Zombie in Real Life
A brief discussion of true and false accounts of zombies and zombification.
When thinking of the word “zombie,” much of western society might think of The Walking Dead or at least the type of zombie portrayed in this popular television show: people getting sick, transforming into a society of the undead, hungry for human flesh. However, that is not an accurate description of the real-life zombies—that’s right: real-life zombies. Zombies are not merely fictitious entertainment in the form of movies, video games, or something to dress up as for Halloween. They are a real part of a real society made up of Voodoo practitioners, but they are not like what most westerners would think they would be.
Western view of the zombie:
The real zombies are not rotting monsters who hunger for human brains and flesh. Peduto explains that the first encounter that western societies had with zombies was through the book “Magic Island” by William Seabrook, which led to “a bevy of films” portraying zombies “as man-eating killer[s]” (Peduto 46). This is immensely different than the true behavior and representation of zombies in the Voodoo religion. Zombies are much more similar to the definition of the word “nzambi,” which Naime loosely translates to “spirit of a dead person” (Naime 100-125). Despite their portrayal in fictitious entertainment, these Haitian zombies are by no means physically dead, even though the Haitian penal code of 1835 considers zombification as an act of murder (Peduto 47). Zombies are considered dead not because their hearts have stopped beating, but rather because they have no control of themselves.
In real life, people are zombified due to criminal activity and thus are made slaves, cut off from society. These people are doomed to work with no ability to follow their own will until they die—whereas in western entertainment, zombies are feared and murderous, causing those who remain human to cut themselves off from the zombie invasion.
Entertainment usually portrays the zombification of people to be caused by various forms of medical experiments gone horribly wrong: cures meant for deathly diseases that turn out to be damning, for example. However, in the Voodoo religion zombification is done purposefully. As Peduto states, the Haitians do not fear the zombies, but rather they fear becoming one (Peduto 45-47). It seems that zombification, although real, is used as a scare tactic in Voodoo society to keep people on track.
With this in mind, it is comical in the western mind to think of parents telling their children to be good or the houngan will turn them into zombies. Most western scare tactics seem to be in the form of taking away positive reinforcement, such as telling children that Santa will not give the boys and girls presents if they partake in bad behavior. Yet the Voodoo religion seems to use negative reinforcement through saying that rather than gaining some material toy for being good, they will remain un-zombified.
Origins of the zombie:
It is widely accepted by scholars that the idea of the zombie originated in the practice of and belief in Haitian Voodoo. In “The Mystery of Voodoo,” author Gregory Peduto explains that the word “zombie” was “derived from the Congolese nzambi… a living python employed as a receptacle of the snake god, Damballa Weddo, creator of the world” (Peduto 46). Peduto further explains that this python was known in Haiti as le Grand Zombi. The “model for zombification,” as Naime states in "Haitian Voudou Possession and Zombification: Desire and the Return of the Repressed," is Jean Zombi, “whose brutal murder of whites horrified even the rebels. The hatred engendered in the practice of violently subjugating a people in slavery erupted in the character of the rebel,” (Niame 100-125). The key part of this quote, “subjugating a people in slavery,” forms the model for the Voodoo zombie.
Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist and graduate of Harvard, dominates the discussion and study of the zombification process. He is referenced by both Naime and Peduto, as well as a multitude of others on the topic of Haitian zombies due to his revelation of what induces the zombie-like state. As it turns out, Haitian zombies were the product of pharmacology and religion. Coup poudre, the substance used by houngans (otherwise known as Voodoo priests) in zombification rituals, is made from the exceedingly toxic puffer fish, which happens to be “160,000 times more powerful than cocaine and five hundred times stronger than cyanide,” (Peduto 47). It is no wonder that this poison causes the consumer to go under a death-like coma. Puffer fish venom is known around the world to be highly deadly. On the other hand, one might ask why it is that Haitian zombies behave differently than puffer fish victims elsewhere. Strong belief is held in Davis’ hypothesis that this occurs due to the Haitians’ religion “reinforce[ing] their ideas of zombification. Since practitioners already believed in ritual possession, all that was needed was a ceremony and a psychoactive drug that could convince them of their transformation into the living dead,” (Peduto 47). Their religion seems to act as a sort of hypnosis that makes the poisoned submit to the will of the houngan, or whoever is considered their master.
Purpose behind zombification:
Zombification is practiced in the Voodoo faith as the ultimate form of criminal punishment. Peduto explains that “unlike their Hollywood brethren, the Haitian zombie posed no threat to humans; instead they were soulless slaves who worked a houngan’s plantation.” This punishment, he continues, is “tantamount to robbing a person of their soul” (Peduto 46-47). Naime’s description of zombification is accurate and interesting, as it can contribute to the understanding of how the western idea of the zombie might have emerged. Naime describes zombification as signifying “the true annihilation of the self in a loss of will and a reduction to mere flesh.” She proceeds to state that “the zombi can only serve a human master, much like his slave ancestors were forced to” (Naime 100-125). The idea of remaining alive, yet dead, merely as flesh without will is, while not quite the full description of Voodoo zombies in its simplicity, a possible origin as to how westerners created their own representation of the zombie.
The idea of the Haitian zombie can be classified under a variety of folk categories mentioned in “The Study of American Folklore” by Jan Harold Brunvand. To Haitians, the zombie, itself, is not only a folk belief, but it is very much a reality. The act of zombification is a folk custom performed to punish people for their unforgivable crimes within the Voodoo religion’s folk group. According to Brunvand, a folk custom is “ingrained by social pressure, common usage, and parental or other authority.” This, too, reinforces the classification of zombification as a folk custom or ritual. The information discussed above indicates that one popular saying certainly rings true: a life without purpose is no life at all.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. The study of American folklore: An introduction. Norton, 1998.
Niame. “Haitian Voudou possession and zombification: Desire and the return of the repressed.” Disclosure: A Journal of Social Theory, 14, 2005, pp. 100-125.
Peduto, Gregory. “The Mystery of Voodoo.” History Magazine, (11)5, June
2010, pp. 45-47.