The other day I was with a small group of people talking about irrational fear and phobias that people tend to have and that they had personally. The general consensus was that spiders and snakes hold the top two positions in the fear food chain with spiders edging out snakes by a significant margin. Also on the creature list were bats, bees, alligators/crocodiles, and maggots. Then there were the more abstract fears like heights, deep water, flying, small spaces, open spaces, and a myriad of other common phobias. Everyone in the group admitted to having a fear in varying degrees of intensity except myself. Frankly, if I have a fear that is or borders on a phobia, I haven't run into it yet. When I was a kid I didn't care much for snakes but I could handle them if I had to. I maintain that my problem with snakes was just the instinctive and ancient response of any self-respecting little mammal to reptiles – avoid them because they generally want to eat you.
There are people who fear things that are not real but it is usually because they either convince themselves that they are real for some bizarre psychological reason or it is just a response to a concept that embodies a generalized fear that we have and project into a mythical image. These fears are often represented by things like vampires, ghosts, werewolves, witches, demons, aliens and anything else you can think of that tends to pop up in a Hollywood horror movie. I was intrigued by the fact that the only one of these mythical creatures that the group agreed qualified as a genuine terrifying fear was zombies.
In the late 1960's a movie came out called, Night of the Living Dead, that is considered the first of the endless parade of zombie movies that have spewed out of Hollywood ever since. The Voodoo religion in Haiti had zombies, of course, as did some other cultures and belief systems, but this movie was the introduction of zombies into a huge chunk of modern culture. Ever since then, zombies have become to go-to monster of choice. Zombies have since transcended Hollywood and moved firmly into video games. It seems like every other advertisement for a video game includes zombies in one form or another. I've seen people zombies and animal zombies and even alien zombies in dozens of posters and flashing across TV and computer screens, demonstrating a lot of menace and horror and just plain hideous ugliness. Zombies have generally been portrayed as being slower than the living, awkward, clumsy, not very bright, unable to use anything but the most basic of tools, horribly diseased, and absolutely relentless. Human beings have a strange ability to find endless fascination in and are inexplicably drawn to things that terrify and horrify them. Whether it is a train wreck or a natural disaster, people want to see the film at eleven. For some reason, zombies seem to personify this less than attractive human trait, possibly because they are dead but not, turn on their fellow humans, and are invariably hideously ugly and have never culturally morphed into sexy, suave, tormented creatures like vampires have. Zombies aren't pale, beautiful, and morally ambiguous – they are ugly, diseased, and just plain evil. Two of my children suffered from zombie nightmares when they were young even though they were aware that zombies didn't exist. For a long time my youngest would bolt out of a room when anything resembling a zombie popped up on TV, even if it was done for laughs.
There are people who study these kinds of cultural phenomenon who will tell you that the whole idea of zombies comes from the fact that there is a puffer fish that carries a poison called tetrodotoxin that is so powerful that one little puffer contains enough to kill 30 people. If you happen to ingest this poison you are usually dead within 24 hours or less, but a less than lethal amount will completely paralyze you, rendering you conscious, but unable to move or make a sound. Mind you, no one knows what this less than lethal amount is or can determine how long the effects last, so it would be impossible to deliberately administer to anyone with the intention of giving them zombie-like qualities, and the recorded instances of anyone surviving it in a zombie state are extremely rare. In Japan puffer fish is considered a delicacy, even though they are fully aware that the slightest miscalculation in preparing it can cause instant death. Personally, I find the fact that anyone would eat the puffer knowing full well that he might be stone cold dead before dessert far scarier than any zombie could ever be. A delicacy? Really? Living people are weirder than zombies could ever be. Sometimes, they really scare me.