Well the last time I blogged I gave one possible clue to the rise of zombiism which dated back to the Black Plague. In this blog we are going to tackle the origin of zombies as we know them today. It all stems from the Haitian Voodoo culture. Voodoo folklore says that Voodoo priests known as Bokors, were concerned with the study and application of black magic. Bokors were said to have the ability to resurrect the dead through the administration of coup padre a powder that is issued orally. The primary ingredient in the powder was tetrodoxin which is found in the poisonous “porcupine fish.” According to the legend, “a zombie was a person who annoyed their family or the community to the point where no one could live any longer with the person. So the community or relatives would hire a Bokor to turn the annoying person into a zombi(e).”
Once the person had received the coup padre, the subject would appear to die as their heart rate would slow to a near stop, their breathing would be greatly subdued and their body temperature would drop. The people who were not privy to what was going on would assume the person had died. They would then bury him or her as if they were a corpse. The zombie person would be exhumed by the Bokor and, although their physicality remained intact, their memory would be erased and thus they would become mindless drones. “Though still living, they remain under the Bokor’s power until the Bokor dies.” (Keegan, www.flmnh.ufl.edu)
Mansfield University Professor of English Dr. John Ulrich studies pop culture and teaches a course in monster literature. According to Ulrich, zombies first emerged in American culture in the 1920s and ’30s after U.S. soldiers and journalists returned from the occupation of Haiti. These military men and reporters brought back stories of Haitian zombie folklore. In “W. B. Seabrook’s 1929 book on Haitian ‘voodoo,’ The Magic Island, there was a short chapter on zombies called ‘Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields.’ Many commentators see this writing as a key to the transference of zombies from Haitian folklore to American popular culture,” Ulrich says. By the early 1930s, zombies had made their way to both stage and screen. In 1932, the play Zombie ran on Broadway, and a film called White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi, was released to movie theaters. Both were set in Haiti, but at this point Zombies were not flesh eaters, but mindless people controlled by a zombie master.
The now familiar flesh-eating zombies of our popular culture began with George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Do some of you remember it? Personally I never watched it but I do remember the movie being advertised. Anyway it appears Romero was influenced by the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth, adapted from Richard Matheson’s 1954 novella I Am Legend. Flash forward to Will Smith. Although both I Am Legend and The Last Man on Earth depict a post-apocalyptic U.S. overrun by vampires andnot zombies, both feature a survivor defending himself in a boarded-up home, while the vampires act like our zombies of today congregating around the house and trying to break in.
“Romero invented the flesh-eating concept, added graphic scenes of zombies feasting on human bodies and then focused on the tension and conflict among the survivors,” Ulrich explains. “Night of the Living Dead is the foundational text for all subsequent zombie films and literature; everything that follows imitates it or deviates from this concept.”
The genre has steadily grown in popularity. Ulrich explains. “More than any other kind of monster, the zombie is a virtual blank slate, a screen upon which we can project a variety of meanings and at its most elemental level the zombie represents our fear of death. “The zombie is a walking corpse whose sole purpose is to consume human flesh. So in our deep psyche they force us to confront the reality of our inevitable demise, that we will be consumed by death. How’s that for a little physiological mumbo jumbo. Zombies are actually helping you cope with your death no wonder everybody likes them.
Anyway, the zombie also provides us with a way out — by killing zombies, we temporarily defeat death. “And as an added bonus,” Ulrich says, “zombies can be killed with impunity, without guilt or shame, since they are already dead. They lack consciousness and their condition is irreversible. This is the bedrock of their appeal.” Save the world kill a zombie and in the process make yourself feel a little better. So we conclude another wonderful trivia trail.