We all know the zombie; slow, dim-witted, a mindless walking monster more akin to the slow lumbering ‘mummy’ than a depiction of the living dead. But where do zombies come from? Where is their root in history, in mythology? Certainly the zombie does not originate in the form we see it in now. The concept of the zombie has its roots in Voodoo tradition.
Voodoo is traditionally a mix of African beliefs and traditions, and Roman Catholic Christianity. It originated, as far as its current form goes, when Africans were brought to Haiti in the 16th century as slaves. They held on to the beliefs of their homeland whilst at the same time were forced to adopt the religion of their captors.
From the site http://www.travelinghaiti.com/haitian_voodoo.asp
“Misconceptions about voodoo have given Haiti a reputation for sorcery and zombies. Popular images of voodoo have ignored the religion’s basis as a domestic cult of family spirits. Adherents of voodoo do not perceive themselves as members of a separate religion; they consider themselves Roman Catholics. In fact, the word for voodoo does not even exist in rural Haiti. The Creole wordvodoun refers to a kind of dance and in some areas to a category of spirits. Roman Catholics who are active voodooists say that they “serve the spirits,” but they do not consider that practice as something outside of Roman Catholicism. Haitians also distinguish between the service of family spirits and the practice of magic and sorcery.
The belief system of voodoo revolves around family spirits (often called loua or mistË) who are inherited through maternal and paternal lines. Loua protect their “children” from misfortune. In return, families must “feed” the loua through periodic rituals in which food, drink, and other gifts are offered to the spirits. There are two kinds of services for the loua. The first is held once a year; the second is conducted much less frequently, usually only once a generation. Many poor families, however, wait until they feel a need to restore their relationship with their spirits before they conduct a service. Services are usually held at a sanctuary on family land.
In voodoo, there are many loua. Although there is considerable variation among families and regions, there are generally two groups of loua, the rada and the petro. The rada spirits are mostly seen as “sweet” loua, while the petro are seen as “bitter” because they are more demanding of their “children.” Rada spirits appear to be of African origin while petro spirits appear to be of Haitian origin.
Loua are usually anthropomorphic and have distinct identities. They can be good, evil, capricious, or demanding. Loua most commonly show their displeasure by making people sick, and so voodoo is used to diagnose and treat illnesses. Loua are not nature spirits, and they do not make crops grow or bring rain. The loua of one family have no claim over members of other families, and they cannot protect or harm them. Voodooists are therefore not interested in the loua of other families
Loua appear to family members in dreams and, more dramatically, through trances. Many Haitians believe that loua are capable of temporarily taking over the bodies of their “children.” Men and women enter trances during which they assume the traits of particular loua. People in a trance feel giddy and usually remember nothing after they return to a normal state of consciousness. Voodooists say that the spirit temporarily replaces the human personality. Possession trances occur usually during rituals such as services for loua or a vodoun dance in honor of the loua. When loua appear to entranced people, they may bring warnings or explanations for the causes of illnesses or misfortune. Loua often engage the crowd around them through flirtation, jokes, or accusations.
Ancestors (le mÚ) rank with the family loua as the most important spiritual entities in voodoo. Elaborate funeral and mourning rites reflect the important role of the dead. Ornate tombs throughout the countryside reveal how much attention Haiti gives to its dead. Voodooists believe the dead are capable of forcing their survivors to construct tombs and sell land. In these cases, the dead act like family loua, which “hold” family members to make them ill or bring other misfortune. The dead also appear in dreams to provide their survivors with advice or warnings. Voodooists also believe there are loua that can be paid to bring good fortune or protection from evil. And, they believe that souls can be paid to attack enemies by making them ill. Beliefs include zombies and witchcraft. Zombies are either spirits or people whose souls have been partially withdrawn from their bodies.
Some Haitians resort to bokÚ, who are specialists in sorcery and magic. Haiti has several secret societies whose members practice sorcery
Voodoo specialists, male houngan and female manbo, mediate between humans and spirits through divination and trance. They diagnose illnesses and reveal the origins of other misfortune. They can also perform rituals to appease spirits or ancestors or to repel magic. Many voodoo specialists are accomplished herbalists who treat a variety of illnesses
Voodoo lacks a fixed theology and an organized hierarchy, unlike Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Each specialist develops his or her own reputation for effectiveness.
