Zombies by Dr. Bob Curran, Interview by Michelle M. Pillow (Originally published in Paranormal Underground Magazine)
Zombies by Dr. Bob Curran, Interview
By Michelle M. Pillow, www.michellepillow.com
Have you ever been curious as to how the idea of mindless zombies scouring the neighbourhood in search of human flesh began? From the walking dead of Haiti and the Caribbean that have influenced the ideas of Hollywood horror films, to the less popularized draugr of Scandinavia, Zombies: A Field Guide to the Walking Dead explores the world of the undead and the myths behind them.
Dr. Bob Curran is a writer and broadcaster living in Northern Ireland, and a cultural educator for several governmental organizations. He has approximately 38 books to his name mainly on the subjects of history and culture. His title, Zombies: A Field Guide to the Walking Dead, is currently in bookstores.
Q: First off, are you now or have you ever been a zombie?
Dr. Curran: I don’t think that I’ve ever been a zombie, at least not that I can remember. In some instances I may have worked with zombies but that’s another story.
Q: In your book Zombies: A Field Guide to the Walking Dead, you delve into the world of the undead and their impact on cultures throughout history. Tell us a little bit about your book.
Dr. Curran: One of the questions which I’m always asked is – do zombies/ werewolves/ vampires actually exist? That is really not the question that intrigues me – they may or they may not –it is why should people want to believe in them? What need does such a belief answer in society? Why should they continue to fascinate us even down to today? And I suppose that’s why I began to write the book. I suppose that the idea of zombies addresses certain fundamental questions about death . The underlying question is – if I die , can I come back in some form? This is, I feel, a question which appears in many cultures and it forms the basis of a number of religions . So I wanted to write a book which looked at zombies in some more depth and in some more detail than simply the slasher/zombie dawn type of way that is common in so many books.
Q: What inspired you to write about the subject?
Dr. Curran: As you may realise if you have read some of my books, I try to do as much research as I can. Any of my books in this field starts with me asking myself a lot of questions and then trying to find the answers. So I guess that the things that inspired me to write the book on zombies was he questions I was asking myself. And the basic question is “Is there something deeper here?” And there usually is.
Q: How have cultural impressions of the zombies changed throughout history?
Dr. Curran: I don’t think that cultural impressions have changed throughout history – the questions about death and resurrection still remain the same – nor even have they adapted all that much in the way that, say, werewolf impressions have but the way we look at them has. In a sense in earlier times, the walking dead returned from the grave in places like Ireland to see their loved ones and to enjoy things that they had enjoyed in life. And they often returned under God’s dispensation because they were blessed. Amongst the Vikings, the dead returned simply to carry on the things that they had done when alive – there was little distinction between life and death. It was writers like William Seabrook which linked some of the walking dead with the notion of zombies and voudou. Voudou is a kind of umbrella for a number of minor religions such as shango and Mama Watti. Le Gran Zombi does not specifically refer to the walking dead but to a manifestation of Damballah Wedo, one of the gods of the voudou pantheon. However, in his book Magic Island Seabrook seemed to suggest that there were dead men being raised by local houngans and mambos and sold to plantation owners as cheap labour – there seems to have been some sort of basis for this belief as the 1835 Haitian Penal Code seems to make such employment an offence. How widespread this idea was is questionable but it did exist. This has in turn become linked with alleged acts of cannibalism and has given rise to the idea of the flesh-eating zombie with which we are so familiar in the slash and gore zombie films which we see today. In this respect maybe our cultural impressions have changed a little across the years.
Q: Do you have a favorite zombie myth or story?
Dr. Curran: I don’t really have a favourite zombie story. I would guess that the most intriguing stories is that of Clairvius Narcisse who in 1980, turned up somewhat dishevelled in a Haitian village and was recognised by his sister who lived there. Nothing unusual about that, except Clairvius was supposed to have died in 1960. His story was a strange one – he had been drugged by his brother using a “poudre” and had been sold to a planter on the other side of the island. He had suddenly “come to” and made his way to the nearest village where his sister had encountered him. The story is engrossing because it suggests some sort of narcotic which might be used to induce a zombie state. The tale inspired Canadian ethnographer Wade Davis to investigate further and see if he could determine the nature of the “poudre” used by the houngans and bokors or Haiti. Although Davis’s findings are questionable, his book on the subject The Serpent and the Rainbow became a best seller and later a film. Perhaps it is the idea that some sort of poudre might exist which I find appealing and which probably makes the story my favourite one.
