Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Note on the Roots of the Concept of the "Zombie" in Pop Culture

As Kevin’s post “Zombie Mania” pointed out, the macabre image of the zombie as a mindless, flesh hungering creature has pervaded the media. However, the appeal of zombies to the American psyche goes far beyond fictional depictions. The word has found its way into our vernacular: one with a vicious hangover might find it to be an apt description of their mental state. The academic literature in fields such as economics (Caballero et al. 2005 ) liguististics (Johnson 1974), psychology (Bierer 1976), and philosophy (Locke 1976) displays a curious fascination with the subject. Something about this violent concept of a zombie definitely seems to appeal to us on a deep level.

Zombies as seen in the 2004 film Shaun of the Dead

However, the zombie of western popular culture is an entirely different entity from that of the magico-religious ritual of the Haitian and West African Vodoun religions of which it is based off of. The earliest traveller’s accounts of the zombification ritual fascinated outsider observers, such as William Seabrook’s (admittedly sensationalized) depictions of his travels to rural Haiti in his 1929 novel The Magic Island. What led credibility to the zombie phenomenon in the eyes of outside observers was not just that stories of people falling victim to Vodoun priests and sorcerors were common among the rural peasantry, but that accounts of people seemingly being resurrected from the dead were also found in more reliable documentation by western-trained physicians. A number of cases exist where someone was documented to have experienced a rapid decline in health and passed away, been interred, and then appearing some time later and identified by friends and relatives as none other than the one whom was declared deceased by a trained doctor (See Wade Davis’s 1988 account of his work on the Vodoun zombification phenomenon Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie).

It was not until around the 1980s with the work of ethnobiologists such as Wade Davis was a scientifically plausible explanation of the Haitian zombie phenomenon been put forth. Haitians recognize two forms of “zombie”. One is a spirit that has been sold to or captured by a Vodoun sorceror. The other being a victim of Vodoun sorcery who has been raised from the grave in a comatose state to work the land of the sorcerer as a will-less slave. This second concept of a zombie is closer to the walking dead of the zombie in western pop culture.

For a Vodoun sorceror to create a zombie, a complex ritual involving deep botanical, zoological, and religious knowledge must be performed. Through application of a carefully prepared poison consisting of plants containing pharmacologically active chemicals such as Albizia lebbeck, Mucuna pruriens, and Trichilia hirta, the tetrodotoxin containing porcupine fish (Diodon spp.) or puffer fish (Sphoeroides spp.), the poisonous and possibly hallucinogenic toad Bufo marinus, human remains such as finely ground bones, or other ingredients with pharmacological or magico-religious significance, a comatose and death-like state can be created in the victim. After the victim is pronounced dead and buried, the sorcerer exhumes him under the cover night and administers another carefully prepared antidote to wake the victim and together with an elaborate and surely terrifying ritual is able to induce in the victim the state of zombification. The zombie state can then be reversed through a variety of means, such as the death of the sorceror or exposure to substances such as table salt.

A Vodoun priest or houngan. Source

To the Haitians, the fear associated with zombies is a fear of becoming one rather than fear of being attacked or killed by one. Zombification is used by Vodoun sorcerors as a way to police the community, where victims are not chosen at random, but rather have offended their communities in some way or whose zombification has been paid for by a victim of a malicious act of theirs. The Haitian zombie ritual, aside from deliberate poisoning with a mixture of poisonous parts of plants and animals, is entirely non-violent and more magic or religious in nature.

However, when the western media took up the zombie concept, it turned it into a violent creature of its own making, with little left in common with its Haitian and West African Vodoun ancestors. Indeed the portrayal of the “Voodoo” religion in western popular culture takes many liberties with regards to the actual beliefs of its practitioners. Entirely western concepts such as “voodoo dolls”, usually used for violent and nefarious purposes, are creations of our media and have little in common with actual Vodoun practices. The violent and somewhat demonic portrayal of zombies and the Vodoun religion in western media surely has affected the common perception of the practitioners of the religion, if they are aware of the roots of the zombie concept at all. It certainly says something about the nature of the American psyche that a violent portrayal of the zombie is seen as more fascinating than a more realistic notion grounded in its roots as an pharmacological and religious phenomenon.

Zombies in the natural world?

