Zombie movies have been adored by teenagers and adults alike for a many decades. People seem to love watching a small group of ragged survivors attempting to escape an endless horde of bloodthirsty zombies. They have become so popular that they are occasionally considered to be their own genre. Zombies seem to be everywhere; however few people stop and wonder how this came to be. Where did zombies come from? Why are people drawn to something so gruesome? The truth is that this was not always the case. Zombies have not always been obsessed with human flesh and brains. The entertainment industry has redefined the concept of the zombie. Even though the origin of the monster that we adore watching on the big screen remains largely unknown, it has widespread significance throughout American culture.
What is a zombie? Although this question may seem simple, it is actually very complicated. The zombie has been defined in numerous ways. The dictionary describes a zombie as “the body of a dead person given the semblance of life, but mute and will-less, by a supernatural force, usually for some evil purpose” (“Zombie Definition”). It is important to note that contrary to popular belief, this does not necessarily mean that they eat flesh or that zombiism (the state of being a zombie) is a contagious disease, as commonly depicted in modern movies. The way zombies have been interpreted has evolved over the years.
The word zombie, also spelt zombi, is most likely derived from the word nzombi, which is the Kongo word for “spirit of a dead person” (Keegan). This produces an interesting dilemma; is a zombie the body or soul of a dead person? According to the Journal of American Folklore, “this subject has been investigated by many scholars with rather conflicting results… Many investigators, including well known ethnologists and anthropologists, recognize that there are two kinds of zombis: soul-less bodies and bodyless souls” (Ackerman 473). Despite this, the living dead body is generally considered to be more traditional and is much more prevalent in American literature, film, and culture as well.
The Origin of Zombies:
In 1697, Spain conceded part of the island of Hispaniola to France, which later became Haiti. The French imported slaves from Africa to work on their plantations (“Haiti”). They were treated horribly and forced to work in sickening conditions, sometimes until death. The slaves brought with them their customs and religious, including the practice of Vodou (Kay). Vodou, usually spelt Voodoo, are “the ceremonies in which practitioners are possessed by the spirits”. Voodoo bokors are priests that practice black magic and sorcery and possess the ability to bring a dead body back to life (Kay). These powers have an evil connotation and are very similar to those that Satan has allegedly given witches. In most cultures the practice of spirit possession is forbidden and has an association with the devil. These connections can be used to compare Voodoo to Satanism (the worship of Satan).
In Haitian Voodoo folktale, when someone has annoyed their family and community to the point where living with the person cannot be tolerated, they hire a bokor to transform the person into a zombie. The bokor would administer coup poudre, a magic powder that caused the person to appear dead. After the body was buried the bokor would dig it back up, which was still alive but without memory, will, or consciousness. The bokor then had control of the zombie until he died (Keegan). There are several parts of this story are normally considered to be taboo, such as premeditated murder, intentional poisoning, grave robbery, and mind-control. These aspects and the fear they cause are what lead to zombies being considered monstrous and frightening.
Slavery and Zombiism:
There are several parallels that can be drawn between slavery in Haiti and Voodoo legend. Primarily is the similarity between zombies and slaves. Both have been involuntarily separated from their families and friends against their will, are forced to obey their masters’ orders, and are on the verge of death. Furthermore, the Journal of American Folklore explains that “The becomes a slave of the sorcerer who zombified it. Made to work like a robot in the fields, on construction sites, in a bakery or a shop, the zombi may serve as a watchman, keep the books, steal crops or money for its master, or be rented out or sold to others” (Ackermann 474). Slaves have many jobs in common with those that zombies are made to do. Although they are humans, they are not treated like people. They are sold like possessions, not paid for their work, and killing them is conventional. Bearing in mind all of the striking resemblances that zombies have to slaves, it is undeniable that there is a significant connection between the two.
Zombies in Real-Life:
Though it may seem outrageous at first, the prospect that zombies are real could very well be a possibility. In his book The Serpent and the Rainbow, published in 1985, Wade Davis attempts to prove this theory is true using factual evidence. He investigated the case of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who returned to his home 18 years after he was proclaimed dead and buried. Clairvius proved to his sister and others that he was not an imposter by recalling stories from his childhood that nobody else could know.
He said he could remember being pronounced dead, nailed into a coffin, and buried. After which he claimed to have been exhumed, beaten, and forced to work on a plantation with other zombies until the death of his master when he escaped. What makes this story even more curious is that there was legitimate medical documentation proving that two American-trained doctors had confirmed his death (Davis 412). This is an indication that the Haitian legend of the zombie is a reality. If zombies are real then people would believe that other monsters could also exist.
In addition, the research of Dr. Lamarque Douyon proves the existence of a drug with the ability to cause the impression of death. Dr. Douyon was a Haitian psychiatrist educated at McGill University and had been studying reports of zombies for 20 years. While at McGill he tested the effects of the drug Datura stramonium, known in Haitian as concombre zombie, or zombie’s cucumber, on lab rats. It produced a catatonic state similar to that which was caused by coup poudre in Haitian folklore (Davis 412).
Furthermore, Wade Davis discovered many instances of people being conscious while they were pronounced dead by doctors, then seeming to return to life due to tetrodotoxin poisoning, a chemical found in some kinds of fish (Davis 413-414). This is proof that a person can be resurrected after they have died, or at least appeared to die and evidence that zombiism is scientifically possible, although they are not exactly the mindless creatures that they are thought to be.
In 1932, White Zombie was the movie that started it all. The early 30’s were known as the “Universal Era” (Gertz) due to the success of Universal Studios’ production of classic horrors such as White Zombie, in addition to Dracula and Frankenstein (Kay). White Zombie is significant because it was the introduction of zombies to American media. Its association with movies about famous legendary monsters helped zombies become more renowned. If it hadn’t have been a horror then movies about the zombie apocalypse wouldn’t have their iconic reputation and its success was a key factor leading to their popularity today. It is also noteworthy for its accurate representation of zombies as they were first portrayed in Haitian folktales (“White Zombie”). Since then, the American depiction of the zombie has been constantly evolving.
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is commonly known as the most innovative zombie move of all time. Although the creatures in the movie were never referred to as zombies, “Night of the Living Dead forever redefined what it means to be a zombie” (Kay 49). One of its most revolutionary features was the depiction of a monster that eats human flesh. Romero’s creation resembled a combination of a werewolf, vampire, ghoul, and zombie (Kay 54).
Unlike traditional zombies, it was not controlled by a Voodoo master. It rose from the dead, brainlessly searching for a human to feast on, who would also turn into a zombie (“Night”). The new monster was significant because it challenged taboos by exhibiting cannibalism and having no morals. It became the standard of modern zombies. The movie’s iconic storyline has been reproduced many times and the new monster became the standard of modern zombies. To sum it up, Night of the Living Dead is the reason why zombies are pictured as the gruesome creature that they are today.
Today they can be found almost anywhere. From their little known beginning in a Haitian folktale, zombies have grown to be the focus of many Hollywood blockbusters. People cannot get enough of the exhilaration and distress that they create, but they fail to realize the extensive amount of culture that characterizes zombies. If one were to dig deeper than their rotten skin and putrid stench, they would discover how zombies connect to taboos, reflect history, and impact society.