A Note Of Warning: The topic I discuss this week may not be suitable for listeners under the age of 13.
For the first episode of season three of Strange Origins, I deep dive into the history behind Zombies. From werewolf/vampire/ghoul hybrids to the shores of Haiti, the idea of what zombies are has taken on a thousand different forms. That was, until the golden age of monster movies and Hollywood horror, where zombies became something more than flesh-eating, slow-walking creatures from the grave.
This week also features a trailer for the podcast Keep It Weird. Be sure to check them out if you crave even more spooky stories in your earbuds! Follow them @ Keepitweirdcast on Instagram.
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- Background Music: ES_Altostratus - Franz Gordon & ES_A Heart Made of Yarn - Franz Gordon
Hello my friends, and welcome back to season three of your favorite spooky history podcast, Strange Origins. I’m super excited to get back to discovering the history behind everything spooky, especially now that I have a new microphone to play around with. I took a short break to work on this new season, fine-tune my Patreon, and a whole new show called American Mythos, but all the while I did find myself feeling like something was missing. I can confirm now that that missing thing was Strange Origins.
I want to take a minute to thank everyone who has listened to this deep into Strange Origins and especially to those who donated to my Patreon page. If you haven’t already listened, just last week I published my first episode of American Mythos, which is a fictional audio drama following a student who travels to each of the states of the U.S. discovering the different mythological creatures that exist there. While the first episode is free for everyone to listen to, the rest of the episodes will be Patreon exclusive for $2 a month. I plan on publishing Strange Origins two weeks out of the month and American Mythos the other two so if you want to hear more mythological goodness, be sure to head to Patreon.com/FascinatingProductions.
The new show isn’t the only perk, as I also will be offering exclusive posts, behind-the-scenes looks, and merch to those who want to support this podcast. Also, after an Instagram poll I found an overwhelming amount of you loved the idea of receiving a curated, haunted-looking object in the mail, so be sure to check out my site if that’s something you would be interested in.
And as always, be sure to follow my Instagram at StrangeOriginsPodcast for updates on episodes, polls, and hilarious spooky memes. For those that already follow, thank you for the incredible amount of likes and support I’ve been receiving lately.
Now that some of the housekeeping is done, let’s get on to the episode.
To start off this new season I wanted to ease myself in with a subject we are probably all pretty acquainted with. You’ve seen them in The Walking Dead, the Resident Evil franchise, Warm Bodies, Zombieland. They have even jumped genres and were recently introduced in the Jane Austen world with Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. And of course, Zombies are extremely popular in literature. Stephen King has done his fair share of zombie novels, first with 1990s Home Delivery, then in 2006 with Cell which is about an artist treking from Boston to Maine during a zombie apocalypse referred to as the pulse. World War Z was also a fantastic novel by Max Brooks, about a U.N. Investigator traveling the world in an attempt to save his family from a zombie pandemic.
Honestly, there seems to be a new book, movie, or TV show about zombies every year. In 2014 alone there were 55 zombie-related projects going on in Hollywood. The reason for that is simply because they are a fantastic subject. The idea that everyone around you could suddenly turn into flesh-eating monsters leaving you the lone hero is just good storytelling. And I think that's why people use it so often. It's a concept that forces us to contemplate whether we personally believe we could make it in a world where society completely crumbled to the ground.
So where exactly did the concept of zombies come from? And what is it about zombies that are so fascinating that people just can't stop using them?
According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the word zombie first popped up around 1810 after Robert Southey, a historian, mentioned it in a book about the history of Brazil. Back then it was spelled without the e at the end, And it wasn’t used to describe exactly the type of zombie that we are familiar with today. Some believe that the word also originated with the Kongo words for ghost or revenant. A Kimbundu-to-Portuguese Dictionary from 1903 also signs the words nzombie as being quote “a Spirit that is supposed to wander the Earth to torment the living.”
Zombies & Voodoo
In the early twentieth century, the U.S. occupied Haiti for two decades. While there, there grew a fascination with voodoo or the so-called magic of enslaved Africans. During this period, a writer by the name of W. B. Seabrook went to report on the occupation in writing but found himself much more drawn to the idea of voodoo, than anything else he was supposed to write.
He later published a book titled The Magic Island, which is by today’s standards was extremely insensitive to the spiritual worship and religion of kidnapped slaves, and also pretty inaccurate in its assumptions about the purposes of what he referred to as quote “black magic” of a “primitive culture.”
W.B. Seabrook was known for his eccentric nature. He published articles in every popular magazine of the time, including The New York Times, and traveled the globe for the next sensational story to tell. In the 1920s, after a trip to West Africa, he wrote about coming across a tribe who partook in cannibalism and joining in with them. Later on, though he admitted that after the tribe didn’t let him join, he obtained some samples from a hospital and went about cooking it himself.
