Halloween is pretty much upon us: scary films, crazy costumes and spooky stories. What’s scarier, a vampire or a zombie? Will you dress up as a witch or a werewolf? In this series, Muriel Baillyprofiles a famous Halloween monster every day this week to manifest the myths beneath the masks and make-up.
Zombies are corpses that have been revived or re-animated, traditionally by witchcraft. They are very common in Haitian folklore and in the Vodou religion. Haitian tales tell of two different types of zombies: the physical one (the body) and an astral one (the soul). Each is missing it’s other half. It is said that sorcerers, called bokors, can trap the astral zombie and bottle it to sell it to clients for good luck or healing purposes.
Vodou beliefs originated in French slavery colonies, particularly in Haiti. Slavery was first introduced to Haiti by Christopher Columbus when he arrived on the Island and set up a fort there in 1492. His first contact with the native population was friendly and they exchanged gifts, but he quickly wrote to Queen Isabella of Spain saying the natives were “tractable, and easily led; they could be made to grow crops and cities.”
During the French colonial period the entire economy of the island was based on slavery and its practice there was known to be extremely cruel. Men and women from Congo, Yoruba and other African ethnic groups were enslaved and brought to Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue) in the 16th and 17th century, bringing with them their own cultural traditions. These beliefs evolved to become the Vodou religion we know today.
Tradition says that Baron Samedi, the Loa (Spirit of Haitian Vodou) of the dead, will gather the spirits from their graves and bring them back to Africa to a heavenly afterlife. The souls of any who offended him during their lives would be left behind as zombies and, therefore, to be slaves forever in the afterlife.
The Haitian zombie tradition was first introduced to the western world during the United States occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934. This is largely thanks to American author William Seabrook’s book The Magic Island, published in 1929. In addition to this book, Seabrook also gained fame for his interest in the occult, tasting human flesh and not disguising his enthusiasm for it (he likened it to veal). Seabrook’s hobbies may explain why pop culture zombies are flesh-eating creatures: the two legends have influenced each other.
In the 20th century, reports of people who being turned into zombies by bokors in Haiti were frequent. The most famous example is of Clairvius Narcisse who came home some 18 years after he had been buried by his family. Narcisse fell ill in 1962 and was declared dead by doctors. He was later dug up by bokors and Vodou practitioners and given a concoction to maintain him in a semi-conscious state and made to work on fields along with other zombie-slaves. When the land owner eventually died nobody was there to give the slaves their daily potion to maintain their zombie-like state so Narcisse eventually regained consciousness and walked home.
Incredible stories like this were investigated by Wide Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist who presented a pharmacological case for zombies in the 1983 Journal of Ethnopharmacology. His findings were that people can in fact be changed into zombies using two different powders injected into the bloodstream. The first one is a powerful drug, Tetrodoxin (TTX), which induces paralysis of the muscles and respiratory organs, mimicking death. The second powder is to be administered once the body has been declared dead. It is a dissociative drug, such as datura, that will then bring the individual into a semi-conscious sate. Although the scientific accuracy of Davis’ work has been heavily criticised, he helped popularise the zombie myth in the Western world with two bestseller books: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) and Darkness: the Ethnnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988).
A mythological mirror for slavery at first, the modern image of zombies as flesh-eating monsters appeared in Hollywood movies in for the first time 1968 with George A Romero film, Night of the Living Dead (before that, in films like White Zombie from 1932, the Haitian setting and Voudou are present). Since then, zombies films have spread like…an infection… and they are even the subject of a highly successful and record-breaking television series, The Walking Dead. In the last decade, zombie films seem to offer an ever more gory experience.
Such a glut of films have led to certain film makers taking a different angle, resulting in some inventive approaches. Such as in the rom-com-zom Shaun of the Dead; Cockneys Vs. Zombies, featuring slow-moving pensioners in a retirement home trying to outrun slightly slower zombies; and Pontypool, an excellent zombie film without any zombies. From slavery to consumerism, zombies show us the evil our society suffers from and remind us of some of the things we fear most: losing our life, losing our freedom and losing ourselves.
Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.