A Brief History of Zombies

What makes zombies so eerie? Is it the way they limp towards you, forever trudging on in the thirst of flesh? Or is it their yellow, beady eyes staring out vacantly that make them straight up creepy? Whatever it is, a fear of zombies is driven primarily by looks, not their sinister wit or jovial knack for satire. This makes them a prime suspect for film and TV, but not necessarily the best fit for your star character in a novel. Nonetheless, alongside a resurgence in vampire obsession, zombies too have pulled their lifeless bodies onto the pages of many best sellers. They’ve amassed such a following that there’s even a sub-genre for it, zombie lit.

Lurking behind the bathroom door, slinking up the side walk to your house, parading in mass down some post-apocalyptic emptied highway. They’re everywhere and now they have a designated place of refuge in the bookstore. You’re probably already familiar with zombie lit and you probably slipped into it’s groping savage hands without even recognizing it. It happened slowly. First there were strictly zombie books:  World War Z, The Living Dead, and The Walking Dead – the comic series by Robert Kirkman. Once these books gave zombie lit a credible hold in literature, zombie lit began pawing greedily from the canon, producing titles like Pride and Prejudice and ZombiesDawn of the Dreadfuls (it’s prequel) and so on. 

The Very Hungry Zombie by Michael Teitelbaum and Jonathan Apple


Despite our recent gushing over the fiends of corroding flesh and yellowing sclera, they aren’t anything new. The emergence of zombies in today’s lit comes from a long and winding road, veering from Africa to America, doubled over in numerous transformations on its journey over. The dawn of zombies in the pop culture canon is not merely a retelling of zombies past, it’s a translation from one culture to another.

Believe it or not zombies did not originate in horror films thronged with gory massacre scenes and sexy heroines running around the ruins of some city. They didn’t begin with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein either, although her monster may be an offspring of the zombie. It began Haiti. As the voodoo narratives go, there is a spell by name of bokor, which can render a victim dead and then resurrect the once-living as a personal slave, hitched to the whims and demands of the sorcerer for the rest of eternity. Although voodoo has been practiced in Haiti for centuries, the term zombie, originally spelled ‘zombi’ didn’t come to the states until 1838 in a news story about the salve of artist Bartolome Esteban Murillo. He claimed that zombies entered his master’s art studio at night to finish his paintings. The story peaked white-American fascination, and it became an exoticized story of power and submission that would be retold over and over again in film and lit.

 Image courtesy of Wkipedia

The term appeared in tandem with America’s embrace of slavery and an occupation in Haiti in the 20’s and 30’s. And it wasn’t merely coincidence: zombies, despite being veiled in fable and magic, had a real life replica in the life of a slave. Both assumed a persona hollowed out, without will or name, and destined to a life of servitude. Overworked to the husk of a human being, death was often viewed as a retreat. A limbo between death and life in which slavery was eternal, however, was greatly feared.

Following it’s first appearance in the U.S., the term was picked up by writers. William Seabrook, thoroughly enamoured with Haitian culture wrote, The Magic Island. Zora Neale Hurston travelled to Haiti to do research for her novel Tell My Horse (and also trained to be a voodoo priest). Both retold what they saw including first-hand witnesses of what they thought to be zombies.

Hurston’s alleged zombie

Image courtesy of Anomlyinfo

Later, Wade Davis wrote The Serpent and the Rainbow which followed the Haitian narrative of men turning zombie as the result of heavy voodoo and a drug induced coma. Specifically, puffer fish or toad venom was used to give the temporary illusion of death, followed by a heavy dose of tetradotoxin – to sustain the lethargic and sloth-like manner trademark to our notion of a zombie. Davis’s work is not well credited ‘science’ but it did add voice to the literary myth and bring the creature into the pantheon of the Western supernatural.

Wade Davis in Haiti

Image courtes of NuvoMagazine

Within the Haitian narrative and the zombies we see today is a heavy dose of appropriations, revisions, and retellings. Zombies aren’t (necessarily) African, they act in subservience to hunger rather than an authoritative sorcerer, and they’ve taken on a more violent role opposed to the subdued nature they once held. Changes aside, they’re still a scathing allegory for a variety of (Western) fears. Once a place marker for African fears of slavery today’s Zombies seem to be hitched to modern fears of viruses and contagions.

Today’s zombie represents the human race, rendered damaged by medical malpractice or technological aspirations gone sour. When science turns its back on humanity, when strains develop because of excessive human interference, or when there’s simply a mistake exposed – some ‘thing’ goes airborne or infects the blood of a researcher – zombies arise. They’re spawned from a pit of exacerbated technology and knowledge, and they fill us with fear because they relay a relevant moral tale: beware of innovation and reckless pursuit in the name of progress. They’re even biblical in a sense, as they represent a sort of plague narrative, a dawning apocalypse. Because they are outsiders invading, they can also serve as a stand-in for immigrant fears (much like alien narratives) or a fear of overpopulation leading to a lack of resources and, well, cannibalism. 

The figure of the zombie, in African or Westernized terms, as synonymous with a fear of some sort. The zombie portrays any entity without will, under the authority of whatever a culture feels is out of its hands: slavery, medicine, technological progress brought to the cusp of its own absolution, etc. Whatever the issue, the creature provides a sound spokesperson to wag a lifeless finger and scold society. They’ve been a long enduring source of fear and the host for a handful of allegorical tales. And, because they never die, we suspect they’ll continue to carry our social ills for some time to come. 

Featured image courtesy of Daily Dot.