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The Real Life Walking Dead: A Dark History of Zombies from Reality to Fiction

Artwork of a zombie apocalypse - The Real Life Walking Dead: A Dark History of Zombies from Reality to Fiction

The history of zombies is a long and tragic one, with the term first coming into use around 700 AD.

Of all the monsters in media history, zombies seem to be trending a lot these days (which is a nice deviation from sparkling vampires and womanizing werewolves). From classics like Night of the Living Dead to modern sensations like The Walking Dead, it seems we’re just fascinated with the idea of corpses coming back to chow down on our innards. These days, we understand that zombies are just a myth…but what if they were real?

Believe it or not, zombies weren’t concocted exclusively through storytelling. In fact, they’ve been the subject of study by archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to dismiss your fears by saying “well, it’s all just fake,” then cross zombies off your list. Their presence in popular culture isn’t grounded in myth, but rather in history.

The First Zombies

The history of zombies is a complex and disturbing one. In classic pop culture, some zombies are depicted as walking around yelling “brrraaaaiiiinss” endlessly, to remind us of what they’re after. It’s safe to say that they’re the least indecisive when it comes to food choices. Sadly, most restaurants don’t carry their chosen menu item. But actual “undead” zombies were different. They didn’t eat brains, they weren’t dead, but they were quite disturbing.

According to anthropologists and historians, the term “zombie” can be traced to 700 A.D. In Kongo, Africa, the word nzambi referred to a dead person’s soul or spirit, which seems to describe a ghost, rather than a physical corpse.

A similar term, zonbi exists in Creole, a language from Haiti that also led to a dialect in Louisiana called Louisiana Creole. In both languages, the word refers to someone who has been resurrected as a mindless shell who can’t communicate or think independently.

But words are only the beginning. Zombies are actually scientifically plausible. Voodoo legends tell of special priests with the ability to magically raise the dead using a substance called coup padre. Sounds made up, right? Well, it’s not. Allegedly, this was a powder created from the poison of the blowfish, whose chemical ingredient is tetrodotoxin. Once consumed, the body soon enters a catatonic state, where heart rate, breathing, and body temperature drop to almost nothing. Naturally, people think the person is dead and bury him or her accordingly. But this isn’t the craziest part.

Have you ever been so annoyed by someone that you just wanted to send them to a secluded island? Well, Haitians felt the same way sometimes, but instead, they hired — yes, they paid a guy for this — a bokor (Voodoo priest) to administer the poison to the person they hated. After being buried, the victim was exhumed by the bokor as a mindless drone under the priest’s control, remaining that way until their Voodoo master died. This, however, didn’t become mainstream until 1804, after a long and destructive French occupation.

From Tragic Beginnings

While most zombie folklore originated in Haiti, it only did so after a long, sordid history of abuse and enslavement. The creature wasn’t originally an undead monster, but rather a (barely) living human being, enslaved by his or her French colonial occupiers between 1625 and 1800. Slaves’ defeated mental states and placement in shackles caused them to weakly walk or shuffle. Their tattered clothing — a staple of zombie fashion — came from the way slaves were dressed.

As a desperate coping mechanism, many Haitians convinced themselves that, upon death, they would return to Africa in the afterlife; however, slaves who committed suicide (which was frequent thanks to their unbearable quality of life), wouldn’t be allowed there. Instead, they’d resurrect as corpses, mindlessly working the plantations without free thought or free will — a zombie.

Fortunately, the Haitians eventually overthrew their occupiers in the Haitian Revolution of 1804. But after almost two centuries of slavery, the zombie myth had solidified itself into Voodoo practice, leading to the bokor zombification legends and rituals mentioned earlier.

Historical “Evidence”

Archaeologists exploring the history of zombies do have “evidence” regarding their potential involvement in mass deaths. We use “evidence” in quotations because it seems a bit stretched and could be explained by other means.

