A zombie, according to pop culture and folklore, is usually either an awakened corpse with a voracious appetite or a person bitten by another zombie infected with a “zombie virus.”
Zombies are generally depicted as strong but robotic beings with rotting flesh. Their only mission is to feed themselves. They generally don’t have conversations (although some may grumble a little).
Origin of zombies
The ancient Greeks may have been the first civilization terrorized by fear of the undead. Archaeologists have unearthed many ancient tombs containing skeletons held by rocks and other heavy objects, supposedly to prevent the corpses from reanimating.
Zombie folklore has existed for centuries in Haiti, perhaps originating in the 17th century when West African slaves were brought to work on Haiti’s sugar plantations. The brutal conditions left slaves yearning for freedom. According to some reports, the life – or rather the afterlife – of a zombie represented the horrible fate of slavery.
Zombies and voodoo
Voodoo (sometimes spelled vodou or vodun) is a religion based in West Africa and practiced throughout Haiti and the Caribbean, Brazil, the southern United States, and other places with African heritage.
Many people who follow the voodoo religion today believe that zombies are myths, but some believe that zombies are people resurrected by a voodoo practitioner known as bokor.
Bokors have a tradition of using herbs, shells, fish, animal parts, bones and other objects to create concoctions, including “zombie powders”, which contain tetrodotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin present in pufferfish and some other marine species.
Used cautiously in sublethal doses, the tetrodotoxin combination can cause zombie-like symptoms, such as difficulty walking, mental confusion, and breathing problems.
High doses of tetrodotoxin can cause paralysis and coma. This could make someone appear dead and bury them alive, then revive them later.
Real zombies reported in medical journals
Although it is rare, there are several credible reports in medical journals of people using these compounds to cause paralysis in people and then raise them from the grave.
A 1997 article in the British Medical Journal The Lancet described three verifiable zombie accounts. In one case, a Haitian woman who appeared dead was buried in a family grave, only to reappear three years later. An investigation revealed that his grave was filled with stones and his parents agreed to admit him to a local hospital.
In another well-documented case, a Haitian man named Clairvius Narcisse entered a local hospital with severe breathing problems in 1962. After slipping into a coma, Narcisse was pronounced dead and buried shortly thereafter.
But 18 years later, a man approached Angelina Narcisse in the village market, insisting that she was his sister. Doctors, locals, and family members all identified him as Clairvius Narcissus, who claimed he was buried alive, then dug up and put to work on a distant sugar plantation.
Zombies in pop culture
According to The living dead in the 18th century According to Linda Troost, zombies appeared in literature as early as 1697 and were described as spirits or ghosts, not cannibalistic demons.
They arrived on the cinema scene around the same time as their monster peers, Frankenstein and Dracula, with the 1932 release of White Zombie.
But it wasn’t until 1968 that zombies gained their own cult following with the release of Night of the Living Dead, directed by George Romero. Over the next 15 years, Romero directed two more zombie films, Dawn of the Dead And The day of the Dead. As special effects technology improved with each film, zombies appeared more gruesome and realistic.
Beginning in the 1980s, dozens of zombie films have been made. Even Scooby Doo fought zombies in the 1998 film Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island. And the 2013 release of World War Z featuring Brad Pitt took zombie culture to a disturbing new level.
Unsurprisingly, television has jumped on the zombie bandwagon with shows like iZombie And Helix. But no zombie has ever terrified viewers as much as those on television networks. The Walking Dead. Each show features a post-apocalyptic zombie-feeding frenzy that leaves fans horrified but unable to look away.
Are zombies in the Bible?
The modern-day carnivorous zombie is not in the Bible. But there are many references to reanimated or resurrected bodies that may have inspired zombie myths throughout history.
The Book of Ezekiel describes a vision in which Ezekiel is thrown into a cemetery and prophecies over the bones. The bones begin to shake and become covered with muscle and flesh until they are revived, but “there was no more breath in them.”
And the book of Isaiah says: “Your dead will live again, and they will rise with my corpse. Awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust: for your dew is like the dew of herbs, and the earth will drive away the dead.
Additionally, passages abound in the Old and New Testaments about the resurrection of saints and sinners at the end of time. This may be one of the reasons why so many zombie stories are associated with an apocalypse.
Our fascination with zombies
Why does the modern world have such a love affair with zombies? History could be the cause, according to Stanford literature scholar Angela Becerra Vidergar.
Vidergar tells Stanford News she believes that humanity’s perception of violence took a radical turn after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during The Second World War. She believes such large-scale disasters cause people to fictionalize their deaths on a large scale and focus on survival of the fittest, a common theme among zombie narratives.
THE Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees. They took advantage of the zombie craze and created a Zombie Preparedness Website to motivate people to prepare for disasters and offer advice on how to survive a zombie apocalypse and other disasters. The site has been hugely successful.
Whether you’re a fan of zombies or the idea of encountering one makes you sleep with one eye open, they’re part of modern pop culture. Although the zombie myth has a factual basis, today’s zombies have led lives of their own.
Haiti and the truth about zombies. University of Michigan.
How to make a zombie (seriously). Live Science.
Tetrodotoxin. Toxic network.
A Stanford researcher explains why the fascination with zombies is very much alive. Stanford News.
Zoinks! Tracing the history of Haiti’s zombies at the CDC. NPR.
Zombie burials? The ancient Greeks used rocks to keep bodies in tombs. Science Live.
Zombies. University of Michigan.
Zombies and tetrodotoxin. Skeptical investigator.
The living dead in the 18th century. Linda Troost.
The zombie apocalypse, a coup for the CDC emergency team. Washington Post.