The subject of zombies is nothing new, but it has continued to increase in popularity as the decades have rolled by. These peculiar undead creatures have been the topic of countless movies, books, TV shows, comics, websites, video games and other bastions of pop culture for well over 80 years, but in more recent times, the advent of the Internet has brought with it an almost rabid obsession with zombie-related themes and memes. There are groups of people who are literally training for an unsettling forthcoming event known as the “Zombie Apocalypse”, and others are becoming more convinced that the undead are actually among us in our everyday lives, lying in wait to attack us at any moment. So what’s with all of this hype surrounding these ghoulish monsters? It’s a long story, but let’s start by defining what a zombie actually is.
The most popular working definition of a zombie is a half-dead (or, for the optimists, a “reanimated”) corpse that has an insatiable craving for human flesh, and human brains in particular. They are somehow suspended between the world of the dead and the world of the living, essentially unable to complete their passage into the unknown afterlife. This would definitely be a frustrating prospect, so naturally zombies are not known to be friendly creatures. They are antagonistic to humans, and will cannibalize any living person on sight, presumably in an attempt to siphon whatever “life” they can get from them. The concept of zombies has existed in one form or another for countless decades, but to really get to the root of the zombie phenomenon, we have to take a trip back to the voodoo-infused culture of 17th Century Haiti.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Haiti was under French rule, and slaves were imported from West Africa to power the rapidly growing sugar trade in Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue) and other key locations in the New World. Voodoo was heavily practiced by slaves as well as slave drivers during this time, and the mixture of superstition, mythology and occultism that accompanied the practice of voodoo gave rise to the idea of the zombie as a way to keep recalcitrant slaves from trying to escape or act out in rebellion against their masters. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, expert voodoo researcher Amy Wilentz provides further insight into this phenomenon:
“The only escape from the sugar plantations was death, which was seen as a return to Africa, or lan guinee (literally Guinea, or West Africa). This is a phrase in Haitian Creole that even now means heaven…The zombie is a dead person who cannot get across to lan guinee. This final rest–in green, leafy, heavenly Africa, with no sugarcane to cut and no master to appease or serve–is unavailable to the zombie. To become a zombie was the slave’s worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand.”
Many of the slave drivers on the plantations were voodoo priests themselves, and they would threaten to “hex” or “curse” a slave with zombie-hood if they tried to escape or commit suicide. The prospect of dying but never escaping their oppressive conditions was a very real phenomenon that created somewhat of a mental prison for slaves, essentially coercing them to continue to endure their brutal existence. During this time, the word “zombie” suggested an entity that had a body, but little else; a zombie was basically thought to be a shell of a person, a creature who could no longer be autonomous or self-aware, but was banished to live a primal, unthinking existence.
In the 1980s, an anthropologist named Wade Davis claimed to have discovered a powder that could essentially “zombify” a person, asserting that his discovery provided a scientific explanation for the various zombie legends that existed in various cultures that practiced voodoo. This mysterious “zombie powder” was a highly potent neurotoxin known as tetrodotoxin, found in various species of animals including the highly poisonous pufferfish. Although Davis did not believe in voodoo or magic, he claimed to have infiltrated the secretive ranks of various voodoo priests (known as “bokors” or “houngan”), obtaining samples of various “zombie powders” for chemical analysis. Davis later wrote a book about his experiences entitled “The Serpent and the Rainbow”, which recounted his investigation of the story of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was allegedly poisoned with a combination of chemical substances that turned him into a zombie. Davis’s book was later adapted into a Wes Craven-directed horror film by the same name.
Cinema historians largely agree that the first full-length zombie movie ever created was a 1932 film entitled “White Zombie”, which was directed by brothers Edward and Victor Halperin and starred famed horror actor Bela Lugosi. The movie depicts the experience of a young woman who was transformed into a zombie at the hands of a nefarious voodoo priest. While “White Zombie” received largely negative or lukewarm critical reviews upon its release, zombie enthusiasts now view the movie as an important model or archetype for all zombie movies that were to follow. Of all the zombie-themed horror films that have been produced over the years, the release of George Romero’s classic 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead” was widely considered to be a watershed moment in the rise of the zombie phenomenon. Interestingly enough, the movie referred to the undead villains only as “ghouls”, but the word “zombies” caught on with the public, so the name stuck.
In popular culture, much attention is given to the ways in which zombies can be destroyed (e.g., gunshots, decapitation, fire, etc.), but in traditional Haitian folklore, the objective was actually to free a person from their zombified state if at all possible. According to the tradition, one of the ways this could be done was to feed the zombie salt, which would then cause the will and soul of the zombie to return. The Haitian roots of zombie folklore have largely disappeared over time, and as big-budget zombie-themed Hollywood films and television shows have proliferated (and subsequently exploded in popularity), zombie invasions are now commonly set against dystopian or post-apocalyptic backdrops, and zombies are primarily depicted as imminent threats that cannot escape their undead state. Several new variables that are present in our modern world (e.g., genetic modification, biological experiments, advanced chemical and nuclear weapons, etc.) have served as excellent fodder for zombie enthusiasts who are looking for the next big catalyst that could spark a large-scale zombie invasion.
While the existence of zombies has never been scientifically proven, the mystery and excitement surrounding the zombie phenomenon will provide fans of the undead with plenty of fuel for their imagination. Courtesy of the seemingly endless stream of zombie-related entertainment that has come out in recent years, zombie fans can now enjoy an invasion of the living dead any time they choose.