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The History of Zombies: From Colonial Carnage To Subjugated Narratives

While there is a long history of curiosity and obsession with reanimating the dead in American film and literature, zombies were not born from the American imagination. Our modern interpretation of the sluggish corpse is based on Voodoo myths and legends from the Caribbean and Haitian Creole rituals based on African religious rites.


The zombie mythos are much ancient and more deeply established in culture than the distorted narrative of American popular media depicts. It initially arose in Haiti during the 17th and 18th centuries, when the nation was identified as Saint-Domingue and was administered by France, which sent Africans to work on plantations, mostly sugar plantations, as property who were forced to obey every order of their "masters" till death ended their contract, or in simple terms, slaves.


The brutality of slave ownership in Saint-Domingue during the French occupation was incomparable: in less than just a few years, half of the slaves imported from Africa had died from excessive workload, which only encouraged the abduction and purchase of more. Centuries and centuries afterward, the zombie narrative has been extensively hijacked by American pop culture and media that trivializes and appropriates its origins, whitewashing the cultural significance to the extent that it transforms the undead into a podium for escapist fantasies and the like.


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The notion of the zombie began in Africa, where the majority of local or folk religion in the Caribbean has its roots, despite the fact that Haitian Voodoo (or Vodoun) is where the zombie got its first significant start. The word's exact etymological origin is unclear, although most experts agree that it may be connected to Africa.


According to Wyatt MacGaffey, the Kimbundu word "nzumbe" or "nzambi" roughly translates to "ghost" or "spirit of a dead person," and he speculates that this phrase from the Congo may be the origin of the name "zombie." Creole, which incorporates some French but frames it within the grammatical structure and verb conjugation of West African languages, was the language of choice among the inhabitants when it moved from the continent to the island via the slave trade.



As a result, the phrase was translated as "zobi" and then updated as "zombie." Creole is said to be a dynamic language full of metaphors, which explains why the zombie was long seen by outsiders as only a folkloric creature to reflect the fury directed at conquerors after centuries of tyranny. While the evolution of that ritual may have been shaped by the wrath, academics like Wade Davis have discovered the actuality of that tradition among unorthodox Vodoun cults. According to Davis' account of the zombie myth in Haiti in 1985, a very small number of bokors—Vodoun priests—possess secret knowledge of a drug mixture capable of inducing zombification.


This capacity to allegedly resurrect someone from the dead, lending credibility to the legend, is really the effect of the medications cutting off someone's oxygen supply, paralyzing them to the point where they look clinically lifeless. The victim is then presumably buried, and when dug out and recovered some hours later, the person has suffered severe brain damage. When one loses consciousness, one is readily turned obedient as a zombie.


Given the marginalization of Voodoo rituals as a religious tradition, it's difficult to imagine how the figure of the zombie not only made it to the cinema but also evolved into the metaphorical monster it has become in the twentieth century. Its evolving definition, however, is assisted by research into how we comprehend words and the analogies they generate.


Several cognitive linguistic works, notably those by George Lakoff, can help to contextualize the term "zombie" as a being caught between life and death. To clarify, because death is a notion we cannot completely comprehend, we frequently equate it with a trip. As a result, the zombie opposes this ultimate rite of passage, disturbing the natural order while also contradicting the notion of our own demise. "Life is a treasured possession," as the title of Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-essay Gebert's on Caribbean voodoo suggests.



The zombie is possessed as punishment for crimes in life, according to the foundation of zombieism within Haitian Vodoun. This thought contradicts the metaphor's assumption since life is perceived to belong to us but, in fact, it may belong to someone else in a power shift. Wade Davis says, "Death is the first teacher, the first agony, the boundary beyond which life as we know it stops and wonder starts for all peoples." Death's essence is the separation of some illusive life-giving force from the mortal body, and how civilization comes to comprehend or tolerate this inescapable separation shapes its spiritual worldview to a large part. These investigations into the foundations of the words we use to convey fear are critical in understanding why they are terrifying.


Kyle Bishop references Freud's debate on what we consider unheimlich, a convoluted German term that simply translates to "un-homely" or "un-homey," but that is widely interpreted in English to mean "uncanny" in his essay on the nonliterary origins of zombie movies. Our sense of terror arises from anything that appears to be completely new to us at first, grotesquely removed from our perception of normalcy. However, the eerie is subsequently shown to be a perversion of something that was once natural to us, such as the rotting monster who was once a friend or lover.


