After previously exploring the history and origins of vampires and werewolves, I thought it was time to give zombies their moment in the spotlight…
Haiti, Vodou and Slavery
Zombie folklore dates way back to the 1600s in Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue and part of the French colonies. Black slaves were brought into Haiti from West Africa to work on the sugar and coffee plantations. Soon enough, Haiti came to be biggest moneymaker of the French colonies and the slave population grew exponentially. This was despite many slaves dying only a few years after being brought to the island from the back-breaking work and brutal treatment.
The sheer number of Africans brought into Haiti meant that African religions and cultures could be sustained in the slave populations even when some French Catholic elements were adopted into their belief system. It is thought that through a combination of traditional African Vodou beliefs and the harsh oppression faced by the slaves, the idea of the zombie was born. The Africans believed that in death their souls would be released back to Guinea and freed from slavery. However, the souls that didn’t make it to Africa would remain where they were, trapped on the plantations even in death. One of the biggest reasons souls were said to become zombies was if the death was caused by suicide. Slave drivers themselves used this idea to frighten slaves into not attempting suicide as many saw it as the only means of freedom from slavery.
The idea evolved over time and with the successful Haitian Revolution of 1804 abolishing slavery in the region, the concept of the zombie changed. Today, witches practicing black magic in Haitian Vodou, known as bokors, are said to be able to kill a person then reanimate them as a zombie and make them do their bidding.
There is just one thing I want to touch on here before we move on to what I’m going to call the ‘Anglo-American Zombie’ (to distinguish from the Haitian version). Firstly, although zombification is a real belief in Haitian Vodou, it is an aspect of the religion that has been highly sensationalised and is only one of many different beliefs and facets of the religion. I mention it here because it is relevant to the origin story of the zombie as a monster of fiction we know and recognise so often today, not to reduce what is already an often misunderstood and misrepresented religion to its most sensationalised qualities.
The ‘Anglo-American Zombie’
One of the first real zombies of Anglo-American literature could, arguably, be the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The creature has many traits we associate with zombies today, he’s a reanimated corpse and he goes on a killing spree like most zombies in modern horror movies. Although, some would say the creature has more in common with vampire lore than zombie lore and he is presented as much more intelligent and empathetic than his future counterparts.
Jumping forward over a hundred years, we get to the first feature-length zombie movie, White Zombie, released in 1932. The storyline concerns a young woman who goes to Haiti to marry her fiancee but a Vodou master plots to turn her into a zombie instead. The film, though now only really known and watched in film critic circles, saw many other filmmakers do their own take on a zombie movie over the next few decades. None have had as much of an enduring impact on zombie fiction as Night of the Living Dead in 1968. It’s important to note though that the film doesn’t include the word ‘zombie’ in its script and the director and writer, George A. Rumero, has said that he believes the undead in the movie have enough differences to distinguish them from the Haitian Zombie, though he may have been unconsciously influenced by it. Despite this, Rumero is credited with creating the idea of the Anglo-American Zombie as an undead cannibal that we know today.
Since then, zombies have cropped up in many works of fiction, most notably on-screen in the likes of Shaun of the Dead, The Walking Dead and Warm Bodies. I personally think that zombies are one of the most flexible and ever-evolving supernatural figures. Vampire lore has barely changed since Dracula and our modern understanding of werewolves is pretty much as what it was in folklore from centuries ago. Zombies, in their most recognisable form for us today, only really go back as far as 1968. Even then, they have crossed over from horror to comedy, apocalyptic, action and even romance genres far easier than the other creatures I’ve written about so far. They may not always be portrayed as the smartest but they’re certainly the most durable and even if there’s a lull in zombie fiction every now and then, they really don’t seem to stay dead for long.
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