With season five of AMC’s hit show The Walking Dead having concluded in the spring of 2015, one must reflect on how the zombie-horror genre has come to be so prominent in American popular culture. Not only has there been numerous films, novels, and television shows – both mainstream and underground – on the subject, there are even “zombie-infested” 5K’s happening around the country and all around the world. Though The Walking Dead attracts millions of weekly viewers and will mostly likely be back for another season soon, most of the fans of the zombie-horror genre – besides the hardcore horror fanatics – probably don’t know the true origin and history of the zombie legend.
The Oxford English Dictionary states that the origin of the zombie myth can be traced back to West Africa. First recorded in the English language in 1819, the word “zombie” is the product of a Congo language, linguistically evolving from the Kikongo words “zumbi” (translated as “fetish”). “Zombie” was also originally used to reference a snake-god of the West African voodoo religion. “When these peoples were taken as slaves to Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean during the 18th and early 19th centuries, they brought their religious beliefs and practices with them,” (“What is the origin…”). UC Irvine professor Amy Wilentz believes the zombie genre to be a “very logical offspring of New World slavery,” (qt. in Gandhi). The institution of slavery in Haiti was so cruel, says Wilentz, that, to the slave, death was the only real escape.
Suicide was the slave’s only way to take control over his or her own body … And yet, the fear of becoming a zombie might stop them from doing so … This final rest — in green, leafy, heavenly Africa, with no sugarcane to cut and no master to appease or serve — is unavailable to the zombie. To become a zombie was the slave’s worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand. (qt. in Gandhi.)
Zombies and slavery have been associated with one another in the United States since it first appeared in “The Unknown Painter,” a short story that was first published in the Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal and subsequently reprinted in the American Alton Telegraph in 1838. The story, according to an essay on the evolution of the zombie in popular culture, was evidently popular among the American readers, with many different versions of the story printed in local newspapers across the country. Maximilian Schele de Vere, a linguistic scholar, would later define a zombie as “a phantom or a ghost, not infrequently heard in the Southern States in nurseries and among the servants,” (qt. in Gandhi).
In 1929, the word found its way into the American mainstream culture after author William Seabrook wrote a book, The Magic Island, about the voodoo worshippers he “witnessed” in Haiti – with numerous film scholars holding that White Zombie, a 1932 horror film, was based upon the work of Seabrook. George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead is now considered a staple in the zombie-horror genre. Not only did it introduce zombie-horror to audiences worldwide, it became a social commentary on the racial tension of the 1960s in America as Romero cast Duane Jones, a black actor, as the film’s hero.
This craze is certainly entering the mainstream, and to conclude, here is a perfect example of how it is becoming part of mainstream American society: Recently, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention attempted to exploit the zombie craze by publishing a page on their website concerned with “zombie preparedness.” Dr. Ali Khan, the Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, states, “If you are generally well-equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse, you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake or terrorist attack,” (qt. in Gandhi). Due to its popularity, the page crashed soon after posting, (Gandhi).