Archive for the ‘Zombies’ Category

Attack of the Dead Men 1915

February 14, 2016




Watching a recent episode of Indy Neidell’s superb ‘The Great War’ on YouTube, I came across an interesting story regarding an incident in the First World War apparently known to Russians (today, at least) as the ‘attack of the dead men’. An unreferenced version is to be found on Wikipedia, and a documentary version by Russia Today is on YouTube (skip to 15:30 for the relevant portion). But in short, on August 6th 1915, Russian defenders of the fortress of Osowiec (in present-day Poland), suffering the effects of a German poison gas attack, unexpectedly counterattacked. Covered with gore from their own damaged lungs, these 60 (or less than 100 according to RT) ‘walking dead’ soldiers fought off far superior numbers (3 divisions, says RT) and saved the fortress.


Perhaps inevitably, comparisons were drawn in the video and in the comments with George Romero-style zombies; it’s a compelling image. A forum version here uses the phrase ‘the living dead’. Having researched this far, to quote Deadpool, my common sense was tingling…


I found few web sources already in English, mostly from the last five years or so (some of them badly translated), which I presumed meant that it simply that it hasn’t been as celebrated in English as it has in Russian.


A much more sober, Russian language account is to be found here, (Буняковский В. Краткий очерк обороны крепости Осовца в 1915 г.’ or ‘Brief Defence of the Fortress of Osovca in 1915’ by B. Bunyakovsky, as the index page reveals), from a book published in 1924. This makes clear that it was actually an entire company supported by a reserve company (so 300-400 men) that counterattacked, supported by the fortress’s artillery batteries. Pretty impressive, but hardly the zombie Rorke’s Drift now being claimed online. There’s no mention of anything like the ‘attack of the dead men’ to describe this fighting retreat. I say ‘fighting retreat’, because as RT admits, after the counterattack the Russians were forced to raze the fortress and evacuate.


The event doesn’t seem to crop up in English history books; the one I did find is less sensational but does reference the blood-stained uniforms. Frustratingly the preview doesn’t allow me to see the footnoted source. However, I did manage to find a period English language source for the story (‘The War of the Nations’ by Le Queux & Wallace, vol.5, p.203 – you can access it for free via the Bodleian Library), and even better, it’s a contemporary one free of patriotic hyperbole or later embellishments. It’s based on a ‘brief report’ made by the Commandant of Osowiec fortress, Major General B.R.J. Osovsky. This makes no mention of the numbers involved, but equally, there’s certainly no claim that only 60 were still combat effective after the initial attack:


‘There was a lull which lasted until August 7th, when the enemy began his assault by sending into the fortress 600 balloons of asphyxiating gas.


The Russian troops were taken by surprise, and nearly all in the first and second lines of the defence were poisoned. They fell back, but encouraged by their officers, they made a superhuman effort and drove back the enemy at the point of the bayonet.’


The incident clearly happened, but was not so desperate, nor so horrific to behold, as some would have us believe. Many similar sieges took place during the war, though this one does seem to have significance in Russia equivalent to Verdun for the French. It seems likely (and has been suggested on the Wiki talk page) that the story was embellished by the Soviets in the Second World War for propaganda purposes, but I have no evidence of that. All countries are liable to exaggerate such achievements as time passes, particularly to justify having to retreat in the face of superior forces.


What intrigues me is the burgeoning ‘zombie’ connection being made. This reminds me of the instant reaction to the ‘Miami Zombie’ a couple of years back. A man eating another man’s face? Must be a real-life zombie! This fantasising of real life events seems to be irresistible to us, at least in the ‘west’. In contrast, Russian sources don’t seem to imply any paranormal connection; that seems to be a western addition that’s gained currency in recent years. Of course, zombies as we know them today didn’t exist. We had Haitian mindless slave zombies of course, but although these were thought to be ‘dead’, they weren’t depicted as bloody or corrupted in any way. That form of fictional ‘horror’ zombie came later; much later than 1915. Of course, there were other gore-smeared ‘undead’ creatures in (non)existence by that time, such as vampires or other revenant corpses. But western European soldiers are highly unlikely to believe in such things. In addition, though poison gas was relatively new to warfare, its effects would have been well known (and feared) by the Germans who, after all, were the ones deploying it! So I seriously doubt that the Germans thought they were fighting dead men. If the attack really was known as the ‘attack of the dead’ at the time, I think it’s just a turn of phrase; and likely originated with Russians rather than Germans. Despite this, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this WW1 zombie meme grow legs in the coming years.

