The theory of Zombies or walking dead may have begun as early as the fourteenth-century. The zombies that most people know and love today have come a long way which we will explain in a later post. Way back in the days of yore the Black Death was spreading through Europe causing massive numbers of deaths. The Black Death was a horrible way to die. Victims that were infected with the disease first noticed large, painful boils erupting all over their body; this was followed by a high fever, vomiting blood, and then severe headaches. Many died within forty-eight hours of noticing the first symptoms. Very few survived a week.
Depending upon the area sometimes half of the population was lost to the plague. Villages became ghost towns and often what little medical knowledge was available did more harm than good. So with all this death sweeping through the population the church and the culture began to try to deal with death and the brevity of life. There were numerous groups that came into existence to combat this disease which they did not understand.
One such group known as the “Doves,” roamed the countryside, torturing themselves with whips made of leather straps and singing hymns in an attempt to appease God, who they thought was enraged at the world. When the plague didn’t stop with the actions they were taking they took to killing Jews, the popular scapegoat of that time. Others who were not as murderous tried leeches, bloodletting, salves, and scary masks to drive the demons away. The most common prescription from the medical experts was to run as far away as possible. Unfortunately, there really wasn’t any place to run that was safe and by the time the plague struck a town, it was too late. Chances are you would actually carry the plague to another village so this cure was of no value.
The plague changed the perspective of the world. For example, before the plague, a fragile skeleton was often used to depict death. Beginning after the plague the image was replaced with pictures like one in Italy of an old woman dressed in black, with hair like snakes, claws for feet, and a scythe clutched in her talons with which she could reap the dead. Every culture revised death from something fairly normal to something far more menacing.
The Black Plague also heightened the notion that the bodies of the dead, which had been removed from the world of the living in an untimely way, became restless, unwilling to make their way to the next world. So the dead loitered around in the world. Another example of the change is before the Plague, there were stories of sinful priests who returned to confess their sins so that they could rest and knights who returned to preach against violence. But after the Black Death the returning dead become a little more scary–giving rise to what became known as the danse macabre.
In the danse macabre imagine a spooky cemetery at night, filled with the restless dead who had their lives taken to quickly by the plague. They rise from their tombs and throw a party unfortunately there are times when unsuspecting victims bump into a collection of these walking dead. They were hideous with their flesh rotting off the bones, entrails hanging out and mouths pulled back in an evil grin, holding hands, skipping and dancing to unearthly music. And if the humans were spotted, then the dead would capture them in a trance, and lead them in a conga-line back to the cemetery, where they did unspeakable things to them, dooming them forever. It is possible that this could have been the beginning of zombies. But the use of the term zombie and the popularity that we have today is actually not that old. We will cover that in our next post.