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Though the zombie is now a commonly represented cinematic character, appearing in innumerable films, it took a completely different path than werewolves or vampires, both of which had a rich literary history before making the move to the silver screen. Zombies, on the other hand, developed virtually immediately from folklore and cultural practice to its fiction allegory. The Magic Island, a travel book written by William Seabrook and published in 1929, purported to be the true experiences of people who were zombified for the purpose of possession in Haiti.


The most famous narrative, about a "fair-skinned octoroon girl" threatened with sexual servitude by her "black" and evil husband, inspired Victor Halperin's 1932 film White Zombi. Murder Legendre, a Haitian bokor who enslaves people as zombies to work in his fields, is the film's villain, and the would-be victim is a young white woman that Legendre desires and finally transforms "into the 'white zombie' of the title."


Terror, according to Paravisini in her post-colonial analysis of zombies in early film, is predicated on two basic premises: the colonial dread of white women fetishized by black males, and the image of Haiti (among other places in the Caribbean) as a hazardous island of dark magic where whites are subject to zombification (possibly as a projection of collective guilt). Such works, she argues, "raise unsettling issues about the subsumption of Haitian political history to an erotic quest that prioritizes the white woman as the innocent victim." This imagined menace persisted in the horror genre a decade later, with Jacques Tourneur's 1943 film I Walked with a Zombie.



The film is set in Antigua and centers on a young Canadian nurse named Betsy who travels there to take care of Jessica, a plantation owner's adulteress wife. Although Betsy's patient is rumored to have lost consciousness due to a fever, it is likely that she was cursed as a zombie for her sins against the family. Betsy brings Jessica to a Voodoo ritual through the cane fields in an effort to break the curse. Despite her futile attempts there, the visit stirs the native practitioners' yearning, and they subsequently make an effort to lure Jessica back to them as one of their own.


Their attempts to draw her forth via eroticized rituals of drumming and hip thrusting invoke the multiracial sexual taboo that a white audience in the 1940s would dread. However, this modern anxiety conflicts with other, forward-thinking elements of the movie, such as the recognition of the legitimacy of the Voodoo religion and the folk medicine it is linked to.


The family's black servant, Alma, makes the case for the Vodoun tradition as being superior to Western tradition by referencing their "better physicians" when orthodox treatment continues to fail Jessica. The male head of the Rand-Holland plantation family and Jessica's cuckolded husband also acknowledge the torturous and violent provenance of the fortune that supports them all. Whether or not it was done on purpose, his forefathers used black people as slaves, and the current tragedy in the family is a result of that horrific ancestry.


A white lady is victimized in this movie, but the pain of people who were actually in slavery is ignored in favor of the victimization of the white woman. One may think about how the Other is not awkwardly transmitted from the black guy to the white female through the emblem of the zombie. Both are oppressed—one on the basis of race, the other on the basis of sexuality. The films by Halperin and Tourneur both appeal to white male stereotypes that arise from feelings of entitlement toward women and people of color in general. The zombie movie would eventually criticize humanity's failure to band together for its own redemption, reversing this concept.



According to Wade Davis and zombie expert Peter Dendle, the main dread in this subgenre of the horror genre is not of zombies in and of themselves but rather of becoming into them. However, Dendle has identified some of the differences between the zombie movies' appropriation of folklore in the 1930s and 1940s and their modification by filmmaker George A. Romero in the late 1960s and beyond.


Before Romero's series started with Night of the Living Dead, the amount of gore was controlled, especially in its portrayal of the undead. The 1960s represent a turning point in the development of the idea of human dignity since there had previously been "some implicit taboo against presenting human cadavers as obviously rotting." Its change indicates that the stakes in the public discourse on violence have increased. Several influential political and civil rights figures were assassinated during the 1960s, including John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X.


George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)
George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) Night of the Living Dead LLC, via Image Ten

Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot as Romero was loading the first complete edit of Night into his vehicle trunk and making his way to a distributor. Ben, the African American protagonist and sole survivor of the dreadful night, is mistaken for the undead and shot by one of the rednecks who clean up the scene at dawn, making hate crimes a partial focus in Romero's debut zombie movie. The final collage of frames in the story's ending images is filled with the grotesque disrespect shown to Ben's lifeless body, which was mangled by hooks and thrown onto a pyre with other corpses. These images are uncannily reminiscent of photographs of lynched victims in the archives of American racism.


