The melange of monsters that make up modern zombie mythology
What my kids think of as zombies are actually modern amalgams of at least three other horrifying concepts, glued together in the 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead. Ok, what they actually think of as zombies are probably the green, block-headed groaning foes you find staggering around in Minecraft, although even those follow in the zombie meta-tradition of attaching various horror tropes to each other. In the case of Minecraft, the zombies burst into flames in daylight, a trait usually reserved for vampire stories. Of course, since the template for contagious zombies is already coming from the vampire story, I Am Legend, this really doesn’t seem out of bounds. At this point, in a world with fiction about fast zombies, smart zombies and even zombies in love, it’s no longer obvious where the core concepts of zombie lore really come from.
Slaves as mindless minions
The word “zombie” is a good place to start though, because it leads us to the origins of a zombie’s mindless, relentless nature. American English picked up zombie about hearing about the Haitian creole term zonbi, which itself derive from West African words nzumbi for corpse, and nzambi for “spirit of a dead person.” Thanks to the occupation of Haiti in the early 20th Century, Americans learned of the Voodoo concept of a zombie, and how it tied in with the island’s history of colonial slavery. Zombies weren’t necessarily reanimated corpses looking to eat flesh, but were people whose will and autonomy had been stolen from them by a bokor, or priest, then forced into servitude. These people were sometimes thought of as dead, but more often would be described with dead, lifeless eyes as they worked in fields or waited for more nefarious instructions from the bokor. The connections to slavery are more than just symbolic, with local mythology stating that a slave who committed suicide would have been forced to labor forever as a zombie, rather than ascend to heaven when they died.
This idea of mindless minions caught the attention of both scientists and popular culture. Right after the American occupation of Haiti ended in 1931 the movie White Zombie brought some of these concepts to America, in which zombies were essentially drug-induced henchmen. Some research was attempted to pin down the scientific underpinnings of Haitian zombies, with some reports of meeting “real zombies,” and even some supposed recipes for the coupe poudre, or zombie powder a bokor would use to zombifiy someone’s brain. The key ingredient was tetrodotoxin, a dangerous and frequently fatal neurotoxin found in pufferfish. However, since none of the behaviors of supposed zombies really match the known symptoms of tetrodotoxin, there’s been a lot of doubt about this pharmaceutical explanation. A more plausible hypothesis is that victims of zombificaiton were most likely people living on the fringes of society due to being homeless and/or suffering from mental illness. Sufferers of epilepsy, catatonic schizophrenia and even fetal alcohol syndrome, coupled with a culture primed to “recognize” symptoms of zombification, provided anecdotal evidence to back up stories everyone was familiar with.
Ghouls feasting on flesh
So while slavery and exploitation are obviously horrible, they don’t cover all of the horrors we associate with a modern zombie. It’s hard to find a zombie in modern media that isn’t interested in chomping down on the flesh of the living (or recently living,) although this trait was basically adopted from a host of other myths and monsters. A Norse creature called the Draugr was said to be a spirit or body that walked the Earth, lumbering along with the single goal of eating people. If that weren’t enough, they were also thought to have superhuman strength and be able to grow larger at will, which bafflingly hasn’t been widely reproduced in many zombie stories. More widely known are ghouls (aka ghūls), originally from Arabian myths, which are shape-shifting demons known to lurk around grave sites while looking for humans to eat. Early ghoul stories often focused on the threat of unknown, attractive women, but grave-robbing was eventually added, which fits into our zombie concepts quite nicely.
Vampires carrying contagion
Finally, even the zombies in Minecraft are capable of creating new zombies though a bite, which is thanks to I Am Legend‘s influence on Night of the Living Dead. Vampire myths often included elements of the living dead, and in many cases may have been based on people’s misunderstanding of disease and decay. Contagious diseases may have lead to surprising deaths, followed by frightening and confusing patterns in the corpses’ decay, which may have left more flesh on the bones than untrained observers would have expected. While zombies didn’t end up appropriating the blood-sucking, adding the threat of contagion to ghoulish behavior now seems feels central to the zombie myth.
When all these elements were combined in Night of the Living Dead, it wasn’t intended as an overhaul of what a zombie was meant to be. George Romero, the film’s director, thought of zombies as the Haitian slaves, and that he was perhaps blending ghouls with the contagious vampirism of I Am Legend. The impact of these new, hybrid monsters has been huge though, and much has been written about how these creatures have flooded popular culture since their debut in 1968. With that in mind, perhaps we should look into new hybrid monsters, like… were-witches? sea-mummies? Maybe giant-ghost-kraken? They’d be worth adding to Minecraft, anyway.
Source: Where Do Zombies Come From? by Roger Luckhurst, BBC Culture