WW1 Zombie by Savagezombie (Deviantart)

WW1 Zombie by Savagezombie (Deviantart)

Mysteries of The (Not) Vampire Skeletons

September 19, 2011

Gottle o’ Gear!


I caught up with this documentary the other day, and was pleasantly surprised (though sadly it appears no longer available by legal means). It centred upon a very interesting find that I wasn’t aware of; the discovery on an Irish site of 30-40 Viking-age skeletons ‘stacked’ in ‘shallow graves’ with injuries caused by edged weapons. One was basically wrapped around/bound to a large stone/boulder, and at least two others displayed the deliberately inserted stone in the mouth method of keeping dead people dead – noted on various other occasions, most famously in the case of the ‘Vampire of Venice’ that I’ve commented on before. Unlike that story, this is not light on detail, comes from a geographic region with historical evidence for the practice, and gives us some of the earliest evidence for revenant belief, with Carbon 14 dates in the late 700s AD.

As well as (roughly) contemporary English stories of revenants (the Berkeley Witch and the Devil of Drakelow) and other archaeological finds in Britain and elsewhere, the programme also makes mention of an Irish ‘penitential text’, the 5th-6th century AD ‘First Synod of St Patrick’, which apparently alludes to fears of the living dead. In bringing us into the age of the vampire proper, Fluckinger’s Visum et Repertum is referenced, ‘Dracula’ features only in passing, and the segment on the present-day case of Petre Toma has new interviews with those involved. I do wonder though why Glam, the Icelandic revenant featured in the 13th century Grettir’s Saga was not included given the period and ‘Viking’ nature of the find.

There is also an impressive list of academic participants, from all over Europe, and a nice if tentative suggestion that revenant belief (or at least, this version of it) might have its roots in the Christianisation of Europe.

All-in-all, a well-argued, interesting and entertaining documentary. They actually used the academic phrase ‘deviant burial’, for the first time so far as I know. The only sticking point for me is the reliance on the idea that these were ‘vampires’, clearly used as a ‘hook’ for the audience. As in Venice, there’s no tradition of blood-drinking revenants in the British Isles, nor was any analogue for the word ‘vampire’ known in the medieval period. If anything they might better have drawn the parallel with the German nachzehrer (shroud-eater), as did Borrini et al. One academic uses the word ‘vampire’ to describe the find, and in the next breath qualifies it by calling the skeletons ‘something like vampires’. I completely understand why the makers did this, and of course a vampire is one type of revenant. Using the word ‘vampire’ in the title is inevitable. I just wish that the distinction had been more clearly drawn – perhaps a ‘family tree’ of revenants.

Which brings me to an interesting observation on the reporting of the case in question. The newspaper media have, despite the existence of the documentary, eschewed the vampire angle for the zombie one:

Of course, though there’s no evidence that these were ‘vampires’, neither are they ‘zombies’ by either Haitian or Romerian definitions. Still, these two creatures are our closest modern analogues to the revenants in question, and the varying descriptions may tell us something interesting about the burgeoning popularity of the fictional zombie, and perhaps the decline of the vampire (though this is less certain).

Figment of Imagination enquiries

April 18, 2011

What an actual Welsh zombie looks like – see this superb BBC documentary series…

The always excellent Zed Word blog has reported some interesting supernatural-related enquiries made under the UK Freedom of Information Act to Dyfed-Powys police in Wales. You can read the various disclosure reports here (page over to the 2010 content for most reports – alternatively I’ve linked most of them below).

