Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Bokors: the Origins of Zombies

Zombies have completely permeated the American culture.  There are books, graphic novels, TV shows, and movies of all sub-genres (comedy, drama, thriller, and horror) based on the zombie apocalypse.  But where did they come from?

Countless cultures, religions, and folktales involve the living dead.  One of the most well known pagan cultures that focus on the living dead are the Vikings:  In their foretold tale of the war that will destroy the world, Ragnarok, Loki will bring an army of dead men from Niflheim (the land of the dead) and the Norse gods will bring their army of the dead from Valhalla (the hall of fallen heroes - men who died in combat) to fight each other until the world crumbles.

Also, in one of the most well known literature books, Dante's Inferno, there are 9 circles of Hell, each dedicated to a different punishment for a different sin; and in the 5th circle, dead men and women fight each other, punching, kicking, and biting each other forever as retribution for letting their anger control them in life.

Furthermore, stories of the undead that feast upon the living are very common in ancient myths and folklore, vampires and banshees being a couple of the most well known.  There are also accounts of people once thought dead who rose from their grave, still breathing; and ghoulish activity.  (The word "ghoul" means a person who eats the dead.)

Undoubtedly, the evolution of what has become the modern conception of a zombie has been influenced by many different things.  However, there is one culture that has the strongest connection to what we consider as a modern-day zombie - the culture that created the word zombie: Voodoo.

Voodoo is a syncretic religion of Roman Catholicism and traditional Haitian culture.  Voodoo says there is one creator (God) and the spirit world where He, and all of the dead, reside; and it is most well known for its practices in magic and making human connections to the spirit world via possession by spirits.

In the Voodoo tradition, there are sorcerers who abuse their magical powers to possess other living people.  These sorcerers are called bokors, and they supposedly steal the souls of other people, turning them into mindless slaves with no independent will.  This kind of slave is called a zombi.

The way the bokors perform their "zombification" is with zombie powder.  Zombie powder is scientifically called tetradotoxin, and it is a powerful nuerotoxin that induces a coma and slows the breath and heart rate until they are nearly undetectable.  When the person comes out of his or her coma, which they inevitably will, the bokor then forces them to take "hallucinogenic compounds... put[ing] the victim into a permanent state of delirium and disorientation in which they experience delusions and hallucinations."  In this state they can be easily manipulated into doing labor.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Worshiping Killers

Is it right to worship a killer?  

Almost every single person you will ever meet would say, "In a perfect world, there would be no violence."  But we don't live in a perfect world.  And so violence, in certain situations, can be justified - right?

Many movies are made about vigilantes who catch the bad guys that can't be caught by the cops.  Most of us have no problem with that.  We idolize heroes like Captain America, Spider Man, Batman, V (from V for Vendetta), Superman, John McClane (left), the Lonely Ranger, the Green Hornet, all of Clint Eastwood's western characters, The X-Men, The Avengers and The Justice League, etc.  Even most of the leads in cop stories break protocol to catch the bad guy.  And what all of these characters often do is kill anyone who gets in their way.  Despite that fact, we accept those stories hook-line-and-sinker because we are watching the "good guys" bring justice to the "bad guys".  There are stories that recognize this one-sided-ness and explore vigilantism deeper.  Two good examples are Frank Miller's  Batman and Alan Moore's V for Vendetta; both explore the consequences of vigilantism and what it means to take power from the government into one man's hands.  (However, these stories are still very black and white.)

It doesn't stop at vigilantes, though.  Many of our heroes are bounty hunters: people who hunt and retrieve other people for a reward and sneak in some justice if they find it convenient.  Many of Clint Eastwood's characters fit this description, and so do Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop, Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly, and probably the most loved character in the Marvel Universe, Deadpool.  Now we even have serial killers like Dexter Morgan from Dexter.  (He only kills the bad guys he investigates.)

What do all these stories have in common?  They send the message, killing can be justified, we are above the law.

Is this true?  Can you kill someone and stay in good conscience?  What's the point of worshiping these characters as heroes if we want peace?

Stories like A Clockwork Orange and Lord of the Flies discuss the human nature of, and tendency towards, violence.  And so do many of the stories that include the characters I listed above.  The main difference between a story like Lord of the Flies and a story like Dexter is that Lord of the Flies has a definite end whereas Dexter will continue airing on television, so long as it maintains its fan base.

There is no doubt that humans are attracted to violence.  Lord of the Flies wants to ask why and give an albeit ambiguous resolution; and it depicts all the many acts of violence as inherently unhealthy.  Dexter just wants to exploit the violence it depicts; and it seems to have no problem killing people off; Dexter never blinks an eye at what he's done.

Is that acceptable?  Is it wrong to take pleasure in watching someone kill another human being, even if that
human being was a criminal?  Is it wrong to fantasize about killing people?

The amount of games that do not include mindlessly killing other living creatures are in the minority, whether they are rated M, T, or E.  Games like Call of Duty, Battle Front, Team Fortress, and World of Warcraft are a sensation.  Whether or not it's wrong to fantasize about killing people, almost anyone who has a computer or gaming console is doing it constantly.

It's easy to think killing can be justified, especially in the United States which has one of the biggest militaries on the planet.  If killing another human being is wrong, what does that say about our troops?  Are they bad people for what they do?  "They're defending our country!  America didn't want to fight, we had to!" say some.  And their train of thought stops there.  Is that all the justification we need to kill someone, defense?

Death is inescapable, even if violence was nonexistent in our world.  We can't help but think about it and
how it will affect us, our family, our friends, our pets.  We don't want them to die; we love them.  Most of us would wish we and our loved ones could live happily and forever.  Thus, when considering what importance violence in books, movies, and video games has, the most relevant question that can be asked is, how important is the loss of a human life?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Picking Up a Bird

Here is another link.  This one is to an essay I did for an intersession class called "This I Believe".  The class was intended for students to write an essay on one of their main beliefs about life.  I took this class in Freshmen year of high school and a year later I have asked the teacher of that class to give me a second chance and let me transform my +B into an A so that I can get a 4.0 GPA.