Zombies, more than anything, have become the defining horror monster of the 21st century, able to stand in for anything from pandemics to terrorism. Which is funny, since the zombie actually came into being through Haitian magical beliefs, and its progenitor has little in common with the zombies we know today. How did this happen? How did a magically reanimated corpse from rural folklore become the stock videogame enemy we know today? It turns out that it took the following things: imperialism, slavery, religious repression, resilient folk traditions, a cannibalistic occult journalist, Bela Lugosi and a giant misunderstanding.
Modern zombies are the product of radiation, a virus or bioweapon. They run amok searching for brains and frequently congregate in herds. Their decaying forms have no purpose other than to eat and spread their disease, and while their bite is transformative, the real horror is in seeing them tear human victims apart.
The Haitian zombie, by contrast, bears a greater similarity to the golems we discussed last week. Raised from the dead by a bokor - a sorcerer who specializes in malevolent entities - the reanimated corpse follows instructions in a trance-like state, and is usually pressed into manual labor. Haitian folklore generally does not present them wandering mindlessly in groups, they don't attack unless prompted by their bokor, and their state cannot be transmitted to the living. Moreover, most legends don't have them rotting.
To understand the origins of the zombie legend, we have to examine the religion that spawned them: Haitian Vodou. Like many other Afro-Caribbean belief systems, Vodou is a syncretic religion, a blend that includes both African and European traditions. The process started when French traders began kidnapping and purchasing West Africans and transporting them to Caribbean colonies as slaves for the Haitian sugar plantations. These people - from ethnic groups such as the Fon, Ewe, Kongo and Yoruba - shared many overarching religious beliefs in common and started combining their various cosmologies. After the French tried to suppress African religions and force conversion to Catholicism via the 1685 Code Noir, the enslaved population hid its belief system by creating a Catholic overlay - adopting altars and candles while using saints as either stand-ins for previous deities or new figures in the pantheon. What resulted was an underground religion that incorporated both African and Catholic influences, along with later adoptions from Freemasonry and even European mysticism introduced through magical grimoires French settlers brought to the colony.
Haitian Vodou (which is separate from Louisiana Voodoo or similar religious beliefs in the southern United States) holds that the creator god Bondye is an unknowable and distant entity that doesn't intervene in human affairs. As a result, Vodou practitioners and priests pray to spirit beings known as loa who serve as intermediaries between Bondye and the human world. Communion with the spirits generally takes place during a service where the loa possess ritual practitioners, making themselves known by their personality quirks or by speaking identifiable phrases. Once the priest or congregation identifies the loa present, they will dress the possessed practitioner in the loa's costume and offer them the foods or consumables that loa craves. For example, Baron Samedi, the foulmouthed and charismatic loa of the dead, will dress in a top hat and dark glasses before receiving a cigar, tobacco and rum. After the loa is appeased, he or she will leave and hopefully carry out the priest and congregation's wishes.
Zombies, however, are not part of the Vodou tradition - at least not directly. While Vodou priests deal with the loa, bokor magicians are said to "serve the loa with both hands," meaning they practice both light and dark magic. This doesn't make the bokor evil in a Judeo-Christian sense, but indicates that they're willing to deal with malevolent entities and spirits other Vodou priests will not touch. As a result, most Vodouists consider bokor to be outside their religious group.
Bokor are most associated with creating zombies, but the way they do so is not always in the manner we'd find familiar. For example, in addition to raising flesh-and-blood zombies to do their bidding, they can also ensnare what have been dubbed astral zombies or bound spirits.
According to Vodou belief the human soul has two halves. One half consists of the gros-bon-ange or "Great Good Angel," a part of the cosmic life force that returns to the heavens when a person dies. The other half, known as the ti-bon-age or "Little Good Angel," houses a human's personality, knowledge and experience. After death, the ti-bon-age is thought to hover around the body for nine days, until a Vodou priest conducts a ritual either forcing the soul into the grave, or trapping it in water or an echoing place for a year and a day - after which time it can be placed into a container or sent to the ancestors, either way becoming a loa in its own right. If this ritual is not done, the soul will wander, causing mischief.
The bokor creates astral zombies by capturing the ti-bon-age (or in rarer cases, the gros-bon-age) in a small bottle or other ritual fetish, then compelling the spirit to carry out his wishes. These may be harmful, such as attacking enemies, or beneficial such as becoming part of a charm that protects the wearer from evil spirits. Some bokor even claim that certain souls like being astral zombies, since it allows them to be useful during the year-long wait. The astral zombie is in effect a sort of reverse-zombie, since a zombie is a body without a soul, while an astral zombie is a soul without a body.
By contrast, the more familiar flesh-and-blood zombies are - depending on who you ask - either animated through necromantic magic or toxicology. In 1985, anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis claimed in his book The Serpent and the Rainbow that the "zombie" is actually a living person who's been drugged with a toxic cocktail (including puffer fish poison) to make them appear dead. After burial, the bokor "resurrects" the victim who - having suffered a psychotic break - believes himself to be a zombie. The bokor maintains this illusion via hallucinogens that render the victim delirious and suggestible. Davis points to the case of Clairvius Narcisse, a man who returned to his village eighteen years after his supposed "death," claiming that he'd been drugged, buried and then abducted for two years as a "zombie" plantation laborer.
Though Davis remains a respected figure in his field, his work in Haiti has met with wide skepticism from his peers and criticisms over ethical breaches (Davis claims that he and a bokor exhumed a recently deceased child in order to crush its skull as part of the zombie powder). Sociological studies of this same "returning relative" phenomenon have suggested an alternate explanation - that these ex-zombies are actually homeless and mentally ill persons that grieving families adopt to replace dead relatives, believing that the zombification has "changed" them.