The nature of his book written about Haiti gathered as much interest as his other pieces and was soon popular in the U.S. One chapter, in particular, titled Dead Men in the Cane Fields, introduced the concept of the zombie.
In the book, a zombie was described as a quote “soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life.” In the story, the zombies are controlled by a sorcerer, called a Bokor, who uses them for his own benefit. The sorcerer would use a deadening brew, or a poison made of pufferfish extract that would make their victim look like they were dead. After family members would bury who they thought was deceased, the bokor would dig them up and force them to do their bidding. They would be drugged with deliriants that would put them into a dreamlike state, where they could easily be controlled.
Their captor would make them perform labor or menial work, much like Golems did in Europe at around the same time. They didn’t crave human flesh at that point, but they were simply slaves. This is just one version of the story, though, as other stories state that zombies were dead bodies whose souls departed, but whose bodies the Bokors used for hard work.
It didn’t take long for Zombies to enter the Hollywood mainstream, as moving pictures were becoming extremely popular and scriptwriters were hungry for new material. It was also at this time that the Monster craze had hit U.S. cinemas, and Dracula and Frankenstein were major hits. It was then that the first Zombie movie ever made was created. White Zombie was a film that drew a lot of inspiration from W.B.Seabrook’s The Magic Island, and which went on to inspire future pop culture. The modern-day musician and filmmaker Robert Cummings became so fascinated with the film that he legally changed his name to Rob Zombie.
White Zombie was set in Haiti and starred Bela Lugosi, who you might recognize as playing Dracula in the black and white films. He plays a Voodoo sorcerer who helps out a plantation owner in turning his love interest into a zombie so that she can’t escape his love.
After that, a slew of zombie movies hit the big screen, but all of them took inspiration from Seabrook’s interpretation of Haitian Voodoo Magic. Even Disney came up with their own iteration in the form of Bombie the Zombie, who first appeared in the Voodoo Hoodoo comic strip in 1949. In the strip, Bombie was reanimated by an African Voodoo sorcerer and sent on a mission to poison Scrooge McDuck.
But still, there weren’t a whole lot of zombies that looked like what we are familiar with today.
It took about forty years for Goerge Romero to hit the scene, and in 1968, he directed Night of the Living Dead, which is probably one of the most famous zombie movies of all time, and a classic in the horror genre. In Night of the Living Dead, the model of slow walking, rotted, brain-eating monster that we know of today was born. They lost the need for magic to exist, and it was no longer necessary that they needed an owner. Instead, they became much more terrifying, much more uncontrollable. That’s because Romera took more inspiration from Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend than from The Magic Island. In I am Legend, a man appears to be the sole survivor of a worldwide apocalypse caused by disease, and in that novel, the zombies are technically zombies, but rather vampires, or ghouls, which were inspired by older stories of the undead.
Ancient Zombie Stories
Some historians trace the idea of zombies all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia. Written around 2300 B.C., the Descent of Ishtar chronicles a few stories, one of which is the goddess Inanna’s descent to the underworld in an attempt to overtake the domain of her sister. There are two versions of the story, the Sumerian, which is much longer, and much more detailed, and the Akkadian.
To make a long story short, in the Sumerian story Ishtar is only allowed back to Earth if her husband and sister in take turns spending time in the underworld, resulting in the seasons of summer and winter experienced by mortals. It’s a story akin to Persephone and Hades in Greek Mythology.
In the Akkadian version of the story, Ishtar is rejected by Gilgamesh, the main character in the epic, and someone who has a lot in common with the Greek character of Hercules, just to give you some context. In a fit of rage Ishtar asks her father for a creature called the Bull of Heaven that she can attack Gilgamesh with. When her father says no, she threatens him, saying that she will quote "break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts; there will be confusion [i.e., mixing] of people, those above with those from the lower depths. I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living; and the hosts of the dead will outnumber the living."
In the Sumerian version, instead of bringing up the dead to eat food like the living, though, the quote was that she would raise up the dead to eat the living.
The Epic of Gilgamesh would go on to greatly influence all other major literature and oral storytelling. In Greek Mythology the Vrykolakas (Vry-kollic-us) were creatures that morphed from meaning werewolf to revenant, to vampire, through thousands of years. The Greeks originally believed that a person could become a vrykolakas after death if they had lived in a sacrilegious way, were excommunicated, were buried in an unconsecrated grave, or ate the meat of a sheep that had been wounded by a wolf or a werewolf. In some versions of the story, the Vrykolakas was a werewolf that could even transform into a vampire, but still keep its fangs, its hairy psalm, and glowing eyes.
