A Brief History of the Zombie

Zombie HistoryBefore it was our monster, the zombie was an African and a Caribbean monster.

As it moved from place to place it changes because the identity it challenged was a different identity. (Read “A New Kind of Monster”).

The zombie has two basic characteristics: it is a reanimated corpse of one person (this disqualifies Frankenstein’s monster) and it lacks free will (Pulliam [in Icons of Horror] 724). It differs from the other monsters found in western fictional narratives because it is a relative newcomer, arriving onto the scene only in the last hundred years or so. Furthermore, the zombie is a new world monster. Unlike ghosts, ghouls, werewolves, vampires, and other monsters transmitted to American culture through the medium of European fiction, the zombie went directly from folklore to the movie screen and skipped the literary phase of most European monsters.

The zombie was brought to America, specifically the Caribbean, from Africa with the slaves.  In Africa, the zombie was an external spirit that was feared because it was capable of sliding into a human body and taking it over.  Traditional African religions saw spirits as inhabiting all things in the natural world.  Human identity was understood against these objects and animals in which these spirits dwelled.  True to its function, the African zombie challenges this distinction between human and not human.  When this external spirit indwells the human, does the human lose its humanity?  This was the place where identity was uncertain for some African societies, so this is the place where the zombie attacked.

The zombie changed as it moved from its native African context to Haiti. In the Caribbean context of “long-standing conflicts that have arisen from imperialism, oppression and slavery” (Bishop 32), the slave culture formed the idea of the zombie as being an unwillingly servant of a malevolent sorcerer.  In this manifestation, the zombie represents “the way in which slavery stripped someone of personhood” (Warner 357).  Slavery was the threat to human identity, so the zombie took on a form that embodied this threat.

The zombie underwent still more changes when it migrated to America.

In the early twentieth century, the zombie entered American culture from the travel literature of William B. Seabrook. After living in Haiti for two years, Seabrook wrote his a first-person account of voodoo rituals in his book called The Magic Island (1929). This book seems to have been the inspiration for the film White Zombie (1932).  Set in Haiti, this film links zombies to colonial anxieties.  A white sorcerer controls the minds of peasants and his former enemies to create a labor force to work in his sugar mill and amass a fortune. White Zombie is representative of early zombie films that deal with a blend of voodoo, hypnotism, and scientific experimentation. The zombies of these films “act as cultural metaphors for enslavement” for the “monsters” in these movies “are not even the zombies but rather the sinister priest or master pulling their strings” (Bishop 19). The voodoo sorcerer robs the individuals of their autonomy and turns them into mindless servants. In these early zombie films, as in Haitian folklore, the zombie is terrifying because it depicts “the human subject as nothing more than an object” (131), an instrument to be used and abused by a diabolical master.

The zombies of early cinema didn’t differ a lot from the zombie of Haitian folklore because the audiences experienced a similar threat to their identity.  The rapid industrialization or the early 20th century objectifies the individual in much the same way as did slavery.

It was this objectification of the self that resonated with American movie audiences. The source of this fear of objectification was produced by the application of the principles of instrumental reason to more and more segments of society. Charles Taylor, in The Malaise of Modernity, describes “the primacy of instrumental reason” as a “massively important phenomenon of the modern age.” By instrumental reason he means “the kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to a given end. Maximum efficiency, the best cost-output ratio, is its measure of success (4-5). Instrumental reason has made the world of objects nothing more than “potential raw material or instruments for our projects” (3). The zombies in these early films show the principles of instrumental reason as applied to humanity itself. Zombies are humans turned into objects; they are “being treated as raw materials or instruments” (5) for the projects of their masters. This representation of the zombie as “a body which has been hollowed out, emptied of selfhood” (Warner 357) shambled across the screens of America until 1968, when, at the hands of George Romero, it changed to embody a new set of cultural anxieties.

These changes through time and context bear out Kearney’s assertion that as “ideas of self-identity change so do our ideas of what menaces this identity” (Strangers 4). Our monsters change because we change.


Also cited:
Klapp, Orrin E. “Heroes, Villains and Fools, as Agents fo Social Control.” American Sociological Review 19.1 (1954): 56-62. JSTOR. Web. 24 June, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *