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ZOSMOPOLITAN PART I: Historical and Cultural Relevance of the Zombie

A zombie from The Walking Dead

“But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead…”

 – Matthew 28: 5-7, English Standard Version (emphasis mine)



Why are zombies everywhere (pun intended)?  What happened to make them so popular?  How did they go from being a typical, campy, horror creature to a multibillion dollar industry?  Furthermore, what exactly is our fascination with the undead?  Why do we find them so intriguing?  Is there more to our interest than a good splattery headshot from a boomstick?

I was 5 or 6 when I first saw George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.  Ironically, the 1990 remake was released around that time.  Honestly, some films are better in black and white.  Night was the first film that introduced zombies to me.  I witnessed what would become staples for zombie film: the hand reaching up from beneath the burial mound, the groaning, the slow lumbering, shuffling pace, and of course the insatiable thirst for flesh.  These things seem so commonplace to us, but when Romero made the film they were groundbreaking.  Now, when we see a lone shotgun-wielding survivor being surrounded by hordes of the undead, we immediately know what will happen.  We have Romero to thank for that.

Since the mid 2000s, zombies have found their way into media that formerly shunned them.  The popularity of the zombie has exploded since 2000.  In the literary world, Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) and its oral history counterpart World War Z (2006) both made it to the New York Times Best Seller’s list.  Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) also made an impact on the New York Times Best Seller list.

That famous first zombie from Night of the Living Dead, played by Bill Hinzman

The Resident Evil video games feature zombies as stock villains.  According to Capcom’s official website the series has sold over 62 million units worldwide.  The CDC has even used zombies to assist in educating people about disaster preparedness.  Similarly, the group known as Zombie Squad schedules camping andhiking trips that you can sign up for.  According to Zombie Squad’s “About” page:

Our goal is to educate the public about the importance of personal preparedness and self reliance, as well as community-based preparedness to increase its readiness to respond to disasters such as Earthquakes, Floods, Terrorism, or Zombie Outbreaks.”

All around the world, so-called “zombie walks” occur (like this one in my hometown  These events feature hundreds and sometimes thousands of people decked out in their best zombie makeup.  They will assemble on a city street and amble along for hours (or even days) at a time.  These mobs are frequently used as protests, or to raise awareness about a particular issue.  They may have ties to charities or other non-profit organizations.

In this 3 part series, I will first examine the historical cultural roots of the zombie that predate horror films.  The second part will cover the horror film era, starting with the genesis of motion picture technology through the millennium.   Finally, I will conclude the series by beginning from the early to mid 00’s to today, wherein I will offer my opinion on how the zombie became such a prolific cultural phenomenon.  First, let’s peer into the cultural mirror, so to speak.  Let’s take a look at ourselves and then peruse some literature from our ancestors.  Perhaps we can learn something from them.

Bill Maher recently diagnosed the millennial generation as “generation ass.”  I have met 13 year old boys who don’t know how to prepare meals for themselves, how to finish their homework on time, or how to complete household chores.

Resident Evil

But I guarantee you that if you gave them the first line of lyrics from the latest Billboard chart-topper, they could quote you the entire song.  And likely demonstrate the lurid and self-deprecating dance that accompanies it.  Whether we realize it or not, we have created a dogma of youth and we worship it with religious fervor. Old age is not only feared, but disrespected and disparaged.

I surmise that as a people we fear old age, and subsequently death. I touched on this briefly in a previous article The Abyss Also Gazes Into You, which you can check out here, if you like.  Death and the afterlife have been themes in horror long before the invention of the motion picture.  All of the classic horror novels, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein dealt with death.  To remove death from the horror genre would be to remove the pigskin from football, or twerking from a Nicki Minaj video.  Even a cursory reading of the synopses of books in the “Horror” section at your favorite bookstore will convince you of that.  I discovered Edgar Allen Poe in 3rd grade.  Poe’s tales involved death and his narrators were compelled to deal with their fear of it.  Later in life I found H.P. Lovecraft and learned that death is usually only the beginning of his stories.

