Zombies: From Haitian Magic to Hollywood Horror


Zombies, more than anything, have become the defining horror monster of the 21st century, able to stand in for anything from pandemics to terrorism. Which is funny, since the zombie actually came into being through Haitian magical beliefs, and its progenitor has little in common with the zombies we know today. How did this happen? How did a magically reanimated corpse from rural folklore become the stock videogame enemy we know today? It turns out that it took the following things: imperialism, slavery, religious repression, resilient folk traditions, a cannibalistic occult journalist, Bela Lugosi and a giant misunderstanding.

Modern zombies are the product of radiation, a virus or bioweapon. They run amok searching for brains and frequently congregate in herds. Their decaying forms have no purpose other than to eat and spread their disease, and while their bite is transformative, the real horror is in seeing them tear human victims apart.

The Haitian zombie, by contrast, bears a greater similarity to the golems we discussed last week. Raised from the dead by a bokor – a sorcerer who specializes in malevolent entities – the reanimated corpse follows instructions in a trance-like state, and is usually pressed into manual labor. Haitian folklore generally does not present them wandering mindlessly in groups, they don’t attack unless prompted by their bokor, and their state cannot be transmitted to the living. Moreover, most legends don’t have them rotting.

To understand the origins of the zombie legend, we have to examine the religion that spawned them: Haitian Vodou. Like many other Afro-Caribbean belief systems, Vodou is a syncretic religion, a blend that includes both African and European traditions. The process started when French traders began kidnapping and purchasing West Africans and transporting them to Caribbean colonies as slaves for the Haitian sugar plantations. These people – from ethnic groups such as the Fon, Ewe, Kongo and Yoruba – shared many overarching religious beliefs in common and started combining their various cosmologies. After the French tried to suppress African religions and force conversion to Catholicism via the 1685 Code Noir, the enslaved population hid its belief system by creating a Catholic overlay – adopting altars and candles while using saints as either stand-ins for previous deities or new figures in the pantheon. What resulted was an underground religion that incorporated both African and Catholic influences, along with later adoptions from Freemasonry and even European mysticism introduced through magical grimoires French settlers brought to the colony.

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Haitian Vodou (which is separate from Louisiana Voodoo or similar religious beliefs in the southern United States) holds that the creator god Bondye is an unknowable and distant entity that doesn’t intervene in human affairs. As a result, Vodou practitioners and priests pray to spirit beings known as loa who serve as intermediaries between Bondye and the human world. Communion with the spirits generally takes place during a service where the loa possess ritual practitioners, making themselves known by their personality quirks or by speaking identifiable phrases. Once the priest or congregation identifies the loa present, they will dress the possessed practitioner in the loa‘s costume and offer them the foods or consumables that loa craves. For example, Baron Samedi, the foulmouthed and charismatic loa of the dead, will dress in a top hat and dark glasses before receiving a cigar, tobacco and rum. After the loa is appeased, he or she will leave and hopefully carry out the priest and congregation’s wishes.

Zombies, however, are not part of the Vodou tradition – at least not directly. While Vodou priests deal with the loa, bokor magicians are said to “serve the loa with both hands,” meaning they practice both light and dark magic. This doesn’t make the bokor evil in a Judeo-Christian sense, but indicates that they’re willing to deal with malevolent entities and spirits other Vodou priests will not touch. As a result, most Vodouists consider bokor to be outside their religious group.

Bokor are most associated with creating zombies, but the way they do so is not always in the manner we’d find familiar. For example, in addition to raising flesh-and-blood zombies to do their bidding, they can also ensnare what have been dubbed astral zombies or bound spirits.

According to Vodou belief the human soul has two halves. One half consists of the gros-bon-ange or “Great Good Angel,” a part of the cosmic life force that returns to the heavens when a person dies. The other half, known as the ti-bon-age or “Little Good Angel,” houses a human’s personality, knowledge and experience. After death, the ti-bon-age is thought to hover around the body for nine days, until a Vodou priest conducts a ritual either forcing the soul into the grave, or trapping it in water or an echoing place for a year and a day – after which time it can be placed into a container or sent to the ancestors, either way becoming a loa in its own right. If this ritual is not done, the soul will wander, causing mischief.

The bokor creates astral zombies by capturing the ti-bon-age (or in rarer cases, the gros-bon-age) in a small bottle or other ritual fetish, then compelling the spirit to carry out his wishes. These may be harmful, such as attacking enemies, or beneficial such as becoming part of a charm that protects the wearer from evil spirits. Some bokor even claim that certain souls like being astral zombies, since it allows them to be useful during the year-long wait. The astral zombie is in effect a sort of reverse-zombie, since a zombie is a body without a soul, while an astral zombie is a soul without a body.

By contrast, the more familiar flesh-and-blood zombies are – depending on who you ask – either animated through necromantic magic or toxicology. In 1985, anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis claimed in his book The Serpent and the Rainbow that the “zombie” is actually a living person who’s been drugged with a toxic cocktail (including puffer fish poison) to make them appear dead. After burial, the bokor “resurrects” the victim who – having suffered a psychotic break – believes himself to be a zombie. The bokor maintains this illusion via hallucinogens that render the victim delirious and suggestible. Davis points to the case of Clairvius Narcisse, a man who returned to his village eighteen years after his supposed “death,” claiming that he’d been drugged, buried and then abducted for two years as a “zombie” plantation laborer.

