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Zombies: An Anthropological Perspective

Updated on November 3, 2019

By Myranda Grecinger

Zombies are well known creatures of nightmarish quality that are often the focus of horror films, novels and scary stories, but these depictions of the undead are not merely figments in the imaginations of fiction writers. These fearsome undead creatures have an important place in many cultures around the world, in fact there is actually a great deal of scientific proof of their existence as well. Though Hollywood and pop-culture have embellished a great deal upon the reality for purposes of entertainment, the traditions and beliefs associated with zombies in Haitian and African cultures are certainly no laughing matter. In believing cultures, zombie lore serves to explain the unexplainable and cope with the unacceptable.

The Undead in Fiction

Western culture has no shortage of zombie fiction. White Zombie, released in 1932, is the first zombie movie ever released and tells the story of a woman who finds herself in a town filled with the murderous undead (Gore-master Staff, 2009). The film’s release signaled the green light for the slew of Hollywood hits to come. Zombie movies are intended to cause several reactions in viewers, but mainly fear, suspense, excitement and disgust, with the occasional comedy of course. In the movies zombies are portrayed as the living dead, sometimes under the control of a master of some sort and are damned to do his bidding until he release them, but more commonly today, zombies are mindless corpses overtaken by some strange epidemic whose sole reason for existence is to make more of his own kind and exterminate the human race with a horrific lust for human flesh. While it may not seem like it on the surface, zombie fiction actually mirrors the reality as well as the traditional beliefs. Zombie movies typically include a lot of focus on the human ability to survive despite horrific circumstances, sorrow over lost loved ones and triumph for those who have seen the most tragedy, the spread of the disease is usually some strange contagion or a voodoo master, all of these things are directly derived from either the religious belief or the actual science.


Proof of Real Zombies

It is often difficult for a person who has seen some of the movies or read any of the books to imagine that there would be any shred of truth in the story of zombies, but the evidence is overwhelming. At an archaeological dig in Hierakonpolis in 1892 a decomposed corpse was discovered and believed to be infected with the Solanum virus. There were even reports of claw marks around the tomb were the infected person has attempted to escape. Other reports of zombie activity and evidence such as several corpses with their heads severed from their bodies has been discovered in Predynastic Egypt dating back to 3500 B.C. (Friedman, 2007). There is more recent evidence of zombie infections as well.

According to Dr. Sanjeev Krishna of St George's, University of London, one in every three people in Uganda is at risk of contracting a disease referred to as sleeping sickness. There are no known cures for sleeping sickness and its’ symptoms are eerily remiss of the reported behavior of zombies, walking without direction, drooling and staggering, inability to complete even simple tasks, itching skin, aching muscles, sleeplessness and more Most victims of this horrible illness will die, those that do not are sure to suffer irreparable brain damage (BBC News Team, 2005). Of course the ability to become a zombie is apparently not exclusive to humans, in Brazil; scientists are studying colonies of ants that have been infected with the so-called zombie virus, a fungus that takes over and reanimates the corpse of an ant, completely controlling it (Kaplan, 2011). So it is easy to see that zombies do have their place in reality, I mean, we have not even touched on the fact that the toxins found in pufferfish have been successfully proven to work on the nervouse system and that particularly dangerouse drug cocktails involving this toxin have been known to result in zombie like effects; but zombies also serve an important place in various cultures around the world, and while their roots my lie in scientific fact, the interest in them in many cultures is anything but, yet it serves what may be far more important, speaking from a culturally significant standpoint.


Zombies in Haitian Voodoo and African Witchcraft

According to a 2009 paper by Nathaniel Murrell entitled Afro-Caribbean Religions: An Introduction to Their Historical, Cultural, and Sacred Traditions, Zombies play an important role in Haitian voodoo. In the Haitian culture, zombies are recognized as a sort of minion to their masters. Lougawou or Lugbawoo is the name given to the practice of dealing with zombies and ghosts alike (Murrell, 2009). It is believed that voodoo masters enslave the bodies of people to do their bidding, a power that is called upon through ritual much in the same manner as a familiar spirit. The interesting thing is that in the Haitian belief system the use of such a power is viewed exclusively as taboo though it is believed in whole heartedly. It seems those who follow the religious customs of voodoo believed more in gaining the knowledge than actually using it and controlling it and thus it is seen as an evil practice despite the fact that those involved in the priesthood of the religion are encouraged to learn how to do it. Having knowledge of zombies is seen as somewhat of a personal empowerment so long as it is not utilized in any way (Apter, 2002). Apparently Haitians are not the only ones who view the use of zombies as negative thing.

