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African-American Studies

Zombie Culture: From African Legend to Modern Movies

In the 1960s, the movie “Night of the Living Dead” introduced a new kind of monster in horror movies: the zombie (Kay, 2008). Over the last several decades, movies and television shows featuring zombies have become more and more popular. The zombies that are depicted in most modern horror movies and shows are dead bodies that somehow have come back to life, usually from some sort of contagious virus or an environmental catastrophe (Kay). These zombies do not speak or even think; the only thing they care about is eating living things –usually human beings. In most zombie movies and shows, the bite from a zombie will turn the victim into a zombie as well, thereby spreading the zombie plague (Kay). These zombies may only exist in the movies, but the idea of the dead coming back to life as zombies has actually existed for centuries, and is rooted in the religious histories of Africa and Haiti.

            The earliest stories and traditions about zombies originated in parts of Africa, where some people believed that witch doctors had the power to bring the dead back to life (Davis, 1988). Some researchers believe that these witch doctors may have used various plants and herbs to create potions and poisons that could temporarily simulate death in those who took them. Other researchers have theorized that witch doctors and shaman used psychoactive chemicals derived from various botanical sources to induce trancelike states in people. When under the influence of these psychoactive drugs, it has been claimed, the victims would be very open to suggestion, in much the same way as someone who was in a hypnotic trance. The witch doctors would supposedly control the spirits of their victims, and would offer to bring them back to life or to release their spirits from captivity in the victims or their families paid for their release from the witch doctor’s control.

            The word “zombie” is believed to have come from the word Nigerian word “nzambi,” which can mean “god” or “spirit” (Davis). The religious practice of the witch doctors that created zombies was known as Vodun (rhymes with low-dun) (Davis). During the centuries where African slaves were shipped to the West by the thousands, many of the religious traditions of their homelands were brought over as well. The descendants of African slaves who lived in Haiti kept the many of their ancestor’s traditions alive, and the practice of Vodun in Africa gave birth to the Vodu (rhymes with low-doo) traditions that still exist today in Haiti (Davis).

            Vodu, which is still sometime referred to as Vodun, is a religious practice involving shamans who use drums and psychoactive drugs to enter into trance states. During these trance states the shaman can commune with the spirit world and bring back messages to the living. Some people believe that these shaman, like the shaman and witch doctors in Africa, have the power to bring the dead back to life, and to enslave these zombies until they decide to return them to the grave (Brown, 2010).

            Researchers who have studied Vodu and Vodun in Haiti believe that the zombie legends there are similar to the zombie legends from African history. Vodu shaman may use psychoactive plants or trance-inducing poisons to send victims into a state of partial paralysis and suggestibility. The strong influence of the cultural beliefs associated with Vodu may help to reinforce the state of suggestibility, meaning that the poisoned or drugged victims may actually believe that they are dead, and willingly follow the orders they are given by the shaman (Davis). Some researchers have doubts, however, about how long a shaman could actually induce such a state in a victim (Davis). The zombie legends of Haiti describe shaman who have raised people from the dead and kept them in a zombie-like state for years, though most experts believe that this is impossible, or at least very unlikely. What is more likely is that some shaman have induced trance states in victims for a matter of hours or even days, and the legends and stories told about these supposed zombies have been exaggerated over time.

The television shows and movies that depict zombies as the victims of some sort of pandemic or other disaster may not be exactly like the zombies of Haitian Vodu, but it is clear that stories of the dead coming back to life capture the imagination of people from all different cultures and backgrounds. In an age where the threats of nuclear attacks, biological warfare, and terrorism are a reality of life, the idea of a “zombie apocalypse” reflects our deepest fears about a world gone mad (Kay). Just like zombies themselves, the legend of zombies looks like it will be very hard to kill.

 References

Brown, N. R. (2010). The complete idiot’s guide to zombies. New York, NY: Penguin.

Davis, W. (1988). Passage of darkness: The ethnobiology of the Haitian zombie. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. Kay, G. (2008). Zombie movies: The ultimate guide. Chicago, Ill: Chicago Review Press