Understanding zombies

What is a zombie?

In Martinique and Haiti a zombie is the term for any spirit or ghost appearing at night. But the popular view is that a bokor or witch-doctor makes the victim appear dead by magic, hypnotic suggestion, or by a secret potion—and then revives them as their personal slave with their soul or will captured.

Zombies may seem like something developed for B-Grade movies to rival vampires and werewolves but there is a much deeper significance to them. The concept of the zombie in Voodoo (the native religion of Haiti) folklore arose as a metaphor for slavery—the individual is completely controlled by the witch doctor (bokor) and has no free will, no name, and is trapped in a living death of unending labour.

Where does the word zombie come from?

The word zombie (zombi) made its first appearance in the English language in Robert Southey’s History of Brazil in 1819. It has often been presented as having a different meaning to what we no understand. However there is a strong link. The poet, Southey, coincidentally was a strong anti-slave advocate.

Southey gave a copy of his book to Colleridge, another poet and also his brother-in-law, who annotated it with his thoughts. The passage where zombi is first used, describes an uprising of runaway slaves against their Portuguese masters, which ended in their massacre. Their leader was an elected chieftain called Zombi; … ‘and this word in their language means devil,’ … writes Southey. However Coleridge’s note in the margin reads … “No, this word does not mean the devil, it means a devil”. Coleridge uses devil to mean daemon, an indwelling spirit, with a vital essence, a life principle.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the origin of the word as West African, and compares it to the Kongo words nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish). It is also a suggestion that it is related to the Louisiana creole word meaning phantom or ghost from Spanish sombra for shade or ghost (refer to Ombra). West Africa was the centre of the slave trade and the origin of most of the slaves forcibly taken to the sugar cane plantations of the West Indies—many Haitian slaves had been taken to Lousiana in the early 1800s to work on sugar plantations there, which might explain the link.

How did zombies become so popular?

It is in Haiti and Martinique that zombies originate. Haiti became the first independent black republic following a long revolutionary war in 1804. The European powers, offended by the slaves freeing themselves, demonised the island. It was portrayed as a place of violence and dark superstition with stories of cannibalism, human sacrifice and dangerous mystical rituals. This created a powerful pre-conception and created the perfect environment for the evolution of the zombie.

America occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934 and during their stay there the stories intensified as the Americans tried to destroy the native religion of Voodoo. It was the American occupation that imported the zombie into western culture.

In 1932 the first feature length zombie film was made: White Zombie. It was made within months of film adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula to cash in on the horror film craze. It starred Madge Bellamy opposite Bela Lugosi. Bellamy’s performance was poor and her career did not go much further—she was later arrested for trying to kill her former lover with a pistol. Carole Lombard took her role in the sequel.

What is a zombie apocalypse?

There have been hundreds of other zombie films since White Zombie. Wikipedia lists 475 (May 2017). The film given credit for creating the modern genre is Night of the Living Dead released in 1968. It was the first film to depict them as canabalistic walking cadavers but, ironically, the film never uses the word zombie to identify them.

The modern film manifestation is the zombie apocalypse—the breakdown of society as a result of a zombie outbreak that spreads exponentially across the globe (e.g. World War Z). This apocalyptic form is the dominant subgenre of zombie films and television series (e.g. Walking Dead) with forms taking on survival in dystopian zombie-ruled futures.

Zombie-ism is now not created by the magic of witchdoctors but by the science of viruses, bacteria or alien mind control. Zombies seem quite capable of adapting to the belief systems of their times.