Zombies have infested our culture. There are zombie movies by the hundreds, zombie literature by the thousands and one extremely popular zombie television show. For the most part, though, these ubiquitous undead eaters of flesh are used to entertain, joke and help teach emergency preparedness. However, the origin of zombies is a lot more somber: it emerged from the brutal world of 17th century Haitian slavery.
In fact, Christopher Columbus is directly responsible for the entry of zombies into the New World. In December of 1492, the explorer and colonizer landed on Hispaniola. He proclaimed the island in the name of Spain and quickly enslaved the native peoples, just as he had done when he had landed two months earlier on today’s Bahamas. But just 20 years after Columbus had arrived, the population of “Indians” decreased from 300,000 in 1492 to 20,000. A new influx of slaves was needed. When the first boat of African slaves were brought to Hispaniola, in 1502, the seeds for today’s zombie invasion were planted.
Tales of the walking dead likely originated in Central and West Africa, where many of Hispaniola’s slave-ships were sailing from, but the monster’s character was undisputedly shaped by the singular brutality of slavery in what is now present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Sugar and coffee plantations grew to dominate the island, all on the backs of slave labor. All of this growth, however, came at the expense of nearly half a million African slaves.
Life was merciless for a slave on a sugar cane plantation. Overwork, starvation and violent repercussions were commonplace. Death rates were sometimes three times as high on a sugar cane plantation than any other type of plantation. Birth rates were very low due to, as one source described it, lack of “appetite or energy for sexual intercourse.” There was no freedom, no privacy and little hope. Every bit of a slave’s life was controlled–morning, noon and night, day in and day out. The afterlife and religion became their only chance at salvation.
“To become a zombie was the slave’s worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand,” writes Haiti expert Amy Wilentz.
One of the most prominent religions of that period was Haitian Vodou, a close relative of the West African animist religion Voodoo. The religion, which is still practiced today, emphasizes the ability to interact with and cultivate a culture of harmony with the dead. Death is revered in Haitian Vodou culture, taken as something that continues one’s existence, rather than ending it. If all traditions, customs and ceremonies are followed, the soul transitions from one stage of the afterlife to the next after dying. If not done in correct fashion, though, the soul becomes susceptible to the whims of a sorcerer-for-hire known as a Bokor.
The Bokor is a traditional priest “who can work with both hands,” who can do both good and evil. Using magic, spells and potions, they can help lost souls find their way to the afterlife and heaven. In 18th century Haiti, heaven was an escape from the harsh realities of the New World and a chance to return to the African homeland. It was also a way to exact revenge on the ones that deprived them of their freedom in the first place. By leaving their physical lives behind, the slaves were leaving the grip of their owners. But the Bokor could also act with evil intentions and reanimate these souls for their own personal gain. They could turn them in zombies.
A zombie, or zonbi, in the Vodou religion, is once again a slave; a being that does not have any control of their own actions. The evil Bokor could use these slaves to do their bidding, be it fieldwork or for murderous tasks. Stuck between the physical world and the afterlife, these zombies are restless, unsettled and angry. Yet, there is nothing they can do–this hopelessness is a harsh metaphor for the slavery that Haitians were trying to escape. The threat of becoming a zombie inspired much fear in the slave community.
While the idea of spiritual zombies can certainly spark terror, the possibility of becoming a physical zombie horrifies. On the fringes of Vodou, there are Haitian folktales of Bokor murdering people simply to reanimate them as zombies. Through the use of magic, spells and a powder called coupe poudre, the traditional sorcerers are said to be able to enslave actual humans for their zombie army. While the concept of zombificiation seems fantastical, the stories are still so prevalent in Haitian culture that scientists have studied and written about the phenomenon.
What they found is actually rather shocking–the coupe poudre is made up of naturally occurring toxins, possibly including the poison tetrodotoxin, which likely comes from the puffer fish. When this powder is administered, it can cause disorientation, aggressiveness, paralysis, face wounds and, eventually, death. In other words, an American pop culture vision of a zombie.
In the early 1980s, Harvard-trained botanist Wade Davis became famous for immersing himself into Haitian culture to see how to create a zombie. He witnessed the preparation of the zombie poison, which included not only puffer fish and toads, but human remains as well. He was also able to find interview several “zombie patients,” those who were able to escape their zombie servitude. What Davis heard was a horrific tale of people being administrated poison, declared dead, buried alive and then dug up by their oppressor. As described by Davis in a 1983 Journal of Ethnopharmacology article:
The victim, affected by the drug and traumatized by the situation, is immediately beaten by the zombie maker’s assistants. He is then bound and led before a cross to be baptized with a new zombie name. After the baptism, he is made to eat a paste containing a strong dose of a potent psychoactive drug (Datura Stramonium), known in Haiti as ‘zombie cucumbers,’ which brings on a state of psychosis. During that intoxication, the zombie is carried off.”
Davis’ 1985 book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, was modeled on the experience of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man said to have been turned into a zombie after ingesting tetrodotoxin. It became a best-seller, and Wes Craven adapted it into a horror movie a few years later.
In American pop culture today, it is the zombie that is feared. In Haitian culture, where zombies originated from, it is not the zombie that inspires horror. It is the fear of becoming a zombie slave again.
Update, 10/28: The original version of this article misidentified Christopher Columbus as Spanish. He was Italian. We regret the error.