With only a few days left until Halloween, it’s time to soak up all things that are scary, since it’ll be another year until you get to put on a funny outfit, drink a bunch of rum and wander the streets in search of tricks or treats. We can’t think of a scarier story to tell than the history of zombies in human folklore.
The zombie is a complicated myth that’s about as old as history but has really picked up in popularity lately. From government agencies putting out preparation plans for the imminent zombie invasion to Hollywood doubling its output of zombie movies, the brain-eating creatures that rise from the dead have become more prominent and more popular in recent years, for complicated reasons. We’re not going to go into the zombies’ moment in the spotlight, but suffice it to say that Americans are really afraid of an unknown enemy right now. In fact, humans have always been afraid of the unknown, and the ultimate unknown, of course, is death. Zombies are the monsters that get stuck in death, unable to move on to the afterworld, they wander the Earth killing as many victims as they can, like a plague.
References to zombie-like creatures go as far back as the writing of Gilgamesh. Most modern historians, though, trace the Hollywood version of zombies to folklore from followers of the voodoo religion in Haiti. Voodoo expert Amy Wilentz recently published her version of the zombie origin story in The New York Times and explained that the emergence of the zombie myth is directly tied to the struggle of African slaves:
The only escape from the sugar plantations was death, which was seen as a return to Africa, or lan guinée (literally Guinea, or West Africa). This is the phrase in Haitian Creole that even now means heaven. … The zombie is a dead person who cannot get across to lan guinée. This final rest — in green, leafy, heavenly Africa, with no sugarcane to cut and no master to appease or serve — is unavailable to the zombie. To become a zombie was the slave’s worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand.
The details that you know about from Hollywood aren’t all there. From what we know about the evolution of the zombie myth, we ended up with the modern day version of the zombie only after synthesizing a number of folk tales from around the world. As we mentioned before, there is a reference to zombie-like behavior in Gilgamesh when the main character warns of a time when “the dead go up to eat the living! And the dead will outnumber the living!”
In China, the undead are known as the jiang shi. These creatures may have informed our idea of the stiff-limbed, grunting things with greenish-white skin that slowly come after you. The jiang shi kills people in order to absorb their qi, or their life essence. This scenario could also described the myth of the draugr from 8th century Scandanavia. The draugr rise up from the dead, guarding whatever treasures there might be in the grave. They have superhuman strength and kill their victims by devouring them whole. A third similar legend is the one written by cleric William of Newburgh in 12th century England who warned of revenants, “corpses [that] come out of their graves.”
Over the course of the centuries between William of Newburgh’s warnings and I Am Legend starring Will Smith have been informed by essentially every major humanitarian disaster. But it wasn’t until Night of the Living Dead in 1968 at the height of the Cold War that the zombie prototype really went to market. (Actually, in the movie, the villains were known as “ghouls.” The public started calling them “zombies.”) To keep this history brief, it’s worth throwing out the hypothesis that zombies as we know it are entirely a product of Hollywood. The myths that informed 21st-century America’s idea of a zombie are relevant for historical purposes, but we may have never heard of zombies if not for the seemingly endless demand for zombie movies. Of course, movies are just legends with bigger budgets, and they all have an ending. Just as it was in 8th-century China and colonial Haiti, the real currency at play in the zombie story is fear, and fear will never die.
A zombie is a fictional undead being created through the reanimation of a human corpse. Zombies are most commonly found in horror and fantasy genre works. The term comes from Haitian folklore, where a zombie is a dead body reanimated through various methods, most commonly magic. Modern depictions of zombies do not necessarily involve magic but often invoke science fictional methods such as radiation, mental diseases, viruses, scientific accidents, etc.
The English word “zombie” is first recorded in 1819, in a history of Brazil by the poet Robert Southey, in the form of “zombi”. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the origin of the word as West African, and compares it to the Kongo words nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish).
One of the first books to expose Western culture to the concept of the voodoo zombie was The Magic Island by W.B. Seabrook in 1929. This is the sensationalized account of a narrator who encounters voodoo cults in Haiti and their resurrected thralls. Time claimed that the book “introduced ‘zombi’ into U.S. speech”.
Zombies have a complex literary heritage, with antecedents ranging from Richard Matheson and H. P. Lovecraft to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein drawing on European folklore of the undead. In 1932, Victor Halperin directed White Zombie, a horror film starring Bela Lugosi. Here zombies are depicted as mindless, unthinking henchmen under the spell of an evil magician. Zombies, often still using this voodoo-inspired rationale, were initially uncommon in cinema, but their appearances continued sporadically through the 1930s to the 1960s, with notable films including I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).
A new version of the zombie, distinct from that described in Haitian folklore, has also emerged in popular culture in recent decades. This “zombie” is taken largely from George A. Romero’s seminal film Night of the Living Dead, which was in turn partly inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. The word zombie is not used in Night of the Living Dead, but was applied later by fans. The monsters in the film and its sequels, such as Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, as well as its many inspired works, such as Return of the Living Dead and Zombie 2, are usually hungry for human flesh, although Return of the Living Dead introduced the popular concept of zombies eating brains. The “zombie apocalypse” concept, in which the civilized world is brought low by a global zombie infestation, became a staple of modern popular art.
Pulliam and Fonseca (2014) and Walz (2006) trace the zombie lineage back to the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The actor T. P. Cooke as Frankenstein’s Monster in an 1823 stage production of the novel
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, while not a zombie novel in particular, prefigures many 20th-century ideas about zombies in that the resurrection of the dead is portrayed as a scientific process rather than a mystical one, and that the resurrected dead are degraded and more violent than their living selves. Frankenstein, published in 1818, has its roots in European folklore, whose tales of vengeful dead also informed the evolution of the modern conception of the vampire. Later notable 19th-century stories about the avenging undead included Ambrose Bierce’s “The Death of Halpin Frayser”, and various Gothic Romanticism tales by Edgar Allan Poe. Though their works could not be properly considered zombie fiction, the supernatural tales of Bierce and Poe would prove influential on later writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, by Lovecraft’s own admission.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, the American horror author H. P. Lovecraft wrote several novellae that explored the undead theme. “Cool Air”, “In the Vault”, and “The Outsider” all deal with the undead, but Lovecraft’s Herbert West–Reanimator (1921) “helped define zombies in popular culture”. This series of short stories featured Herbert West, a mad scientist who attempts to revive human corpses with mixed results. Notably, the resurrected dead are uncontrollable, mostly mute, primitive and extremely violent; though they are not referred to as zombies, their portrayal was prescient, anticipating the modern conception of zombies by several decades. Edgar Rice Burroughs similarly depicted animated corpses in the second book of his Venus series, again without ever using the terms “zombie” or “undead”.
Avenging zombies would feature prominently in the early 1950s EC Comics, which George A. Romero would later claim as an influence. The comics, including Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Weird Science, featured avenging undead in the Gothic tradition quite regularly, including adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories, which included “In the Vault”, “Cool Air” and Herbert West–Reanimator.
Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, although classified as a vampire story would nonetheless have definitive impact on the zombie genre by way of George A. Romero. The novel and its 1964 film adaptation, The Last Man on Earth, which concern a lone human survivor waging war against a world of vampires, would by Romero’s own admission greatly influence his 1968 low-budget film Night of the Living Dead; a work that would prove to be more influential on the concept of zombies than any literary or cinematic work before it.