Before we have too big a laugh at the expense of others, I should point out that tragically, if inevitably, many calls/reports (and possibly even FOI enquiries) have been made by those with mental health problems. Others are obvious nuisance/time-wasting calls. The zombie incidents make for particularly disappointing reading even for a hardened sceptic;

Unknown 04.11.2006 A phone call made with strange noises and sounded like someone saying zombie.

Haverfordwest 31.10.2008 Report of a person acting suspiciously wearing a zombie mask and dressed all in black.

Pembrey 14.12.2009 Reporting that they are filming a horror in the park about zombies.

Not really in the spirit of the enquiry, I would suggest. More of a keyword search data-dump. Can’t really blame the Fuzz for that though; I’m pretty sure they have other jobs to be getting on with.
Other, slightly more interesting reports just from this constabulary include phantom cats (lots), witches (some) and werewolves (none). Relatively few suggest even a legitimate claim of a supernatural sighting, let alone any subsequent earth-shattering investigation that provided any evidence of one. A handful of ‘actual’ sightings of ghosts is, amusingly, outweighed in the same report by complaints of ghosthunters causing annoyance or alarm. And of course, there are the UFOs, none of which were followed up using police resources, clearly indicating a massive cover-up…or some common sense, depending upon your point of view. Equally encouragingly, it’s clear that in common with virtually all police departments worldwide, the services of psychics are NOT called upon (another denial here).

Some disclosures contain no information as the enquirer has phrased things such that to provide a proper answer would take too much time and money – one of the exemption criteria. Frustratingly, one of these relates again to the activities of amateur (is there any other kind?) ghosthunters. Had they been more specific we might have discovered more about the ‘supernatural’ denizens of Wales, or at least the loons who go looking for them…

I’ll have to see which other UK police services and perhaps even local authorities might have published similar data online – without submitting my own frivolous FOI enquiry, of course!

More braaains…

April 3, 2011

Just after my last post, I came across this article, and this talk by a neuroscientist on the subject of the zombie brain. One of these days I really must join the Zombie Research Society. If you’re reading this, ZRS, I can do a good line in data-mining history for instances of possible zombie-attack. I have no problem with BS history for fun and as a means of thought-experimentation – just so long as we’re up-front about it!


April 1, 2011

Apologies for the lack of updates of late. I’m proud to say however, that no less an organ than the Fortean Times have quoted me in one of their magazine pieces and are apparently keen to know my identity. I’ve a great deal of respect for FT, and as it happens I’ve been working on something with half an eye on submitting it to them when finished. So, I shall take their endorsement as encouragement to pull my finger out and get cracking on that. Unfortunately that plus work commitments will probably mean equally long gaps between posts, but I will try to do more in the way of smaller updates, more regularly. I’ve also removed the two-week limit on comments, as I’ve been feeling guilty about that. If moderating the comments becomes too much of a time-sink however, I’ll have to reluctantly reconsider.

Keep in a cool, anaerobic place.

And so, to the meat of this post. Brain-meat to be precise. Now, this is really just a comment on reporting angles. This piece from fellow anonymous writer ‘DAILY MAIL REPORTER’ is basically sound; like most other articles on the subject of this unusually-preserved brain tissue, it doesn’t stray too far from the original press release by the University of York. There’s nothing at all left-field in it. Not my usual fodder. However, there are issues with it.

Firstly, this was a discovery not from “last year”, but from December 2008, and that press release I linked to dates from that time. I remembered the find distinctly as in weak moments I like to wilfully misinterpret finds like this as imagined evidence of (in this case) zombies. I know, I’m a geek. But come on – decapitation, suspiciously well-preserved brain? It’s pure Max Brooks.

