Halloween has arrived. And with it, pumpkin carving, costumes and candy. We have a number of Halloween traditions, designed to help us get into the “holiday spirit” of this autumn festival. In the past, Halloween has traditionally marked the end of the harvest, and has been seen as a portal into the other world. Following Halloween are observances of the Day of the Dead and of All Saints Day.
In modern times, Halloween is more of a fun holiday; few people take it seriously. The costumes we wear, and the monsters we favor are the products of trends. Recently, zombies have become quite popular. But what are zombies (beyond voracious, re-animated corpses, of course)? Where did they come from?
The History of Zombies: Africa and Haiti
The zombie originates in the folklore of Africa and Haiti. In Vodou/Voodoo culture, the zombie is a resurrected human — resurrected with no will of its own. In West Africa, a bokor, or practitioner of magic, can revive the dead body (feeding salt to the zombie will send it back to its grave). The zombie has no will of its own, and does the bokor’s bidding. In some traditions, there is a “zombi astral” which is actually a portion of the human soul captured by the bokor. Using special magic, the portion of the soul is used to amplify the power of the bokor. Additionally, the zombi astral can be kept in a bottle, and clients can buy it for business success, luck or healing.
In Haiti, there is an interesting tradition of zombiism that revolves around a scientific/pharmaceutical explanation. In Haiti, the bokor still possesses the zombie, but does so by first getting a live human to ingest a powder called “coupe padre.” The main ingredient is tetrodoxin, which comes from the “porcupine fish.” The poisonous powder takes effect, lowering the person’s body temperature, and slowing the breathing and heart rate. The person is buried, and the bokor digs up the body. At this point, the mind/memory has been erased, and the person is zombified — a mindless drone that does the bokor’s bidding until the bokor dies. Interestingly, the Haiti version often involves family members asking the bokor to turn someone into a zombie because he or she has become extremely annoying to the family or the community as a whole.
American Movies: Transforming Zombies
Up until the 50s and 60s, most zombie moves in the U.S. kept these monsters relatively harmless: Zombies were mindless drones, taken over by some master, usually due to magic or through other supernatural means. However, during the middle of the 20th century, zombies began to be portrayed as needing human flesh to continue to function.
The real turning point, though, was Night of the Living Dead, which showed zombies as vicious creatures, corpses that had no morality, and feasted on flesh, devouring all in their path. Additionally, this movie popularized the idea that zombiism could be spread to other humans through a bite from zombies. In Night, zombies were re-animated by radiation from a space probe that crashed, an example of science run amok.
Since then, zombies have captured popular culture, and we see them everywhere. We even have tips meant to help us survive the zombie apocalypse.