Many of the mysteries of today can be uncovered by looking for answers in the past. So, it is time to attempt to unravel one of the greatest questions of the modern age — which mythical undead creatures are the ‘walkers’ and ‘biters’ from The Walking Dead based upon? Listed from least likely to most likely, here are seven possible mythological explanations for the monsters in The Walking Dead.
One of the original walking dead of myth is the European revenant. According to Katrien Van Effelterre’s “The Return of the Dead,” found in Folklore Journal, revenants are dead souls that have returned to earth to complete a task or to wander about the earth without purpose. Effelterre provides a traditional legend of a woman who returned to the world of the living to accomplish her lifelong goal of completing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The revenant haunted her children and was only able to rest when the children completed the pilgrimage in her stead.[i]
While the revenant is an undead creature and can cause fear and unease in the haunted, it is rarely harmful to humans. There are some modern tales that feature revenants that rise from the grave to seek vengeance, but many are passive, or even helpful. Effelterre writes that the haunted in the traditional tales of revenants “are characterized by a strong concern for the condition of the souls of the dead in the hereafter.” Rather than flee from the returned dead, many people featured in revenant stories attempt to help the wandering soul.
It is doubtful that the walkers of The Walking Dead are traditional revenants. Revenant stories did not feature infections or wounds that could turn the living into the wandering dead. Revenants never exhibited cannibalism and seldom showed aggression. They may not be walker or biters, yet they are still the walking dead.
This Zombi from Haitian and African lore is the foundation of Hollywood’s concept of the Zombie. Two writers who had a significant part to play in spreading the idea of zombification into the mainstream consciousness were Robert Southey (1774-1843) and William Seabrook (1884-1945). George A. Romero built upon the idea of the zombi in his 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, which set the bar for the zombie genre of today.
There are two forms of zombi: a body with an enslaved soul, or an enslaved soul without a body. Hans-W Ackermann and Jeanine Guthier’s work, “The Ways and Nature of the Zombi,” in the Journal of American Folklore, states that a zombi can be created by either magical or herbal means, leaving the victim, “deprived of will, memory, and consciousness…recognized chiefly by dull, glazed eyes and an absent air.” The spirit zombi acts as a beneficial charm or a malicious curse that can be bought for relatively cheap prices. Other than the ability of the spirit zombi to attack humans through the means of a curse, the zombi of Haiti and Africa tends to be passive. They rarely show the aggressiveness or cannibalistic tendencies. The walkers in The Walking Dead, nevertheless, share a few similarities with the Haitian Zombi. Both have the quality of mindlessness and an absence of free will. There are, however, critical differences between the zombi and the walker. Even if the walker is a zombi, popular culture has mutated the creature into something that far exceeds the zombi myth found in Haiti and Africa. If the walkers are a form of zombi, then Haitian and African tradition provide simple ways for the cast of The Walking Dead to protect themselves from the zombi threat. Many sources state that salt cures zombification, or, at least, redirects the attention of the zombi toward the person who enacted the zombification. The simplest zombi repellent, however, is stated by Ackerman and Gauthier — “It is said that if someone does not believe in them, they can do no harm.”
Walkers have cannibalistic tendencies and an instinctual aggression that does not align with the traditional Haitian zombi. When a traditional zombi does harm a human, a spirit zombi is the likely culprit. The most striking difference is in how the walkers and zombie are created. In The Walking Dead, all humans have a disease that triggers zombification upon death, and if a walker bites a person, they rapidly die and join the ranks of the undead horde. The Haitian zombi, however, can only be created by the use of magic or herbal concoctions. There is no infection that a zombi can pass on to humans in the Haitian tradition. In other words, the hordes of walkers in The Walking Dead had to have been individually targeted for zombification by a witchdoctor, which seems unlikely.
Vampiric creatures are featured in the mythology of many cultures. Like the walkers, vampires have the ability to infect their prey, creating new vampires through bites. Yet, there are many more differences than similarities between the vampire and the walker. The walkers amble around without care of being seen, while vampires of myth and legend tend to prefer to hunt from the shadows. Vampires have the cannibalistic quality of drinking blood, but they rarely feast on flesh or mutilate their prey. There is, nonetheless, one particular vampire that shows the brutality and extreme aggression of the walkers. This vampire is the callicantzaros.
Of Greek origin, the callicantzaros is a vicious vampire that also has many werewolf qualities. J. C. Lawson describes the callicantzaros in his Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion. The callicantzaros, he writes, is “seized with a kind of bestial madness which often effects a beast-like alteration in their appearance.” The callicantzaros’ weapon of choice is very often its own hands, as it has claw-like fingernails. This vampire is also like the walkers from The Walking Dead in its human origins. Legend has it that some humans become callicantzaros after death.