Aside from Romero's societal critique, his films are landmarks in the zombie genre because of crucial traits that would influence the nature of practically all that followed. First and foremost, Romero's monsters were not the victims of black magic or Voodoo, but rather humans who had suddenly returned from the dead to eat the living. Almost all critics see the relevance of the concept that bourgeois society consumes itself, and Dendle, in particular, underlines how this motif is replicated in over sixty zombie films that follow Night of the Living Dead.


Another of Romero's ideas emphasizes this fundamental and ravenous instinct: the frequent stress that zombies can only be eliminated through brain injury. The fragility of the mind in the midst of the zombie body's decrepitude shows that such violence is an intrinsic component of its/our psychological makeup. Though these features would create the "traditional zombie movie" blueprint, Romero's second chapter in his undead picture series is significantly more sarcastic in tone.


Dawn of the Dead, set in a shopping mall in 1978 and following a small group of survivors amid a zombie apocalypse, depicts the creatures haunting the stores where they formerly sought merchandise for human flesh. Consumption is depicted as "physically, rather than symbolically, eating everyone in its path." They are so ingrained in the consumption culture that they continue to jam the walls of the megaplex without any conscious prospect of admission. The miserable laziness of the zombies is encouraged by the willful ignorance of the surviving refugees, who buy fur coats, play arcade games, and watch static on their television screens in the hopes of forgetting their civilization's inexorable downfall.



The humans and their zombie equivalents are sharply contrasted in each text in Romero's series. This is frequently illustrated by the stare of man and monster, maybe implying an unconscious link between them. One of the most notable examples of this in Dawn of the Dead is the moment in which Fran, the pregnant female heroine, looks with pity through a sealed plexiglass door at a young female zombie. Fran appears to relate her fragility to the circumstances that have left her zombie buddy fighting for nutrition she'll never attain, hunched over and feeling powerless while her male pals plan a hunt for supplies elsewhere in the mall. This intimacy will only get stronger. The spectator is presented with the hideous stare of two of the male protagonists, Roger and Fran's lover Steve, as the illness infiltrates the tiny community of survivors.


The once "Heimlich" heroes—first Roger, who emerges slowly after a slow battle against a zombie contagion, and later Steve, who emerges suddenly after a violent struggle with a band of zombies—re-enter the viewer's vision as "unheimlich," the uncanny, with grey and hollowed cheeks beneath dark, expressionless eyes. Beyond the individuals' outward repulsiveness, everyone breaches his responsibilities to those left behind. Despite his commitment to "try not to return," Zombie Roger emerges from his deathbed to assassinate his colleague Peter. Zombie Steve emerges from the elevator that served as his sanctuary from his zombie pursuers, only to lead them to Fran's hiding location.


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According to Kyle Bishop, the threat "is not only expressed as a hostile zombie human but most likely as a hostile undead human the victim recognizes as a previous intimate." One of the more horrifying characteristics of this type of zombie film is that the monster is not totally the Other.


Each of the patterns described above in cinema and literature follows the growing metaphor of the zombie as it symbolizes our political and personal disquiet in Western culture. And, while the image began as a punishment for the intricate complexity of Voodoo and its response to colonial cruelty in Haiti, it has grown into a much bigger and more translatable point of critique. However, in each of these selections, the zombie depicts human sorrow and the fear of becoming the "Other," no matter how hard we try to avoid it.


Thus, the zombie, appearing mindless, with no memory or reason, continues to act as the bearer of European postcolonial memory while growing into a popular culture avatar of the postcolonial dispossessed as well as the metropolitan denizen now fearful of joining them. Americans transformed a delirious and dazed 'corpse' from Haitian voodoo custom into a mangled, savage entity intent on consuming all in its path.



Fear, which drove them to appropriate the zombie in the first place, has also guided the new iconography they’ve given it through the years. As a result, The Zombie is not only a fascinating study of the colonizers' historical concerns but also a glimpse into just how exotic concepts take on new definitions when removed from their original context over time.


The fury of the outside, the heritage of previous colonies, and the rapacious reshaping of world maps after the First World War have crept back into the cores of the old colonial empires, both literally and symbolically. The dread of the 'Other' is still deeply entrenched and the cultural appropriation of language is the prime example of this. Other language forms are at risk of dying to the white man, just as the term "zombie" was colonized, its history changed and lost.


But one thing hasn't changed: the zombie shocks us by purging our worst crimes, making us wonder what it is to be human.



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