Saharan Africa has been the focus of many zombie related studies. Zombies are a permanent and important fixture in many African societies. They are viewed much in the same way that Haitians view them in that they are believed to be the minions of witches; however, in African culture the focus often varies between the master and the victim. When a loved one dies a strange or untimely death or disappears it is often rumored that they have been taken by a witch and turned into zombies. Zombies in Africa are not believed to consume human flesh, rather, they typically are said to dine on porridge and have no knowledge other than to serve their master and eat. Zombie-ism in African tradition appears to have little to do with knowledge but a great deal to do with power and injustice. Many stories accuse a person in the village who is poor or lazy for being a witch who uses zombies to do their work. Many zombie stories bare a striking resemblance to the stories of the slave trade in that zombie masters are often believed to be using zombies as workers in their field for little or no pay and treating them poorly, not to mention stealing them away from their families. Victims who become zombies are often portrayed as those who wander away from home at night and are easy targets for “witch trains” much like victims of the slave trade and are not privy to proper speaking or technology and live only to serve and eat. Those that do not meet this description are typically those who have met an untimely demise (Niehaus, 2005)..

It is possible that the belief in zombies serves as a reminder and a way to deal with the traumas of the slave days as well as a coping mechanism to ease the pain of those who lose loved ones and give an acceptable explanation to that which could otherwise not be explained. Stories of mothers leaving food out for their zombie children easily lead one to the conclusion that it is a way not to have to say a permanent goodbye, just like stories of the poor who suddenly have high yields in the fields because of zombies probably serve as a way to ease jealousy or even to allow those who did not yield well an acceptable reason to turn against those who did and allow them vengeance There are even cases where entire groups focused horrible enraged mobs on people who were considered to be odd or eccentric, accusing them of witchcraft and having taken zombies with no other evidence aside from the fact that they were different. These “witches were subjected to torturous treatment and sometimes executions as well, not to mention having their homes and belongings destroyed (Stewart and Strathern, 2003). While it may seem unjust, it is probably culturally beneficial to remove the rogues that do not fit in with the rest in order to preserve the group and its practices.


In 2011 the United States Center for Disease Control released a tongue in cheek post entitled Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse which highlighted what the CDC’s role would be should such an occurrence happen as well as what citizens should do to prepare themselves. While mainly for entertainment purposes and to get people to read what the CDC’s role is in a disaster event, the post certainly hits on the popularity of zombies in the media. The interesting thing is that there is actually a basis scientifically for such an epidemic and even more interesting is how many cultures believe they are or have already experienced one. Although in cultures such as Haitian or African zombies serve to fulfill some important cultural needs such as giving reason to the unreasonable or unacceptable, allowing a grieving mother the peace that comes with the notion that her child may come home again, making sense of the senseless and giving justice and empowerment where there was none, for them, zombies and their masters are a real threat that must be faced on a regular basis.


Apter, Andrew (May, 2002) On African Origins: Creolization and Connaissance in Haitian Vodou, American Ethnologist , Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 233-260

BBC News Team (Friday, 15 July 2005) The Disease That Makes People Zombies

Friedman, Renee (Nov. 6, 2007) Zombie Attack at Hierakonpolis , Archaeology, A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Gore-master Staff, (Tuesday, August 4th, 2009) White Zombie released August 4, 1932

Khan, Ali(2011) Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse, A CDC Release

Matt Kaplan (March 3, 2011) New Species Of Zombie Fungus, National Geographic

Murrell, Nathaniel Samuel. (2009) Afro-Caribbean Religions: An Introduction to Their Historical, Cultural, and Sacred Traditions, Temple University Press, p 389

Niehaus, Isak (Jun., 2005) Witches and Zombies of the South African Lowveld: Discourse, Accusations and Subjective Reality, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute , Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 191-210

Stewart, Pamela J, Strathern, Andrew J (2003) Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors and Gossip, Cambridge University Press p 63

© 2012 Myranda Grecinger


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