The Un-History of the Undead Part 1: Zombie Folklore

Don't bury me. I'm not dead!

Imagine that a zombie knocked on your door—a real, true to life (or death) zombie. You open the door and find a black man, looking every bit normal and alive, except for the listless expression and glazed eyes. No shambling carcass of rotting flesh and bones. It does not salivate for your intestines or brains.

The word zombie signifies a member of the undead—those creatures that come back to haunt the living. However, the image that comes to mind for this creature has been greatly shaped by popular media, such as literature and film. In the example above, the first description comes from folklore, while the second is influenced by fiction. How did our perception of these creatures change over the years?

Lafcadio Hearn introduced English speakers to the word zombie through his brief article, “The Country of the Comers-Back”, which appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1889. (Although the OED dates zombie back to 1819, it was Hearn’s article that circulated widely enough to catch the public’s attention.) Hearn had traveled to Martinique in 1887 to study local customs and folklore for a series of articles on the Caribbean. It was there that he heard talk of zombies.

While it’s true that Hearn discovered the zombie, it was left to American adventurer William Seabrook to capitalize on it. Arriving in Haiti in 1928, he left no stone unturned in his quest for the corps cadavers (walking dead). This led to his autobiographical travelogue The Magic Island, which became an immediate bestseller.

A Haitian farmer by the name of Polynice introduced Seabrook to some real live zombies. The farmer brought the adventurer to the middle of a plantation and pointed out three zombies and the man controlling them. Seabrook went up to each of the zombies in turn, and found them to be little more than dumb brutes, working mindlessly. The eyes were dead, unfocused and vacant.

A central precept of Voodoo, a hybrid of African animism and Catholicism, is the possession of a body by the loa. The loa is usually translated as god or divinity, but it is closer to a genie, demon, or spirit. A person was believed to have two souls, the gros-bon-age (the big good angel), and the ti-bon-age (the little good angel). Each soul served a purpose. The gros-bon-age served to give the body life, while the ti-bon-age gave the person their personality. During a Voodoo ceremony, the loa would displace the ti-bon-age, and thus control the person’s body.

A Voodoo sorcerer, called a bòkò, had the ability to transform any person into a zombie. The bòkò would sprinkle a powder on the doorstep, and when the intended victim stepped on it, the magic entered through the soles of the feet. The person died soon after. Within three days the bòkò snuck into the graveyard, recited a magical chant, and called the victim’s name several times. The zombie had no choice but to answer and come out of the ground. The bòkò then beat the body with a whip to keep the ti-bon-age from returning. Often the bòkò kept the ti-bon-age in a jar. This was called a zombie astral, while the body that walked around, soulless, was called a zombie cadavre.

Every member of society shunned the zombie. This fear did not center on what the creature might do physically. Zombies were entirely docile. It was becoming a zombie that so horrified the islanders. This represented a return to slavery, as the creature must literally do whatever its master bids. Even after death, you might return to work in servitude. Canadian ethnobiologist Wade Davis spent several years researching the zombie powder. He commented, “Given the availability of cheap labor and the physical condition of the zombie, there is no economic incentive to create a force of indentured labor” (American Scientist, 1987).

In order to prevent loved ones from becoming zombies, Haitians took precautions similar to what the Serbians did for vampires. The body was often killed again, either by poison, strangulation, stabbing, a shot to the head or decapitation. Measures were also taken to prevent the zombie from rising. A wealthy family would bury their loved one in a solid tomb, while the less off would inter the body under a piece of heavy masonry. In order to prevent the zombie from answering this call, precautions were made. The mouth might be sewn up or tied shut using a strip of cloth fastened over the head and under the chin. Finally, a zombie might be distracted so that he might not hear the bòkò calling his name. There were two types of distractions. First the body would be buried with an eyeless needle so the corpse would spend eternity trying to thread it. The other method involved scattering seeds in the coffin, and the zombie was forced to count them all, one by one.

Becoming a zombie was not necessarily a permanent condition. There were several cases of people who died, only to be discovered many years later seemingly normal. One Clairvius Narcisse died in 1962 after complaining of sickness and coughing up blood. Eighteen years later his sister, Angelina, discovered him in the l’Estere marketplace. His speech was slurred and his muscles were weak, but he knew that he was no longer a zombie. Apparently, after being dug up and beaten by the bòkò, he had worked on a farm with other zombies. Only when one of the zombies killed the zombie master did they all become free.
Another way to cure an individual of the zombie curse was with salt. If a zombie consumed even a grain of salt, the fog that swirled around his brain would lift, and he would become filled with an unspeakable rage. He would first turn on the one who controlled him, killing the zombie master and destroying his property. The released zombie would then go in search of his tomb, claw at the dirt, and collapse onto his empty grave.

Seabrook’s 1929 publication of Magic Island touched off interest in the zombie and the Caribbean. Unlike Dracula or Frankenstein, the zombie wasn’t under copyright, since Seabrook was essentially reporting on fact. This led to the production of Universal’s 1932 White Zombie, with Bela Lugosi as the zombie master. (The film was preceded by a dreary play, Zombie, penned by Kenneth Webb. The production opened and closed in 1932 after only twenty performances.) The film cemented the Haitian myth of the zombie as a soulless body accepting any order. However the Voodoo version of the zombie would quickly be forgotten in the 60s when an independent filmmaker from Pittsburg got a hold of the concept.
Part 2 will examine what Romero has done to the zombie mythology.

By Tim Kane

I brought this article back from the dead in recognition of the digital release of Stories in the Ether. This has my story, Moth and Rust, which is my take on the zombie story that involves a weary husband who does his wife’s chores for years, only to drop dead. Yet, she still insists he work his butt off. No rest for the dead. Don’t worry, the young nephew has some ideas how to solve this undead problem.

Check out Stories in the Ether in Kindle or Lulu.