Q: What cultures throughout history have zombie myths? Are they similar or vastly different?
Dr. Curran: As I said earlier, the fundamental questions about life and death are pretty universal ones so it is natural I suppose that they appear in all cultures – though maybe not in the form that we have become used to through the medium of books and films. In Ireland, for example, the marbh bheo or nightwalking dead might be classed as zombies – they return from their graves to the places they knew in life. Some of these are the Blest Dead, who have led good lives and are permitted by God to do so, others are raised by the Devil who travel the roads in order to do harm. Similarly the “living mummies” of areas such as Mount Yodono in Japan are monks who have deliberately “mummified” themselves in order to display their holiness – this practice is now forbidden by the Japanese government. So whilst the fundamental questions remain the same, the way in which it is achieved can be different and not all zombies may take the form that we have been led to expect.
Q: How do you think zombie myths will change in the future?
Dr. Curran: It depends on how you view zombie myths. Certainly if we look at how zombies are portrayed in literature and in the cinema, I think that will change as writers and directors search for new angles with which to shock, disgust and terrify us. I think zombie literature/cinema will possibly become more extreme and more shocking. But we must remember that this counts as entertainment and depends on our view of the walking dead – folkloric zombie stories will remain as they always have. And zombies will remain a fascinating subject.
Q: Do you believe in the supernatural? Or are you a skeptic?
Dr. Curran: Once again, it depends what you mean by “the supernatural”. Let me say that I neither believe nor disbelieve. I have met some very rounded and “down to earth” people who have told me some fantastic things and I have no reason to doubt them. Also many things which were once counted as “supernatural” have their base in scientific explanation today and this may be the case in the future. What the “supernatural” may ultimately be is an interpretation of our own environment in a particular way – after all this is the basis of religion . So I keep an open mind.
Q: Why do you think readers, and society in general, are fascinated by the paranormal?
Dr. Curran: I think that the answer lies in relation to the above. People are fascinated by the supernatural because it suggests that there is something more to the world that what we can actually physically see and touch. I think that this is a very fundamental perspective and forms the basis of many religions including Christianity. I think the idea of the supernatural springs from a deep-seated curiosity, a need to explain things around us and a need for reassurance that we have some form of meaning and purpose to our lives. This perspective has taken many forms – from ghosts to werewolves, vampires, zombies but basically it all springs, I think, from the same source.
Q: What are your favorite paranormal shows, movies and books?
Dr. Curran: I get very little time to sit down and watch tv or even read Most of the “supernatural” television or films that I’ve actually watched, I didn’t really like. Everybody thinks that I should rate Buffy the Vampire Slayer but I watched about half an hour of one episode and turned it off. I went and saw The Wolf Man and liked that because it reflected the original movie. I suppose if I read supernatural literature, it’s some of the classic stuff, which I enjoy. All the modern-day slash and gore does very little for me. The last film I watched was Shutter Island which I did enjoy as it was extremely well done, even though I’d guessed the ending. But I like the creepiness of the place.
Q: Have you ever had a paranormal experience?
Dr. Curran: No, I haven’t had a paranormal experience. All the “uncanny experiences” I’ve had, I’ve always been able to explain. I took part in a number of radio/tv programmes on ghost-hunting and didn’t see anything. There was a belief in the part of the world where I came from that only one member of a family could see ghosts and so forth and this doesn’t seem to have been me. My brother though, is supposed to have seen a ghost – the spectre of an old woman who previously owned a house where he lived in England.
Q: If given the chance, would you become a zombie?
Dr. Curran: I doubt if I would want to become a zombie. I would guess that the lifestyle wouldn’t appeal.
Q: How would you react if you came face to face with a zombie?
Dr. Curran: Probably run. Best form of avoidance.
Q: What does the future hold for you? Any new books in the works?
Dr. Curran: There’s a lot of work still on. Two new books from Career coming out this year and next – Dark Fairies and Man Made Monsters. Also a series of books for young people coming out in England, new books coming out in both Australia and America – one on the papacy this year and one on bushrangers next Also the development of my community work which is very important to me.
Thank you for joining us, Dr. Curran!
If you’re interested in checking out this, or other titles by Dr. Bob Curran, please visit the publisher website, www.newpagebooks.com. Interview by Michelle M. Pillow, www.michellepillow.com