Zombies are a part of today’s popular culture. Movies, TV Shows, video games, and books depict them as people who have ‘risen’ from the dead and crave human flesh and brains. Needless to say, they have become part of consumerism culture, with the CDC even accommodating them on their website. Yes, they do talk about zombie preparedness. While all we know about zombies is what we see in movies and shows like The Walking Dead, its spin-off Fear of the Walking Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Zombieland, and Shaun of the Dead, there has been enough controversy about their existence.
As we wait for a zombie apocalypse, it is important to ask ourselves the all significant question: where did the zombie concept come from? A quick look at the history of zombies might shed some light on the same.
The first place we should look at when trying to understand the history of zombies is well, history. The zombie myth dates back to the 17th and 18th century. During this time, Haiti, known as Saint-Domingue was under French rule. Slaves from Africa were taken to Haiti to work on sugar plantations. Most of these slaves worked until they died. More were hauled to Haiti.
The African zombie came from the belief by Haitian slaves that death would be a form of freedom, to allow them to go back to literally Guinea (lan Guinee) or Africa. This resulted in high suicide rates among the slaves. Unfortunately, even death could not give them the freedom to go back home, to Africa. There was such a feeling of helplessness, as the now soulless zombies were trapped in their own bodies.
A quick look at Literature will also help us understand where the zombie craze originated from. The Haitian revolution in 1804 played a crucial role in seeing an end to brutal French colonialism. The zombie formed part of Haiti Folklore. Some tweaks were made to incorporate the zombie into the Voodoo religion. They now believed that zombies were reanimated corpses by voodoo priests and shamans. Sorcerers, bokor, used the zombies as free labor for nefarious tasks. The bokor used magic, secret potion or some form of hypnosis to get free laborers for themselves. The bokors were feared and respected.
Later on, in the mid-1950s, bokors were used by political authorities to instill fear in citizens, especially those who defied the Duvalier regime. They had to follow the rule of law or be zombified.
In the U.S., there were early references to zombies. In 1838, a story was published by an American Newspaper called ‘The Unknown Painter’. A young African Slave owned by a Spanish painter claimed that a zombi came to work on the paintings of his master’s apprentices.
Zombies, Zombies, Humans Love Zombies
The marriage between African necromancy and American popular fiction took place in 1929. William Seabrook published The Magic Island, where he described his unsettling experience in Haiti, seeing voodoo cults. He also tried to describe the zombie concept (note that zombie did not have an e at the end). The 1932 film White Zombie is believed to be based on Seabrook’s book. We could credit Seabrook for the mad love that we now have for these creepy creatures.
In 1968, Night of the Living Dead by George Romero was released, further enhancing the beliefs about zombies. They began to seem more real. The zombie apocalypse seemed nearer than ever. It is good to throw in some reality here: Romero did not even refer to the creatures in his film as zombies. He called them ghouls, but people preferred to call hem zombies. The name stuck.
Research into zombies seemed to have hit a new dawn, with several researchers traveling to Haiti, “the land of zombies”, to try and understand more about their origins. Researchers said that zombies were simply resurrected people without souls or speech. They were meant to take instructions and never tire.
A fascinating research was done by Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist. He studied the case of a man who was believed to have been turned into a zombie. The man, Clairvius Narcisse was given drugs made from puffer fish and toadfish venom to mimic death (yuck!). He was then given tetrodotoxin, a hallucinogen made from Datura, also known as zombie cucumber to keep him in a zombie state. Davis published his book, The Serpent and the Rainbow. To say that it stirred a lot of questions is a huge understatement. Interestingly, people loved it. It was later turned into a horror film. Whether the study revealed some truth or not, we now can attribute our favorite zombies to Haiti slaves (and pay a tribute to them).
There is a belief that the Mayan civilization was actually wiped away by zombies. Evidence reveals headless corpses and bones that seemed to have been roughly ripped from the body and chewed on the spot. (Creepy)
In our day, the popularity of zombies continues to rise, and in 2012 when the CDC launched their site on Zombie preparedness, it became so popular that it crashed. If we are expecting some zombie apocalypse, why not inform people how to prepare for it? We do prepare for hurricanes and earthquakes? Why not some form of zombie survival skills or zombie survival gear?
Modern day symbolism
From a Literature point of view, zombies can be seen as a symbol of certain fears. Are our fears this horrible? Borrowing from a history of slavery could help us visualize a parallel between our fear of zombies and the fear of enslavement, the fear of someone having complete control over us, reducing us to the level of an animal. At another level, zombies are a reminder of our mortality.
A logical perspective
More people have continued to question the rationale behind the creation of zombies. Pointing to the fact that Haiti is a poor country, economically, there would be enough laborers willing to work for pennies. If chemicals were used to zombify people, it would be a rather risky, complicated process to have someone abducted, their death faked, ensuring that you give them the right portions and then having them revived.
As many people try to understand zombies, their origin, and existence, zombie fans are looking forward to the next film and season of their favorite TV show. Maybe it is time to follow CDC’s advice on zombie preparedness, should there be a zombie apocalypse.
Get some zombie survival gear, and you will be good to go. Just like this guy….