Zombie movies may be newer, but tales of the zombie are not.
Tales of the zombie can be dated back to Haiti, in the 17th century when the French called it Saint-Domingue and kidnapped and enslaved Africans to work the sugar plantations. Half of the kidnapped enslaved Africans were dead within a few years, which only led the French to steal more. Fast forward to now and a tale that rose from the horrible conditions of the enslaved has been whitewashed and essentially erased.
The folklore of the zombie was brought into Haiti from the enslaved Africans. In West and South Africa, there are beliefs in zombie-like creatures called xidachane and maduxwane. The Xidachane myth came from when rail lines were being built and witch trains transported workers but delivered them as Xidachane, zombies to work as enslaved forever.
In Haitian folklore, zombies were not these mindless beings that lived only to consume the flesh of others, they were beings condemned to work the plantations for eternity. The enslaved believed that death would free them back to Africa, but they could not take their own life, for if they did, they would become a soulless zombie, trapped forever as an undead body, and work the plantation as an undead being. They did not consume the flesh of others.
It wasn’t until the Haitian revolution in 1804 that the folklore of the zombie was woven into voodoo religion. The myth evolved into the belief that zombies were living undead, reanimated by shamans and voodoo priests. Sorcerers, known as Bokor, were known to revive the dead, to do the Bokor’s tasks or labor. Haitians feared enslavement at the hands of a Bokor.
It was believed that salt would free a zombie, so the Bokor had to keep the zombies food bland and tasteless (they did not eat brains or human flesh). If a zombie under Bokor control tasted salt, life would return to their bodies and they would be free. Good food was equated to freedom, which explains why Haitian food is amazing.
To this day, in Haiti, people suffering from mental illnesses are often believed to be zombies. Kind of like other countries where psychosis was confused with demonic possessions.
First zombie movie in the US
The movie White Zombie, released in 1932, was the first to use the idea of the Haitian zombie and bring it to white audiences and is the first to use a white person that controls zombies or make them zombies. The plot of the movie goes like this, a young woman goes to Haiti to meet with her fiancé, and they are on their way to stay at someone’s plantation. On their way, an evil voodoo master named Murder takes an interest in them. When they arrive to the plantation, it turns out the guy that owns it is in love with the woman and unbeknownst to her and her fiancé he meets with Murder, to make her fall in love with him with the use of Voodoo. So then murder, whose own plantation is operated by zombies, says he can turn her into a zombie so that she will marry him instead of her fiancé, with the use of a potion. The movie is based on the book called Magic Island, by William Seabrook, who was hoping to make a quick book on the beliefs of another culture.
Looking at Zombies now, the truth behind the folklore of the zombie, the horrible deaths of of the enslaved, and the origin of the myth, stemming from the horrific experience of colonized Haiti is forgotten completely. We now have all these movies and shows, like the Walking Dead and zombies have gone from something created out of a traumatic history, to this idea of escapism. Instead of being about beings that have 0 control over their own bodies and seek death as an escape, it is now about humans surviving an apocalyptic scenario, where the existence of humans solely depends on this group of people to survive. It’s almost as if the idea of a zombie apocalypse is a new start, a new life, with fewer people, no way for pollution to increase and all about survival and it doesn’t escape me how this is a form of escapism and fantasy, while the origin of the zombie is quite the opposite.
Real Life Zombie Case
Clairvius Narcisse is said to be a real life zombie case. On April 30,1962 Clairvius admitted himself to the hospital. He had a fever and was coughing up blood. The staff couldn’t find a reason for his symptoms. Three days later he had passed away. Then in 1980, a man claiming to be Clairvius Narcisse walked up to Angelina Narcisse, claiming to be her brother. He knew things only Clairvius would know, validating his identity. He claimed he had been paralyzed but conscious during his burial. He was later dug up and forced to work on a sugar plantation.
According to Clairvius he was given a paste, speculated to be Datura. Datura is a poisonous flower, which when consumed in some doses can cause hallucinations and memory loss. The Bokor that had Clairvius under his control died and the regular doses of these toxins were no longer being given to Clairvius, allowing his conscious to return. After 16 years he returned to his family.
The Zombie Fungus
There is a terrifying fungus called Ophiocordyceps. This fungus because of what it does to ants. It takes control over the insects' mind. Usually, when an ant is sick they tend to leave their colony to go off and die alone so as to not infect any other ant. This fungus take over their instincts and instead of going away from the colony it makes them go to the colony. This fungi grows all over the ants, growing from the inside and then making it outside until the ant dies and infect the other ants, destroying the colony.