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Zombies: More than a Fictional Fear

By Emma Caspi

Voices Editor

Via The Atlantic

Zombies have become typical horror-movie tropes and Halloween costumes, but I bet you that you do not know the true or accurate meaning of the word zombie. The definition We have coined the term zombie with the living dead who have risen from their graves, seeking the taste of human flesh or brains. The picture we paint of them resembles Hollywood’s heavily CGI-ed or prosthetic-covered characters, played by famous actors and actresses. But what if I told you this portrayal is not exactly accurate? Only a few rare films, such as Victor Halperini’s White Zombie (1932), which portrays a Vodou priest in Haiti who ‘zombifies’ a young woman, accurately depict the origins and facets of zombies. 

George A. Romero’s movie Dawn of the Dead (1978), and subsequent films such as World War Z,  Zombieland and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies  created and perpetuated this now-traditional idea of what zombies represent. The world has ignored and whitewashed a crucial piece of history to make lucrative profits in theatres and costumes. Since the zombie myth is rooted more deeply in history than in American pop culture, it is time you know the even darker side of zombies.

In reality, zombies symbolize the inhumanity of slavery and the misery endured by African slaves from 1625 to 1800. The idea of a zombie is a mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery in French-dominated Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti). Zombie concepts were imported to Haiti from Africa through the slave trade. Slaves in Saint-Domingue in the 17th and 18th centuries were under French rule and worked to death on sugar plantations. Slaves were abased and abused: hunger, exhaustion from constant exploitation and intense discipline. They pined for solace. 

They believed that suicide was one of the only means to escape the sugar plantations. When they died, the slaves hoped to be transported back to Africa, or Ian guinée  — this literally translates to Guinea or Africa in general, and figuratively means heaven or freedom). Only through Baron Samedi, the lord of the cemetery, could one navigate their way to this leafy green paradise. It was the only way to become remotely autonomous over their bodies. This way, there would be no more sugarcane to cut, and no orders to heed. Slave owners dispised when their slaves would commit suicide, believing it was thieving them of their proper service and property. 

However, the fear of becoming a zombie dissuaded slaves from committing suicide and their hoping for an escape. There was a good chance that those who took their lives would not reach Ian guinée but would be trapped in the Hispaniola plantations forever. Thwarting or offending the God Baron could prevent the voyage. They believed that once Baron rejected their souls, they would be trapped and given to mortals. Their souls would be toiled and ruled beyond death forever, being denied peace and tranquillity within death. They would, therefore, become zombies. Consuming salt was the only way to ensure that one's soul would return to Ian guinée. Slaveowners, aware of this condition, would serve bland foods to their slaves.  

This zombie myth gave rise to many aspects of the Vodou religion where shamans or Vodou priests reanimated corpses after the Haitian Revolution in 1804. Vodou was a mixture of West African religion and catholic rituals of the local population. There were multiple spiritual systems across different ethnic groups on the continent. Vodou was practised in Haiti, but also in the Caribbean, Brazil, the American South and other places with an African heritage. According to Haitian folklore and some parts of Vodou, sorcerers called Bokor held the power to create and manipulate zombies. Vodou was a unifying religion among African slaves that has been misinterpreted as sinister and harmful by modern-day popular culture. Haitian Americans are trying to combat stereotypes by clarifying that modern Vodou respects nature, remembers ancestors, and focuses on energy, vibrations and rhythm.

Most of us have been inadvertently ignorant about zombies, as we had no choice but to believe what we grew up seeing. It seems appropriate to say that the modern-day zombie has been severely misconstrued, appearing as a costume you wear or a fictional character. However, the history of zombies is anything but fiction and serves as a constant reminder of the perpetual suffering the Haitian slaves endured. Eternal unrest can mean simply living forever in a decayed body, but it represents more precisely the horrors of slavery and the fear of its return. Zombies may be our imaginary fear, but they caused truly crippling horror among Haitian slaves. 


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