The zombie is one of the most pervasive images in modern culture at the dawn of the second decade of the 21st century. They are, quite literally everywhere. Shambling down the street, slack jawed and drooling. Their cry of ‘BRAINS! BRAINS!’ echoes from the walls of the urban space. Sometimes as part of a protest, sometimes a part of a surrealistic flash mob. Typically the virus (zombism is closely associated with contagion) is most virulent in the young. Spreading like a necrotising infection through teenagers and, remarkably, able to spread via electronic systems. Facebook seems to be a major vector for the infection, watch those status updates change to the moaned cry ‘BRAINS! BRAINS!’ See as the profile pictures of smiling teens as they are replaced with livid green skinned, sunken eyed horrors of defiled humanity.
Then there is the blood. Whether smeared on a lab-coat or spotting a wedding dress, zombies leak fluid. This is part of the clear evidence not only of living death but of the decay which they exemplify. Whereas the rest of us usually try to keep our body fluids locked away the zombie will, without any shame (hey, they’re dead after all!), gush and drip and besmirch everything in their vicinity. Spittle and nasal mucus are often in evidence, but it’s the blood that gets star billing.
University departments and even local authorities draw up slightly tongue-in-cheek plans for what to do in the event of zombie attack. Certain times of the year see more outbreaks than others. Summer in Britain brings various zombie parades and gatherings to many urban areas. But of course the infection is at its worst as the weather changes, autumn comes, and the season of Halloween begins.
Zombies over the Rainbow
One of the most fascinating stories about zombies is told by the Canadian anthropologist, ethnobotanist, author and photographer Wade Davis. Author of a number of excellent books his 1985 best seller ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ recounts his explorations of the Haitian zombie phenomena. Davis suggests that zombies are created in part by the use of tetrodotoxin, the pharmacologically active agent found in the body of the puffer fish. Tetrodotoxin or TTX can produces sialorrhea (excessive production of saliva), sweating, headache, weakness, lethargy, incoordination, tremor, paralysis, cyanosis (skin turning blue), aphonia (inability to speak), seizures, dyspnea (shortness of breath), coughing, and dizziness. A dramatic drop in respiratory rate may occur, in some cases leading to coma and death. There is no known antidote.
Although tetrodotoxin is found in several aquatic animals is most famously present in puffer fish used to produce fugu, the potentially deadly Japanese delicacy. The toxin is actually produced by a
symbiotic bacteria which lives in these animals. Of course when fugu is prepared the skill of the chef is to remove those areas in which the level of TTX is dangerous but not to remove it all. It is the buzz, which very low levels of TTX induce, that makes this dangerous cuisine so appealing. In fact it’s debatable whether one should consider fugu as an exotic fried fish supper or a powerful
Another potentially terrifying effect of TTX is that it does not cross the blood–brain barrier, leaving the victim fully conscious while paralysing the muscles. According to Wade Davis it is this effect that is used to make people appear to be dead. After being buried, immobilised but still fully conscious, the victim is dug up from their grave by the Haitian sorcerer. The psychological trauma of the event, perpetuated by putting the hapless victim on a madness-maintaining regular dose of datura, continues this living death. Occasionally zombies turn up again in villages, sometimes months or even years after they have been buried. Some people of course escape their pharmacological prison, but those who are glimpsed while still in the full thrall of their new master would certainly appear ‘undead’.
Why the outbreak of zombies now in the second decade of the 21st century? Perhaps it is an acting out of our fear of epidemics, of diseases which these days can get on-board aircraft and be half way round the world before you can say ‘historically-overdue-mass-influenza epidemic’. Then there is the fear of the brainless mass of humanity. All those people you see but don’t know who crowd onto trains and buses and, it would seem, mindlessly pilot their automobiles around the city, day in, day out. Are they really sentient humans or Matrix-like illusions? Derridan zombies, like people, only not really people. As the population on earth breaches 7,000,000,000 these shambling hunks of meat seem to swarm everywhere.
