Zombies, Mythology, and the Origins of the Zombie Genre

The following is an excerpt from Dissecting The Walking Dead: Slicing Into The Guts of Television’s Hottest Show, available in paperback and for Kindle.

Shambling corpses with ragged clothing still clinging to their grey, rotting bodies. An unsteady, drunken walk. Long, pitiful moans and an aching hunger for human flesh.

Romero's zombies were meant to be ghouls

Romero’s zombies were meant to be ghouls

The image is by now so familiar even people with no interest in the genre know it inside and out. These are zombies.

But zombies weren’t always depicted this way. Once upon a time, the zombie was something much different, a creature linked with black magic and Voodoo and having nothing to do with eating flesh.

It seems as if they’ve been around forever, but our modern view of zombies is actually a relatively new creation.

The first recorded use of the term “zombie” dates to 1819, as “Zombi,” and probably has its origins in West Africa. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word is related to Kongo words like nzambi, which means “god,” and zumbi, which means “fetish.” In 1819, however, the word wasn’t referring to a ravenous undead creature. The view of what a zombie is would take about 150 years to evolve into what we envision when we hear the term today.

The roots of the modern zombie date back to well before the earliest uses of the word. The term “zombie” may be relatively new, but idea of the undead – deceased beings that behave as if still alive – has deep roots in mythology, and in some cases has been drawn from real life. Indeed, the idea of undead creatures that feed on living humans first arose centuries ago.

Tales of vampire-like creatures date back to the Mesopotamians, Ancient Greeks, Romans and other ancient civilizations. The tale of Lilith, for instance, springs from ancient Sumerian and Babylonian legend, as does Lamashtu, a creature that would devour the blood and flesh of newborn infants. European literature from the early 18th Century drew from that ancient folklore and re-imagined vampires as the undead beings we know today, creatures that feast on human blood.

More closely related to modern zombies is the ghoul. In fact, George Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead does not refer to the creatures as zombies. Rather, they are called ghouls. His intention was to riff on Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 novel, I Am Legend, but he didn’t want his flesh-eaters to be vampires. If he wanted flesh-eating undead, ghouls were his next best option. That means for the first 10 years of modern zombie mythology (which most agree began in earnest with Night), they weren’t zombies at all, they were ghouls!

It wasn’t until 1978’s Dawn of the Dead that “zombie” was popularized as the word for these creatures, helped along when Italian producer Claudio Argento renamed that movie Zombi for European audiences.

A flesh-eating ghoul

A flesh-eating ghoul

Ghouls have their origins in Arabian mythology and share several traits with modern zombies. They tend to be found in and around graveyards, and they have a penchant for human flesh. The earliest ghoul stories may appear in One Thousand and One Nights, a sprawling collection of tales written over the course of hundreds of years.

The ghoul, or ghūl, is not quite a zombie, though. They are a type of Jinn, supernatural creatures from Arabic mythology best known for their depiction as “Genies” in the West. In many accounts of ghouls, they are said to eat human flesh. In some stories they can shapeshift (turning into hyenas is common), and in others they lure unsuspecting people into remote parts of the desert, where their victims are devoured.

In one less frequently seen aspect of ghoul mythology, ghouls would take on the shape of the last person they consumed, essentially giving new (and evil) life to the deceased. It’s not quite the same as the dead getting back up and walking again, but it’s a clear antecedent to the idea.

In one of the tales of Sinbad, he encounters the Magian people, who are ruled by a king called Ghul. Aspects of the story appear to contain ancient echoes of what would be transformed into today’s zombies through a centuries-long game of telephone:

Whoever came to their island were required to eat a certain kind of food, but unlike his fellows, whose minds were ‘stupefied’ and ‘state became changed,’ Sindibad could not eat. Then Sindibad’s fellows were given cocoa-nut oil until they became very fat and stupid after which they were roasted and presented to the King. However, Sindibad succeeded in escaping especially after learning that the Magians eat raw human flesh.

Perhaps closer to our modern zombie was the draugr, taken from Norse mythology. Draugr were said to be animated corpses brought back to life to guard treasure and valuables. Much like zombies, they were able to be killed a second time, too. They rarely strayed from the tombs in which they dwelt, and were said to have supernatural strength. Tales vary on how they killed their victims, but consuming their flesh was certainly one of the ways it might happen.

The draugr has largely fallen out of favor in modern horror and fantasy, though they were revived for the hit video game Skyrim, which featured a fairly accurate depiction of what draugr were said to be: essentially strong, fast zombies that guard ancient tombs.

There is another link between draugr and zombies. Depending on the story, draugr boasted an array of abilities, including possession, but the one that has the closest resemblance to modern zombies is the ability to turn their victims into draugr, too. Both the Grettis saga and Eyrbyggja saga, two famed Icelandic sagas from the 10th and 11th Centuries, tell us that victims of draugr arise later as draugr themselves, similar to how someone killed or injured by a zombie may themselves become a zombie.

