Monday, January 12, 2015

The Origin of Zombies

I promised Zombies in last week's post, since Zombies have appeared in several piratical works. What are Zombies, and where do the Zombie stories come from?

Once again, it all starts in the Caribbean. In our previous post, we discussed how Vodou is a conglomeration of African folk religions, forcibly transported to the New World and melded together by shared slavery. The Bokor or priest/priestess communed with the spirits, practiced healing arts (both spiritual and medicinal) and was a center of the slave community.

However, human nature being what it is, sometimes people want to bring bad luck to one another. When this happens, the individual could work certain charms themselves, or they could pay the Bokor to work spells on a higher level. Some Bokors did this kind of thing regularly, others did not. It wasn't seen as a big deal, either way.

One of the most powerful spells that could be worked was to create a Zombie (zonbi in the Haitian Creole language). According to legend they did this by digging up the body of a recently deceased person (sometimes poisoned or cursed to death by the Bokor), treating it with special drugs, and bringing it back to life.

This Zombie would then work for the Bokor or the person who had paid for the spell. The Zombie had no mind to speak of, but it could do certain repetitive tasks, and it never suffered from hunger or became tired. A Zombie would turn the mechanism that ground sugar cane, or chop cane stalks endlessly. It never needed rest, and ate only a small amount of a special mixture prepared by the Bokor.

What made this so terrible? After all, the deceased wasn't suffering. The soul had gone on to the next world, and the mind was not re-animated by the magic.  I suspect that the greatest horror was linked to the appalling conditions that the slaves worked under. Constantly undernourished, unsheltered and overworked, death must have seemed like the only release. How terrible to learn that, even after death, they must continue to work?

There were also stories of men who, turned down by a woman, paid to have her turned into a Zombie to become that man's sexual slave. While this would be horrible for the woman, it didn't tend to work out very well for the man either. Killing a woman you care for, re-animating her corpse, and then having sex with the unresponsive husk was more likely to bring madness and regret than pleasure.

How did this sort of thing happen? To the inhabitants of the island, and even to their masters, the simple word "magic" explained it all.  But the modern person wants more information.

A 1962 case sheds some light. A man named Clairvius Narcisse claimed that, 20 years before, he had been poisoned by a Bokor. He fell into a trance and was presumed dead, and buried. (Because of the heat and lack of embalming, Haitian burials take place within 24 hours of death, often in as little as 12.)

Clairvius awoke in his coffin, was dug up and given a drug which made him confused and suggestible, then taken to a sugar plantation and put to work. He worked on the plantation for two years, then came back to himself somewhat and escaped, along with other workers who had been treated similarly. Still disoriented and far from home, he wandered as a homeless beggar for 18 years, before stumbling back to his home village, where he recognized his sister.

The case was investigated by several Americans, who suggested that a neurotoxin created from a local toad was the original drug which put Clairvius into his coma. Then a plant extract called datura might have been used to keep him compliant. What did the plantation owners have to gain? Free labor. All it cost was 20 years of a human life.

At first I wondered how the African slaves, recently come to the islands, could have knowledge of these drugs. However, more careful reading reminded me that they were confined with, and learned from the last of the Native islanders. The native population had studied local animals and plants for centuries, and taught their skills to the newcomers.

Whether raised by magical or mundane means, slaves feared being made into Zombies. For this reason they buried their dead as close to the homes of the living as possible, or barring that, at a crossroads (symbol of the meeting place or life and death) or even in the middle of a street, where traffic could be assumed to prevent grave-robbing.

Europeans were fascinated, and more than a little afraid of the African magic. In places like New Orleans, where people of color became free, Vodou became a bit of a tourist attraction. But in Haiti, it remained a slave religion, heathen and dangerous.

Writers and film makers took advantage of this exotic legacy. Many Americans were first introduced to Zombies in the 1932 film The White Zombie, featuring Bela Lugosi as the evil Zombi-making magician. Quickly cobbled together after the success of Dracula, the movie featured an over-the-top plot and bad acting.

Furthermore, it suffered from the fact that classical Zombies aren't very frightening. After all, they are workers who do what they are told. Creepy? Oh, yes. Creepy as anything. But not very scary. It wasn't until 1968, and Night of the Living Dead Zombies became scary. But the frights are entirely invented. Classic Vodou Zombies don't eat people.

Next week - Voodoo Dolls

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