Where Do Real Zombies Come from?

Zombies in Haitian Creole tradition

The word Zombie usually brings to mind the creatures depicted in countless horror films – shambling, rotting “living dead” devouring the flesh of their victims.

But despite a long fascination with animated corpses in literature and cinema, these undead corpses actually trace their roots to Haitian Creole traditions, that in turn have their roots in African religious customs.

The English word “zombie” is first recorded in 1819, in a history of Brazil by the poet Robert Southey, in the form of “zombi”. But the likely origin of the word can be traced to West Africa and compared to the Kongo words “nzambi” (god) and “zumbi” (fetish).

The origin of the zombie belief has its roots in traditions brought to Haiti by enslaved Africans, and their subsequent experiences in the New World. The West Africans brought their religion with them, where it was mixed with other African traditions, as well as Christianity. The result was the folk religion of Vodou or Voodoo.

In the Haitian tradition, a zombie is not a terrifying flesh-eater, rather an unfortunate, deceased individual who has been revived by magical means. The fear was, being turned into a zombie, not being eaten by one!  The revived subject is thought to have no will of its own and is said to exist in a ‘zombie-like’ state. Their every action governed by the sorcerer or bokor (a Vodou priest), under whose control they remain as their personal slave. A number of scholars have pointed out the significance of the zombie figure as a metaphor for the history of slavery in Haiti.

Some interesting articles on the Haitian Zombie

Tracing the History of Zombie from Haiti to the CDC
A Medical Study of the Haitian Zombie
The Ethnobiology of Voodoo Zombification
Haiti & the Truth About Zombies
How Zombies Work
Introduction to Voodoo in Haiti

Early Zombie Films

In the 1920s and 30s, sensationalist travel narratives became popular with Western readers. W.B. Seabrook’s book The Magic Island is most often credited as bringing tales of voodoo and the zombie to a mass Western audience. It wasn’t long before this made the leap from folklore to popular entertainment. Enter Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932). Other early zombie films include Revolt of the Zombies (1936), King of the Zombies (1941) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

It’s been pointed out that these early depictions misrepresent Haitian culture for their own ends painting Voodoo as menacing, and superstitious. These days the Voodo element of the Zombie is pretty much over, with the modern George A. Romero or 28 Days Later type of zombie more often seen in film and literature.

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