Brains…..Brains……*gurgle* *gurgle*

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).


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4 Comments

Filed under Haiti, myths, origins, vodou, voodoo, zombies

4 responses to “Brains…..Brains……*gurgle* *gurgle*

  1. There is some dispute if this is really true. I can't verify nor deny the claims, which is quite intriguing in itself. The word zombie seems to have African origins: zumbi in the Bonda language, ndzumbi in Gabon, and nzambi in Kongo. What is interesting about the word is it simply means dead ancestors that live on in a spiritual sense; however, the conviction that zombies are an evil, punishment, or wickedness is a mere invention from the product of colonialism by way of misunderstanding of the Vodoun religion (supposedly to take away a pagan religion.) The drugged people you mention were observed by Wade Davis during his research in Haiti. The drugged person was reported dead in the hospital but then “came back to life” 30 years later claiming his brother had done this to him over a land dispute. Tetrodotoxin from a pufferfish was indeed the culprit in this incident and might have just been a misunderstanding between brothers and one ate the pufferfish while not removing all the toxins. Whether this was a work of a sorcerer or not is hard to prove. Vodoun does not practice slavery and adamantly opposes it as well as a very community based ideology they are big on respect. This idea of drugging practitioners might be from a secular nature of corrupt individuals. I can't really verify any of these claims and that's simply fascinating. Where do the myths end and truths begin?

    Tetrodotoxin always gets me thinking of the Simpsons episode of Homer eating the pufferfish at the japanese restaurant. While the master sushi maker leaves on a smoke break, the apprentice is left to botch the job and poison Homer… What a classic.

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  2. Voudon's “zombies” were actually drugged people. First a drug that put them in a coma and weakened their heartbeat, (usually tetrodoxin or something like it) leading them to be buried as “dead,” then a second one that made them wildly hallucinate and forget who they actually were.
    Practicioners thereby got swarms of people who had no idea who they were or what they were doing here, and were assumed dead by their friends and family, and forced them to work on plantations, which wasn't too hard to do because of how messed up they were psychologically.
    And if these were discovered? The poorly organized and shambling people were easily depicted as “the walking dead” who were not to be disturbed. Plus the drugger passed around tales of his immense supernatural powers to frighten people away from intervening.

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  3. Makes sense — “Voodoo” was made of half-remembered African religions and Catholic beliefs by freed slaves in Haiti, and spread all the way north to Louisiana, where even today some people attempt to influence court rulings by sprinkling various powders on the Jury's seats, which generally only annoys the court more than anything else.
    Zombie-making “sorcerers” were probably along the lines of Catholic priests who molest children — marginally aligned with the religion as a whole, mostly as a way of cowing the superstitious around them into compliance. Such people were likely in disgrace with the actual organized Voodoun authorities, but communication was very bad in those days so nothing really happened with regard to that. Better communication has largely ended the practice, with the “sorceror” enjoying a long stay in prison with a free pair of handcuffs.
    Actual Voudon religion, as far as I know it, involves talking with the various spirits to interpret the will of an immensely powerful God who has no real dealings with the Earth (as it's so small as to be unnoticeable to him), and working with these spirits for mutual benefit. Much of it is misinterpreted, like “Voodoo dolls” which are depicted in pop-culture as a cursing ritual, but was more like a sympathetic magic in which practitioners were urged to work it towards people's benefit. Think acupuncture, not shanking.

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