Sometimes Death Comes Knocking, Sometimes it Tears Down the Walls
The term “Zombie” is derived from nzambi, the Kongo word for the spirit of the dead. Zombies have become supremely popular in media and entertainment in recent years. A multitude of movies, books, comics, and video games are based around zombies and the zombie apocalypse. Shows such as The Walking Dead and I Zombie have become incredibly popular and even unrelated series have begun to incorporate zombies in one way or another. Almost every franchise imaginable has some kind of zombie or undead in it now. From Super Mario and Call of Duty to Star Wars and Marvel Comics, the undead craze is sweeping the nation. The idea of the dead returning to torment the living is no new invention however, so the question is why has it gained so much traction in media and pop culture recently? What caused this generation to become so infatuated with the living dead? For the most part, mythical monsters are based around exactly that, myths, but zombies are a little different. Monsters such as vampires, werewolves, or Frankenstein’s monster are creations that represent mankind’s fears, uncouth desires, or shortcomings in the eras in which their story is being told. Zombies fall into that category as well but, in addition to that, they have origins that are rooted in real events as well as myths that date all the way back to prehistory. One of the, if not the, largest contributors to the creation of zombie lore were the Haitians.
In Haiti, which is primarily a voodoo nation, it was common for someone known as a Bokor to create and employ Zombie slaves. Now, of course, these zombies are not truly undead in the sense that they are not actually soulless, walking corpses, but for generations their appearance, demeanor, and the method of their creation led the majority to believe that they were indeed the dead risen. In Haiti, if you just so happened to know of a nearby bokor, you could hire them to zombify someone. Say your spouse is caught cheating, your child has grown into a dishonorable adult, or that conniving M’baku down the street stole another one of your chickens. If you wanted to, you could hire a bokor to turn said transgressor into a shuffling, mindless, entity. Bokors are alchemists who create various concoctions using ingredients such as bones, shells, herbs, and animal parts. The zombies that they create are actually living people who have been introduced to a potent zombie mixture called “coup padre” that dulls their minds and make them susceptible to the influence of their master. Though the full recipe for the concoction is unknown, it is common belief that tetrodoxin, an incredibly dangerous neurotoxin found in the fou fou, also known as the porcupine fish, is used very carefully in the mixture. Small doses of tetrodoxin often cause confusion, loss of balance, and difficulty breathing. These symptoms are why we commonly see zombies in our fiction aimlessly wandering with blank stares, shambling, and moaning/ huffing. Often times, if a bokor is coming for someone, they will find a way to get them to ingest a concoction that renders them in a near death state that is indistinguishable from death itself without modern medical equipment. The victim’s heartrate will drop dramatically, the skin becomes pale and clammy, and their pulse becomes unnoticeable. After their burial, the bokor will visit the grave, dig up their new slave and give them the coup padre. The victim then awakens as a dull and mindless drone. The people of Haiti were unaware of exactly how a bokor went about creating zombies. All they knew was that someone in their community was pronounced dead, was buried, and is now rumored to have been seen meandering around. Thus the idea of the mindless, shambling, zombie was born.
Zombies became known in the United States when stories of the zombie slaves of Haiti made their way over and left the populace shocked and horrified by the dark rituals of these voodoo shamans. These tales led to the creation of the 1932 movie White Zombie, which is the first feature length zombie film ever made. In the movie, the female protagonist is stalked and transformed into a zombie by an evil voodoo priest played by the famous horror actor Bela Lugosi, best known for his influential role as Dracula in the 1931 film. The true rise of zombies into popularity, however, didn’t come until the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, directed by George Romero. Two more zombie films were directed by Romero over the next 15 years and, shortly after the start of the 80s, the subject of zombies really started to pick up.