Does the callicantzaros seem a promising candidate? Just like all of the previous myths, there are some significant differences between the walkers and the callicantzaros. If The Walking Dead featured callicantzaroi, it would be a very different show. Even though the callicantzaros comes from human origins, the requirements that a human must meet to become one of these vampires are very specific. Harry Senn writes in the Folklore journal, “children born on Christmas Day or between Christmas and Epiphany, in modern Greece, are destined to become callicantzari.”[ii] There are more restrictions on the callicantzaros; mythology states that this vampire can only hunt during the same twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany (December 25th-January 6th). If the walkers on The Walking Dead were only active for twelve days out of the year, the show would not currently be six seasons in length. The fact that the walkers in The Walking Dead are active all year long is strong evidence against the callicantzaros.
This undead mythical monster from the Malay culture is brutal and homicidal. Its target and its origin can vary from story to story. One common theme is that it always is associated with pregnant women; the Pontianak either is created from a pregnant woman or hunts for them. R. J. Wilkinson, in the 30th volume of the Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, records the Pontianak as being created either from the spirit of a deceased pregnant woman or from the spirit of a stillborn child. Alfred W. McCoy also mentions the Pontianak in the 10th volume of Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Study. Using imagery that is reminiscent of a scene from The Walking Dead, McCoy writes that the Pontianak, “drives its claws into the belly of a pregnant woman, killing both the mother and child.” The victims of the Pontianak, however, are not all female. Abbot Cutler, in the 2nd volume of the Ploughshares literary magazine, writes of a Pontianak that exclusively hunts men and drinks their blood. Either way, the stories always end with evisceration or cannibalism.
While the Pontianak has the brutality and the affinity for mutilation of the walkers, it is unlikely that the creatures from The Walking Dead are based on the Pontianak. For one, nearly every Pontianak is female, or at least was female while human. In contrast, there are many male walkers in The Walking Dead. Also, like revenants, zombis and callicantzaros, legend holds that humans can become these monsters, but not through bite or infection.
The jiangshi is an undead from Chinese culture. Sing-chen Lydia Francis discusses the jiangshi in “What Confucius Wouldn’t Talk About.” It can be found in Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Francis writes that jianshi is written with the ancient Chinese symbols that mean “stiff corpse.” The word became used for a zombie-like figure in the Qing dynasty, which began in the mid-17th century and lasted until the early 20th century. The jiangshi is less intelligent than the average vampire, but it drinks human blood and can mutilate its victims like a walker from The Walking Dead. Like many other mythological undead, the jiangshi seem to rise from the grave spontaneously. The jiangshi were once human, but they do not infect the living. The main difference that separates the jiangshi from the walker is the jiangshi’s peculiar mode of transportation — hopping. Yuan Mei, who Francis reviews, was an 18th-century writer who wrote, “the hopping corpses of the newly deceased would grab their own parents and children, with their ten fingers sunk deeply into the victims’ flesh and bones.”[iii]
The biggest difference between the walker and the jiangshi, however, is the way in which they move. The walker and biters from The Walking Dead shuffle and stumble, creeping slowly, but steadily toward their prey, while the jiangshi seem to be exclusively restricted to hopping. They are rarely described as moving in any other fashion. The walker and the jiangshi are both mindless, vicious undead, but the mode of transportation cannot be overlooked. If the TV show were based on jiangshi, it would be titled, “The Hopping Dead.” But, alas, it is not.
The Arabic Ghoul is a strong contender. Compared to the other undead, the ghoul has the longest and most consistent mythological track record of consuming human flesh. While vampires and pontianaks take sips of blood, the ghoul dines on flesh and muscle. Ahmed K. Al-Rawi details the evolution of the ghoul myth as it was spread from the Middle East to Europe in his work, “The Arabic Ghoul and its Western Transformation.” It can be found in the December of 2009 edition of the Folklore journal. According to Al-Rawi, Arabic sources before 1000 C.E. were not in agreement on whether the ghoul was male or female, but female ghouls appear in the majority of accounts. While some early descriptions of the ghoul presented the monster as a mash-up of various animal pieces, most sources claimed that the ghoul could shape-shift, allowing it to appear like a normal person. Englishman, Edward Westermark, recorded tales of ghoul mythology from Morrocco in 1899, where he heard accounts of creatures, “who have black faces and eyes like flaming fire, and are fond of human flesh.” The ghoul, like the walker, can be dispatched with a handheld weapon. The catch, however, is that the ghoul had to be killed with one, and only one, enormous blow. If the ghoul was struck a second time, legend proclaimed that the ghoul would die only after the thousandth blow was struck. “This belief,” states Al-Rawi, “was widespread in the Arabic world and remained alive in folktales.” The clean one-strike-kill is also seen to be the ideal method of zombie eradication in The Walking Dead.
The ghoul became more ghoulish when the European writer, Antoine Galland (1646-1715) decided to transform the Arabic shape-shifting, magical creature with an affinity for human flesh into a monster reminiscent of modern zombies. In his Arabian Nights Entertainments, written in 1718, he described the ghouls as creatures that “infest old buildings, from whence they rush, but by surprise, on people that pass by, kill them, and eat their flesh.” According to Al-Rawi, Galland was the first person to associate ghouls with grave robbing. The traditional tales of Arabic ghouls described the creature as inhabiting the desert, tempting travelers to their death and possibly eating the victim’s flesh. Galland, and other Europeans, brought the ghoul out of the desert and housed it in old decrepit buildings and crypts, where it feasted on the living and dead, alike.
