Fans of the popular television show “The Walking Dead” know that the show follows a group of people trying to survive a postapocalyptic world dominated by reanimated dead humans who feed on the flesh of other living creatures. While they’re referred to as “walkers” by everyone on the show, viewers are led to believe these creatures are “zombies.”
Zombies have long been a subject of horror movies, video games and scary tales. Zombies are believed to be corpses without souls who have been reanimated through supernatural means. Unbeknownst to many, the lumbering undead on the search for fresh brains that makes up the contemporary zombie characterization actually trace their roots to the Caribbean. Some speculate the word “zombie” was derived from West African languages. The Oxford English Dictionary says “zombie” is a word that was first recorded in English in 1819. It is related to words zumbi, meaning “fetish,” and nzambi meaning, “a god.”
In spirit religions, such as the voudou (voodoo) practiced by some Haitians, zombies are not flesh-eating corpses but the unfortunate dead whose souls were stolen. According to content published by the University of Michigan, believers of voodoo believed people could die naturally through sickness or a god’s will. Those who died unnaturally due to murder, suicide or before their time would linger at their graves until the gods offered them respite. During this period, souls would be vulnerable to powerful sorcerers known as “boko.” A boko could capture the soul and keep it in a bottle, controlling the undead body or just the soul. Under the best circumstances, zombies helped the boko, but unsavory boko could use the zombies as slaves. Many Haitians did not fear the zombies, but rather were afraid of becoming zombies against their will.
Another interpretation published in The Atlantic says zombies were of their own making. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Haiti was ruled by France and known as Saint-Domingue. During this period, African slaves were used to work on sugar plantations where the working and living conditions were brutal. Death was seen as a release back to their home countries. However, suicide was frowned upon and would not allow souls to return to Africa. The souls of slaves who committed suicide would be condemned to roam plantations for eternity.
When the United States briefly occupied Haiti in the early twentieth century, zombie stories and rumors began to grow popular. Stories of zombies permeated American culture. Writers and filmmakers have long offered their own interpretations of zombies. However, many of these interpretations have little, if any, similarities to the zombie stories rooted in Caribbean culture.