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Figures of Terror: The “Zombie”


The term Zombie has been interpreted differently in society and associated with a different context. Its origin can be traced to Haitian culture and religion, although it has spread to many nations globally. Zombies became common in Western culture, particularly throughout the twentieth century, as a symbol for people who were unable to think for themselves and were posing a threat to social structures (Hoermann, 2017). As a result, most cultures understand the zombie in these traditional terms; yet, consideration of the figure frequently overlooks the rituals linked with zombification including the broader implications of the activity for subjectivity. In the past decade, Zombie movies have been produced in large numbers, representing their increasing popularity in society (Guercio, 2017). Evidently, the zombie has evolved into a deeply ingrained symbol that is continuously expanding its meaning, refusing to be confined by tradition. The zombie is believed to have originated in voodoo, slavery and colonialism, evoking different feelings among members of society.

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The Background of Zombies and Implications on Society

As the use and implications of zombies become increasingly common, their background becomes an essential topic of study. Unlike all other monstrous creatures, zombies have a scientific basis, and many evident examples of zombies have been recorded from Haitian voodoo culture (Guercio, 2017). Historically, the Ancient Greeks represented the first culture to experience the terror of the undead. Over the years, ancient graves have been discovered with skeletons restrained by boulders and other weighty materials, presumably to keep the corpses from reanimating (Booth, 1988). Slavery and colonialism in the U.S. are also significant roots of the zombie that have impacted society’s feelings and perspectives of various life conditions, shaping human behavior and moral conduct.

Haitian/Voodoo Culture

Voodoo is a West African religion that is followed in Haiti, the American South, and many other regions with African roots. Many individuals who practice voodoo believe zombies are fantasies, but others claim zombies are people who have been resurrected by a voodoo sorcerer known as a bokor. Herbs, seashells, fish, animal bones, fossils, and other items have long been used by bokors to make concoctions like “zombie powders,” which comprise tetrodotoxin, a lethal neurotoxin present in pufferfish and other sea mammals (Booth, 1988). The tetrodotoxin mixture, when used at sub-lethal levels, can create zombie-like characteristics such as limited mobility, mental confusion, and breathing issues. Booth (1988) argues that early experiments showed that tetrodotoxin, at high dosages, can cause paralysis and unconsciousness. Someone could seem to be deceased and be buried alive, only to be resurrected later. This evidence, which was only seen in Haiti has been the most significant proposition given for the association of zombies to the voodoo culture.

Although voodoo was believed to be religious, it had cultural and psychological dimensions that determined how an individual reacted to the poison. According to Booth (1988), research done by Davis, a botanist, revealed that some of the people intoxicated with the poison survived because they were not in the setting. In essence, one had to live in Haiti and believe the existence and power of zombies for them to be zombified. This aspect has led to controversial points among scientists, anthropologists, and the general public. Some people argue that just as not everyone was zombified, the symbol of the zombie is a mere fantasy.

More controversy on the origins of zombies has been revealed through the scientific experiment conducted by other scientists. Booth (1988) records that when Davis and Hartung repeated the experiment on rats, no immobility was detected. In essence, the zombie characteristics, earlier believed were not evident in the second trial, adding to the controversy. The dissimilar results were defended as being related to different elements in the sample. On the same note, scientists felt that the absence of evidence did not imply evidence of absence (Booth, 1988). The scientific proof that tetrodotoxin plays a vital role in the zombification process’ early stages has proven to be significant to the discourse. Davis’ claim that bokors use pulverized puffer fish in their zombie concoctions is undisputed (Booth, 1988). What they disagree about is the effect of tetrodotoxin in turning people into zombies. In essence, the discussion has continued, with people having diverse concepts of voodoo in relation to zombies’ origins and position in today’s cultural orientations.


Slavery is one of the most relevant discourses regarding the roots of zombies. Given historical changes in the 18th and 19th centuries that arrayed nation versus nation, endangering group identity on a never-before-seen scale (Guercio, 2017). Therefore, the need for consciousness and, with it, the awareness of individuality in relation to the group, became important. While the zombie emerged in West Africa, zombification activities would take shape in discourse connected with compromised frames of reference. This was a result of colonialism and slavery on the tiny Haitian island early in its autonomous development in the nineteenth century.

