In 1932, Bela Lugosi played a Voodoo priest in ‘White Zombie’, and the undead became a part of film history and a cultural phenomenon that has grown into a major industry. For more than eighty years, interpretations of a zombie apocalypse have been a perennial feature of films, books and games, in plots that grow in complexity to reflect scientific and social development.
However, the image of the zombie, bereft of soul and free will, is not a product of modern popular culture. The Haitian religion of Vodoun has been well-documented and is known widely as the source of media interpretations of zombies, but the undead are folkloric creatures in cultures around the world.
Chinese folklore recognises the Jiang Shi as creatures of the grave. They are thought to be either old corpses that have resisted the process of decomposition, or freshly dead corpses that have become re-animated before interment. This often happens when the corpse is struck by lightning, which brings to mind the story of Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s novel. These creatures come out at night, shunning daylight by hiding in dark, deserted places. Their purpose is to steal the qi, or life force from the unwary living.
An unusual feature of Jiang Shi is their mode of movement. They don’t walk or even stumble along, but hop from place to place. One theory of the origin of this bizarre feature is the ancient Taoist practice of returning bodies home if people died when working away from the family village. This was particularly relevant in Xiangxi province, where men regularly left the countryside to find work elsewhere. When they died, the family would hire a Taoist priest to return the body the place of the ancestors, so that it wouldn’t be lonely.
A brisk trade was established in the transportation of bodies, and priests developed a cost-effective way of working. They transported the bodies in bulk, travelling by night in order to keep the sight of so many corpses from the general population. It is the mode of transport that may have given rise to the ‘hopping’ nature of Jiang Shi. Bodies were stacked, upright and close together, then held together by lengths of bamboo along each side of the stack. The firmly tied line of corpses was then carried on the shoulders of two porters, one at the front and one at the back, led by a bell-ringing priest. As the macabre procession moved through the countryside, the flexible bamboo caused the corpses to bounce up and down, as if they were hopping in unison. Hopping zombies are not just found in China, but also in the folklore of Korea and Japan, exhibiting similar characteristics to the Chinese Jiang Shi.
In Hindu folklore, the vetala is an evil spirit, searching for a corpse to inhabit. Vetalas can be ‘wild’, totally free of control, searching cemeteries and cremation grounds for a suitable corpse. They are looking for vulnerable hosts, where the corpse has been left unattended, or where funeral rites have not been carried out properly. There are also vetalas that are subject to the will of Buddhist necromancers, bound by his rituals to a corpse of his choosing.
The zombie of Haiti are intimately bound up with social and political turmoil that this small country has undergone since plantation slaves revolted and took control of the island at the end of the 18th century. Misinterpretation of the practices of Vodoun by Western media has given us the image of the gruesome zombie of film and television. A creature to be feared and killed. The Haitian zombie come from the traditions of African slaves, merging with some Christian aspects to produce a human form without free will, whose very soul is controlled by a Vodoun priest. The history of enslavement echoes in this manifestation of the undead. In the West we fear the zombie, but in Haiti, the fear is of becoming a zombie.
Various theories exist concerning the creation of Haitian zombie, including the use of a neurotoxin, Tetrodotoxin, found in certain species of puffer fish. Most sources agree that any successful attempt to turn a living person into a zombie depends on that person believing in Vodoun and the existence of zombie. Many researchers have investigated Haitian zombie, but there is a deep-seated culture of privacy that precludes any definitive description or explanation of Vodoun and its practices.
The fascination with zombies shows no sign of diminishing. The image of a body with awareness but without free will, without a soul, speaks to the deepest of human fears. It is the stuff of nightmares, played out through hundreds of scenarios in film and literature. From past myths and primal fears, the zombie has emerged as a modern monster, reflecting a concern with apocalyptic issues that permeate current culture.