Though Davis remains a respected figure in his field, his work in Haiti has met with wide skepticism from his peers and criticisms over ethical breaches (Davis claims that he and a bokor exhumed a recently deceased child in order to crush its skull as part of the zombie powder). Sociological studies of this same “returning relative” phenomenon have suggested an alternate explanation – that these ex-zombies are actually homeless and mentally ill persons that grieving families adopt to replace dead relatives, believing that the zombification has “changed” them.

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In any case, Vodou adherents don’t so much fear zombies as they fear being turned into one. Zombification cuts them off from the afterlife, preventing their souls from joining the ancestors. This thought was particularly horrific to Haitians in the colonial days, who looked on death as synonymous with emancipation from slavery. It was thought that after death, the ti-bon-age would return to Africa where it could flourish in the land of the ancestors, no longer having to suffer the toil, terror and degradation of the sugar plantation. Zombification stole that hope, carrying the drudgery and oppression of slavery into the afterlife. Given this zombie-as-slave metaphor, it’s no wonder that Vodou priests and priestesses would frequently call on Baron Samedi to protect their dead from the bokor, and would even go so far as postmortem mutilation to keep loved ones safely in their graves.

Much like the Yeti, zombies are a fairly minor part of Haitian culture, but one that appealed to American and European visitors. Their mixture of ghoulish imagery, exoticism and magic turned zombies into a cultural fascination overseas – and landed them in Hollywood.

William Seabrook’s 1929 book The Magic Island first introduced zombies to the outside world. Seabrook was an interesting character in his own right, who lived a life somewhere between a Lovecraft protagonist and Gilderoy Lockheart from Harry Potter. Traumatized by his service during World War I, Seabrook joined the Lost Generation in Paris and spent the rest his life pursuing and writing about mystics and the occult. He spent a week with Aleister Crowley in 1919 and had a lifelong fascination with Satanism, summing up his thoughts on the matter in his book Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today. By 1924 he was traveling across Arabia to study with mystics and write Adventures in Arabia: Among the Bedouins, Druses, Whirling Dervishes and Yezidee Devil Worshipers. In the early 30’s he flew across the French Sudan to Timbuktu in order to collect a mass of historical documents about the city from a defrocked monk (Air Adventure and The White Monk of Timbuctoo, respectively), and when committed to a mental asylum in 1933, wrote a bestselling book about the experience (Asylum). Notoriously, after staying with a tribe of cannibals in West Africa, he became so curious about the taste of human meat that he obtained a fresh sample from a cadaver at a Parisian hospital, recounting its taste in his book Jungle Ways. (I will omit his rather, ah, detailed description in case some readers are on their lunch hour. But if you must know.)

Seabrook’s travelogues of the bizarre and exotic thrilled the public, but it was The Magic Island‘s tales of the zombie that remains his lasting cultural impact. While the book proved popular, it was the loose film adaptation, White Zombie that cemented zombies into the public consciousness. Produced at the height of the Universal monster renaissance, the film starred Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendre (yes, really), a magician who uses Haitian magic to zombify the local population as plantation labor. When a young couple visits the plantation, Murder turns his powers on the young lady in order to deliver her to the plantation owner as a compliant wife. The zombies in the film were very much racial others, constructed as frightening both for their blackness as well as their association with African magic. Tribal drums pound over the title credits, and they perform manual labor with blank eyes. Later imitators like King of the Zombies and I Walked With the Zombies imitated these “African magic” motifs, with zombies and Haitian magic acting as a “foreign threat” especially targeted at stealing white women. It was where the zombie would stay until George A. Romero turned the genre on its head in 1968.

The Night of the Living Dead completely reworked the zombie myth. No longer connected to magic, the zombies in Romero’s classic are atomic horrors brought about by a radioactive satellite. Their mob mentality and (at the time) extreme gore set them apart from their forbearers – and of course, by starring a black man the film reversed the usual standard for the genre, where people of color were always servants or mindless automatons.

But this genre shakeup happened because Romero didn’t, at the time, think he was making a zombie movie. During Night of the Living Dead‘s production he never called them zombies, instead referring to them as “flesh eaters.” Likewise, his inspiration for the creatures wasn’t earlier zombie films, but Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, where a vampire plague sweeps humanity. It was only retroactively that fans branded Romero’s flesh-eating monsters with the Z-word, and he relented for the sequel Dawn of the Dead, when he realized there was no fighting the cultural tide.

The irony was that the term “zombie” was a misnomer – these new sci-fi horrors had nothing in common with even Hollywood-style Haitian zombies apart from being a mindless corpse. But still, the die was cast and the zombie would never be the same.

Zombies continued to evolve. 1985’s Return of the Living Dead established the creatures’ appetite for brains. 28 Days Later and the Day of the Dead remake brought fast zombies. Videogames continue a constant flesh-and-bile arms race to fashion deadlier and more interesting walking dead. Able to stand in for a myriad of modern anxieties, for now it seems the 21st century belongs to the zombie. It’s no longer a folk being, but a techno-horror.

But if you run out of shotgun shells, maybe give Baron Samedi a call.

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