How American Pop Culture Erased Zombies’ Haitian Roots

October 30, 2015  |  

On the heels of Halloween, The Atlantic reported on the real story behind zombies, the living yet dead creatures that have found a place in our homes and hearts through hit television shows and movies.

Despite zombies becoming a popular staple in American pop culture through the horror genre, there has been little information to reveal how so many people became fascinated with these creatures in the first place. The truth of it is even scarier than the idea of zombies.

The Atlantic revealed that the United States occupying Haiti from 1915-1934 led to the whitewashing of zombification. You see, way before that time, zombies were closely linked to slavery.

Zombie mythology began in 17th-century Haiti when the country was called Saint-Domingue and was colonized by France. African slaves were brought to the country to work on sugar plantations and due to the harsh working conditions, thousands of them died soon after they reached the island. Based on the inhumane work conditions, many Haitian slaves began to believe dying would allow them to return spiritually to Africa so that they could be free in the afterlife. However, the slaves who decided to commit suicide were classified as zombies, people whose souls were trapped in their dead bodies, forced to walk the earth, still enslaved. The Atlantic reports, “the original brains-eating fiend was a slave not to the flesh of others but to his own. The zombie archetype, as it appeared in Haiti and mirrored the inhumanity that existed there from 1625 to around 1800, was a projection of the African slaves’ relentless misery and subjugation.”

When the Haitian Revolution ended French colonialism on the island, the zombie archetype found its way into Haitian folklore and in the voodoo religion. Haitians began to believe zombies were corpses resurrected as shamans or voodoo priests. In the book Mind Hacks by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb, their research found that people with mental illnesses were also labeled as zombies and often mistaken by people as family members who were raised from the dead. And the zombies observed for the various anthropological case studies in Haiti were actually found to be missing persons who found themselves in new towns without any recollection of how they got there. As stated in Mind Hacks, “People with a chronic schizophrenic illness, brain damage, or learning disability are not uncommonly met with wandering in Haiti, and they would be particularly likely to be identified as lacking volition and memory which are characteristics of a zombie.”

Mind Hacks continued by noting that many of these zombies were victims of voodoo sorcerers who made them ingest toxic powders resulting in comas, neurological damage, and paralysis. Stafford and Webb shared the process of zombification, including the use of powders that left “small wounds on the skin surface, through which the tetrodotoxin enters the bloodstream. The victim is pronounced dead and buried alive. A few days later, the sorcerer returns to the burial site and disinters the “body”. The sorcerer then administers another cocktail of drugs that leaves the victim in a permanent state of delirium and disorientation.”

During their occupation, the United States along with the United Nations became profoundly interested in the zombification process after the number of zombie victims continued to increase at a rapid rate. It got so bad that zombification was actually made a crime by the Haitian government in the 19th century under the Haitian Penal Code. It read: “[An] attempt on [a] life by poisoning the use made against a person of substances which, without giving death, will cause a more-or-less prolonged state of lethargy, regardless of the manner in which these substances were used and regardless of the consequences. If the person was buried as a consequence of this state of lethargy, the attempt will be considered a murder.”

According to the authors, a reason for zombification was “punishment for those who violated the laws of the clandestine Bizango societies formed in the mountains by escaped slaves (maroons).” And it is said that sorcerers of voodoo would also use their zombies as free labor or to perform tasks to harm others. But there was another reason the Haitian government dismissed the cultural basis of the practice. It is also the same reason the American entertainment industry erased zombies’ Haitian history from films and TV: escapism and a substantial distraction.

The Haitian government wanted to ease the anxiety of citizens worried about the powers that be reinstating slavery after the revolution. It was a fear that plagued the country during its financially unstable times. By making zombification a crime, the Haitian government took attention away from the possibility of re-enslavement and therefore, didn’t have to address their citizens’ concerns and find economical solutions. Anthropologist Amy Wilentz stated, “After Haitians cast off the French empire in their singular and successful slave revolution in 1804, fear of re-enslavement continued throughout the former colony. Indeed, for economic reasons, several post-revolutionary Haitian leaders came within centimeters of reimposing the system – at the time the world did not yet have many efficient alternatives to the slave-powered economy. Thus the fear of zombification, which is in its historical context the fear of re-enslavement, persisted. No one wanted to be dead, consciousness-less, and working for free for a master.”

And American escapism allows the zombie archetype to transport people from their day-to-day problems and enter a fictional Armageddon where only the strongest can survive while everyone else becomes flesh-eating zombies. At one point, zombies were meant to speak on major issues plaguing society in films and on television, and for Haitians, they represented a state of being that many feared–slavery in the afterlife. But today, they’re all mindless creatures looking for brains to eat. By erasing that history and ignoring those issues, both the Haitian government and American entertainment business continue to overlook the ugly truth about slavery–and continue to capitalize off of it.


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