When you think about zombies, or when you hear about them in movies or see them depicted, one of the most common images we have is that or a hand coming up out of the ground. We’ve seen this a hundred times from music videos like thriller to great zombie flicks like the Return of the Living Dead.
It’s sort of an odd thing though because of how incredibly unlikely it is for a zombie to actually come up out of the ground. (Of course we are talking suspension of disbelief when we talk about zombies ANYWAY but within the confines of those stories it’s still a bit amazing if you think about it.)
First of all, bodies are buried deep. They might not be buried a full six feet under but they are buried deep. This prevents the rot from contaminating the area where they are buried as well as satisfying superstitions. If just the body was buried it would be packed with dirt all around it making it damned hard to move. And if it started digging around, slowly, eventually making its way tot he surface, it would still take a LONG time.
Then we have to think about coffins. A wooden coffin might rot after a certain amount of time but would probably last a bit longer than the body depending on conditions. That is to say, bones survive but it’s rare for whole bodies to survive when the coffin has rotted away. Even if the coffin were simply weakened the dead would still face the first problem of having to do a lot of digging. Though with a the coffin space that would be easier as there would be a place for the dirt to go.
Even a wooden coffin isn’t as big a challenge as the hefty coffins we use today. Many o them are just too strong for a normal human to break out of. So unless the zombies gained super strength while dead, we have to assume they have only the same strength as a human.
Then there are the cement linings. Most coffins today are lowered into cement cases that are themselves sealed. This means in a hundred years or so a lot of our loved ones remains have a good chance of surviving in those casings. But are they getting out? Not likely.
So here’s my thought. We know, rationally that something is impossible, so upon seeing it, we are overcome and sometimes terrified because of it. I know aunt Ida died twenty years ago so waking into the living room to find her having a cup of tea would freak me the hell out.
We KNOW the dead don’t come back, we KNOW they can’t crawl up out of the ground and we KNOW instinctively from thousands of years in our environment that most threats don’t come from below. They come from other people on the same level with us, or animals perched above but rarely from below, certainly not from below the actual surface of the land.
Maybe this is connected with a fear I share of the deep. The idea that there is something down there in the dark water that I can’t see, waiting to come up at me. The fear and surprise of the iconic hand rising out of the grave terrifies us because of its impossibility and its defiance of rationality.