What it’s about: On movie screens and bookshelves alike, zombies have been a played-out fad for several years now. But the zombie myth goes back more than a century before Night Of The Living Dead, to Haitian mythology, with possible earlier origins either from West Africa or Haiti’s indigenous Taíno people. Zombies have served as a useful metaphor from everything from slavery to consumerism to mindless conformity, but they’re also just plain scary.
Strangest fact: The zombie myth may have some actual scientific basis. American scientist Wade Davis went to Haiti to investigate the myth, and discovered that the combination of tetrodotoxin—a poison found in the pufferfish—and the poison of the datura flower have a curious effect on the victim. First, the poisoned person enters an unconsciousness so deep as to resemble death, and then upon awakening, are numb, partially paralyzed, and extremely susceptible to suggestion. To all appearances, someone poisoned by both agents would die, then rise again, unable to speak, with limited movement, but willing to follow someone else’s orders. This phenomenon probably wouldn’t have had to happen very many times before the zombie myth started to spread.
Biggest controversy: The zombie myth reached American ears from Haiti because, like nearly every country in the Caribbean, the U.S. invaded and occupied Haiti. With WWI raging, but the U.S. still ostensibly neutral, President Woodrow Wilson was worried about a German-Haitian community that controlled most of Haiti’s finances. He was concerned that Germany was looking to take over that country as a toehold into the Western hemisphere. Haiti’s government also owed a lot of money to U.S. interests, and there were widespread fears that, if the government fell, that money might never be paid back. So Wilson sent in the Marines, who occupied the country and set up a new government with a new constitution authored by the then-secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt. While the occupying Americans did build an impressive amount of infrastructure, they excluded Haitians from top posts in government, segregated themselves from the Haitian population, and often brutally suppressed rebellions, which happened more or less unceasingly during the occupation. The occupation was not terribly popular at home, with the NAACP being especially vocal critics, and Congress investigated Wilson’s actions in 1922. But it wasn’t until President Herbert Hoover began to investigate the occupiers’ conduct that a full withdrawal was planned, although Hoover didn’t stay in office long enough to carry it out. He left that to his successor, the man who had written Haiti’s outgoing constitution.
Thing we were happiest to learn: There’s a zombie supervillain. Solomon Grundy, who began as a Green Lantern villain but has battled Superman, Batman, and the rest of the justice league over the years, was a 19th-century merchant who was murdered and thrown into a swamp, only to be resurrected as a hulking zombie.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: People may complain about the “fast zombies” in films like 28 Days Later and World War Z, but rewriting the zombie myth has become a central part of the zombie myth. Haitian zombies were dead people reanimated by a bokor, or sorcerer, and who remained under the bokor’s control. The modern conception of zombies as shambling corpses out for human flesh and/or brains came from George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, although the monsters in that film weren’t referred to as zombies until fans began calling it a zombie movie after the fact. Romero was less inspired by Haitian zombie legends than he was by Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. The monsters in that book are vampires, which in many ways don’t resemble previous vampire legends.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Haitian zombie tradition holds that a zombified person can be cured by feeding them salt. As readers of Mark Kurlansky’s book by that title are well aware, there’s a long and fascinating history behind the only rock that humans eat.
Further down the wormhole: While it’s widely assumed that zombies and other Haitian mythology have their roots in West African folklore, it’s possible the zombie legend comes from the Taíno, the natives of Hispañiola who were effectively wiped out by Christopher Columbus and his men, though many modern-day Caribbeans claim Taíno ancestry. While Columbus’ expedition to the New World had the most historical impact, it wasn’t the first, as he was preceded by several centuries by Leif Erikson and other Norse explorers. We’ll take a look at the Vikings’ attempt to colonize North America next week.