Death is the great equalizer, no matter how much wealth one acquires or fame a person claims in a single lifetime, humanity’s bodies will undoubtedly end up as worm food. Yet, since the beginning of human civilization the idea of escaping this egalitarian concept has captivated people’s minds. From vampires to Greek gods, immortality has been an intoxicating fascination; zombies however, stand out as an example of how humanity fears immortality for the same reason it fears death: it cannot be controlled. Beginning in African and Caribbean folklore the zombie has climbed through the ranks from a re-animated corpse to be manipulated by a vodou sorcerer to the hordes of flesh eating creatures known today. Fear of zombies changed as much as the society that created the monster has. Jeffrey James Cohen, the man who literally wrote the book on what defines a monster, crafted his third thesis as “The monster’s body is a cultural body,” Zombies model this perfectly, being featured in countless works of fiction and even music. Zombies remain at the forefront of humanity’s consciousness because the creature is most definitely human but has lost any semblance of humanity. What zombies represent almost perfectly is the evolution of mankind’s fears, and continuously change in order to make the creatures applicable to an expanding societal hivemind.

While the word zombie can be traced all the way back to the year 1819, the legendary creature emerged centuries before then. African and Native American communities have wielded mythology centered around re-animated dead corpses which are under the control of a witch or sorcerer. In Haitian vodou, a bokor or priest able to use dark magic, raises a corpse from the dead and uses it as a slave, manipulating the body and usually making it do field or domestic work (Nanton, no. 4). West Africa contains similar legends of witches reanimating the dead as well as the Arawat natives of the Caribbean. These monsters were not necessarily viewed as malignant, and were more likely to be viewed as victims to the evil bokor overlord. Once these native populations were colonized by savage Europeans, some of the shamanistic ideas were recorded by monks and studied. Around the time of the enlightenment with more and more humanistic ideas forming, the legend surrounding what would later be referred to as zombies changed. Mary Shelley’s seminal masterpiece Frankenstein, published in 1818, invented the science fiction genre and fettered an important cornerstone of modern zombie mythology: that science, not magic, created zombies.

Frankenstein left a lasting effect on the expansion of literature in Europe, as Edgar Allen Poe created the mystery genre and science fiction continued to be published little by little. It was not until the twentieth century however that zombies began to become a distinct monster in humanity’s minds. H.P. Lovecraft, the legendary horror author and creator of Cthulu,

wrote several novels revolving around the dead being brought back to life, what Lovecraft most importantly added to the genre however was the core idea of anarchy. That these undead creatures could not be controlled and that the monster would be broken down to its most arcane instincts, becoming violent, cannibalistic, and mute. Stripped of any and all empathy towards the species it once belonged to. No longer under the control of anyone or anything human, not even the monster’s own emotions.  

Still it was not until the late 1950’s, millenia after the idea of the dead rising struck fear into mankind’s hearts, that one of the most important zombie aspects came into being… the infection. Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I am Legend, arguably the first work of the “zombie apocalypse” genre, follows a protagonist who remains the sole survivor of a plague which has overtaken humanity. Such an outbreak causes societal collapse and violent urges among the infected. In the end however, the author reveals that the infected have created a distinct society, organised by laws and social order. This detail makes the novel distinct from the modern zombie genre, because the zombies are organised and follow order. A detail so influential that it remained the standard for zombies for several decades to come.

In 1968, the zombie genre becomes cemented. An unknown director and relatively unknown group of actors shot a low budget horror film in an abandoned Pennsylvania barn, because it was all the team could afford. “Night of the Living Dead”was created there, and in turn is what created modern zombie mythology as it is known today and added the most important detail of zombieism (Parker). The horde. A creature can be raised from the dead, can be mindless and cruel, that creature can even infect others and not necessarily be classified as a zombie (all of those attributes can be assigned to a vampire for example). What truly defines zombies and by extension what truly makes zombies terrifying, is sheer volume. These zombies were not fast moving, were not under any shaman’s control, and did not organize. These zombies work slowly and without reason, the creatures bit and infected others, not difficult to outrun, outlast, or out maneuver; but impossible to escape. A culmination of decades of fiction and horror, the modern zombie no longer represents humanity’s fear of death or even of scientific advancement gone amok. Zombies are modern man’s fear of mindless conformity and oppression.