Our cultural estrangement from the physical fact of death could be some of it. Most of us hardly get to see dead bodies these days, even the animal bodies for our food come surgically sliced and transmogrified into ‘nuggets’ and ‘mince’. Dead loved ones are spirited away in the night in thick impenetrable body bags and the next time we ‘see’ them it’s usually shut inside a box. As the celebrant pushes the big green button the opaque casket glides out of the room and those little curtains shut. No sign of bodies burning, no sound from the whirring cremulator, no metallic clanking as the metal of replacement hips is recovered from the still warm ash.
Rather than desiccated, disinfected ashes the zombies remind us of the visceral nature of death. All that discharge and goo, the moaning and the pain, not just of death itself but of the gradual debilitation that we imagine from ageing and illness. Zombies are sickness writ large. Finally we could consider the fact that those people who are now in the ‘teens and twenties are children of a generation many of whom may have encountered rave, and more generally modern drug culture. Perhaps in the minds of those zombified kids are half-remembered images of Mum battered out of her head on pills, arriving back from the club while they were sitting with the babysitter watching TV? Or could it have been that time you saw Dad, when he was the worse for a night on the tiles and a morning on the special K?
It was bonfire night and we’re meeting in a fabulous esoteric art gallery not far from the white and red springs in Glastonbury. Given our location it was inevitable that we’d have to perform a ritual that required climbing the Tor and so the Zombie Apocalypse was created. Once again the technique being used was that of embodying that which one wishes to change, and undergoing a ritualised transformation towards what one hopes to achieve. The methodology was intended to work at both a personal and collective level. Devised by Soror Res and myself this would be a ritual to encourage critical thinking within the New Age movement. And, speaking as magicians meeting in Glastonbury, this enchantment of critical thinking should apply equally to us as to what I might consider the laughable mystical woo-woo pedalled the some of the magic shops on Glastonbury’s High Street.
So the rubric for the ceremony was simple. We’d dress up as zombies and walk into the heart of the New Age, Glastonbury Tor which, as I’m sure you know, is considered by many people to be the heart charkra of Gaia. Searching in our crippled zombie fashion for ‘BRAINS!’, we would ascend the Tor and, at the top, destroy a copy of an influential contemporary new age book. Once this was completed we magickally find our brains and would return, down the Tor, having erudite and intellectually rigorous conversations. We’d transform the mindless new age zombie into an actively intelligent human.
The text that we planned to destroy was one that Soror Res had, manfully, read from cover to cover. It was one of those books that ranged across shamanism, psychedelic experience, UFO abductions and the like and, while it had many good points, had fallen in her view at the final hurdle. Rather than see the phenomena it documented as being perhaps many manifestations arising from a shared human physiology of altered states of consciousness, the author had been marshalling their evidence to provide the evidential glue to stick together an otherwise insubstantial theory. This theory was that millennia ago aliens had arrived on earth and engineered our DNA, leaving a method for getting in touch with them, outside space and time, encoded in our biology.
Now there are several problems with this theory. I’m sure that you, gentle reader, are quite aware of many of them without the need for me to disentangle the story, or cut things up with Occam’s razor on your behalf. But beyond the view that the theory simply doesn’t hold together is a broader point about the new age movement. We must be able to entertain ideas in our lives to ask ‘what if…?’ and to play with possibilities, even ones that may seem far-fetched. The history of human innovation demonstrates that, if we become blinkered into one way of thinking, we may miss out on many wonderful things. But, as they say, if you open your mind too much your brain will fall out. We need our critical abilities, our ability to dissect arguments and when we present theories we need to honestly engage with ideas like proof, truth, evidence and falsifiability. If, for instance, you want to ‘literally’ suggest that physical aliens came to earth thousands of years ago to hide their brand name in the genetic sequence of early humans, you better have some pretty good positive evidence (rather than circumstantial stuff which is open to a range of much more probable explanations). There is nothing wrong with this reading of events as metaphor. Certainly one might convincingly argue (as Terence McKenna does in Food of the Gods) that psychedelic experience accelerated the development of culture in the human species. But literal space ships coming through space, while logically possible, is more likely to be the result of a series of a priori assumptions than a sound assessment of the data. Erich von Daniken’s suggestion that the Nazca lines were landing markers for alien visitors, because of their apparent similarity modern landing strips for aircraft, comes to mind. Apart from anything else when did you last see a flying saucer than needed a runway?
