The History of Zombies

In class this Monday, Dr. Beth talked about how there are two paths that one could go down when talking about zombies: either the pop culture path (which has many branches of its own and it continues to grow) or the historical path, which is rooted in Haitian culture going back to the 17th Century.

In the past, I have heard about how there was a deeper history to zombies than just appearing in American movies and TV shows, but I had never known much about it. Considering how zombies (or skeles) are a large part of the plot of Zone One by Colson Whitehead, I thought it would be a good idea for me to learn about where the concept and myth of zombies came from. Though I personally have never had much of a fascination (or even vague interest) with zombies and the culture surrounding zombies in entertainment, I still think learning more of the history of this now incredibly popular subgenre of horror would be beneficial to me and my understanding of the literature.

As explained by Mike Mariani in “The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies”, an article for The Atlantic, there is so much more to the history of zombies than what movies, television, and other forms of entertainment would suggest. Mariani claims that the origins of zombies are rooted in folklore from those who were enslaved in Haiti from 1625 to about 1800. The enslaved individuals were originally from Africa, and when they arrived in Haiti, they were treated with a complete lack of humanity as a result of the slavery of the time. It was at this time that the ideas of the undead became a subject that had immense importance to the enslaved people in Haiti. Many of these people believed that the only way they could ever be free was if they died. However, if they were to kill themselves, they would “be condemned to skulk the Hispaniola plantations for eternity, an undead slave at once denied their own bodies and yet trapped inside them—a soulless zombie.” Essentially, they believed that if they were to kill themselves, they would lose all hopes of freedom, and be permanently trapped in their body as a slave, turning into what we all know as a “zombie” today. The initial concept of the zombie was a clear demonstration of how much these individuals suffered both physically and mentally, as they were fearful of the afterlife in the hypothetical event where the pain and suffering endured during slavery didn’t end for individuals with their death.

As a result of the folklore and the stories being passed down to further generations, zombies became a relatively important part of Haitian culture. However, over a bit of time, the legends of zombies were taken into the hands of American pop culture in movies, television, and more. This became an appropriation of Haitian culture, and it is reasonably described by Mariani as whitewashing, and I have to agree. The way American pop culture has taken this myth and turned it into our own culture (really by stealing it from the enslaved people of Haiti in the 17th-19th Centuries and their descendants) is genuinely upsetting when you become aware of the history behind zombies. Mariani also discussed how issues in America today, like economic inequality, police brutality, systemic racism, and mass murder, are all seen to be independent of entertainment media including (and especially) media about zombies. The problem with viewing social issues or American society and the world of entertainment as independent agencies is that there is a huge overlap between the two. The use of zombies in media today is very representative of that. Zombies have a history tied to the issues of slavery which many Americans today have a connection to, and many of the issues Mariani brought up in his discussion often have a very large impact on black Americans. Whether we chose to acknowledge that or opt to ignore it, the ties and deep-rooted history are still there.  

The myth of zombies is based on the perspective of those who were enslaved centuries ago, but the myths and stories are still as present in our culture as ever. With their presence today, it is very important that as we continue to use the cultural history from Haitian slaves, we give the correct credit in our discussion of where these ideas are coming from. I don’t think I ever would’ve guessed that the concept of zombies came from the fear that enslaved individuals had in their lives in Haiti. By learning and acknowledging the history of zombies, we, as people who consume media that have been based on the fears of others, can properly respect such media today and the important cultural roots it has. In gaining this new understanding of zombies, I have gained a new perspective to keep in mind while reading Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. My personal acknowledgment of this history has helped me understand things in a different light and it has helped me see why knowing the history of such things can be influential in my understanding of things that seem as “entertaining” to some as zombies.

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