Where was I? Ah yes. The Mail itself reported on the find at that time. So why the reprise? There is some new info there regarding the context of the find and the individual who once owned the brain, but it’s hardly extensive. As audiences have short memories, much of the column space is taken up with info repeated from the original find. There’s more in the science press, e.g. the article from [edit – this Alphagalileo piece is even better]. To the Mail’s credit they actually tell you that there’s a new paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science, but following apparent journalistic convention, refuse to actually link to it or even give you the title. Mind you, even if they had, it’s behind a paywall, reducing us to reading the abstract or being spoonfed by the press.

Thus it’s possible that the Mail’s (and other’s) revised date of 2500BP reflects some refined C14 dating, but equally they might just have rounded up the original “at least 2000 years” estimate to make it seem all the more impressive. Any subscribers to AS, feel free to fill us in on this and any other new info – I’m sure there will be plenty.

However, the embellishment regarding decomposition is, I’m pretty sure, the second actual boob by the Mail in this article. As the 2008 press release and new quotes from those involved make clear, the brain is usually one of the first parts of the body to rot. Yet the newspaper decides to eschew actually looking up how long it takes for the brain to decompose, and plucks a figure out of thin air;

“Scientists have been baffled by how the brain tissue – which usually rots after a couple at (sic) years – managed to remain intact for so long.”

Years? Not quite:

“The brain begins to decompose in the basal ganglia and dependent portions, where fluids naturally gravitate, and in the course of two or three weeks usually becomes nearly diffluent. Structural details have, however, been recognized after some months.”
-‘A Text-book of Legal Medicine and Toxicology‘, p.128

Admittedly that source is over a hundred years old, and environmental conditions will retard or speed up this estimate – but we’re not talking years here but weeks. It’s for this disappointing reason that actual zombies aren’t at all scientifically plausible. OK, for other reasons too.

Anyway, so far so typical of press reporting of such things. No particularly big deals, nothing to really bash the Mail with specifically. However, we’ve now come to one of my pet peeves, and something the the Mail is especially bad for – though other papers and sites have taken a similar tack. It’s the difference in tone.

“Archaeologists baffled at how brain has survived”…

…brays the Mail. The word “baffled” appears four times in the article. These so-called experts are clearly out of their depth. Why, they’re no better than you or I, the humble down-to-earth Mail-reader! Why do we allow them our hard-earned taxpayer’s money? But wait, what’s this? Right at the end of the article however, there’s a quote from one of the team;

“The hydrated state of the brain and the lack of evidence for putrefaction suggests that burial, in the fine-grained, anoxic sediments of the pit, occurred very rapidly after death. This is a distinctive and unusual sequence of events, and could be taken as an explanation for the exceptional brain preservation.”

Oh. How disappointing. I don’t know about you, but I was hoping to be able to chortle at the poor addled boffins as they scratch their bald pates and throw up their hands in impotent academic frustration, thus validating my preconceptions about people with drive and a university education.

That’s my gripe – I can’t read this sort of sensationalised, passive-aggressive, grudging admiration of intellectual endeavour without thinking of Mitchell & Webb’s ‘Big Talk’ sketch.

So, come on, boffins! Are you out of your massive minds?!

The Truth Behind Zombies

November 10, 2010

“What do you mean ‘what’s historical about zombies’?”

My title is that of a recent halloween special from the Discovery Channel. It’s the sort of semi-serious documentary that we’ve seen done countless times for the ever-popular vampire, but relatively rarely for my personal favourite, the zombie. “Fear File: Zombies” from the History Channel (2006) is the only other I’ve come across. Perhaps zombies are catching up with mainstream popularity – aside from Halloween theming, Discovery probably had an eye on the superb TV adaptation of “The Walking Dead” graphic novel series. Anyway, the show was pretty good overall. They got Max Brooks (who I was lucky enough to get to sign my copy of ‘The Zombie Survival Guide’) to contribute, and involved the ‘Zombie Research Society’, who seem to be ‘legitimate’ in the sense that they “study” zombie lore as an intellectual exercise – not because they think it will actually happen. I’m tempted to join.