The early examples of zombies in media often portrayed them as the result of supernatural practices such as witchcraft, voodoo, or demonic rituals. This came as a result of historic accounts and myths about undead. Regardless of the vast differences between them, stories about zombies throughout history have been rooted in the supernatural. The fear of the dead rising from their graves has been prevalent among mankind for as long as we can remember. Stone Age remains appear to have been originally buried intact, but eventually they began to bury their remains with their skulls smashed or removed and buried in a separate grave farther away. Some believe that this was done to ensure that the dead would not return to life. Zombies aren’t specifically mentioned in the Bible, but there are references of the dead coming back to life here as well. Ezekiel finds himself in a boneyard and prophesies to the bones. The bones shake and become covered in flesh, yet “there was no breath in them.” Isaiah 26:19 states, “Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead.” The Greeks believed that certain people were more likely to return from the dead than others. Those who committed suicide, were murdered, cursed, or died from other traumatic experiences such as the plague or drowning were thought to likely return as undead and prey on the living. Some believe that the Mayans suffered a kind of zombie apocalypse towards the end of their civilization. Human bones found within the ruins of many Mayan cities exhibit human tooth marks and appear to have been forcefully ripped apart and evidence is thought to have been found of children eating their parents as well. From the state that the cities were left in, it has been surmised that they slaughtered and ate themselves within a few days’ time. In addition to being exclusively supernatural, many ancient incarnations of the undead display special abilities, powers, or quirks. In Norse mythology, Draugr are living corpses who wander their crypts. They are described as bloated with black skin and are known to possess some supernatural abilities such as shapeshifting, entering the dreams of the living, and driving people insane. Draugr slaughter and consume the living just like modern zombies but, unlike most modern zombies, draugr have also been known to utilize tools such a heavy stones or swords to kill. Jiang Shi, the Chinese version of the zombie, literally means “stiff corpse”. These zombies are very strange in that their mode of locomotion is hopping around. In Romania, the Strigoi is a zombie of someone who has died with regrets or troubles. Dying without being baptized or before marriage are other ways that someone could end up coming back as a strigoi. Some post mortem marriage ceremonies are performed for the newly deceased as a way to try to keep them from becoming a strigoi. Like the draugr, strigoi exhibit some supernatural abilities or traits that weren’t commonly found among modern zombies until recently including primarily only drinking blood and the ability to transform into animals. These traits almost make them seem more like vampires than zombies, however the fact that your corpse can become one without having been bit by one separates the two in a way. In video games especially, the need to keep things fresh, new, and interesting, has led to the creation of many new types of zombies with strange abilities similar to some of the zombies from history. There are zombies that spit acid, have frog-like tongues, explode, and some that can use certain kinds of weaponry. Media based on cultural mythology also use specific examples of ancient undead to spice things up. The Witcher novels, which follow the adventures of a monster slayer in a fantasy world of Polish mythology, feature the striga, the Polish version of the strigoi and Draugr make an appearance in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Cohen’s Monster Culture mentions that one important characteristic that monsters have is the ability to shift and reflect the relevant fears and apprehensions of the era that tells their stories. Like vampires evolving from the hideous Nosferatu into the succubus/ incubus-like vampires of today, zombies have also changed. As stated before, historical accounts, myths, and early media representations of undead portray them as supernatural creations. As the fear of witches, demons, and other foul spirits became less prevalent, the reasoning behind zombies shifted from being mainly supernatural to being scientific. Science and medicine have progressed incredibly far in the last few decades and some scientific advances have come under scrutiny as to whether or not they are moral or safe. Scientifically created abominations and diseases have become popular “monsters” of sorts and zombie lore happened to have very little trouble adopting this idea. The majority of modern zombie fiction revolves around an outbreak of a virus or disease of some kind that transforms people into flesh eating zombies. More often than not, the antagonists of these stories are scientific enterprises who attempt to create bioweapons but then lose control of said bioweapons which causes the initial outbreak. The real life fear of “Big Science” plays into zombie fiction in a crucial way. As zombies strayed further away from their Haitian roots and as special effects became more and more impressive, depictions of zombies became more and more grotesque in an attempt to keep the shock factor of the audience intact.
Another niche that zombies have had little trouble fitting into is the apocalypse genre. The apocalypse genre has been touched upon in history in tales such as Gilgamesh or Ragnarok, but as the new millennium drew near and prophesies from the Mayans and Nostradamus seemed to be coming to fruition, the fear of the end of the world became more and more prevalent. More often than not, zombie centric fiction deals with the spread of the undead bringing total societal collapse. Very rarely are outbreaks contained in small areas.
Zombies in modern media have adapted and changed in order to fit into many separate genres from apocalypse to sci-fi to fantasy. This ability to morph and adapt and even bring back traits from history to stay interesting and relevant suggests that zombies still have quite the lifespan left even though they can be considered one of the oldest known monsters. As new genres and forms of media gain popularity, be sure to keep an eye on your dead. They never quite seem to stay where you put them.
Zombie Annotated Bibliography
Zombies, H. (2018). Zombies: Facts and Voodoo Origins | HISTORY.com. [online] HISTORY.com. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/history-of-zombies [Accessed 1 Aug. 2018].
This article discusses the origins of Zombies and how the subject of the undead apocalypse has become extremely popular in pop culture.
Great Discoveries in Archaeology. (2018). History of Zombies. [online] Available at: http://anthropology.msu.edu/anp264-ss13/2013/04/25/history-of-zombies/ [Accessed 1 Aug. 2018].
This student post goes into some more detail about the original Haitian zombie slaves that helped inspire the legends of the undead.
Lin, K. (2018). History of Zombies from Ancient Times to Pop Culture. [online] Historic Mysteries. Available at: https://www.historicmysteries.com/history-of-zombies/ [Accessed 1 Aug. 2018].
This article discusses zombies in history that date back even further than the Haitian zombie slaves. Tales and rituals meant to keep the dead at rest from even the stone age and ancient Greece.
Mariani, M. (2018). The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/10/how-america-erased-the-tragic-history-of-the-zombie/412264/ [Accessed 1 Aug. 2018].
This is another article that explains how the true tragedy of zombie slaves became lost to us as we began to incorporate the subject of zombies into entertainment.
Swanser, B. (2018). The Mysterious Real Zombies of Haiti | Mysterious Universe. [online] Mysterious Universe. Available at: https://mysteriousuniverse.org/2014/08/the-mysterious-real-zombies-of-haiti/ [Accessed 1 Aug. 2018].
This article goes the furthest in depth about the process of Haitian zombification and a bit more into their culture.