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  • Liam Selhorst

History of...Zombies!

Zombies are undoubtedly creepy. Although, you might not have the constant fear that a zombie apocalypse could break out any day, like I do. For some more… brave survivors it is fun just to think about a survival plan. Luckily, here at Lyon College, we can live the scenario. Every semester the Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) fraternity hosts ZOMBIE TAG! It’s a three week game of zombies versus survivors. Since it isn’t a real apocalypse, many survival methods are made more family friendly. Picture a nerf war. Survivors holding down pathways from class to class, traveling in groups, and every corner a possible trap. That’s just a piece of the survivor experience. As a zombie you have one objective, hunt. Chase, stalk, and tag as many survivors as possible. As fun as it is to hype up zombie tag there won’t be another chance to play until Fall of 2022. In the meantime, let’s learn about the history of zombies.

The modern incarnation of zombies is much more scientific than the creature’s mystical origins. The first incarnation of zombies were not quite zombies so much as undead. In ancient Greece there is archaeological evidence of corpses being pinned to their graves by large stones. We don’t have much legend from the Greeks, But we do have plenty of surviving stories from Haiti. The Hatian zombie is likely a continuation of west african stories that crossed the Atlantic during slave trade. The term zombie itself is likely an amalgamation of terms from West african languages. The words “ndsumbi” meaning corpse in Gabon and nzambi meaning spirit of the dead in Kongo are suspected to be the origin of the modern zombie. Zombie like creatures have been found across west and central african folklore. These stories were taken across the Atlantic to Haiti. The Haitian zombie was not created by a virus but by a soul being trapped in its own body. This trapping of the soul was supposedly because whoever died was unable to reach the afterlife. Therefore they would be eternally trapped, to serve a master or endlessly labor until there was nobody left to work. The Haitian zombie was a creature to be pitied rather than feared.

As Catholic and African ideology intertwined the mythology of zombies changed. This entangling of different religions and lore created a unique religion, dubbed Voodoo. Voodoo zombies were corpses said to have been reanimated by a Bokor, the voodoo equivalent of a sorcerer. These zombies were said to be servants to the Bokor, and help them carry out their dark will. The ability of Bokor to enslave the dead is likely a carry over of the close link between slavery’s oppression and the zombie mythology. Following the American occupation of Haiti in 1915, voodoo lore took root in the American imagination. One of the first examples of zombies in American pop culture is in W.B. Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929). Seabrook’s book detailed his travels to Haiti and exposed Americans to the concept of voodoo and zombies alike. Zombies slowly gained notoriety through works like White Zombie, a film made in 1932.

However, zombies wouldn’t gain a cult-like following for another 30 years. In the Fall of 1968 George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was released. The zombies are slow, human hungry, and not much more than mindless meat puppets that like to snack on the living. This film is a landmark piece of horror. Not only one of the most chilling but also one of the most remarkable horror movies of all time, even if it is “old fashioned” by today’s standards. In the film, zombies are brought back by radiation from an explosion on Venus. Night of the Living Dead put zombies at the forefront of pop culture. It spawned sequel after sequel, parody after parody, and inspired countless new interpretations of zombies.

Zombies slowly became more scientific abominations rather than the mystical malpractice of the Haitian folklore. Many zombies nowadays begin from a virus. Think World War Z, the Maze Runner series, iZombie, and much more. Although not all incarnations of zombies share this viral similarity. In The Last of Us, a 2013 video game, zombies, dubbed infected instead of zombie, are infected by a fungus. There are many, many, more examples of differences of zombie depictions in modern pop culture. Instead of listing different examples and criticisms of the modern zombie, I’m going to encourage you to look into them yourself. Additionally, for those braver than I, I’d recommend looking up “zombie ants.”

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