Zombies: the history and impact


Loren Savage and Rachel Sello

People have long feared the dead: Ancient Greeks pinned down corpses with rocks and there are examples of corpses being reanimated in the Bible. But, our modern idea of zombies actually came from enslaved peoples in Haiti.

In the 17th century, enslaved peoples were being forced to convert to Catholicism by missionaries. This combination of cultures and traditions caused new synthetic religions to be formed, like Voodoo.

People who practiced Voodoo believed that zombies were created by the bokor or Voodoo practitioners. It was believed that they used plants and naturally occurring substances containing tetrodotoxin, which could supposedly cause zombie-like symptoms including respiratory problems, difficulty walking and confusion.

After the Haitian revolution in 1804, zombies became a large part of Voodoo folklore. People believed that corpses were being reanimated and used by bokors as personal enslaved persons.

The premise of zombies was representative of the cycle and viciousness of slavery. In an Atlantic article, Mike Mariani says, “The zombie archetype, as it appeared in Haiti and mirrored the inhumanity that existed there from 1625 to around 1800, was a projection of the African enslaved people’ relentless misery and subjugation.”

In 1915, when the United States began to occupy Haiti, soldiers brought the idea of zombies back to the states. Hollywood caught wind of the growing interest in zombies and in 1932 the first zombie movie was made, two years before the occupation ended.

That film is White Zombie. Directed by Victor Halperin, White Zombie follows the story of a white couple, Madeline and Neil, who travel to Haiti to get married on a plantation. The plantation owner, Monsieur Beaumont, falls in love with Madeline and hires a Voodoo doctor to turn her into a zombie. By the end of the movie, the white couple makes it out of Haiti safely. Throughout the film, the Haitians and Voodoo are repeatedly villainized. This movie feeds into racist stereotypes that, at that time, made the public fear zombies, which indirectly made them fear Haitians.

By the 1960s, zombies became prominent figures in popular culture. In the media, zombies often reflect the fears of audiences. They have symbolized communism and the Cold War, contagion and the HIV/AIDS pandemic and consumerism and capitalism. In a comic Corpses: Coast to Coast, published in 1954, gravediggers go on a union strike causing corpses to pile up. A Soviet scientist then “zombifies” the corpses and forms a zombie group to take over the world. This comic strip fed into the fear of the public, Russians aiming for world domination.

Many zombie movies during this time also comment on racial oppression. The 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, directed by George A. Romero, tells the story of a group of people taking refuge while zombies, from the local cemetery, begin to search for humans to devour. A Black character, Ben, is the only survivor of all of the people in the house. Though he doesn’t make it to the end of the movie because he is killed by a White police officer. Ben was more likely to survive a zombie apocalypse than an encounter with a White police officer. His demise sheds light on what it is like to be Black in America.

Zombies have also been used for commentary on consumerism and capitalism. An example of this is Dawn of the Dead (1978), also directed by George A. Romero. A group of people take refuge in a shopping mall until bikers break in and loot the mall letting in zombies. A scene in the movie shows a fully functioning mall with music, lights and escalators full of zombies. The scene draws the comparison between mall shoppers and mindless zombies which criticizes the overconsumption of people in America.

The idea of zombies has been around since the 17th century, first existing as a piece of Haitian culture and now existing as a device in media. In our modern age, the viewer tends to see the survivors and question their morals, along with being envious of their perseverance. Zombies can symbolize more than race but they are inherently rooted in racism. In the same Atlantic article, Mariani said, “Hence a bitter irony between the Haitian zombie and its American counterpart. The monster once represented the real-life horrors of dehumanization; now it’s used as a way to fantasize about human beings whose every decision is exalted.”