Zombies: Where do they come from?

Zombies: Where do they come from?

Art & Cinema
Reading Time: 6 minutes

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought us close to the apocalyptic films from Hollywood. Close in two ways; first, those films show us glimpses of our immediate present, ie, the lockdown, the deserted roads, the paranoia and the panic which has followed in the wake of the pandemic and second, the compulsion to stay indoors has left us with limited options to pass our time, so, a lot of people have turned towards pandemic films and series from Hollywood which not only help them to evade the boredom but also relate with the current situation.  Most of the apocalyptic and pandemic genre films are centred on the character of “Zombies”, who spread like wildfire and threaten to destroy the human civilization.

Zombies have become an intrinsic part of American pop culture today. They have become an important character in the Halloween festival and in recent times, even have been employed in social activism. Apart from cinema, the troupe of zombies has been employed in music videos, in comics, arts, video games and even in academic and scientific researches for testing epidemic models. With the onset of satellite channels, entry of Hollywood in India and with high-speed internet, zombies as a character/entity/concept/troupe have also entered the mindscape of the Indian population, especially the urban middle classes. The increasing popularity of the zombie genre in India can be simply grasped from the fact that it made an entry in Bollywood in the year 2013 with the film “Go, Goa, Gone”, and also from the popularity of Hollywood zombie genre among Indian viewers.

The un-dead or the walking dead; the zombie in contemporary fiction is ‘born’ because of an external factor, say some virus or drug, which contracts the host, thereby killing it and re-animating the body devoid of any consciousness, except for being drawn to either sound, light or smell of blood or all of them. All kinds of living beings, be it animal or human, can become zombies who feed on the living, thereby threatening the entire civilization. So, what is the history of this popular troupe in contemporary fiction? Is zombie a product of pure fantasy and imagination, or does it have some concrete material basis in human society and historical experiences of human beings? The answer is a big “YES”.

The English word ‘zombi’ was first recorded in 1819 by the English poet Robert Southey in his “History of Brazil”. This word was inspired by the name of a 17th-century Afro-Brazilian slave leader ‘Zumbi’, who leads the slave resistance against Portuguese in Brazil.  The history of “Zombie” is deeply enmeshed and embedded in the history of colonialism and its inseparable institutions of modern slavery and racism. The contemporary term zombie is derived from the words nzambi (soul) and zumbi (body/fetish), which are of west African origin. These two concepts are part of the West African religion, popularly known as ‘Voodoo’, which is generally seen in a negative light and is usually associated with ‘black’ magic, cannibalism and irrational beliefs and practices. This religion travelled from west Africa to the ‘new world’, ie, the Americas during the 16th century with the black slaves who were packed off in overcrowded slaver ships to the European colonies as part of the Atlantic slave trade condemned to work in plantation colonies.

The ‘voodoo’ religious beliefs developed in plantation colonies in interaction with local conditions and gave birth to various voodoo cults. In present, there are more than ten related voodoo traditions in the Americas. However, the most important and significant development which this system of beliefs and practices went through was in the French colony of Haiti, known as Saint Domingue before the Haitian revolution. It was in Haiti, where the concept of ‘zombie’ developed and became a part of folklore significantly affecting the slave populations.

The condition of slaves in Haitian Plantations settlement was miserable. They were subjected to massive labour without any mercy whatsoever. Describing the scene at one such plantation settlement in Haiti, the French-born naturalist and traveller Justin Girod Chantrans writes:

“…they were about a hundred men and women of different ages, all occupied in digging ditches in a cane-field, the majority of them naked or covered with rags. The sun shun down with full force on their heads. Sweat rolled from all parts of their bodies. Their limbs weighed down by the heat, fatigued with the weight of their implements, strained themselves to overcome every obstacle. A mournful silence reigned. Exhaustion was stamped on every face, but the hour of rest had not yet come. The pitiless eye of the manager patrolled the gangs and several foremen armed with whips moved periodically between them, giving stinging blows to all who, worn out by fatigue, were compelled to take rest-men or women, young or old.” – (Voyage d’un Suisse en différentes colonies, 1785)

