A rash of recent news reports about flesh-eating humans — the tally has hit at least seven in the last week — has had a lot of people asking: Are we entering the zombie apocalypse?
Two key things people do not seem to have asked (but should!): So what the fuck are zombies, anyway? And: Do zombies even eat flesh in the first place, or is that just from George Romero’s 1968 classic horror flick Night of the Living Dead?
The answers to these queries might be found in Haitian folklore.
As detailed by one researcher at the University of Michigan, zombiism hails from Haitian Voodoo — zombie translates to “spirit of the dead” in one of the island’s languages.
According to this info, legend has it that black magic-versed voodoo priests called Bokors could bring the dead to life with coup padre, “a powder that is issued orally, the primary ingredient of which is tetrodoxin, the deadly substance of the notoriously poisonous fou-fou, or ‘porcupine fish.'” A zombie, research indicates, is “someone who has annoyed his or her family and community to the degree that they can no longer stand to live with this person. They respond by hiring a Bokor..to turn them into a zombi(e).”
Because the Bokors basically poisoned these people, they would seem dead, “”as their heart rate would slow to a near stop, their breathing patterns would be greatly subdued and their body temperature would significantly decrease. The public, thinking that the person was dead, would bury him/ her as if they were a corpse.”
Then, the Bokor would dig up the body and it would be phyiscally alive, though their memories would reportedly “be erased and they would be transformed into mindless drones. “
Similar stories circulate in some West and South African legends — which are closely linked to those tales in the Caribbean. The ideas are generally the same: a dead person can be revived by a Bokor, and sometimes a part of a human soul can be bottled by this shaman-like figure and sold for luck. Some think that kids or witches can turn adults into zombies, too.
i09’s Annalee Newitz argued in 2010 that the shift in zombies — from drone to cannibal — started in the 1920s in America, when stories “from white tourists in Haiti began to percolate into pulp fiction by authors like H.P. Lovecraft.”
The filmic crystallization of zombies really took place in 1932, with White Zombie. This Bela Lugosi movie set the stage for many early interpretations of zombiism to be associated with racial politics: Lugosi, a white sugar mill magnate in Haiti, runs his plants on zombie labor. Similar themes, Annallee notes, come into play in I Walk With a Zombie.
However, the skin, brain, and bone-gnawing zombies don’t seem to take form until Night of the Living Dead. That Richard Matheson(I Am Legend)-inspired movie shows a distinct shift away from the Haitian paradigm toward cannibalism.
Some, such as Forbes’ James Turner, have said that zombies represent society’s skepticism toward technology: they are Promethean creatures created by science gone awry. That thesis makes a fair amount of sense, especially if we look at Legend on film and 28 Days Later, in which would-be biomedical advances lead to humanity’s decline.
Worth noting: Zombies are hardly the only undead. The case could be made that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein proffers a sort of proto-zombiism. Indeed, similar creatures weren’t only popular in Gothic lit — Yiddish folklore features the Golem, for example.
And don’t forget: Though not called zombies per se, it was thought in Medieval France that the dead would awaken,”to avenge some crime committed against the entity, most likely a murder. The revenant usually took on the form of an emaciated corpse or skeletal human figure, and wandered around graveyards at night,” Monstropedia notes.
And the Norses’ draugr was “also believed to be the corpses of warriors returned from the dead to attack the living. The zombie appears in several other cultures worldwide, including Japan, China, the Pacific, India, and even the Native Americans.”
When it comes to flesh eating, this trait is not specific to zombies at all. In the Philippines, aswang-grouped monsters feast on the dead.
The Algonquins’ Wendigo legend also warns that humans can become cannibalistic super-spirits if they eat other people.
There are surely more examples, but the basic point is this: Yes, popular myth does have a lot of examples of zombies eating flesh. Historically speaking, however, lack of consciousness might be as much a characteristic of zombiism as anthropophagy.
Follow Victoria Bekiempis @vicbekiempis.