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American Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales of Zombies

American Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales of Zombies
© Photograph by Marcin Maternik

Zombie is a word with powerful and abiding spiritual, social, and pop-cultural significance and connotations in contemporary America. The concept and term first entered the American consciousness in the South, having migrated from Haiti. The zombie is, in fact, a figure borrowed from the Voodoo traditions of Haiti, and ultimately has its roots in West African folklore; indeed, the term itself has clear West African antecedents in such Kikongo words as nzambi, “god” or “a spirit of a dead person,” and zumbi, “fetish.”

In the context of the folkloric understandings of Haitian Voodoo from which the common American understanding of the term zombie is derived, such a revenant is, in simplest terms, a soulless body that is enslaved by the sorcerer that removed its soul and/or reanimated it. Such a corpse is a mere automaton that responds to the commands of the magician that holds it in sway. Such witches are said to be able to use dark powers either to animate the dead or to steal identity and autonomy from those of the living unlucky enough to fall into their clutches. In the latter case, a Voodoo practitioner of black arts — known as a bokor — is said to have used a kind of magical powder — or coup poudre — to cast his victim into a death-like state, during which the apparently lifeless body would be buried. Soon after the funeral rites were over, however, and when the last of the mourners had departed, the bokor would arrive at the graveyard to dig up his thrall, who would ever after serve the sorcerer without question.

Such a notion of a living person trapped in a zombified state owes much of its contemporary currency to Wade Davis, who claimed in his 1985 book ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ to have discovered the actual scientific basis for coup poudre, and thus the source of the zombie legend. According to Wade Davis, the seemingly magical properties of this substance are in actuality the result of ingredients including dried puffer fish and other potent sources of the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin, or TTX. Wade Davis postulated that zombies are thus individuals with ravaged neurological systems who arise from death-like comas induced by the toxins with which they were afflicted to find themselves buried alive or recently exhumed. The characteristic subarticulate groans, shambling walks, and paralyzed facial expressions of zombies are, therefore, according to this theory, the result of severe brain damage, anoxia, and trauma, rather than that of supernatural black magic. Wesley Earl Craven directed William James Pullman in the 1988 film version of ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’; Wade Davis was overtly credited for the inspiration of Richard Maxwell’s screenplay.

Zombies in various manifestations had been a Hollywood staple for more than fifty years before Wesley Earl Craven’s adaptation of Wade Davis’s book. ‘White Zombie’ (1932), starring Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó and drawing upon a traditional link between witchcraft and zombies, is often considered the first real zombie movie. The modern genre of the apocalyptic zombie film, however, complete with archetypal reanimated corpses with a desperate yearning to gorge on living human flesh — most often specifically brains — seems to have been born (or reanimated) in the imagination of George Andrew Romero, who produced the iconic ‘Night of the Living Dead’ on a shoestring budget in 1968. This cult classic was followed by with a number of sequels, including ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978) and ‘Day of the Dead’ (1985), the latter of which was loosely reprised in a 2008 version of the same name. The George Andrew Romero zombie-verse was lampooned to a punk beat in 1985’s ‘Return of the Living Dead’, which spawned its own series of sequels. The sly spoof ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (2004) is perhaps the cleverest of recent send-ups of the genre. Meanwhile, “Epidemiology,” a 2010 Halloween episode of the television series ‘Community’, offered its own comic twist. ‘28 Days Later’ (2002) also seems to have inspired a shoot-them-up episode of ‘Community’, while films such as ‘Zombieland’ (2009) and the popular television series ‘The Walking Dead’ (2010 – ) have both capitalized upon and continued to extend the genre’s popularity. A recent film, ‘Life After Beth’ (2014), offered a teen romantic-comedy spin on the genre. Perhaps most notably, the best-selling novel ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ (2009) completely re-envisioned the zombie-horror genre in the context of the drawing-room world of Jane Austen, and has been adapted to film.

Zombies thrive in other areas of American culture, as well. There are a great number of zombie-themed video games, for example, and the Internet abounds with “Top Zombie Game” lists, each with its own seemingly rabid — if perhaps not literally flesh-eating — fanboys. In addition, The ‘Encyclopedia of Popular Music’ contains no fewer than nine entries under the term Zombie. Moreover, besides its abiding currency in pop-culture videos, books, music, and games, the word zombie has crawled from its resting place in the charnel house of the popular imagination to roam American culture at large, signifying a dizzying array of concepts metaphorically linked to reanimated corpses. Zombie refers, for example, to a computer that has been infected by a virus and is partially or fully under the control of an unauthorized user, who generally utilizes the slave machine to generate spam emails. A group of enslaved machines working together is generally called a botnet, although fans of Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard might prefer to call it a Borg. In banking terms, a company kept alive by its creditors is likewise known as a zombie.

Zombie is also the name of a cocktail popularized in the 1930s at the Hollywood eatery known as Don the Beachcomber. A mix of juices and a number of rums, the drink is thought to evoke the origins of its name in both its tropical taste and its death-like after-effects. In a similar manner, zombie long has been used popularly as an expression both for drugs and the addicts thereof, and in various slang, usages may refer to slow-witted or seemingly impaired individuals, including — historically and humorously — habitual radio listeners or television viewers. The association of this term with drug addiction may be particularly lasting and evocative, however, as such usage may point to a traditional and fundamental terror of the walking dead, who originally represented those who had been ensnared and enslaved through the employment of black arts and the evil employment of soul-deadening magical powders. Thus, while the term zombie comes from a specific time and place and meant something quite different originally than it does in common American parlance today, the word continues to speak to universal human terrors and concerns; stories of such revenants thus have much to teach us both about American culture and about universal human fears and nightmares.

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