Zombies are enjoying a resurgence in popularity of late, with films, books and TV shows dedicated to them in global media. It’s thought that books, television and films tend to swing from one supernatural creature to the next on a cycle of about fifteen years. In recent times, there have been Witches (Charmed, Harry Potter), Vampires (Twilight, The Vampire Diaries), and now it’s the turn of the zombie (The Walking Dead, iZombie).
But where does the idea of a shambling, grunting (or walking and talking) corpse come from? What makes them so fascinating that they secure a spot in this supernatural cycle? Where does the legend of the zombie come from? And are we really, as the Daily Mail claimed in 2015, destined to submit to a zombie apocalypse?
Zombies in History and Folklore
The zombie myth is often reported as originating in post-Colonial Haitian folklore, referring to the revived corpses (known in Creole as ‘zonbi‘) controlled by a necromancer known as a bokor. The zombie – once dead and now ‘undead’ – is bound to do the bokor’s personal bidding for as long as they desire such a slave.
The belief in such zombies was so widespread that it was folded not only into the Voodoo religion, but also into Haitian law. Article 246 of the Haitian Criminal Code states: …shall be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made by any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the administering of such substances, the person has been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.
But the origin of the folklore predates such things. It took root from the traditions of enslaved Africans brought to Haiti – then called Saint-Domingue and under the rule of the French – to work on sugar plantations in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The original zombies weren’t brain-eating monsters. Haitian slaves believed that death would ensure them release back to lan guinée (Guinea, or Africa) to an afterlife where they could be free. It was believed that those who took their own lives would be denied such release. Instead of returning to lan guinée, those who killed themselves would be condemned to walk the plantations for eternity as an undead slave. This slave would be trapped inside their own body but denied control of it: a soulless zombie. After the Haitian Revolution (1804), the zombie became a part of Haitian folklore, referring to the Bokor-Zonbi creation we now consider ‘original’.
Zombie in a bottle
Haitian tradition also includes an incorporeal ‘bottled zombie’, known as the ‘zombie astral’. This is considered a part of the human soul, captured by a Bokor to enhance and amplify his power. A zombie astral can be trapped inside a specially prepared bottle and sold to a client for good luck.
The zombie, both astral and physical, are said to represent the Haitian Voodoo belief of Soul Dualism. Both kinds of zombies are missing half their soul, which can be seen as reflected in certain novels and other media. For instance, in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, adults who were separated from their daemon (the physical embodiment of the soul in animal form) were considered as hopeless and damned, much in the same way as the original zombie.
Real Zombies a.k.a. Zombies in Science
In 1983, a Harvard ethobotanist, Wade Davis, presented a pharmacological case for the existence of zombies. During his travels through Haiti, he investigated claims that a person could be turned into a zombie using special powders that were introduced into the bloodstream. Two such powders, or toxins, were said to create a ‘deathlike’ state in which the will of the victim was entirely subject to that of the Bokor. The two toxins in question were Tetrodotoxin (from the flesh of a pufferfish) and (among others) Datura (a powder that induces delirium). Davis also brought the case of Clairvius Narcisse to the public eye.
Clairvius Narcisse was a Haitian man known for ‘being a zombie’. He claimed a Bokor had “taken his soul” after he received a dose of Tetrodotoxin and Bufotoxin (toad poison) that induced a coma that mimicked the appearance of death. He was buried in 1962, then recovered by a Bokor who gave him doses of Datura Stramonium to create a compliant zombie state. Datura Stramonium is known to cause hallucinations and memory loss. He was then – alongside others who were also controlled by the drug – set to work on a sugar plantation.
Although the plantation owner died two years later, Narcisse did not return to his family for another sixteen years after that, when the Bokor died. Once the sorcerer was dead, regular doses of the drugs stopped and Narcisse eventually regained his wits and sanity. Narcisse was immediately recognised by his village and his family, although surprised to hear his story (as you would be), accepted his story that he had been a victim of voodoo magic.
For a long time, the evolution of the zombie concept was representative of what was going on in the world. At times, they have been symbolic of slavery (the original type), Capitalism, the Vietnam War, or fear of nuclear war.
More recently, zombies are nearly always linked with End-of-Days-style apocalypses, brought about by viruses, pathogens or pandemics. These zombies are usually the cannibalistic type with a hankering for brains.
What is most disturbing is that – harking back to the drug-induced zombies such as Narcisse – the modern world (2012 to current) seems to have created an illegal substance that creates not the compliant, slave-like zombie, but the violent, cannibalistic one…
On 26th May 2012, a man named Rudy Eugene attacked Ronald Poppo in Miami. The attack was unprovoked and, after ripping off his own clothes, Eugene beat Poppo and began to eat his face. The filmed encounter documented how Miami police repeatedly pleaded with Eugene to cease the attack. Their demands were met only with growls. Eugene continued and the police were forced to shoot; it took four bullets to finally stop him.
The inducement for this violent attack was the consumption of alpha-Pyrrolidinopentiophenone, a designer drug commonly known as ‘Flakka’, ‘gravel’ or ‘bath salts’. This drug is still in circulation today, and has made the news as recently as yesterday (Oct 19th at day of publishing).
But why brains?
Human brains are the favoured delicacy of your friendly neighborhood zombie, but why? Brains are symbolic of the human race’s place in the global food chain; our high intelligence and opposable thumbs are what put us at the top instead of the bottom. To introduce a predator that not only attacks our bodies but also desires to consume our brains – that which separates us from animals – is to threaten the human race in its entirety.
But is that the only reason for its association with zombies?
Looking back to the Haitian roots of the zombie concept, the toxic powders associated with hallucinations and compliance are varied, and made up of several different ingredients. The most ethically questioned of these is reported to be a part of a brain from a recently buried child.