Each re-animation of the zombie has reflected a culture’s fear. “Night of the Living Dead” created a modern monster for a modern audience. Released at the height of the Vietnam War, some saw the film’s zombies are the soldiers traveling in an unknown land causing murder and carnage while losing humanity. Others saw the zombies as “The Silent Majority” or America, killing people without even realizing, and being completely blind to the sufferings of rural black America (the film has a black protagonist and is literally set in a barn). Emerging a mere twenty years after Nazism and at the height of aggressive communist action from Soviet Russia, these zombies were now the mindless waves of oppression that could soon cross the globe. What humanity had created for itself was no longer a monster that hid under the bed at night, but a powerful metaphor applicable to a coming generation.

Following an IRA bombing in Warrington, Ireland in 1993 that claimed the lives of two Irishmen, one of whom was twelve years old and the other a mere three.“The Cranberries,” an Irish rock band, released its most famous work in protest of the senseless violence that had plagued the band’s country for well over fifty years. The song was titled “Zombie.” A quantifiable message is carried throughout the power ballad, which is simply stated, “What’s in your head?” Has humanity fallen so low, that it is little more than thoughtless drones ready to kill people who look just like it? Have we in essence become zombies? Similarly, during the wall street collapse of 2008 in the United States, many who belonged to the “Occupy” movement dressed in torn business suits and armed with white face paint to appear gaunt, claiming that the slaves to business on wall street were nothing more than mindless thugs (Zimmerman). Zombies are tangibly human: with two eyes, a nose, a mouth, hands, and feet, but have lost the most importants thing that discerns a human, empathy. What society created for itself, is a perfect symbol of protest against… itself.  

Rising from humble beginnings in the Caribbean, the zombie has ascended to the pantheon of monsters due to its profound impact on society. Because yes, the monster is a reflection of culture and fear and ostracisation but most importantly, the monster stands up as a message of what humanity cannot return to. When James Jeffrey Cohen finished his book on the definition of monstrosity, he pondered an oft asked question in regards to his study of monsters and monstrosity: do monsters really exist? He answered sweetly and succinctly, “of course, for if not, how could we?” (Cohen 17). While humorous, Cohen’s point is that mankind’s monsters are what create humanity, monsters define the inexplicable and vilify the dangerous. Monsters create social order and force questioning about that very social order so that it may advance. What humanity may have found in zombies however, is something that encapsulates man’s fear more than anything. That this fun game of society is only a lid, and that if removed, a boiling cesspool of rabid face-eaters lies just beneath the surface.

Annotated Bibliography


  1. Parker, James. “Our Zombies, Ourselves: Why We Can’t Get the Undead off Our Brains.” [“Atlantic”]. Atlantic, vol. 307, no. 3, Apr. 2011, pp. 32-33. EBSCOhost,

James Parker’s insight into why zombies are constantly talked about throughout literary history gave me great insight into what makes zombies fascinating. Most importantly however, is what Parker taught me not to write. If I wanted to be original and not regurgitate facts I knew I would need to do more research and dig into my own my own mind for concrete thought. While the piece is an editorial, The Atlantic is a reliable journal and gives the author borrowed reliability.

  1. Nanton, Philip. “Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies.” [“Journal of Social History”]. Journal of Social History, vol. 39, no. 4, Summer2006, pp. 1205-1206. EBSCOhost,

Gave great insight into the history of zombies. Gave me some ideas into how I would formulate my essay and move through the subjects. Great scientific and reliable source.

  1. Zimmerman, Jonathan. “Occupy Wall Street: An American Tradition since 1776.” [“Christian Science Monitor”]. Christian Science Monitor, 05 Oct. 2011. EBSCOhost,

Gave me my ideas on how to end the paper and on what the eventual and final effects of the monster was. A reliable source, as a journal and as the author is a world renowned professor of history. Also gave additional examples of a modern continued zombie craze.

  1. Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

We talked about this book in class. It showed a new perspective on zombies and is a great document based example. I can assume its credibility based on its use in a college classroom.