There is much to the ghoul that is similar in nature to the walker of The Walking Dead. After all, it preys on and eats humans. Nevertheless, the ghoul has distinct differences with the walkers and biters. While the monsters on The Walking Dead are of human origin, the early Arabic sources never linked the ghoul with a human beginning. Most of the early Arabic writers considered the ghoul to be a demonic, spiritual creature. According to Al-Rawi, most Arabic writing concerning the ghoul called the creature a genie before 1000 C.E. As the ghoul was a magical being, it could spread disease, yet it never spread its ghoulishness to humans by means of wound or infection. The main similarity that the ghoul shares with the walkers from The Walking Dead is its taste for human flesh.
1. Draugr and Gjenganger
Draugr and Gjanganger (“one who comes again”) are Scandinavian undead. The Draugr is from Icelandic sagas and Norse mythology. One trait held by the draugr that differentiates it from walkers and biters is the strength that it possesses; the draugr grows larger and stronger once it rises from the dead. Yet, the draugr are still undead; they rise up from the grave and their bodies turn bluish-black. Like the walker of The Walking Dead, draugr are hostile and attack in a brutal fashion, often using only their bare hands as weapons.
In Grettirs Saga, a man named Glam became a draugr after dying in a haunted farm. He rose from the dead, spreading a disease that causes animals to begin killing each other. He killed a number of the farm folk and livestock, literally crushing and tearing them apart. The hero of the story, Grettir, came to save the farm and killed the draugr like a true zombie-hunter — he beheaded it.
In the Erbyggja Saga, a similar account takes place. A man named Thorolf died and returned as a draugr. He killed and infected a shepherd with the draugr curse. He walked the land, killing anyone who came across him, and cursed the area with disease and madness. The Erbyggja Saga has no hero like Grettir, so the protagonists of the story used another of the typical zombie defenses — they built a wall “so high that none might come thereover but fowl flying” to keep it away.
The draugr of the two above sagas share some key traits. They both had human origins. They were affiliated with disease and could use it as a weapon. They physically attacked the people they came in contact with and laid waste to the settlements within their reach. The sagas also explain that the draugr should be beheaded. Armann Jakobsson states in his “Vampires and Watchmen: Categorizing the Medieval Icelandic Undead,” that beheading was “one way of expelling a ghost permanently.” As if that was not enough, beheading was often followed with burning to ensure the job was surely done. Jakobsson also discussed the ability of the draugr to infect others with the draugr curse. The ability was demonstrated in the Erbyggja Saga, but not in Grettirs Saga. “Infection is not a significant factor in the ghost stories above,” states Jakobsson, “but in other medieval ghost narratives infection is the key to the monster’s potency.”[iv]
Like all of the previous mythological undead, the draugr does have some differences with the walkers of The Walking Dead? While walkers have a certain strength in the amount of damage their bodies can take, the draugr actually grows larger muscles and has more physical strength. The walkers seem brain-dead, but the draugr show human intelligence; they can speak. Also, the draugr lacks the cannibalistic quality of consuming human flesh. The draugr kills and mutilates its victims, but cannibalism is not a trait exhibited in the sagas.
What are the walkers?
With these seven possibilities laid out, which of the mythical undead most closely resemble the creatures in The Walking Dead. The Revenant is a wandering soul, come back from the dead, but it is not infectious, hostile, or cannibalistic. The zombi from Haiti and Africa has the mindlessness of the walkers from The Walking Dead, but it is rarely hostile, does not infect humans and is not autonomous; rather, it is tethered to a master. The vampire can infect its prey with vampirism and has a taste for blood, but it is usually a creature of subtlety. The callicantzaros, a vampire that is brutal and vicious enough to act like a walker, is only active twelve days out of the year. The Pontianak drinks blood and mutilates its victims, but it is almost exclusively female, and it has no ability to infect human prey. The jiangshi is a Chinese zombie that mutilates victims and behaves in most ways that the walkers from The Walking Dead act; however, the creatures in the T.V. show clearly do not share the unique hopping of the jiangshi. Out of the listed undead, the ghoul has the clearest hunger for human flesh, but it does not infect its prey and it is not of human origin.
The draugr seems to fit the role of the walkers and biters most closely. Draugr can form from any human corpse and it can infect its prey with the draugr curse. It is not tethered to a master, like the zombi of Haiti and Africa. Neither, does it hide and skulk like a vampire, nor have a time restriction like the twelve days of the callicantzaros. Importantly, draugr has the ability to spread disease, thus it could cause the widespread zombie virus that afflicts the world in The Walking Dead. The preferred method of exterminating the draugr and the walker is the same — attacking the brain. Yet, the draugr is intelligent and non-cannibalistic. Just as in The Walking Dead, the truth of the walkers and biters remains an unclear mystery. Mind you, the walkers could be ghouls who have been infected by draugr and made brain-dead by Haitian magic, thereby creating mindless, cannibalistic, infectious and extremely aggressive monsters — but that may be a stretch.