FranÁois Duvalier recruited voodoo specialists to serve as tonton
makouts to help him control all aspects of Haitian life. Duvalier indicated that he retained power through sorcery, but because voodoo is essentially a family-based cult, Duvalier failed to politicize the religion to any great extent.”
The creole word ”zombi’ is derived from Nzambi, a West African deity. In his book The Magic Island, William B. Seabrook recounts his experiences on Haiti, including the walking dead. In it he describes the first zombie he came across:
“The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it. It seemed not only expressionless, but incapable of expression.”
Zombies were once normal people, but underwent zombification by a “bokor” or voodoo sorcerer. The victim then dies and becomes a mindless automaton, incapable of remembering the past, unable to recognise loved ones and doomed to a life of miserable toil.
There have been attempts to explain zombies in Haitian voodoo culture as a kind of pharmacological act; that the bokor were using a cocktail of neurotoxins and dissociative drugs to bring their vicitims into a zombified state. These hypothesis have been met with much skepticism as whilst the theory of drugging a person into a zombie-like state does make some logical sense it does not account for their stilited gait or deathly trance.
There have been many accounts of zombies in modern Haiti; stories of people that die, then many years later return to the shock and surprise of relatives.
A man named Caesar returned 18 years after he died to marry, have three children and die again, 30 years after he was originally buried.
Another case involved a student from a village Port-au-Prince who had been shot in a robbery attempt. Six months later, the student returned to his parent’s house as a zombie. At first it was possible to talk with the man, and he related the story of his murder, a voodoo witch doctor stealing his body from the ambulance before he reached hospital and his transformation into a zombie. As time went on, he became unable to communicate, he grew more and more lethargic and died.
Papa Doc Duvallier the dictator of Haiti from 1957 to 1971 had a private army of thugs called tonton macoutes. These people were said to be in trances and they followed every command that Duvallier gave them. Duvallier had also his own voodoo church with many followers and he promised to return after his death to rule again. He did not come back but a guard was placed at his tomb, to insure that he would not try to escape, or that nobody steal the body.
A writer named Stephen Bonsal described a zombie he witnessed in 1912 in this way: a man had at intervals a high fever, he joined a foreign mission church and the head of the mission saw the him die. He assisted at the funeral and saw the dead man buried. Some days later the supposedly dead man was found dressed in grave clothes, tied to a tree, moaning. The poor wretch soon recovered his voice but not his mind. He was indentifed by his wife, by the physician who had pronounced him dead, and by the clergyman. The victim did not recognized anybody, and spent his days moaning inarticulate words.
Night of the Living Dead, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, 28 Days Later, Resident Evil… these films and games have given the zombie widespread exposure, and in a way they sort of set the standard for how or what we perceive the zombie to be.
In modern culture, the zombie is most associated with the zombie virus – a pathogen that is released into society that turns every man, woman and child into a shambling corpse hungry for human flesh. In this way, the ‘modern zombie’ is most closely tied in with the apocalypse or end-of-the-world scenario, since the ramifications of a brain-munching-zombie-virus infecting the masses connects with our fears of the fabric of society falling into chaos and disarray.
The end of the world scenario is really ‘the end of the world as we know it’ and it is a terrifying and uncomfortable concept for us to deal with. The idea that you could be trapped in a city of zombies is terrifying because they are the walking dead, and because they connotate chaos and inhuman behavior.
Do not forget that the zombie does not feel emotion. Going up against something that cannot feel in the way we do, is horrifying since we cannot understand its motivations. Something that moans and communicate with us is unsettling.
The original zombie from voodoo culture is a far more mysterious and interesting phenomena than what we know of the zombie today from Films and TV. They were normal men and women poisoned and drugged by ministers of dark voodoo magic, made into vacant slaves. No doubt the practice in voodoo custom of making a person into a zombie still goes on today.
Somewhere, wherever voodoo is practiced by the very darkest of hearts, the dead are waking…
And for fun I’m posting this video of prison inmates doing a mass recreation of the Thriller dance.
Of course, if you’d like to learn the Thriller dance yourselves, and feel like a real dancing zombie, then watch this: