Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives

Yesterday Warren Ellis made a cool blog post consisting of an image by Dennis Culver: a zombie astronaut, stranded on an asteroid in space, its helmet shattered and its air cord severed, with a bewildered look on its decaying face and uttering a plaintive "Brains?" It's a great story-image for all kinds of reasons. Zombies in space! A zombie antihero trying desperately to get off that rock! A zombie retelling of The Little Prince!

Of course, my warped brain went somewhere else completely first, which was something I'd been grappling with for a while – why do zombies want to eat brains?

(Okay, 'grappling with' is a bit of a stretch. Wondering, then.)

I think zombies are the cultural result of people wondering what happens to their bodies after they die. Scientists will explain in gorey, gooey detail how the body breaks down and decomposes, but for those that believe in a soul that takes the elevator up or down following the big ta-da, there's a kind of worry there. When my spirit leaves my body, what happens? Is that corpse still me? Is my body me, or a vehicle that the real me just uses to get around?

What if zombies seek out brains because of a kind of Phantom Limb Syndrome, because the body somehow remains living but still seeks the part that's been removed – the soul, or mind? Which is, of course, the brain?

Worse, what if spirits suffer from Phantom Everything Syndrome? Can a ghost itch a noncorporeal leg? What if hell is being eternally hungry but unable to eat? What if a medium can't go grocery shopping because every time she walks into the supermarket she's haunted by thousands of hungry spirits, pawing uselessly at the food on the shelves?


I'll take the cheap pop-culture angle here: have you seen the latest episode of "Heroes"? The guy who takes on other people's powers vampire-style seems like the modern update of the zombie story. Personally, I wonder if it's something to do with absorbing identity and power. In some ancient cultures, it was a sign of respect or devotion to consume your loved ones' most important body parts after their demise (presumably they were to valuable to be consumed by carrion-birds etc), in others to eat the organs of your vanquished foes. Perhaps it is a statement about how totally we are divided from others, most particularly in death, and the zombie seeks connection or re-introduction to or revenge upon the human race through the consumption of that nexus of identity, the cockpit of our bodies. The brain eating is just one more symptom of being apart, divided, reviled and cast-out (but then I do read existentialism into everything). Perhaps the the dominant culture norm was that eating ones' parents' brains was a good thing, there would be stories about lowly hero zombies on a quest to re-claim familial brains and thus redeem themselves in some way and gain powers. Also, when you think about it, the brain is one of the most mysterious organs (we still don't know everything about the way in which it works).
Interestingly, not all cultures say that thoughts take place in their heads; some say the stomach or heart.

or, brains could just be yummy.

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