Slavery in Haiti was sustained by a reign of terror and torture. The long hours of work and pathetic living conditions with harsh punishments had reduced the average life span of slaves in Haitian plantation colonies to a mere 21 years of age. The slaves in Haiti were made to wear iron collars, they were also made to wear iron in their hands and feet and had to drag blocks of wood wherever they went; also they were made to wear tin plate masks specially designed to prevent them from eating sugar cane. Under such grim conditions, a lot of slaves tried either to run away or commit suicide. To prevent the slaves from committing suicide the plantation owners employed the service of voodoo priests and shamans.

The concept of ‘zombie’ was marginal in the original voodoo system of west Africa. It was believed that all people die in two ways, ie, natural and unnatural – like suicide or murder. Those who died of natural causes went to heaven in the afterlife and enjoyed the company of their ancestors, while those who died unnaturally will linger at their grave and will be unable to join their ancestors. During this state of limbo, the soul was vulnerable to get captured by a powerful sorcerer (boko), who might capture the soul, thereby becoming either nzambi or zumbi. This specific belief was exploited by the plantation owners to prevent the slaves from committing suicide.

In the Haitian voodoo system, the concept of ‘zombie’ was brought to the fore by ex-slaves who also served as religious specialists on the payroll of white plantation owners. They propagated that those slaves who committed suicide would continue to linger in the afterlife in the same plantation colonies instead of being re-born in Guinea (Africa, the original homeland of slaves), where they would be free. Thus, the slaves feared that their zombie-like present condition would continue even in the afterlife, thereby they refrained from committing suicide. Thus, the slaves were even denied the ironic freedom to die!! Thus, the zombie became a very important part of the Haitian religious system and folklore.   

The ‘zombie’ entered the American society and the wider world via colonialism during the United States’ occupation of Haiti from 1914 to 1934.  The American writer-journalist William B Seabrook exposed the concept of ‘zombie’ to the American society in his popular book “The Magic Island” published in 1929. The book was based on the travels of Seabrook in Haiti and narrated his adventures with voodoo cults in Haiti and its resurrected beings. Another point of entry of ‘zombie’, in popular American culture was the horror film “White Zombie” (1932) directed by Victor Halperin and starring Bela Lugosi – the original count Dracula! The film is set in a Haitian plantation site owned by Lugosi who is also a voodoo master and controls a crew of ‘zombies’ who work in his sugar factory. The archetype of zombies as mindless, unthinking and tireless creatures began with this popular film. This depiction of zombies is much closer to the reality of slaves who worked in plantation colonies! The association of zombies with voodoo cults further continued with films like “I Walked with a Zombie” released in 1943.  

Further development of the zombie archetype continued with and got strengthened through the novels of famous horror fiction writer HP Lovecraft, zombie-based comics and cinema. However, according to several cultural critics, it was the 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead” which played the most influential role in establishing the contemporary zombie archetype and entire genre. The Will Smith starrer, “I am Legend” (2007), was directly inspired by this film. As the zombie genre continued to grow and travel to different parts of the world, it continued to interact with local elements to give us the modern ‘zombie’; undead, extremely violent, flesh-eating, tireless, mindless and gross.

As it travelled the world and became an important money-minting cinematic troupe and part of an escapist fantasy of audiences, the ‘zombie’ lost its history, its roots and its symbiotic relationship with slavery and colonialism. What can only be called an Irony, the gross-dirty-violent-repulsive brain-eating contemporary zombie has been whitewashed from its history and experiences of equally repulsive and inhumane slavery. The modern zombie is just an image of the plantations owners and the whole economic system which survived on terror and heights of inhumanity. 

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Started with Physics and later turned to Comte's Social Physics, Harsh is pursuing a PhD in Sociology from JNU. He is a left student activist and a part-time folklorist.

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