Photo from http://metro.co.uk/

Photo from http://metro.co.uk/

There are a slew of other examples of undead in folklore, though their influence on modern zombies is often negligible. The jiangshi is a reanimated corpse of Chinese legend, for example, that absorbs a person’s life force. It has more in common with vampires than zombies, though. A more notable influence, albeit not a direct one, may be the mummy.

Mummies have existed for thousands of years – and unlike tales of ghouls and vampires, mummies are real – but it wasn’t until the 1827 publication of The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, a novel by Jane C. Loudon that tells the story of a mummy brought back to life in the far future, that western stories began to see the mummy as a walking, animated creature of fear. (Loudon’s novel also borrowed unashamedly from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.)

In many ways, pop culture mummies are a major forerunner to what we now consider to be zombies. Zombies don’t come about due to a curse, of course, which became a popular aspect of mummy mythology due in part to Loudon’s book, and mummies don’t eat human flesh, but they did catapult the idea of walking corpses into the mainstream.

In 1903, Bram Stoker dabbled with mummies in his novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars, which was later adapted for the 1971 movie Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb, but it was around the 1920s and 1930s when mummies truly shot into the popular consciousness. America had started to develop a fetish for all things Egyptian thanks to the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter and George Herbert.

Then, in 1932, Universal Studios released The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff as an ancient Egyptian priest brought back to life. It wasn’t really zombie stuff – Karloff’s character, Imhotep, is actually able to integrate himself into society for a time – but it helped open the doors for more movies featuring the idea of bringing the dead back to life.

Universal, Hammer and other studios made a string of mummy movies in the decades that followed. There was The Mummy’s Hand in 1940 and The Mummy’s Tomb in 1942, the 1959 cult classic by Hammer The Mummy, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (both of whom would end up in Star Wars movies), 1964’s The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, and many more.

"The Mummy," 1932

“The Mummy,” 1932

For a time, mummies were everywhere. They even became the subject of slapstick, featured in Three Stooges shorts (“We Want Our Mummy,” 1939), comedy films like Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), and more.

What was important with these films was not the idea of the undead eating flesh, something largely absent from mummy lore, but the idea of the dead coming back to life and causing chaos when they did.

While all these mummies were romping around Hollywood, another kind of undead being was quietly setting the stage for the zombie explosion we’re experiencing today. These beings were actually called zombies, too, but they were a little different than the shambling flesh eaters of The Walking Dead.

Arising from Haitian folklore, especially the tenets of Haitian Vodou (or Voodoo), the original zombie was a person brought back from the dead using sorcery, usually to serve as mindless slave labor.

Some people even believe they are a real phenomenon.

A 1929 book by occultist and explorer William Seabrook called The Magic Island was among the first to popularize the Haitian zombie. Inspired by tales that came out of the island during the United States occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, it explored the idea of people being turned into mindless automatons and then being forced to labor for their masters. In fact, many believe Haitian zombie mythology is at least in part a metaphor for being trapped in slavery for all eternity.

Not surprisingly, suicide was a frequent recourse of the slaves, who were handy with poisons and powders. The plantation masters thought of suicide as the worst kind of thievery, since it deprived the master not only of a slave’s service, but also of his or her person, which was, after all, the master’s property. Suicide was the slave’s only way to take control over his or her own body. And yet, the fear of becoming a zombie might stop them from doing so. The zombie is a dead person who cannot get across to lan guinée. This final rest — in green, leafy, heavenly Africa, with no sugarcane to cut and no master to appease or serve — is unavailable to the zombie. To become a zombie was the slave’s worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand.

While Haitian zombies may be fairly distinct from today’s flesh eating zombies, descriptions of them may have had an influence on what our view of zombies evolved into. “Those who are turned into zombies are described as having gaunt features and skin with a greyish pallor that is pulled tight against their bones. They have fixed, staring expressions and their movements and actions are characterized as being repetitive, clumsy, and purposeless. They are slow, uncoordinated, and walk with an unsteady, shambling gait.”

Sound familiar?

However, these zombies could talk (albeit in a slow, slurred way), listen to commands, and perform tasks. They existed as if in a half-awake state.

These zombies were not considered to be merely the stuff of horror stories. They were thought to be very real, an actual fate that could befall someone. In fact, for decades stories had come out of Haiti of people claiming to have witnessed the phenomenon firsthand. For example, in 1937, “American folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Haiti and encountered the case of Felicia Felix-Mentor, a woman who villagers claimed had died in 1907 at the age of 29 but had returned to the living 20 years later. Hurston investigated the rumors and discovered evidence that powerful drugs were used to replicate a death-like state.”

