrifice some goats (the panic in Mexico in the 1990s was probably caused by a roaming herd of coyotes with mange). What I am saying is that this obsession with liminality, the indeterminate, uncertain, and cloudy areas of possibility is not constricted to the academic enterprise. A man in the audience with a truly prolific white beard at the UnCon responded to a presentation on canaries and voices of the dead, “We are practiced Forteans, and we are able to live with uncertainty.” U3 Philosophy majors at McGill are not the only ones who have realized the character of the universe.
So why are there shows about zombies? Are they fodder for the degenerates of the world to craft their voodoo beliefs, and ironic pleasures for the enlightened? Or is there something about a zombie, a creature not-alive-nor-dead, something that subverts our expectations of the very nature of ‘creature’ and of ‘entity’. I recently read a Jacques Derrida comic book (I refuse to read his notoriously confusing actual writings, as I presently wish to retain my will to live) that uses zombies to express the horror of indeterminacy. They poison systems of order, and must be removed, but you cannot kill the undead, you cannot eliminate the elusive. Zombie movies generally rely on magic, or some sort of superior power, which will come in and reverse the living-dead phenomenon, making the zombie either a dead corpse or a living being. Without this superpower, zombies are still an active and present threat.
Warm Bodies will show zombies roaming the McGill campus, but don’t we already have our own non-fictional zombies roaming our intellectual landscapes? Indeterminacy is threatening, and so we attempt to put limits even on the limitless. We are comfortable with a supple, subtle, and probabilistic physical and philosophical universe driven by embracing indeterminacy as the condition for the possibility of possibility itself, but we draw the line at biology. Or do we?
Archiving the Arcane is a column about religion and myth in the modern world. Elena can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.