Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is a chilling account of the plague that hit London in 1665. It is also, in places, bears a striking resemblance to twentieth and twenty-first century zombie narratives.
For instance, there’s the rumor (which the narrator assures us is false) that those afflicted with the plague want to infect people who are well:
…those that did thus break out were generally people infected who, in their desperation, running about from one place to another, valued not whom they injured: and which perhaps, as I have said, might give birth to report that it was natural to the infected people to desire to infect others…
And their method of infection is compared to the bite of a rabid dog:
Some will have it to be in the nature of the disease, and that it impresses every one that is seized upon by it with a kind of rage, and a hatred against their own kind–as if there was a malignity not only in the distemper to communicate itself, but in the very nature of man, prompting him with evil will or an evil eye, that, as they say in the case of a mad dog, who though the gentlest creature before of any of his kind, yet then will fly upon and bite any one that comes next him, and those as soon as any who had been most observed by him before.
…if by the shutting up of houses the sick had not been confined, multitudes who in the height of their fever were delirious and distracted would have been continually running up and down the streets; and even as it was a very great number did so, and offered all sorts of violence to those they met, even just as a mad dog runs on and bites at every one he meets; nor can I doubt but that, should one of those infected, diseased creatures have bitten any man or woman while the frenzy of the distemper was upon them, they, I mean the person so wounded, would as certainly have been incurably infected as the one that was sick before…
The plague-afflicted wander in the fields:
…I seldom walked into the fields, except towards Bethnal Green and Hackney, or as hereafter. But when I did walk, I always saw a great many poor wanderers at a distance; but I could know little of these cases, for whether if were in the street or in the fields, if we had seen anybody coming, it was a general method to walk away.
And there is an abundance of horrors, like this:
Sometimes the mother has died of the plague, and the infant, it may be, half born, or born but not parted from the mother.
…The houses in the same row with that house northward are built on the very same ground where the poor people were buried, and the bodies, on opening the ground for the foundations, were dug up, some of them remaining so plain to be seen that the women’s skulls were distinguished by their long hair, and of other the flesh was not quite perished…
In sum, Defoe’s account of the London plague has many of the necessary trappings of a zombie narrative. What’s particularly hellish is that the account, while fictional, is based on a real event. I suspect that our pleasurable fear of and fascination with zombies is dependent on our general freedom from widespread infectious disease. While there’s always the worry about new super-diseases, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, etc., there’s no illness we know of that threatens to wipe out a tenth of a large city’s population in a matter of months–knock on wood.