Investigations into the Mayans have unearthed forensic evidence of bodies being consumed. Typically, cannibals would cut, prepare and cook human meat, but these remains indicated that they were torn apart limb from limb and immediately eaten raw. Some have discovered signs of villages eating themselves into extinction. While this is certainly reminiscent of the zombie effect, it could just as easily — and more logically — be attributed to violent practices by lucid, although insane, individuals.

The common practice of placing stones on top of graves is also frequently found throughout the world. It may seem benign, but this widespread method has been investigated by anthropologists and traced back to fears of the dead rising again.

Whether any of this is conclusive is up to interpretation, but most experts and rational individuals wouldn’t be too quick to assume zombies were the culprits.

Appearance in Pop Culture

As time went on, the history of zombies as real things eventually collided with American influence, leading to the classic zombie mythos we know today.

It all started with the American occupation of Haiti in 1915. Sadly, they weren’t very tolerant and tried to systematically wipe out the Voodoo religion in its entirety. You’re probably familiar with “The Streisand Effect,” where attempting to remove, silence or censor something ultimately increases its spread. Although the Haitians didn’t have Internet, the persecution strengthened their resolve to preserve their culture and beliefs. This pushback eventually bled into American culture and the zombie fires were lit.

By the 1920s and 30s, stories of Haitian corpses rising from their graves were featured in fiction magazines. These zombies were initially depicted as ghosts but later shown as walking corpses who came back to life to exact revenge on their murderers.

In 1932, the first zombie movie, titled White Zombie premiered. Coincidentally, this was just two years before the American occupation of Haiti ended. It appears that as the American presence in Haiti wound down, soldiers and staff stationed there took zombie culture back home with them. Sadly, the zombie myth came at a great cost, since the occupation resulted in conflicts, inhumane treatment, and murder of the locals.


As far as sci-fi films go, The Andromeda Strain is notable for being plausible, scientifically speaking. The film closely follows the Crichton novel, much to its credit. And while The Andromeda Strain movie isn’t perfectly accurate, it nails the gestalt of dealing with an unknown biological phenomenon.

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Zombie Pioneers

While the history of zombies was accelerated when America left Haiti, their legend was spread through the workings of prominent writers.

William Seabrook

In 1927, William Seabrook traveled to Haiti where he claimed to have seen actual “zombies.” Seabrook was obsessed with the occult and managed to befriend Voodoo practitioners. He heard of zombies being employed in sugarcane fields, so naturally, it piqued his interest.

Upon reaching the fields, he described these workers as “automatons…staring, unfocused, seeing…”; however, he soon came to his senses and realized these were just regular people, describing them as “nothing but poor ordinary demented human beings, idiots, forced to toil in the fields.” Not the nicest wording, considering that, back then, the word “idiot” referred to someone who was mentally challenged.

Zora Neale Hurston

Anthropologist and writer, Zora Neale Hurston, was a unique observer in the history of zombies. Unlike Seabrook, she claimed to have not only seen a zombie up close but had a photograph of the woman to boot.

Hurston wrote a book (Tell My Horse, 1937) where she recounted her experiences in Haiti and the alleged zombie. According to her, “I had the rare opportunity to see and touch an authentic case. I listened to the broken noises in its throat… ” Unfortunately for Zora, the book was poorly received and ridiculed. People mocked her as being gullible — and rightfully so. There’s no way the person in the picture was a walking corpse, but rather a sickly victim of mental illness.

Final Thoughts

Zombies are fascinating, frightening and depressing all at once. Sure, we have a fun genre with lots of great shows, games and films to choose from. At the same time, it was born through suffering and intolerance. Obviously, nobody today would condone the circumstances that led to zombies being adapted into pop culture. The best we can do is move forward and make it a point to base myths from fantasy, rather than tragedy.

Featured Image: courtesy of JoeRoberts.co.uk

References:

Luckhurst, R. (2015, August 31). http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150828-where-do-zombies-come-from

Mariani, M. (2015, October 28). http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/10/how-america-erased-the-tragic-history-of-the-zombie/412264/

(2013, April 25). http://anthropology.msu.edu/anp264-ss13/2013/04/25/history-of-zombies/

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