As the post-slave creature bore no relation to a person compared to a naturally evolved group dynamic, Zombies circumvented the debate between the person and the collective. Individuality did not exist without reference to a similar group, and individuality and consciousness would not emerge. As a result, zombies were wandering figures without figurative roots such as houses or resting spots, and hence unable to generate self-consciousness (Guercio, 2017). For the ex-slave subject, zombies were just a point of articulation. According to Guercio (2017), the overly simple Haitian mythology of the zombie does more than only criticize imperialism; it also casts doubt on the legitimacy of the subjectivity debate. The zombie concept has been widely hijacked by American pop culture in the centuries following, whitewashing its origins and turning the dead into a venue for escapist imagination.

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The symbol of the zombie has so far been heavily used as a Gothic motif of terror and dread to demonize Haiti and notably its African-based theology as a black barbaric practice, in connection with claims of cannibalism. More material difficulties arose, including the region’s slave plantation economy, which was the engine of the transatlantic financial system. The Haitian Revolution sparked fears of more slave revolts in the Caribbean and the United States. In 1799, Thomas Jefferson, the then-Vice U.S. president, and a slave owner expressed concern that trade with the “cannibals of the terrible republic” –would distribute inflammatory radical ideas amongst slaves of the Southern states (Hoermann, 2017, p.156). Dessalines, Haiti’s first leader, ultimately turned the scales on the Haitian Revolutionists’ defamatory horror images. Since then, the horror of slavery has been closely linked to zombies, along with every inhuman practice directed to people.

U.S. Colonialism

The colonial rule was characterized by encroachment, cultural interference, and estrangement in the community. The origins of the zombie and its application in society can be traced to the colonial rule in America. Haiti was stigmatized by the Western world as a menace to the empire after launching a successful slave revolt and obtaining independence from France in 1804 (Hoermann, 2017). When the U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915, Catholic clergy sought attempted to eradicate voodoo culture, which they saw as a symbol of the country’s savage inferiority (Hoermann, 2017). The zombies were first discovered during this occupation by an American named William Seabrook. The political tension between Haiti and the U.S. as reflected in their view of zombies has been used to reveal America’s deep anxieties.

For years, movies have been used to reveal social problems, as was the case in America’s first horror movie- White Zombie. It inflamed America’s darkest fears of voodooism by turning the spiritual-religious ideology into a horror motif. Haiti is shown as a chaotic, chaotic environment where witches and zombies abound (Guercio, 2017). Marriage, the pinnacle of Western religion, is savaged by the uncivilized world’s dark magic. Though Vodou’s subversive influence is tied to civil disturbance, it is American perceptions of the concept that portray zombies as representations of Vodou’s deep threat to colonial rule (Hoermann, 2017). A rigorous anti-Vodou strategy that permitted raids on religious facilities and ceremonies as part of American authority throughout the occupation. Drums and other sacred items were seized and, in some cases, destroyed. These actions further reveal America’s response to the dread of colonialism.

The zombie as a cultural phenomenon has created a collection of four overlapping images for modern human philosophy, and these symbols symbolize a worldview problem unprecedented in modern Western culture. With the advent of the Cold War in the latter part of the twentieth century, alien invasions became extremely popular in American movies (Guercio, 2017). The alien appeared to be an excellent disguise for the prevailing atmosphere of wariness and anxiety, as well as the fear of strangers and espionage, as the West extended its cultural divides more cautiously. Alien invasion stories had intriguing parallels with real-life suspicions: outsiders were attempting to infiltrate American culture to advance their own, to dismantle American systems and proliferate their own, and to divide people by diminishing fellowships. These doubts were crucial because they unwittingly inhibited intimacy; many could not be trusted, many were not who they claimed to be, and it was difficult to judge a stranger’s affiliations and loyalties.


In conclusion, Zombies have been discussed on different platforms with diverse views emerging on their origins and implications on society. Haitian Voodoo has been cited as the most evident source of zombies. In America, they originated from the people’s dread of colonialism and their response to slavery. They symbolized capitalism, the War in Vietnam, nuclear terror, and even the tensions underlying the civil-rights movement at different times. The zombie apocalypse, a global virus that converts the majority of the populace into animals thirsty for the body of their kind, is nearly invariably associated with the end times today. The mention of zombies evokes fear and terror in individuals, revealing their deeply entrenched effects on society. As the world continues to fight various social ills such as segregation and racism, zombies have been adopted in many films to depict the horror associated with inhuman activities. Nevertheless, modern movies have been made to entertain while slightly deviating from the original issues.


Booth, W. (1988). Voodoo science. American Association for the Advancement of Science, 240(4850). Web.

Guercio, G. (2017). From the archives: The secrets of Haiti’s living dead. Harvard Magazine. Web.

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Hoermann, R. (2017). Figures of terror: The “zombie” and the Haitian revolution. Atlantic Studies, 14(2), 152-173. Web.

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