As ever though, it fell short in a couple of areas. Brooks did factor in a virus-based origin for version of the zombie, but his inspiration is well known to be the slow, lumbering re-animated cannibalistic corpse created by director George Romero for his 1968 ‘Night of the Living Dead’. Brooks’ reply whenever asked about the eternal fast/slow zombies issue makes this very clear .

So its odd that the programme focused almost exclusively upon the ‘zombie as virus’ where fear of scientific research is the key idea, and “zombies” are created from living humans, turned in a matter of seconds and retaining their speed, co-ordination and strength (in some cases, more so – please don’t ever bother watching the “remake” of “Day of the Dead”). Not at all like the “living dead” first seen in the Romero films.  They used lots of clips from “28 Days Later” but none whatsoever from Romero films (despite the infamous lack of copyright that he has over ‘Night’). They didn’t even MENTION Romero.

They also conflated Romero “ghouls” (to use his original choice of name) with the Haitian zombie. I don’t have a problem with that (particularly as its likely origin as a slavery metaphor is briefly explored) – though many claim that Romero’s “Living Dead” have nothing to do with the Haitian zombie, the parallels and cinematic precedents are obvious. The zombies in 1932 movie ‘White Zombie‘ are even referred to as the “living dead” at one point in that movie. By 1975, TV Guide was referring to NotLD’s monsters as “zombies”.

There are important differences between the two, notably the notion of a puppetmaster magician behind it all, that make the Romero zombie and indeed the virus/plague zombie, much closer to the vampires of Matheson’s novel ‘I Am Legend’ (1954) – Romero’s acknowledged main inspiration. Another way to look at it is that Romero and post-Romero zombies are both part of the ‘survival horror’ sub-genre – movies featuring Haitian style zombies are more mainstream straight horror movies.

In any case, to completely ignore Romero’s role in reinventing the zombie as we know it, and skip from the Haitian zombie straight to the post-28 Days Later viral version, makes this a far from complete survey of the fictional roots of the modern zombie.

My other problem with the show is the uncritical acceptance of the “zombi powder”/Tetrodotoxin/puffer fish poison paralysis hypothesis pushed in the 1980s by Wade Davis, who makes facetime in this programme. Just as vampire fans had to put up for years with out-of-date ideas being presented as current by documentaries like this, so are we faced with Davis’ problematic findings given as fact.

Though a trained scientist, Davis seems to have fallen far short of the scientific method in the testing and peer review of his work. No data from his first supposedly positive test for the toxin in question, nor from a subsequent negative test were ever published. Instead he published anecdotal findings in an anthropological memoir entitled  “The Serpent and the Rainbow” (a movie was later made based upon it). Many refutations have been published, from an exchange of letters in New Scientist to a series of articles.

The definitive academic work on the Zombie in folklore and fiction (‘American Zombie Gothic’) also covers the controversy. Here’s the abtract from ‘The Ways and Nature of the Zombi’ byAckermann and Gauthier, published in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 414 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 466-494:

“This article presents a review of zombiism and our personal investigations on the hitherto little-known spirit zombi. The Haitian zombi is of African origin. Numerous references zombis or zombi-like entities are found in Equatorial and to Central Africa and in the Caribbean. There are two types of zombis, the zombi of the body, or living dead, and the zombi of the soul. Both are closely related to the Haitian concept of a dual soul, which is also of African origin. Properties of the spirit zombi are described. Zombi stories or sightings may be explained by the observation of vagrants or exploited mentally ill. The various “zombi powders” so far studied seem to belong to the domain of sympathetic magic, and their pharmacological effectiveness remains to beproved.”
Full article here (paywalled).