In other stories, the Vrykolakas were more cannibal than vampire or werewolf, and had a taste for human livers, in particular, much like Hannibal in the Silence of the Lambs, who preferred to eat it with fava beans and a nice (kee-ant-ee) Chianti.
Because of the widespread belief that these creatures became more powerful if left alone, many family members and loved ones were terrified to leave their deceased alone and began to take precautions to keep their dead from rising from their graves. This was done in a lot of different ways, each one more gruesome than the other, including impaling, beheading, cutting into pieces, nailing them into their coffins, and creating. Some excavated bodies have been found to even have been pinned down by heavy objects such as pots, large rocks, or millstones. This was only to be done on Saturdays, as according to legend, that is the only day Vrycolakas rest in their grave.
Essentially, Vrykolakas was described as a form of a ghoul, which is just a cool way of saying they were the undead who rose up to feed on the flesh or souls of the living.
So that begs the question; could zombies really exist? According to medical journals, technically, yes? Kind of. While getting bit or scratched by someone with a disease is a great way to contract that disease, there are not any cases of it turning into an apocalypse as we see in zombie films. But there are cases where people have either been drugged into becoming zombie-like people or have certain psychiatric disorders that cause them to believe they are dead.
Much like what was reported to have happened in W.B. Seabrook’s The Magic Island, a man named Clairvius Narcisse was said to have been kidnapped and forced to work at a sugar plantation in Haiti in 1962.
Eighteen years after his supposed death, Clairvius walked up to his sister and gave her information that only a family member would know in order to convince her that he was her brother.
It turned out that eighteen years before, Clairvius had gone to a hospital complaining of a fever, fatigue, and of spitting up blood. He was pronounced dead three days later and kept in cold storage for about a day. He was then buried by his family and was conscious but paralyzed during his burial. He even stated that a scar on his left cheek had been caused by a nail being driven through the casket during his burial.
After that he had been dug up by his own brother, the person he said had drugged him and sent him to the plantation. It’s not known what his brother’s reasons for doing this were. Some state that Clairvius had abandoned his children and was punished for that crime, while others state that his brother and he quarreled over land and inheritance. When revived he was given a paste made of a drug that causes hallucinations and memory loss, and he was sent to work on a sugar plantation. It was only when his captor died that he was allowed to go home. His story was corroborated by two other women who had had a similar experience, stating that they too, had been transformed into zombies and sent to work on a sugar plantation.
According to modern medicine, being drugged and sold isn’t the only way to become a zombie. While extremely rare, with only about 200 cases having been reported worldwide, Cotards Syndrome is a psychiatric disorder that can cause people to believe they are dead. It can be caused by dementia, encephalopathy, epilepsy, or Parkinsons’ disease. It usually also happens to people in their mid 50’s who have suffered from other mental health problems, like depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. It usually causes people to fully believe that they are the walking dead, that they are putrifying, or that they no longer have certain limbs, blood, or even internal organs. In some cases, most likely in those that are schizophrenic, the belief will grow after voices in their head tell them they are dead or dying.
One woman described as Madamoiselle X by her doctor was completely convinced that she no longer needed to eat because she was “condemned to eternal damnation and could not die a natural death.” It wasn’t long after that she eventually succumbed to starvation. Thankfully, Cotard’s Syndrome is just that, a syndrome, and can be fixed by managing the initial disorder that causes it.
What Are Zombies Meant To Symbolize?
With films becoming more and more action-packed or comedy filmed, we’ve evolved from the slow-moving ghouls of the centuries before to a genre of zombies called the fast zombie or the running zombie. They also are much more intelligent, much more aggressive, or much more aware of their surroundings. This has become especially prevalent in the video game industry, in the Resident Evil and House of the Dead franchises. Lately, there has also been born a subsect of the zombie film where zombies are mediums for comedic acts or even love interests, such as in Shawn of the Dead and Warm Bodies. It really is a big departure from the original zombie lore that was based on appalling acts of slavery and dehumanization.
From a sociological standpoint, zombies are a great vessel for education. They are an evil that can easily become a stand-in for anything that has served as a threat to humanity as a whole, including humanity itself. The story of a zombie overtaking could symbolize the loss of free will, the fear of nuclear, technological, or biological war, or even the dangers of capitalism, politics, racism, or unavoidable disease. Lately, zombies have become a fear of mortality, and of the fact, death and decay are an unavoidable part of existence.
The fear of zombies is the fear that we don’t have control over our surroundings, and we too, under no fault of our own, are victims of circumstance. That’s why the idea of the hero in zombie stories is so enthralling. In a society that rewards the conformist, it takes, please excuse the pun, guts, to be anything different.
Thank you so much for listening to thirty-one episodes of Strange Origins, my friends. Stay safe out there, be the good in the world, and don’t forget to Keep It Strange.