There is a law still in effect in the Haitian criminal code that dates back to 1883, making it illegal to try to turn someone into a zombie. The word “zombie” in fact, comes from “nzambi,” a word that means “spirit” in the voodou religions of Haiti and the African diaspora, but the Haitian zombie has travelled a long and troubled road to become everyone’s favourite Halloween ghoul.
In Haitian folklore, a zombie is an animated corpse with lack of cognition or free will, whose soul is said to be imprisoned and possessed by magical means, and whose body is controlled by its master. The symbolism of slavery in this concept is impossible to ignore, shedding light on how European slave drivers, plantation owners and colonial powers used the fear of “zombification” amongst Haitian people; the fear of being trapped in their enslaved bodies forever, to discourage suicide amongst the workforce. Despite France being the first country to abolish slavery, French plantation-owners worked their African slaves so hard, the rate of death of slaves at Haiti’s Saint Domingue plantations was higher than anywhere else in the Western hemisphere. Fictional horror was born from real-life horror.
To this day, there are still vodou practitioners in Haitian communities that maintain there is a powerful elixir; call it a potion or a drug; that can turn the living into Zombies. (Vice media went to Haiti in 2012 to investigate the subculture in a six part series).
In the 1920s, during the US military occupation of Haiti, an American author, William Buehler Seabrook visited Haiti and published a popular (although likely exaggerated) “travelogue” entitled The Magic Island which became one of the first sources introducing the concept of “zombies” to the American audience.
Within just a few years, inspired by elements of Seabrook’s book, Hollywood brought White Zombie to the silver screen in 1932, starring Bela Lugosi, fresh from his role as Count Dracula. America was ripe for a new ghoul, and the rest you might say, is Hollywood (whitewashed) history…
PBS just released a pretty good three part series on the origins of zombies, we recommend you check it out: