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Elements of Fantasy: Zombies

Zombie Attack by namesjamesThe living dead. Zombies made their first documented appearance in 1929 when William Seabrook recorded his participation with Haitian voodoo ceremonies in The Magic Island. Seabrook had been interested in witchcraft for many years prior to traveling to Haiti where he was inspired to write about the undead. He advocated cannibalism and fully described the different cuts of human meat from when he visited West Africa.

The film industry quickly capitalized on the shocking concept of a dead woman being forced into submission in the atmospheric 1932 horror, White Zombie, directed by the Halperin brothers. An innocent couple traveled to Haiti to be married at an estate. When the owner of the estate fell madly in love with the bride, he visited a voodoo practitioner appropriately named Murder Lengendre who directed the woman’s death, and then raised her from the dead. The groom and a missionary fought an army of zombies and killed the evil voodooist. The spell broke and the bride transformed back into life.

Zombies originated in the Haitian practices carried over from the African country, Mbundu. Through witchcraft, a trained practitioner called a bokor locked the soul of his victim in a bottle to gain powers. The victim lost his free will and became a mindless slave. The bottled soul would be sold as a product for good fortune, healing or prosperity. The victim could be saved and returned to his grave if he consumed salt. If no such foods were available, the witchery eventually wore off and the soul would drift to heaven.

A zombie was essentially a hypnotized person under the control of his master. He lost the ability to make his own decisions but retained enough intelligence to understand his master’s orders and carry them out.

Zombie by restmlinDuring 1937, Zora Neale Hurston confirmed Seabrook’s amazing accounts when she researched Haitian folklore and discovered scientific evidence. A twenty-nine-year-old woman named Felicia Felix-Mentor walked the streets after having been buried in 1907. The zombie had ingested a mind-altering drug given by a medicine doctor. The drug attacked the central nervous system and blocked blood from reaching the brain. The victim’s consciousness, reasoning, personality and awareness were altered by the chemical reaction, and not as a result of the voodoo ceremony.

Horror films popularized zombies in 1968 when George A. Romero directed the Night of the Living Dead. The Library of Congress recognized the movie as being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant,” thereby preserving the film in the National Film Registry. The film portrayed cannibalistic zombies of dead men who were exposed to radiation. Each subsequent victim became a zombie and consumed his friends. When authorities finally arrived, they mistook a survivor as being a zombie and killed him.

Another variation of zombies existed in South Africa where children were capable of transforming the dead into zombies. Only a divine healer could save the undead souls by burning plants, chanting and dancing.

During the railroad construction, witch trains, operated by zombies, transported migrant workers across the country. The master kidnapped boarders traveling at night and transformed those that survived beatings into zombies.

Voodoo Woman by Michael KomarckIn 1985, another stab at understanding zombies was given by the Harvard ethnobotanist, Wade Davis. He published The Serpent and the Rainbow where he exposed that the walking dead were a result of a hallucinogen in the poisonous tetrodotoxin was forced on the victim. A death-like state of mind kept the victim enslaved by the voodoo master. By repeatedly poisoning the victim, Clairvius Narcisse, his suffering continued for two years. Davis described how the voodoo practitioners combined a dissociative drug with a powdered concoction of a puffer fish, human flesh, an infant’s crushed skull, blue lizards, and toad wrapped in sea worms and itching peas. The poison was administered to victim’s bloodstream through a wound.

Basically, the victim entered a state of consciousness that resembled death and because he was taken as being dead, he was buried. The victim woke in his grave with a psychotic state of mind that had been induced by the drug and caused by the emotional trauma. The zombie was then hypnotized to accept a slave identity under the belief he was actually dead. The community feared the undead person, and treated it as not having a purpose in society, which reinforced the victim’s sense of mindlessness. With nowhere to go, the zombie took up residence at the cemetery. Three years later, the horror film, The Serpent and the Rainbow, cheapened his scientific findings.

The modern concept of zombies applied to man’s complacency with authority by the police and military. Any dead human lacking a soul but with a body functioning well enough to perform labor served in the form of zombie. Typically, a zombie was forced into submission after having violated social norms by stealing or committing adultery.

Zombie Attack by DelowarHaitian legends insisted victims were actually buried alive. After experiencing brain damage from lack of oxygen, they lost their will to fight and submissively worked as slaves on sugar plantations. Such stories of zombies forced into labor could have evolved from the Haitian Revolution. Beginning in 1791, the African slaves pillaged, raped, tortured and massacred the French landowners. By 1804, the African and mulatto peoples claimed freedom. They quickly established a social system where the mulatto citizens made up the upper-class and took ownership of the plantations and the African fighters remained in the laboring class.

Zombie tales developed in Great Britain where the Welsh warriors who died during battle under Branwen were forced back to life to fight another day against opposing zombie warriors. Deceased soldiers weren’t capable of arguing or questioning authority because the higher forces wouldn’t allow them to describe the afterlife.

Zombies continue to hold a position in modern literature. Stephen King utilized the undead concept in Cell. Tim Powers put adventure in the theme in his telling of men being forced into labor on a pirate ship in On Stranger Tides. S. D. Perry had a string of Resident Evil tales. Zombies represent man’s fear of losing his greatest gift from God, the ability to choose his fate through free will.

This article was originally posted on September 5, 2012.
Title image by Delowar.

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6 Comments

  1. Avatar Larik says:

    Wonderful article. I really liked the amount of research you no doubt put into this. Also gonna check out Cell by Stephen King. xD

  2. Avatar Lionwalker says:

    Zombie belief or something so similar as to be almost indistinguishable is still alive and kicking (excuse the pun) in some parts of South Africa. In certain rural areas, belief in witchcraft rose after the 1994 elections for various political reasons relating to feelings of resentment from a disenfranchised youth when the expected windfall didn’t appear. Older generations were targeted and accused of practicing witchcraft, especially those people in small communities who showed more success than their neighbours. They were accused of having zombies work in the nights, which explained their wealth. Witchcraft in general also offered an alternative systems of power to deal with people in positions of authority who weren’t seen as legitimate. This occult perspective wasn’t limited to arcane beliefs but also included more mainstream religious beliefs when otherworldly powers were called upon to provide instant gratification or success.

    Very interesting topic. Nice article!

  3. Avatar Elfy says:

    I enjoyed this thoroughly. I’m not a big fan of the zombie books or movies, but it is interesting to read about them and how the idea developed over the decades.

    • Avatar Janie Bill says:

      I agree, Elfy. Beliefs in supernatural influences changes over time, but retains the same core theories. All of which are intended to protect people from what they fear most – an overbearing creator who annihilates bad guys.

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