The zombie, often portrayed as an undead, flesh-eating, decaying corpse, has enjoyed a popularity surge in recent years. Whether they’re devouring their prey in The Walking Dead or getting their groove on in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, zombies dominate pop culture. But are zombies real? Unlike many other monsters—which are mostly a product of superstition, religion and fear— zombies have a basis in fact, and several verified cases of zombies have been reported from Haitian voodoo culture.
A zombie, according to pop culture and folklore, is usually either a reawakened corpse with a ravenous appetite or someone bitten by another zombie infected with a “zombie virus.”
Zombies are usually portrayed as strong but robotic beings with rotting flesh. Their only mission is to feed. They typically don’t have conversations (although some may grunt a little).
Origin of Zombies
The Ancient Greeks may have been the first civilization terrorized by a fear of the undead. Archaeologists have unearthed many ancient graves which contained skeletons pinned down by rocks and other heavy objects, assumedly to prevent the dead bodies from reanimating.
Zombie folklore has been around for centuries in Haiti, possibly originating in the 17th century when West African slaves were brought in to work on Haiti’s sugar cane plantations. Brutal conditions left the slaves longing for freedom. According to some reports, the life—or rather afterlife—of a zombie represented the horrific plight of slavery.
Zombies and Voodoo
Voodoo (sometimes spelled vodou or vodun) is a religion based in West Africa and practiced throughout Haiti and the Caribbean, Brazil, the American South and other places with an African heritage.
Many people who follow the voodoo religion today believe zombies are myths, but some believe zombies are people revived by a voodoo practitioner known as a bokor.
Bokors have a tradition of using herbs, shells, fish, animal parts, bones and other objects to create concoctions including “zombie powders,” which contain tetrodotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin found in pufferfish and some other marine species.
Used carefully at sub-lethal doses, the tetrodotoxin combination may cause zombie-like symptoms such as difficulty walking, mental confusion and respiratory problems.
High doses of tetrodotoxin can lead to paralysis and coma. This could cause someone to appear dead and be buried alive – then later revived.
Real Zombies Reported in Medical Journals
Though it’s rare, there are several credible reports in medical journals of people using these compounds to induce paralysis in people, then revive them from the grave.
A 1997 article in the British medical journal The Lancet described three verifiable accounts of zombies. In one case, a Haitian woman who appeared to be dead was buried in a family tomb, only to reappear three years later. An investigation revealed that her tomb was filled with stones, and her parents agreed to admit her to a local hospital.
In another well-documented case, a Haitian man named Clairvius Narcisse entered a local hospital with severe respiratory problems in 1962. After he slipped into a coma, Narcisse was declared dead was buried shortly thereafter.
But 18 years later, a man walked up to Angelina Narcisse in a village marketplace, insisting she was his sister. Doctors, townspeople and family members all identified him as Clairvius Narcisse, who claimed he had been buried alive, then dug up and put to work on a distant sugar plantation.
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Zombies in Pop Culture
According to The Undead Eighteenth Century by Linda Troost, zombies appeared in literature as far back as 1697 and were described as spirits or ghosts, not cannibalistic fiends.
They arrived on the film scene around the same time as their monster peers, Frankenstein and Dracula, with the 1932 release of White Zombie.
But it wasn’t until 1968 that zombies acquired a cult following of their own with the release of Night of the Living Dead, directed by George Romero. Over the next 15 years, Romero directed two more zombie films, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. As special effects technology improved with each film, the zombies appeared more gruesome and realistic.
From the 1980s on, dozens of zombie films were made. Even Scooby Doo battled zombies in the 1998 film Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island. And the 2013 release of World War Z starring Brad Pitt brought zombie culture to a disturbing new level.
Not surprisingly, television jumped on the zombie bandwagon with shows like iZombie and Helix. But no zombies ever terrified more television viewers than those on The Walking Dead. Each show features a post-apocalyptic zombie feeding frenzy that leaves fans horrified yet unable to look away.
Are Zombies in the Bible?
The modern-day, carnivorous zombie isn’t in the Bible. But there are many references to bodies being reanimated or resurrected which may have inspired zombie myths throughout history.
The book of Ezekiel describes a vision where Ezekiel is dropped in a boneyard and prophesies to the bones. The bones start to shake and become covered with muscle and flesh until they’re reanimated yet “there was no breath in them.”
And the book of Isaiah states, “Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead.”
Moreover, passages abound in the both the Old and New Testaments about the resurrection of saints and sinners in the end times. This may be one reason so many zombie stories are associated with an apocalypse.
Our Fascination with Zombies
Why does the modern world have such a love affair with zombies? History may be to blame, according to Stanford literary scholar Angela Becerra Vidergar.
Vidergar tells Stanford News she believes mankind’s perception of violence took a drastic turn after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. She feels such large-scale disasters cause people to fictionalize their deaths on a mass scale and focus on survival of the fittest, a common theme among zombie narratives.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees. They took advantage of zombie mania and created a “Zombie Preparedness” website to motivate people to prepare for disasters and offer tips on how to survive a zombie apocalypse and other catastrophes. The site was a huge hit.
Whether you’re a fan of zombies or the thought of running into one causes you to sleep with one eye open, they’re part of modern pop culture. Although the zombie myth has a basis in fact, today’s zombies have taken on a life of their own.
Haiti and the Truth About Zombies. University of Michigan.
How to Make a Zombie (Seriously). Live Science.
Stanford Scholar Explains Why Zombie Fascination is Very Much Alive. Stanford News.
Zoinks! Tracing the History of Zombies from Haiti to the CDC. NPR.
Zombie Burials? Ancient Greeks Used Rocks to Keep Bodies in Graves. Live Science.
Zombies. University of Michigan.
Zombies and Tetrodotoxin. Skeptical Inquirer.
The Undead Eighteenth Century. Linda Troost.
Zombie apocalypse a coup for CDC emergency team. Washington Post.