There is another side to this coin.  If our glorification of youth is based on a fear of death, then perhaps we should seek a way to overcome death.  Immortality, a way to live forever.  An immunity to death and whatever awaits on the other side.  Perhaps through magic, or alchemy, or an occult pact with a lesser known deity, we could evade death altogether.  Or perhaps after we die, we could be brought back.  We would be in a state somewhere between living and dead.  We would be undead.  This desire is directly juxtaposed to the idol of youth – the desire to live forever in whatever capacity.

The zombie is one example of life after death, albeit not much of a life.  However, it resolves the dilemma of the fear of death while simultaneously offering something like immortality.  If one is undead, one might not be alive, but one is not exactly dead either.  It is my opinion that this is part (though certainly not all) of the recent resurgence of popularity of zombies and apocalyptic fiction.  This is certainly not confined to horror.  Interest in zombies, the apocalypse, survivalism, and armed preparedness are big business now.

The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks

But we’ll cover that in the third part of the series.  In this article, I am going to examine the historical roots of the zombie before it became the rotting, sluggish, brain-eater that we know today.  The theme of death that I mentioned is by no means new.  Just as every religious system has its own explanations of death and the afterlife, different cultures each have their own take on the undead.  This article is by no means intended to be an exhaustive, definitive work on the anthropological history of zombies.  For further reading into this topic, I have listed some sources at the end of the article.

The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word “zombie” was coined in English in about 1810.   Robert Southey used the term in his book History of Brazil.  Evidently this was Southey’s English pronunciation of Nzambi or Nzambi a Mpungu, a creator deity of the Congo.  According to Time magazine, the book The Magic Island by William Seabrook, “introduced ‘zombi’ into US speech” in 1929.  In Haiti, legend tells that the bodies of the dead were reputed to be revived by a necromancer called a bokor.  The bokor, a voodoo priest or shaman, would utilize magical and herbal remedies to reanimate a corpse.  In 1985, Wade Davis published The Serpent And The Rainbow, a book that would later inspire the Wes Craven film of the same name.  In the book, Davis explores the account of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who died and was buried in 1962.  18 years later, Narcisse was found alive.  His story is one of the most famous accounts of a “real” zombie.  Narcisse’s account holds that a bokor gave him a heavy dose of tetrodotoxin, a toxic secretion extracted from a blowfish.  This toxin can cause the body to mimic death, resulting in a catatonic coma.  After his burial, Narcisse was disinterred.  He was taken to the bokor’s plantation, where he and other “zombies” were made slaves.  The bokor controlled his zombie slaves through the use of Datura stramonium (Jimson weed), which causes intense and vivid hallucinations.

William of Newburgh was an English historian of the Middle Ages.  In Book Five of his History  (approximately 1190 AD) he wrote about encounters with beings that came to be known as “revenants” in the Middle Ages.  In Chapter 24 of that text, he wrote:

“It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb…”

The same chapter of William’s work details several instances of the dead rising from their graves.  In one scenario, he described a duplicitous chaplain who presided over a monastery called Melrose.  The chaplain’s lascivious passions became known to those around him, who then christened him with the title “Hundeprest,” which means “dog-priest.”  After the priest died, he was buried in the cemetery outside the monastery.

A less “munchy” voodoo zombie

In the nights following his interment, the dog-priest ascended from his grave and attacked a woman who had been his mistress in life.  The mistress sought the aid of one of the monastery’s friars who eventually killed the reanimated dog-priest, hacking him up with an axe.  Another account tells of a man who suspected his wife of infidelity.  To confirm his suspicions, he clung to a beam in the bedroom.  Upon observing his wife in bed with another man, he let go of the beam and fell to the floor.  This fall ended up killing him.  After his burial he came back to life and terrorized the town.  Two men from the town carved him open, ripped out his heart, and then burned his body.