This kind of literalism, in my view, demonstrates a lack of intellectual subtly and a failure to see beyond the surface of things. Sure when you take a hit of DMT you might meet aliens who seem utterly real and tell you they have been doing a mash-up edit of your DNA code since way before Lascaux. However just because something as impressive as a DMT elf tells you this doesn’t make it true. By all means explore the idea but please leave it open to question, reinterpretation and indeed abandonment. I’m reminded an account by Michael Harner of what happened after one his first ayahuasca visions:
“I was now eager to solicit a professional opinion from the most supernaturally knowledgeable of the Indians, a blind shaman who had made many excursions into the spirit world with the aid of the ayahuasca drink. lt seemed only proper that a blind man might be able to be my guide to the world of darkness. I went to his hut, taking my notebook with me, and described my visions to him segment by segment. At first I told him only the highlights; thus, when I came to the dragon-like creatures, I skipped their arrival from space and only said, “There were these giant black animals, something like great bats, longer than the length of this house, who said that they were the true masters of the world.” There is no word for dragon in Conibo, so “giant bat” was the closest I could come to describe what I had seen.
He stared up toward me with his sightless eyes, and said with a grin, “Oh, they’re always saying that. But they are only the Masters of Outer Darkness.”
The moral of this story is that, of course, the spirits can and do lie!
The Hills are Undead with the sound of Zombies
Shambling through the bonfire night air there is a motley crocodile of zombies. Careering into lamp-posts, drooling, moaning again and again ‘BRAINS!’ We are led by a Brother who is wearing a high viability jacket of florescent yellow and bearing in large letters the word ‘Wizard’. He leads the procession and, with video camera in hand, is our guide, alibi (we’re doing a film for YouTube), and ritual recorder or scribe. He also clutches a copy of the book which is destined for destruction and this is the strange zombie-attractor that leads us up the hill.
We ascend, some faster than others. There is much falling over and dragging of limbs. The sacramental nature of the ritual also makes the climb a formidable challenge for some of our party.
After the steep initial ascent we arrive at the gradually inclining path, sloping gently up towards St.Michaels tower which crowns the summit of the Tor. There are sheep grazing on the grass slopes but our cries of ‘BRAINS!’ are only mildly disturbing to them. After all these are Glastonbury sheep and have probably seem a fair number of odd goings on in their time.
Arriving at the top zombies begin to bounce off the walls, getting stuck and flailing like failing automata in the doorways to the tower. As more of us arrive the flickering torches reveal a space full of what appear to be horribly injured, profoundly disabled people. Limbs twitch, mouths gape and eyes roll empty and vacant upwards.
The book is produced and crying ‘BRAINS! BRAINS! BRAINS!’ We fall upon it, ripping it and screwing up the pages. (These fragments are scrupulously collected for responsible disposal after the ritual.)
Soror Res picks up a ripped page and begins to read. It’s an observation on the analysis of the ayahuasca experience by a noted researcher in the field. She reads it and begins to contradict what it says. I chime in the fact that I’ve met the researcher in question and that the book is clearly misrepresenting his views. All around drooling idiots have been replaced by brains that are razor sharp engines of analysis and questioning.
Fireworks are lit and the Tor bursts into multi-coloured light. Our cohort are standing normally again, chatting and talking to the small number of locals that are sat on the slopes of the Tor that evening.The mindless zombies are banished.
It was about three months later I chanced on a Youtube video showing the author of the volume we’d destroyed in conversation with some aficionados from the current psychedelic scene. From what he said it seem to suggest that our ritual had been a success since he’d developed a more critical (or perhaps open) position on the meaning of the DMT experience. I’d also been attacking my own a priori assumption that magick works by reading The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer. As a result I’ve made a few significant re-considerations of my thoughts about the meaning, social role and effectiveness of magick. Which, in a paradoxical way, demonstrates to me that magick does indeed, sometimes, work.