Zombies can be created by a wide variety of means in western media compared to the fairly specific methods for creating a zombie in Vodoun ritual; for example, by raising the dead by occult rituals or by biological agents such as an infectious virus or parasite that takes control of the victims mind much like the fungus Cordyceps spp affects its insect hosts.  Many consider a creature a zombie if and only if it has been raised from the dead.  Zombies created by biological agents are typically referred to otherwise, such as the "infected" of the Left 4 Dead video game series, which makes no use of the word zombie in its canon.  


  1. You seem hint that western culture has borrowed the idea behind zombies and has moved this concept in numerous different directions. Do you think cross-cultural exchanges will even affect the conception of monsters in each culture?

  2. Not sure the OP's opinion on this (get back to us!, and by the way, well-researched post!), but one recent trend seems to take up intercultural monster assimilation: urban fantasy. Novels by authors such as Laurell K. Hamilton, Jim Butcher, Charlene Harris, etc, take different monsters and rehabilitate them into modern society. Particularly, in the Dresden Files series by Butcher, monsters and mythical beings as culturally diverse as djinn, skinwalkers, faeries, incubi, trolls, angels, and foo dogs all compete in a complex universe of magic.

    One of the reasons, I think, is the sheer exhaustion of literature in the US about vampires and werewolves (which also exist in the Dresdenverse). Another is that it offers the author a chance to challenge popular conceptions of creatures warped by Hollywood and mainstream portrayals. Of course, this trend is facilitated by greater access to indigenous cultures, though there is a danger.

    The more folk customs become appropriated by Western writers, the more they become static emblems of the past than part of a thriving culture. Magico-religious ideas disappear in the face of commercialization and cultural reappropriation. We're edging a moment where the commodification of cultural artifacts and knowledge cause people to ascribe to global culture which has no room for localized belief structures.

    My opinion is that it sucks for cultures to disappear. But cultures will form and reform from the ashes of the old. My only hope is that the new monsters won't be as quotidian as internet hackers and business men and that we can still use our imaginations (the best form of magic) to create new and stranger beasts.

  3. Cultural exchange certainly gave America the concept of the zombie, but I don't think that the Haitian notion of a zombie has been affected by the reciprocal exchange. Vodoun is mainly practiced in rural Haiti, with Catholicism dominating the more densely populated areas - although the religions are sometimes practiced in tandem.

    I'm really only closely familiar with Wade Davis's work on the subject during the 80s. During this time the rural areas of Haiti were relatively isolated from urban centers. This was the reason Catholic pushes to eliminate Vodoun failed. It's also a part of the reason the zombification ritual developed as a social sanction, as the state-run law enforcement organizations did not have much influence in rural Haiti.

    Therefore, I doubt that Haitian practitioners of Vodoun have historically had much exposure to American culture, including popular culture notions of monsters. Indeed, as Davis could explain much better than I, the power of the zombification ritual largely hinges on the absolute conviction of the victim that it has real power. Exposure to alternative explanations of the way the world functions if it had occurred, would likely have resulted in the death of Vodoun as the magic aspect of the religion would largely have lost its power.

    The disappearance of cultures is indeed a terrible thing. Indigenous cultures have a wealth of valuable information on the natural world and have ways of life and knowledge systems that science could learn much from. Additionally, the culture and art of indigenous societies are valuable to some in their own right.

    I think that the ability to transfer information almost instantly anywhere in the world through global networks such as the Internet has had a homogenizing effect on the connected cultures. Every person with an Internet connection has access to a vast collection of cultural artifacts from all over the world. This cultural homogenization has probably been occurring since the beginning of global trade, but I do believe it is accelerated in modern times.

    Now, cultural movements, that once would have probably remained localized, often become global phenomena. Recently, the Tunisian revolution seems to have sparked similar movements all over the Arab world. Dubstep, a British cultural product, has gained popularity worldwide, even though it began as an underground movement in England. It's becoming huge here in The States, and I saw how popular it was on the other side of the globe in Tasmania, Australia when I was abroad there a year ago. I don't think that Dubstep has a momentous music significance; in fact I can't stand it. However, the people who do appreciate it have been able to find it probably because of the Internet. Never before the Internet have ideas been able to be as rapidly and widely disseminated.


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