In China, a “jiangshi” (translated as “stiff corpse”) would feast upon your “qi” or “life force.”  The jiangshi were usually depicted in art wearing clothing connected to the Qing imperial dynasty.  Perhaps this was a criticism; an ancient example of political satire.  They were characterized by greenish-white skin and due to rigor mortis (and the binding of their feet prior to burial) they would often hop.  Sometimes their breath was so foul that the stench alone would kill their potential victims.  Unlike most incarnations of the zombie, the jiangshi could be fought or repelled with an assortment of items.  Sticky, glutinous rice (yes, you read that right) could keep the creature at bay.  So could brooms, azuki beans, and chicken blood.  Like any zombie, they are vulnerable to decapitation.  However, their bodies must immediately be salted or they may resurrect stronger than they were previously.

The Saga of Grettir the Strong is an Icelandic history dated to the tenth century.  It features an anti hero outlaw named Grettir Ásmundarson, also called Grettir the Strong.  In the saga, Grettir confronts a “draugr,” and undead creature reminiscent of a revenant.  These Norse revenants were also called “aptrgangr,” literally translated as “again-walker.”  This particular draugr is the reanimated corpse of Glam, a man whom the saga records as having been very strong in life.  After Glam’s death (possibly the work of an evil spirit) he rises from his grave as a draugr.  The draugr rampages through a local village, causing the citizens to flee.  In chapter XXXIII, the draugr murders a shepherd, breaking his neck and tearing every bone from his body.  Later the draugr kills again, this time dispatching a cowherd by breaking his back over a flat stone.  In Chapter XXXV, the draugr attacks Grettir in his sleep.  Grettir wrestles with the draugr before finally exhausting himself when he realizes that its strength overpowers his own.  The draugr then speaks to Grettir, issuing a proclamation of doom on his life.  Grettir draws his sword and lops off the draugr’s head.  The draugr’s curse hangs over the rest of Grettir’s life and foretells many of his future perils.

Zombie Apocalypse, Walking Dead-style

Anyone reading this article that’s older than 25 likely remembers the late Robin Williams voicing the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin.  That movie is based on a story from One Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights.  It is a collection of folk stories from the Arabic region that also includes “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.”  It first appeared in an English translation in 1706.  This is important because it is this exact volume (that gave us the loveable singing blue genie) which gave us what is likely the most consistent historical basis for the modern zombie – the ghoul.  The Story of Sidi-Nouman describes ghouls thusly, “one of those demons which…wander about the country making their lairs in deserted buildings and springing out upon unwary travellers whose flesh they eat.”  According to the story, if a ghoul was unable to find a living victim, it would relocate to a cemetery to pillage graves for leftovers.  The History of Gharib and His Brother Ajib features a ghoul named Sa’adan.  The story states that the ghoul had, “no other food than flesh of the sons of Adam.”  Sa’adan has superhuman strength, and the story records that he carried an uprooted tree on his shoulder.  Sa’adan jousted with an Amalekite warrior, beating him unconscious with the tree.  Then, Sa’adan skinned him, cooked him, and then, “ate his flesh and crunched his bones.”

These are just a few examples of different cultural perspectives on the undead.  I have some sources listed below for those that want to dig further into these different histories.  However slight the differences, ancient cultures seem to have had just as much interest in zombies as 21st century Americans.  Each has their own distinct ethnic flavor and explanation as to the reason behind the undead’s resurrection.  Without these traditions, we would not have had material to inspire us to create the films, books and video games we have today.  We would not enjoy zombie paintball near Halloween, or motivate ourselves to physical fitness with the Zombies, Run! game.  And we would not have a television show that breaks viewing records each week.  That’s proof that more people like zombies than football.  Perhaps there can be redemption for our youth-worshipping culture after all.

Further Resources

Bishop, Kyle. American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture

Christie, Deborah. Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human

Boluk, S. and Lenz, W. Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture

Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow

Newburgh, William of. History. Book Five.

Author Unknown. The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Multiple Authors. One Thousand And One Nights/Arabian Nights

Read more about Clairvius Narcisse here:

Watch the Planet Doc documentary “Voodoo Mysteries” in full here:

For more on the jiangshi, go here:

For more on the Norse/Viking draugr, visit this site:



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Grant Skelton

Contributing Writer
I am a writer. I just finished my first novel and hope to have it published within the next year. Freelance writing is new to me and I love every second of it.