A Brief History of Zombies

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With only a few minutes left of Halloween, it's time to soak up all things that are scary, since it'll be another year until you get to put on a funny outfit, drink a bunch of rum and wander the streets in search of tricks or treats. We can't think of a scarier story to tell than the history of zombies in human folklore.

The zombie is a complicated myth that's about as old as history but has really picked up in popularity lately. From government agencies putting out preparation plans for the imminent zombie invasion to Hollywood doubling its output of zombie movies, the brain-eating creatures that rise from the dead have become more prominent and more popular in recent years, for complicated reasons. We're not going to go into the zombies' moment in the spotlight, but suffice it to say that Americans are really afraid of an unknown enemy right now. In fact, humans have always been afraid of the unknown, and the ultimate unknown, of course, is death. Zombies are the monsters that get stuck in death, unable to move on to the afterworld, they wander the Earth killing as many victims as they can, like a plague. 

References to zombie-like creatures go as far back as the writing of Gilgamesh. Most modern historians, though, trace the Hollywood version of zombies to folklore from followers of the voodoo religion in Haiti. Voodoo expert Amy Wilentz recently published her version of the zombie origin story in The New York Times and explained that the emergence of the zombie myth is directly tied to the struggle of African slaves:

The only escape from the sugar plantations was death, which was seen as a return to Africa, or lan guinée (literally Guinea, or West Africa). This is the phrase in Haitian Creole that even now means heaven. … The zombie is a dead person who cannot get across to lan guinée. This final rest -- in green, leafy, heavenly Africa, with no sugarcane to cut and no master to appease or serve -- is unavailable to the zombie. To become a zombie was the slave's worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand.

The details that you know about from Hollywood aren't all there. From what we know about the evolution of the zombie myth, we ended up with the modern day version of the zombie only after synthesizing a number of folk tales from around the world. As we mentioned before, there is a reference to zombie-like behavior in Gilgamesh when the main character warns of a time when "the dead go up to eat the living! And the dead will outnumber the living!"

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In China, the undead are known as the jiang shi. These creatures may have informed our idea of the stiff-limbed, grunting things with greenish-white skin that slowly come after you. The jiang shi kills people in order to absorb their qi, or their life essence. This scenario could also described the myth of the draugr from 8th century Scandanavia. The draugr rise up from the dead, guarding whatever treasures there might be in the grave. They have superhuman strength and kill their victims by devouring them whole. A third similar legend is the one written by cleric William of Newburgh in 12th century England who warned of revenants, "corpses [that] come out of their graves."

Over the course of the centuries between William of Newburgh's warnings and I Am Legend starring Will Smith have been informed by essentially every major humanitarian disaster. But it wasn't until Night of the Living Dead in 1968 at the height of the Cold War that the zombie prototype really went to market. (Actually, in the movie, the villains were known as "ghouls." The public started calling them "zombies.") To keep this history brief, it's worth throwing out the hypothesis that zombies as we know it are entirely a product of Hollywood. The myths that informed 21st-century America's idea of a zombie are relevant for historical purposes, but we may have never heard of zombies if not for the seemingly endless demand for zombie movies. Of course, movies are just legends with bigger budgets, and they all have an ending. Just as it was in 8th-century China and colonial Haiti, the real currency at play in the zombie story is fear, and fear will never die.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.