- You would not be watching me here on YouTube if it wasn't for the zombie.
I first saw "Night of the Living Dead" and "Scooby-doo on Zombie Island" around when I was eight, which was either a questionable parenting choice or the best one ever.
And since then, the idea of the reanimated corpse fascinates me.
And yes, I recognize the potential red flags here.
I pursued my degree so that I could study the undead and wrote my dissertation about them.
And now I'm going to take what I've learned and dig even deeper into the long and complex history of the zombie.
Zombies can be broken down into three significant types.
And this October I'm dedicating an entire episode for each one of our undead friends.
We'll talk about the origins of each of these zombies throughout history and uncover why the modern zombie continues to hold such a special place in our hearts.
Or should I say brains.
- And along the way, I'll be talking to some experts to get some special insight.
This three-part YouTube series will culminate in a one hour documentary airing on PBS.
So, let's kick it off with the origin of the entire zombie lore going all the way back to early West African spiritual practices.
(Epic music) I'm Dr. Emily Zarka and this is Monstrum.
You can't talk about the origins of the zombie without talking about the spiritual practice of Vodou.
Vodou is practiced throughout the world.
And the concept of the zombie was born out of this religion.
Voodoo is different from Vodou, although even now the lines between them are consistently blurred in popular culture.
While one could argue that Vodou is the precursor of Voodoo.
It's important to understand that they are distinct and separate religions.
But the original Vodou zombie is a zombie you might not recognize.
We need to look back more than four centuries to early African spiritual practices.
Those legends originated in part from people of West Africa.
When men, women, and children were forcibly taken from their homes, enslaved and shipped around the world.
The Spanish shipped enslaved people to the Island of Hispaniola as early as 1502.
In the 17th century, the French began establishing colonies on the Island as well.
And by 1697, they had obtained control over the Western third.
What is now Haiti and named it Saint Domingue.
Over the course of the 18th century France established the trade settlements of Les Cayes and Port-au-Prince.
With the demand for sugar, tobacco, spice, and coffee in Europe rising, many enslaved Africans ended up on plantations in Haiti where the crops could grow in abundance bolstering France's economy and becoming crucial to its success as a world power.
By the late 1780's, Saint Domingue boasted one third of the total people of the Atlantic slave trade.
And more than 90% of the Island's population was enslaved.
The African people on Saint Domingue came from vastly different geographic, cultural and spiritual backgrounds.
Forced together in Haiti under the horrors of slavery.
They developed a new religion to unite their often disparate views, beliefs and experiences.
Integral to the Vodou religion, is the belief that the human body is merely flesh manipulated by the two spiritual elements that make up the soul, the ti bon ange and the gros bon ange.
The ti bon ange, also called the petit bon ange is the part of the individual able to contact spirits called loas as well as memory, authority and consciousness.
Essentially it is their personality, their uniqueness.
The gros bon ange controls the motor functions of the body, allowing it to move and breathe.
Each of these elements can be stolen.
For practitioners of Vodou, death is a process that takes time.
The soul takes days to move on after death and until the process is complete, both parts of the soul are at risk of wandering or even capture.
This is where the zombie comes in.
While the majority of Vodou priests and priestesses use their ability to commune with and influence the spirits in a positive way.
A spiritual leader who uses their talents for malicious intent is often called a bokor.
However, it's important to note that others like Voodoo priest, divine prince, Taya Mecca argued that bokor is a derogatory term rooted in prejudice.
- It's assumed when you say, "All I've only known it as negative."
We're looking at Haiti and the usage of bokor in Haiti.
Which can be negative.
They promote themselves in a very negative way.
I want it clear that I'm not trying to represent Haitian Voodoo.
That I'm indeed Louisiana, Mississippi Delta, West African Voodoo.
So, that's another reason why I adopt an earned the right to use bokor.
And so, many words including Voodoo were bastardized once we got to this side.
These names, these titles, these lineages, we still fight over them today, particularly on social media.
- Regardless of what the malicious Vodou practitioners are called.
They're identified by their willingness to trap that part of the soul that houses free will, the ti bon ange in a bottle.
It was believed that whoever possesses the bottle controls the body of a deceased person.
Many Haitian and Vodou practitioners believe to this day that zombies are real, albeit rare.
