Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"Kwaaaaaaan!" Or: Non-Western Approaches to Zombie Theory

One thing to remember when it comes to zombies is certain tropes have really only been around for a short period of time, such as the terror of the shambling, carnivorous horde, and particularly the hunger for brains.

Talking zombies really came into prominence in the film "Return of the Living Dead." There, we see various zombies screaming for "braiiiiiiiiiiins..." even when the distressed state of many of the undead featured would seem to preclude this if we were being "realistic".

As we prepare for Saymoukda Vongsay's upcoming play Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals, it occurs to me that despite zombies having roots primarily in Haitian mythology, so many modern zombies are presented from a European-American science-centered paradigm.

From a horror perspective that has clearly worked, but there's really no reason we couldn't present it from other worldviews.

What if Lao zombies, or as we've been referring to them, the Zomphi or Phi Zom, are not dispatched by headshots and the destruction and separation of the brain from the body, but instead infected with a whole-body condition centered on the Lao notion of the 32 kwan.

In its simplest definition and application in Lao daily life, the baci is a ritual to synchronize the effects of 32 organs of human body considered as kwan, spirits, energies or the “components of the soul.”

Kwan are not quite the Force, not quite Chi or Qi, but it's along those lines. Chakra theory has been suggested. Buddhist theory of the kwan tend to group the organs in fives for easy memorization:

Hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin
Flesh, sinews, bone, marrow, kidneys
Heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs
Bowels, intestines, gorge, dung, brain
Bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat
Tears, grease, snot, spittle, oil of the joints, urine

In advanced Buddhist philosophy these organs are particularly contemplated in Patikulamanasikara meditation. For zomphi theory, I think it's interesting that the brain is in the same category as dung, intestines and bowels.

Is it possible that in the Lao model of the body and spirit, when it comes to a zomphi, the brain is not enough? In Lao zomphi theory, you have to stop a majority of the corpse, perhaps cremation preferred.

As a horror writer, I'm interested in where the concept of fear is centered in the subject. "Why is this scary? What values or notions is it transgressing?"

Culturally the baci observance is to establish a social and family bond to maintain “balance and harmony to the individual and community, and, when really done right, is a substantiation of human existence." In the thematic concept of zombies and zombie hordes, and how they become essentially tied by the drive to eat all flesh is far more threatening inversion and perversion of the concept of "community."

Beyond the primal terror of death, Buddhist response to the zomphi would be to consider it an abomination and perversion of the sangha, or community, in addition to the zomphi violating a number of the 5 precepts, notably, "Do not kill," and forcing others to break the 5 precepts in order to ensure their survival (Don't kill, steal, lie, get drunk or high, have immoral sex, or basically your standard horror movie rules.)

If you're looking for a semi-rational explanation for zomphi behavior: For the zomphi, consumption of the various organs may be tied to intake of kwan in order to maintain the zomphi's state of equilibrium.

Without regular consumption of various organs and the kwan, rapid degeneration and decay occurs because they do not have the correct energy 'supplements'. This would explain their relentless pursuit of fresh victims before irreversible decrepitude kicks in.

But what would you see as a unique approach for presenting a zomphi?

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