Or: Where Do Zombies Come From Anyway?
When someone mentions the word zombie, the first thing that comes to mind is a decaying, flesh-hungry corpse that has returned from the dead to eat your brains and take over the world. You know, something straight out of Walking Dead.
Zombies have seen a huge rise in popularity lately; they’re more mainstream now than ever before. You can find them everywhere: books, graphic novels, television, film, live-action games on college campuses. It is fairly safe to say that most people are familiar with some form of zombie story these days.
What most people don’t know is that zombies originally had nothing to do with eating flesh. Or brains. Or an inexplicable virus. Or the apocalypse. Or running around chasing each other with Nerf guns. In fact, zombies as we know them really didn’t come about until around Night of the Living Dead.
So where do zombies come from?
Zombies (or, more correctly, zombis) come from Afro-Caribbean folklore. The zombi figures found in Haitian tradition are vastly different from the zombies of modern film and television. They are not driven by the mad desire to consume brains, nor are their bites part of an infectious pandemic. Instead, zombis are tragic figures.
Zombis were people killed by man, usually by the bokor, or people who practice both light and dark vodou*. The bodies were reanimated after death and bound to serve their creator. They were mindless, soulless, and generally walked with a slow, limping gait. Most importantly, they were completely without agency. Zombis, in short, were slaves.
Let me repeat that: Zombis were metaphors for slavery.
Knowing that really offers some perspective on how Western media appropriates aspects of other cultures. Zombis have been completely transformed from victims into the enemy. Sure, you feel bad when you’re watching your favorite zombie flick and someone gets bitten and starts to transform. However, there’s still very much that us vs. them mentality. When you consider that zombis are meant to represent slaves, that mentality opens up a whole new can of worms in terms of racism and oppression.
Does this mean that everyone who writes zombie stories is racist? Absolutely not. By now the Western concept of the zombie has become such a fixation in the media that it is its own entity. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of where the zombie comes from and what cultures we are blindly taking from. Cultures that are deserving of our respect.
The next time you’re sitting down to catch up on the latest Walking Dead or pen your very own zombi(e) novella, take a moment to think about the Haitian folklore that brought us the zombi figure. Reflect on it, and reflect on the implications of what you’re watching/reading/writing/playing.
Take a moment to respect another culture.
*Note: Not voodoo. Vodou = a religion of Haitian origin. Voodoo = the Western (mis)perception of said Haitian religion.
Fils-Aimé, Holly. “The Living Dead Learn to Fly: Themes of Spiritual Death, Initiation and Empowerment in A Praisesong for the Widow and Song of Solomon”. MAWA Review. Vol. 10, No. 1. (1995). 3-12. Print.
Moreman, Christopher M. and Corey James Rushton. Race, Oppression, and the Zombie: Essays on Cross-Cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition. Jefferson: McFarland Publishing, 2011. Print.