Photo from http://tonyhealey.com/

Photo from http://tonyhealey.com/

And there are dozens of stories like this.

Prompted by these reports, in the 1980s ethnobotanist Wade Davis went to Haiti to explore Vodoun culture, examine its rituals, and probe the reality behind the zombie story. The result was The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic. In it, he chronicles a series of supposedly real life examples of people being turned into zombies.

In one incident, for example, “a woman, Natagette Joseph, aged about sixty, who was supposedly killed in a land dispute in 1966 … was recognized (in 1980) wandering about her home village by the police officer who, fourteen years before, in the absence of a doctor, had pronounced her dead.”

In another account, a woman pronounced dead by a doctor was seen alive three years later. When her grave was exhumed, it was found to be full of rocks. In yet another, a man who had been buried 18 years prior showed up in a village, claiming to have been turned into a zombie by his brother. And there are many more. Rumors even spoke of entire plantations being tended by zombie labor.

Davis came to the conclusion that Haiti’s zombies were not an example of the dead being brought back to life, but rather of people being enslaved through the use of drugs. Cases of burial and then “rising” would have been accomplished in the same way, with the help of a concoction used to make people appear dead. Those people would then be dug back up immediately after burial and put to work.

His credentials were good, and his research seemed thorough, but some cast doubt on his findings.

For a while Davis was widely touted as the man who had scientifically solved the mystery of zombies. However Davis’s claims were later challenged by skeptical scientists who regarded his methods as unscientific, pointing out that the samples of the zombie powder he provided were inconsistent, and that the amounts of neurotoxin contained in those samples were not high enough to create zombies. Furthermore, the dosages used by the bokors would need to be exact, since too much of the toxin could easily kill a person. Others pointed out nobody had ever found any of the many supposed plantations filled with zombie laborers on the small island country.

Some point out that “the problem of exact amounts needed for the toxins to work are already represented in zombie lore. The victim was usually well known to the bokor before the process began, giving them time to brew the right dose of toxin into their powder,” and that these practitioners of black magic failed as often as they succeeded, presumably because they had incorrectly judged their dosage.

So does that mean his critics were wrong? Davis certainly thought so. He wrote a follow-up to the book called Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie, and in the late 1990s the English medical journal The Lancet published a report examining three well-chronicled “zombie” cases, all three of which had a great deal of supporting evidence. The report concludes that these were cases of mental illness and/or brain damage that had been misinterpreted as something supernatural or magical, though it also noted, “We cannot exclude the use of a neuromuscular toxin, topically administered together with a local irritant by a bokor, to induce catalepsy followed by secret retrieval of the poisoned individual.”

These reports, however, were exploring a view of zombies that had fallen by the wayside. By the 1980s, today’s flesh-eating brand of zombies were far more fascinating to the public than island folklore, rendering their findings like so much Bigfoot research – a mere curiosity.

For a while, though, that island folklore had a cult following, thanks to a series of B-movies dating all the way back to the 1930s.

"I Walked with a Zombie," 1943

“I Walked with a Zombie,” 1943

The first movie to officially run with the term “zombie” is probably 1932’s White Zombie, which tells the story of a young woman turned into a zombie by an evil practitioner of voodoo. Though it spawned a sequel, 1936’s Revolt of the Zombies, the movie was widely considered a disappointment. Its influence on what zombies would evolve into was minimal, since it relied so heavily on Haitian mythology, but it did inspire a series of other zombies movies that helped us inch closer to Night of the Living Dead, and in turn to The Walking Dead. Among them were The Ghost Breakers (a 1940 film starring Bob Hope), King of the Zombies (1941), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Plague of the Zombies (1966). All of these films leaned on the same notion of glassy-eyed, slow-witted people brought back to life in order to work as slaves.

The latter film, it is worth noting, contained at least one element that would later appear in “real” zombie fiction. In The Plague of the Zombies, a disease seems to sweep through a Cornish village, awakening the dead from their slumber. These days, plague and zombies are often presented as being connected. The disease in that film was started and spread by a squire who had learned black magic while in Haiti, and who used it in order to kill the villagers and reanimate them into undead slaves, but the similarities are there, even if mild.

Add all of this disparate mythology together and you get a (very) rough picture that sort of looks like elements of The Walking Dead if you look at it from the right angle. It wasn’t quite there yet, though. Modern zombies hadn’t quite become a thing. We were just waiting for someone to put all the pieces together.

That person would be George Romero.
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For more about this amazing show, including how it was created, in-depth examinations of each season, a look at characters like Rick, Daryl, Carol, and more, check out Dissecting the Walking Dead, available in paperback and for Kindle.