It's important to note, however, that Haitian zombies look nothing like those seen in today's popular culture.
Vodou zombies are simply shells, mindless workers with no emotions, no ability to feel pain, completely subservient to the whims of their master.
They may be brought to this form by administering a poison that causes them to enter a coma-like state in which they are still alive, but appear dead.
The victim is passed off as a corpse, buried and then exhumed from the grave as a zombie.
Zombification took root as an allegory for colonialism, imperialism and oppression.
After all, is it not a threat worse than death, the idea that one's soul could also be enslaved and neither it nor the body could be free?
This is Dr. Kodi Roberts, an associate professor who specializes in the history of African Americans in the US and the intersection of black religions such as Voodoo.
- There's a notion that, well in the slave system, you have no power, right?
You're property, you're owned, your master has complete control of your destiny.
But Voodoo gives you the chance to exert a power over your enslaver that there's no social parallel for.
- [Emily] The Haitian practitioners of Vodou did not fear the zombie itself.
As modern audiences fear the flesh-eating zombies who pursue them across the silver screen and into their nightmares.
The Haitian slaves were terrified of becoming a zombie.
- Voodoo is really a creation out of slavery and enslavement, where they tried to strip away ethnic groups.
What makes you unique, what makes you individual, you all are just product.
And so, that's where it became important.
- From 1791 to 1804, enslaved Africans revolted against their French oppressors.
The violent uprisings eventually led to the Declaration of Haitian independence in 1804.
And slavery was officially abolished there in 1805.
Vodou further evolved in the United States.
When the practices of the enslaved Haitian people brought to the States by French slave owners during the Haitian revolution were subjected to new influences.
- So, the Voodoo came with them, the gumbo mix of West African tradition with indigenous tradition.
And of course with those Eurocentric traditions that we, in some cases were forced to take on, but eventually adopted as sort of a cover in a symbolic representation of something unique to us.
- With Voodoo, people want to put it all into one box.
It has to be one thing, either this is authentic Voodoo or it's not authentic Voodoo.
If they're black people, then this is Voodoo, if they're white people then it's not.
if they're rich people, then it doesn't count, Voodoo's only practiced by poor people in Haiti.
I wish people understood that Voodoo is just as complicated as every other American religion and treated it that way.
- [Emily] At the start of the 20th century, the zombie was still largely unknown to the American public.
But that all changed when in 1915, the United States military occupied Haiti.
As American journalists and Marines returned from Haiti.
They brought stories of the Island with them, including stories of the living dead.
Their exaggerated interpretations of Haitian zombies.
One infamous example is William Seabrook's sensational 1929 travelog "The Magic Island."
He described these dead men working as expressionless with blank eyes like that of a corpse.
This is Dr. Robin Means Coleman, professor and author of "Horror Noire".
- Seabrook is the one who really, I think brings this notion of Voodoo, the vulgar Voodoo, V-O-O-D-O-O back to the States.
He claims that he has gone to Haiti and he has watched this sort of primal, wicked, lustful movement and dance, and it's sensuous and it's uninhibited.
And so, you know, this is saying a little bit about Seabrook too.
And so, this wasn't entirely out of the scope of what we already had a taste for.
So, he's just expanding that.
And we clearly had an appetite for these kinds of stories.
- [Emily] Haiti came to be seen as a place of black magic.
The books and newspaper reports were bad enough.
But America's perception of Voodoo and Vodou got worse in 1932 with the release of the first feature length zombie movie "White Zombie".
In which a love sick man obtains the object of his affections by poisoning her and bringing her back to life as a mindless zombie.
- All of these early films are about, it's really about lust, it's about love, it's about someone who is as yet untouchable and how can I get this person?
Well, what does this mean in the 19 teens, the 20s, or 30s, the 40s, when the thing that is moving about in some ways uninhibited, is black.
- [Emily] It is important to note that the first Zombie ever to grace the silver screen was not black.
Neither was the bokor.
"White Zombie" marks the first instance of white bodies being subjected to Zombification.
- That's the heightened threat.
So, "White Zombie" is a great example of this.
Although there isn't as much of an overt representation of blacks as zombies, right?
But there's still this permeation that this evil, the wickedness of Haiti comes out of Voodoo and has infected, in fact, even white people, right?
Who are now zombies walking around.
- [Emily] "White Zombie"'s release occurred the same year that American Pulp magazine "Strange Tales" published the first zombie narrative set in the United States.
And where else?
A plantation just outside of New Orleans.
The 1932 story, "The House in the Magnolias" by August Derleth, not only demonizes people from Haiti, it shows lingering fears in America by further emphasizing the horrors of slavery as well as equating black bodies with monstrosity.
A painter from Chicago visiting New Orleans discovers a beautiful old house of white wood buried in Magnolias.
Upon knocking on the door he is confronted with a black woman with a gray cast to her skin and eyes like deep black pools, bottomless, inscrutable, and yet at the same time oddly dull.
She remains mute despite his questions, staring at him, unmoving.
A beautiful Creole woman interrupts and states that she's the niece of the plantation owner.
Aunt Abby, whom she describes as a Haitian who left the island some years ago.
She grants him permission to paint the house but on the conditions that he never brings anyone else to the plantation, never tells anyone he's there and never gives aunt Abby any indication he's on the property.
He is forbidden from going anywhere inside the house besides the ground floor, but his curiosity gets the best of him and under the cover of darkness, he explores the house and its surrounding land.
Where he finds black people working the fields in utter silence.
After pressuring aunt Abby's niece, he learns from her that in Haiti, there are many strange beliefs like the zombie, a dead man who has been brought out of his grave and made to live again and to work.
Aunt Abby knows how to create these zombies and keeps the slaves in the cellars during the day.
The niece says that if they are given salt they will know they are dead and will find their way back to their graves.
The painter and the niece resolve to free these people.
They feed the zombies candy with salt and one by one they wailed terribly and run off into the night.
The next day, the house is discovered burned to the ground with aunt Abby inside.
The newspapers report the discovery of putrified remains and half open graves of slaves whose bodies had been stolen long years ago.
And the curious detail that the graves had been half dug by bare fingers as if dead hand seek the empty coffins below.
The blank stares of the first zombies in literature and film were like blank slates upon which white Americans could write their own anxieties and fears.
- Because in the 1930s, you're justifying Jim Crow and segregation, so much like you're using race and religion to justify occupation in Haiti.
You're using something similar to justify segregation in New Orleans.
I would argue that the zombie mythology and that notion of black religion producing these moral evils is tied to that notion of race and backwardness and savagery that is used to justify keeping black people in the position you want them to be in.
Whether that'd be a kind of neocolonialism in Haiti or segregation in New Orleans.
- The Haitian zombies seated reverence to a more violent version of the undead during the mid 20th century.
But popular culture turned its attention back to the original Vodou zombie in the 1980s.
In "The Serpent & The Rainbow" Wade Davis wrote about his travels to Haiti to study Vodou and the claims that its practitioners were capable of creating real zombies through the use of locally developed poisons.
Davis claimed to have discovered two zombie powders, one for causing the appearance of death and the other for reviving the victim.
He was able to obtain eight samples of "before powders".
All of which he claimed included tetrodotoxin, a psychoactive substance taken from a unique puffer fish.
However, later scientific studies of these samples showed little to no tetrodotoxin present.
So, the jury is still out on that one.
- I don't discuss it because one, it is taboo.
It's dangerous, that information is guarded, it's protected, it's only shared with those qualified to handle that information.
So, when you start talking about zombies and the making of zombies, that's a tricky conversation.
- [Emily] Davis' books sparked a renewed interest in Vodou and the original zombie.
It had enough of a public impact that Wes Craven directed a film adaptation.
The movie aimed to prove that Vodou was a real religion or so Craven claimed.
But in reality Vodou was misrepresented as the stuff of horror once again.
- Again, it makes it very difficult to operate in these traditions and feel your humanity is being acknowledged.
People will acknowledge the Voodoo before they acknowledge my humanity and people acknowledge, whether it be as a fear of the Voodoo or their need of something that they think the Voodoo can provide.
But they're still not humanizing me or the tradition in a way that we see every day.
- Zombies may have their nascency in the spiritual practices of the African diaspora, but popular culture's very liberal interpretations of the original idea mutated the creature into something else entirely.
In the next episode we'll look at how the enslaved body, both in mind, spirit and soul became the flesh eating undead.
I'll give you a hint.
"They're coming for you, Barbara."