Last night I had watched some movies and played some video games with my long-time friend. Much of the night focused upon zombies. Whether it was a zombie western flick (Undead or Alive w/ Chris Kattan and James Denton and yes you read that right, a zombie western…) or pumping zombies full of lead in Call of Duty: World at War for Play-station, we had a blast. While I am not a gamer, I do enjoy shooting up zombies in video games. Zombies in general fascinate me. Now before I am chided for being of the macabre persuasion, just hear me out.
Zombies came about in the medieval period. No, Sir Gawain did not have to lop off the heads of any throng of zombies; His only rival was the Green Knight. I mean the belief that they walked the earth was existent. It was this myth of these undead that really got me interested.
As I poke around the internet, just as my reader might be doing right now, I notice some misguided information about the myth of zombie origins is prevalent. No the idea of zombies did not come from Haiti as so put by the wikipedia article and other various internet sources. The myth had been linked to a religion called Vodoun for its beliefs with death. Yes they don’t believe in the finality of death in the religion of Vodoun; however, the concept of “zombies” was only sensationalized in the Wes Craven movie and the Wade Davis book, titled “the Serpent and the Rainbow.” This is what lead to this idea circa 1985 or so (don’t hold me to it.) Here is an interview, which dissuades this Haitian and Vodoun connection to zombies with Mama Zogbé. The interview also explains misunderstanding of the religion of Vodoun (and the explanation between Vodoun and “Voodoo.”) Also check out the Haitian Vodou article.
So no, tales and beliefs go way back, further than 1985. Medieval practices with the deceased was… well to put it nicely developmentally challenged: the fear of being bury alive enters in here; moreover, Dominican Thomas of Cantimpre and other theologians during the Medieval Period expressed tales of the undead. The tales often suggested that the body was an empty vessel for an evil spirit to enter into after the death of the person. As I think of what this means for the zombie myth, I see the connection of the fear of death and of the devil (wickedness and sin as well,) for in an article by Nancy Caciola ¹, she states: “the fact that the corpse itself [in these tales] does not come to life: it is mere dross moved by the demon,” and “belief in corpses coming back to life is well attested for parts of medieval Europe.” Zombie myth came into their own.
Well as many know America has European roots. So in come the Puritans… Sinners in the hands of an angry God by Jonathan Edwards might come to mind. Well America does have roots in superstition as a puritanical society. Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown touches on this idea of wickedness that we, as a nation, have consumed. An article by John Sutherlan ² also mentions that “the whole ‘undead’ genre is the fact that America is deeply superstitious.” And so the myth pursued: Zombies are a social commentary on the wickedness and fear of death, and in a religious context, one that engenders the corruptibility of mankind. It has evolved over time through movies and literature and spun into different messages of social commentary. I simple find it fascinating. Brains……
¹ Caciola, Nancy. 1996. “Wraiths, revenants and ritual in medieval culture.” Past & Present 152, no. 1: 3. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 14, 2010).
² Sutherlan, John. 2006. “Read or undead.” New Statesman 135, no. 4818: 59. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost(accessed March 14, 2010).