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The History and Origin of Zombies

Updated on March 18, 2014
Why are zombies such a fascinating tradition?
Why are zombies such a fascinating tradition? | Source

In the past few years zombies have definitely inspired and captured our imagination. TV shows, movies and books are filled with our favorite un-dead characters.

People dress up like zombies, practice zombie survival and discuss the pros and cons of different defense methods.

But how did this zombie craze get started? Why are we so fascinated with them now?

Here is a look at the probable origin of the zombie tradition in the United States.

Nzambi

Some scholars believe the modern term of "zombie" comes from the Kongo term for the spirit that has left a dead body--nzambi.

But the origin may be even deeper than that.

Slaves may have brought the belief and customs of the nzambi with them. Many slaves that were enslaved in European countries and the United States believed that the only escape from slavery was death, where their spirit would be free. But some lived in fear of that death turning them into a zombie-like creature--forced to roam the earth mindlessly.

According to Davis in an October 2013 Sunday Times article, there is a tradition among Haitian VooDoo priests of giving people a hallucinogenic drug that makes them act like zombies--unable to think clearly for themselves---and that they are then enslaved for manual labor.

The term for that cocktail of hallucinogens? Zombie Cucumber.

Cute Song To Explain Modern Celebrations of Moko Jumbie

Jumbie

The West African term for ghost is jumbie which literally means the spirit of ghosts. The term zombie may actually come from this word or a combination of nzambi and jumbie.

The celebration and belief in the jumbie is a tradition that has continued up to the modern incantations of zombies. Even the popular, zombie themed TV Show The Walking Dead has a song called "The Zumbie Jamboree" included in its soundtrack.

From this older tradition comes the Moko Jumbie (meaning God Ghost).

In West African tradition the Moko Jumbie would walk through a village on stilts looking for bad people including disobedient children. Their height was supposed to give them power. It may have been a form of a morality tale---brought to life---to scare people into behaving.

The Moko Jumbie was thought to protect the village from all types of evil. So while they were scary, their vengeance was supposed to only be inflicted on those deserving it.

This tradition can still be observed today. Ever seen the stilt walkers at Caribbean-inspired Carnival parades? It's a tribute to the Moko Jumbie.

Zonbi

The earliest American usage for the word zombie may come for Hatian Creoles in Louisiana according to zombie author Brad Steiger.

The original word that these native people used was "zonbi" which means a dead body is once again living but it has no "speech or free will" (Steiger)

The use of this term in the United States can be traced back to the early 1870's.

According to Haitian tradition, the belief in returning from the dead as a mindless corpse is strong and the dead were often buried face down so that they would not be able to follow the serpent god, Damballah Wedo--part of Voodoo custom.

So the belief in dead bodies rising to do harm without cognizance is a strong tradition among these immigrants.

According to Steiger, some contend that "zonbi" is just another name for this god of Voodoo folklore.

The Zombie Jamboree

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead, the quintessential zombie flick, broke all kinds of ground. But is it also the start of our modern fascination with all things zombie?

Filmmaker George Romero indicates that some of his earliest work was in shooting film footage for Mister Roger's Neighborhood and he quips that perhaps Mister Rogers, and not his film, is the real start of the zombie craze.

Romero tells about shooting a sequence in the 60's of Mister Rogers getting his tonsils out and tells in a documentary about the making of the movie that the footage "remains the scariest thing I ever made" (Horton).

Night of the Living Dead might have helped to push the modern, zombie fascination.
Night of the Living Dead might have helped to push the modern, zombie fascination. | Source

The film itself was in response to the Vietnam War---a time when television brought to American screens the true violence and bloodiness of war---something Americans had been mostly privileged to not experience firsthand for over a century.

Until the TV cameras brought it home, it was mostly an abstract concept, understood from the stories and carefully filmed news propoganda (and only truly understood by the American soldiers who experienced it).

The film also broke ground by casting a black man, Duane Jones, as the hero of the film---piercing through the racism and civil rights struggles the country was still reeling from.

But at the heart of the film and when you strip away all these important and culturally significant components, you get the first modern film that took the concept of brainless, people-eating zombies and pushed the idea into popular culture.

Modern Zombies

The modern zombie phenomenon has captured the fascination of so many people. It has inspired clubs, games, movies, tv shows and conferences.

There are Zombie Walks all over the country where participants dress up like zombies and walk together down closed off city streets or chase willing participants for fun and for charities.

Zombies vs. Humans games have cropped up on college campuses all of the country where college students meet with Nerf Guns and try to hunt down all the zombie players before the take them as their next victim.

There are even zombie flash mobs where groups of people dress up like zombies and take over a public space for a few moments.

Zombies vs. Humans is a fun game played on college campuses and other places.
Zombies vs. Humans is a fun game played on college campuses and other places. | Source

Since human beings first began to understand their own mortality, fascination with death, afterlife, spirits, ghosts and the undead have been a part of the experience.

While the origin of the word zombie may be mixed or unclear, the modern traditions stem from our continued fascination with what happens to us in the world beyond our own understanding and consciousness.

References

  • Bennett, S. A., Phillips, C., & Moore, N. (2009). Moko Jumbies: Dancing Spirits from Africa. Arts & Activities, 144(5), 24-25.
  • Horton, R. (2013, October 18). Documentary tells how 'Living Dead' changed horror movies. Daily Herald, The (Everett, WA).
  • Steiger, B. (2010). Real Zombies, the Living Dead, and Creatures of the Apocalypse. Detroit: Visible Ink Press.
  • (2013, October 27). ZOMBIE HISTORY. ZOMBIES VS VAMPIRES. HOW TO KILL A ZOMBIE. Sunday Times, The (Johannesburg, South Africa).

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    • cperuzzi profile image

      Christopher Peruzzi 3 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      I loved this article. Great work on true zombie history.

      Few people realize that Frankenstein's monster, in many respects, was a surgically altered zombie. That was the reanimation of dead tissues combined with an external power source with a brain transplant. Literature is littered with such entities. You can work from Mary Shelley's "modern Prometheus" to H.P. Lovecraft's "Herbert West—Reanimator".

      The one thing that most of the myths can agree on (including Stephen King's Pet Semitary) is once something is dead, it doesn't quite come back intact. There is a corruption of the mind, body, spirit, or soul. And while we mere mortals know not to "tamper in God's domain" (or as Bela Lugosi would say, "temper in Cot's lomein") there is something that draws every writer to make some reckless scientist do another attempt.

      Great article!

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 2 years ago

      Some fascinating zombie history. Thanks!

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