Have we not all at one time or another felt like a zombie? We work ourselves into a mindless blob of humanity.
My last blog was on vampires, so I thought I would give equal to zombies. It is true that in the American media that zombies regularly appear, especially in so-called “troubled times.” For example, Night of the Living Dead (1968) came along during the Vietnam era. Zombies are an unfinished portrait of what scares us, and they reflect the crisis of the moment.
I read an article recently, which claimed we are polluted with zombie movies when a Republican is in office and with vampire movies when a Democrat takes over. The idea is that Democrats are afraid of upper class America, and believe the rich are milking the country dry, and the Republicans fear a revolt of the masses. If one looks at it that way, it makes sense that when the first Bush was in office that we had 183 zombie flicks in seven years. During the Clinton years we were given Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Blade, Interview with a Vampire, Bram Stroker’s Dracula, etc.
Where vampire films are often the metaphor for any misunderstood minority (gays and lesbians, etc.), zombies are used as an analogy for society’s bigger ideas (the Cold War, disease, pollution, etc.). They reflect our greatest fear at the time.
Zombies are virtually “unkillable,” are biodegradable, possess a perverse single-mindedness, have no supernatural powers, and are “lovingly” hideous. They are the monsters of the people!
A zombie (Haitian Creole: zonbi; North Mbundu: nzumbe) is an animated corpse raised by magical means, such as witchcraft. The term is often figuratively applied to describe a hypnotized person bereft of consciousness and self-awareness, yet ambulant and able to respond to surrounding stimuli. Since the late 19th century, zombies have acquired notable popularity, especially in North American and European folklore.
In modern times, the term “zombie” has been applied to an undead being in horror fiction, often drawing from the depiction of zombies in George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. They have appeared as plot devices in various books, films, television shows, video games and comics.
According to the West African tenets of Vodou, a dead person can be revived by a bokor, or sorcerer. Zombies remain under the control of the bokor since they have no will of their own. “Zombi” is also another name of the Vodou snake lwa Damballah Wedo, of Niger–Congo origin; it is akin to the Kikongo word nzambi, which means “god.”
There also exists within the West African Vodun tradition the zombi astral, which is a part of the human soul that is captured by a bokor and used to enhance the bokor’s power. The zombi astral is typically kept inside a bottle, which the bokor can sell to clients for luck, healing, or business success. It is believed that after a time God will take the soul back and so the zombi is a temporary spiritual entity. It is also said in vodou legend, that feeding a zombie salt will make it return to the grave.
The idea of zombies is present in some South African cultures. In some communities it is believed that a dead person can be turned into a zombie by a small child. It is said that the spell can be broken by a powerful enough sangoma.
It is also believed in some areas of South Africa that witches can turn a person into a zombie by killing and possessing the victim’s body in order to force it into slave labor. After rail lines were built to transport migrant workers, stories emerged about “witch trains.” These trains appeared ordinary, but were staffed by zombie workers controlled by a witch. The trains would abduct a person boarding at night, and the person would then either be turned into a zombie worker, or beaten and thrown from the train a distance away from the original location.
In 1937, while researching folklore in Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston encountered the case of a woman who appeared in a village, and a family claimed she was Felicia Felix-Mentor, a relative who had died and been buried in 1907 at the age of 29. However, the woman had been examined by a doctor, who found on X-ray that she did not have the leg fracture that Felix-Mentor was known to have had. Hurston pursued rumors that the affected persons were given a powerful psychoactive drug, but she was unable to locate individuals willing to offer much information. She wrote: “What is more, if science ever gets to the bottom of Voodoo in Haiti and Africa, it will be found that some important medical secrets, still unknown to medical science, give it its power, rather than gestures of ceremony.”
Several decades later, Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist, presented a pharmacological case for zombies in two books, The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988).
Davis traveled to Haiti in 1982 and, as a result of his investigations, claimed that a living person can be turned into a zombie by two special powders being introduced into the blood stream (usually via a wound). The first, coup de poudre (French: “powder strike”), includes tetrodotoxin (TTX), a powerful and frequently fatal neurotoxin found in the flesh of the pufferfish. The second powder consists of dissociative drugs such as datura. Together, these powders were said to induce a deathlike state in which the will of the victim would be entirely subjected to that of the bokor. Davis also popularized the story of Clairvius Narcisse, who was claimed to have succumbed to this practice. The most ethically questioned and least scientifically explored ingredient of the powders, is part of a recently buried child’s brain.
The process described by Davis was an initial state of deathlike suspended animation, followed by re-awakening — typically after being buried — into a psychotic state. The psychosis induced by the drug and psychological trauma was hypothesised by Davis to reinforce culturally learned beliefs and to cause the individual to reconstruct their identity as that of a zombie, since they “knew” they were dead, and had no other role to play in the Haitian society. Societal reinforcement of the belief was hypothesized by Davis to confirm for the zombie individual the zombie state, and such individuals were known to hang around in graveyards, exhibiting attitudes of low affect.
Davis’s claim has been criticized, particularly the suggestion that Haitian witch doctors can keep “zombies” in a state of pharmacologically induced trance for many years. Symptoms of TTX poisoning range from numbness and nausea to paralysis — particularly of the muscles of the diaphragm — unconsciousness, and death, but do not include a stiffened gait or a deathlike trance. According to psychologist Terence Hines, the scientific community dismisses tetrodotoxin as the cause of this state, and Davis’ assessment of the nature of the reports of Haitian zombies is viewed as overly credulous.
Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing highlighted the link between social and cultural expectations and compulsion, in the context of schizophrenia and other mental illness, suggesting that schizogenesis may account for some of the psychological aspects of zombification.
Slaves brought to Haiti in the 17th and 18th centuries, believed that when they died, Baron Samedi would gather them from their grave to bring them to heaven, unless they had offended him in some way, such as committing suicide, in which case they’d be forever a slave after death, as a zombie.
In Popular Culture
The figure of the zombie has appeared several times in fantasy themed fiction and entertainment, as early as the 1929 novel The Magic Island by William Seabrook. Time claimed that the book “introduced ‘zombi’ into U.S. speech”.
In 1932, Victor Halperin directed White Zombie, a horror film starring Bela Lugosi. This film, capitalizing on the same voodoo zombie themes as Seabrook’s book of three years prior, is often regarded as the first legitimate zombie film, and introduced the word “zombie” to the wider world. Other zombie-themed films include Val Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, (1988) a heavily fictionalized account of Wade Davis’ book.
The DC comics character Solomon Grundy, a villain who first appeared in a 1944 Green Lantern story, is one of the earliest depictions of a zombie in the comics medium. In 2011, Image Comics released a four issue miniseries entitled Drums, by writer El Torres and artist Abe Hernando. The story consists of Afro-Caribbean zombies that have been created using voodoo.
The zombie also appears as a metaphor in protest songs, symbolizing mindless adherence to authority, particularly in law enforcement and the armed forces. Well-known examples include Fela Kuti’s 1976 album Zombie, and The Cranberries’ 1994 single “Zombie.”
A new version of the zombie, distinct from that described in Haitian religion, has also emerged in popular culture in recent decades. This “zombie” is taken largely from George A. Romero’s seminal film The Night of the Living Dead, which was in turn partly inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. The word zombie is not used in Night of the Living Dead, but was applied later by fans. The monsters in the film and its sequels, such as Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, as well as its many inspired works, such as Return of the Living Dead and Zombi 2, are usually hungry for human flesh although Return of the Living Dead introduced the popular concept of zombies eating brains.
Sometimes they are victims of a fictional pandemic illness causing the dead to reanimate or the living to behave this way, but often no cause is given in the story. Although this modern monster bears some superficial resemblance to the Haitian zombie tradition, its links to such folklore are unclear, and many consider George A. Romero to be the progenitor of this creature.
Zombie fiction is now a sizeable sub-genre of horror, usually describing a breakdown of civilization occurring when most of the population become flesh-eating zombies — a zombie apocalypse.