And some of the main issues:

“Davis’s thesis is problematic in several respects: (1) many characteristics of the flesh-and-blood zombi can be explained by mental disorders, notably amnesia and catatonic schizophrenia (Bourguignon 1959; Dewisme 1957:138; Mars 1945, 1947; Metraux 1968:249; Simpson 1954); (2) one of his eight zombi powders did not contain any puffer fish; (3) only two zombi powders contained small, apparently innocuous, amounts of tetrodotoxin (Booth 1988; Davis 1988a:194, 1988b); (4) it is not clear which samples were studied in which laboratories and what the exact results were; (5) most samples contained human remains and a confusing variety of ingredients of weak or uncertain effect (Davis 1984, 1988a:107); and (6) the poison was administered in a seemingly ineffective way: in at least three instances, the powder was to be strewn on the ground in the path of the intended victim or on its doorstep, over a buried magic candle.”

Essentially, whilst the Haitians involved believe in the power of the powder, the actual toxin content is low to non-existent in all samples tested. Thus the “hypnotic” hypothesis also offered in this documentary is closer to the mark, though the actual active hypnosis aspect is overplayed. See Derren Brown’s “Tricks of the Mind” for a good explanation of the more mundane reality of hypnosis, of which a substantial component is make-believe and playing along.

As the article puts it;

“Zombification thus appears as a case of sympathetic magic, a kind of perverse homeopathy.”

Some go even further;

“The controversy involves the role of a powerful poison called tetrodotoxin in the creation of zombies. Davis’ critics say there is either no tetrododoxin or little in the samples of zombie powder brought back by Davis to support his hypothesis. But there is more to it than that. The pharmacologists are accusing Davis of not playing by the rules by suppressing information that fails to bolster his case, while playing up a number of unconfirmed experiments that are repeatedly cited in his work as “personal communications.” Some of the critics seem especially irked because Davis sought out their assistance but allegedly refuses to listen when told his conclusions are not supported by the evidence. “I feel like I’ve been taken for a ride,” says [C.Y.] Kao [of State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, who is also quoted in the article as saying ‘”I actually feel this is an issue of fraud in science.”
‘Voodoo Science’, Science, New Series, Vol. 240, No. 4850 (Apr. 15, 1988), pp. 274-277

There’s more where that came from (thanks to JREF forum posters for some of these);

  1. ‘Zombie fish eaters?’, Garlaschelli, Chemistry in Britain, Nov. 2002 – also available online (though with an horrific background).
  2. ‘Clinical findings in three cases of zombification’, Littlewood and Douyon, The Lancet, Volume 350, Issue 9084 , 11 October 1997, Pages 1094-1096 (online here).
  3. ‘Tetrodotoxin and the Haitian zombie’, Yasumoto and Kao, Toxicon Volume 24, Issue 8 , 1986, Pages 747-749
  4. ‘Tetrodotoxin in “zombie powder”‘, Yasumoto and Kao, Toxicon Volume 28, Issue 2 , 1990, Pages 129-132 (NB that Kao and Yasumoto concluded that “’the widely circulated claim in the lay press to the effect that tetrodotoxin is the causal agent in the initial zombification process is without factual foundation’.)
  5. ‘Evidence for the presence of tetrodotoxin in a powder used in Haiti for zombification’, Benedek and Rivier, Toxicon Volume 27, Issue 4 , 1989, Pages 473-480
  6. ‘Tetrodotoxin and the zombi phenomenon’, Anderson, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 23, Issue 1 , May-June 1988, Pages 121-126
  7. ‘Zombies and Tetrodotoxin’, Hines, Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.3, May / June 2008

All are critical in tone. Even those who laud Davis’ contribution to the anthropology of zombification acknowledge that he fell short with the actual science behind the process.

I can’t be too hard on Discovery however, since even the sceptical organisation CSI (formerly CSICOP) has endorsed Davis’ hypothesis without reservation. Unfortunately the rebuttal to this piece from that organisation’s own journal, is not accessible online (see Hines above).

It’s also the standard journalistic method as applied to many documentary programmes, as I’ve commented before. A sort faux neutrality based on the idea that all viewpoints may be valid. Hence rival beliefs and opinions are presented with equal weight without any real analysis of either. Fictional aspects of the zombie may be a matter of opinion (personally I favour slow ones), but the reality need not be.