On Inhuman Modes of Locomotion
Even in the context of Lucan’s gore-soaked Pharsalia, the scene is spectacular: the Witch of Erictho squirts a cadaver’s chest full of “boiling blood”, “laves its organs with pus,” moon-slime, and other repulsive substances in order the resuscitate the dead man as an oracle. Pompey’s son, Sextus, seeks occult intelligence as to the outcome of the imminent battle, and has commissioned the witch to draft an unfortunate casualty of previous fighting as spokesman for the Underworld. Motive and prophecy, however, don’t concern me. I am interested in the way that the reanimated dead man moves:
Soon, the thing is pulsing in every limb
The sinews strain, and the corpse lurches up from the ground –
not inch by inch, not limb by limb, but heaving itself
up from the earth, standing erect all at once.
Pharsalia, Book VI, 754 - 757
(Translated by Jane Wilson Joyce)
One imagines the rigid corpse pulled into an upright position by the witch’s power without flexing its limbs, presumably stiff with rigor mortis. This motif echoes the witch’s earlier manhandling of the dead body, “hauling” it over cliffs and ledges by a “hook with grim leashes jabbed” into the livid flesh. (VI, 638) Crucially, the cadaver’s locomotion is unearthly, uncanny – the undead is suddenly heaved into view.
The German film maker W. F. Murnau surely must have known this passage from the Pharsalia. In his 1922 vampire movie, Nosferatu, Murnau stages an appearance of his monster exactly as imagined by Lucan. The undead creature has been resting in his native earth in a coffin in the hold of a ship bound to Bremen. Rats swarm from the coffin spreading plague on the doomed ship. As the men begin to die, the camera approaches the dark hatchway leading into the black and cavernous hold of the sailing vessel. Suddenly, Nosferatu rises from that hatchway. He doesn’t climb forth from the darkness, nor does he hover or levitate upwards. Rather, the creature rotates into an upright position as if on a hinge at his heels. The corpse-vampire is entirely rigid; the motion is swift and decisive. It is like those targets simulating terrorists or robbers that suddenly swivel into a pop-up position on a police firing range. The effect is startling and horrific. (Werner Herzog reproduces this effect fifty years later in his re-make of Nosferatu).
Once an inhuman creature or one of the undead has made his cataleptic appearance, another problem exists to be solved: how should the undead ambulate? Two options appear to exist.
Sometimes, the undead move with surprising speed, whisked over the ground as if they were pulled along on a trolley. In Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice, we learn about the distinction between the gait of English as opposed to American zombies:
American zombies are at least out front about (being inhuman), tend to stagger when they try to walk anywhere, usually in third ballet position, and, they go, like ‘Uunnhh... uunnhh’ with that rising and falling tone, whereas English zombies are for the most part quite well spoken, they use long words, and they glide everywhere, like, sometimes you don’t even see them take steps, it’s like they’re on ice skates...
Inherent Vice, p. 132
A couple aspects of this description deserve comment. “Third ballet position” refers to the position of feet with toes facing in opposite directions at almost 180 degrees from one another; the back of the front foot is nestled against the middle of the rear foot. From this contorted position, it is impossible to walk – one would stumble and fall immediately. Pynchon suggests that American zombies lack proprioception – that is, suffer from an inability to perceive where their limbs and members benumbed by death are located. Unable to propriocept the relationship of feet and ankles to one another and to the ground, American zombies twist into the “Third Ballet Position” and so, inevitably, stagger and, perhaps, fall. This description seems to arise from a misunderstanding of the Frankenstein monster’s gait. The Frankenstein monster doesn’t get entangled with his own feet. Rather, he is dead and so longs, I think, to return to the earth. This means that every move that the monster makes is like a dead meat falling forward under gravity’s influence – the monster’s miserable mortified flesh longs for repose and so he is constantly staggering forward, each step dropping heavily onto the earth and overbalanced so that he is propelled forward. This form of ambulation, derived from Karloff’s portrayal of the monster in the early 1930's has shown considerable longevity; George Romero’s Pittsburgh zombies in Night of the Living Dead, first spawned in 1968 and continuing to haunt us today move with that same heavy, lumbering gait.
Pynchon’s book is set in 1970, at the start of the Manson family trials. Therefore, his description of English zombies seems anachronistic – the quick, feral undead originate in the new Millenium. These lithe, swift, gliding English zombies are the invention of Danny Boyles’ 2002 film 28 Days later (and reappear in the 2007 sequel 28 Weeks later). Not all English zombies move with such elan. The zombies that appear suddenly in London in Shaun of the Dead (2004) are a reversion to the slow, staggering, clumsy zombie of the Frankenstein model. But, generally, it seems that British undead move swiftly, as if on feet magically equipped with roller-blade wheels. A good example is shown in an episode of the British TV comedy The IT Crowd named The Haunting of Bill Crouse (2006). For reasons too complicated to limn, the show’s female protagonist, Jen, is thought to be dead. In fact, she is very much alive. On the night preceding her alleged demise, Jen went on a date with a boorish co-worker, Bill Crouse. When Crouse hears the rumor that Jen has suddenly died, he boasts to everyone that “(he) was the last person to sleep with her.” Jen hops a ride on a mail cart pushed by a little gnome of a mail clerk, grinning as he hustles her down the corridor. The cart flashes by Bill Crouse’s office and his window is masked in such a way that he sees nothing but Jen’s grinning face gliding past with uncanny speed – a jack-o-lantern head whisked by his window without any indication of stride or gait, an entirely horizontal motion that, like the corpse in Lucan and like Murnau’s Nosferatu, presents a sudden looming appearance, but without flexion of muscle or joint. Needless to say, this apparition terrifies the hapless braggart, Bill Crouse.
Poets are often concerned with how inhuman things move. Robert Lowell describes
giantfinned cars (nosing) forward
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
(“For the Union Dead”)
Carl Sandberg tells us that the fog “comes on little cat feet.” In Psalm 19, the sun
comes forth from his pavilion like a bridegroom,
like a strong man rejoicing to run his race...
There is nothing hidden from his heat.
And it was either Robert Johnson or Son House in 1930 who first wrote:
Got up this mornin’
Saw Blues walkin’ like a man
I said “Good morning, Blues
Give me your right hand.”
In Zarathustra, Nietzsche reminds us that all great events come on “dove’s feet.” This image quotes Homer’s Iliad at Book Five, the episode where “Hera of the white arms” and “Bright-eyed Athene” intervene in a battle at Troy, darting through mist “walking as if with the feet of turtle-doves” toward man-killing Ares.