Night of the laboring dead

by Mellissa Martinez

As a child, I was afraid of every scary monster known to man, except for zombies. I saw them as slow, clumsy, thoughtless creatures that could easily be outrun. As an adult, I became terrified of them.

Modern zombies are no longer happy performing in choreographed street dances with Michael Jackson; zombies of today want more. They have become quicker, smarter and more prone to group activity. They jump, climb, possess superhuman abilities, wait for people to come out of hiding spots and they bite! 

Given the current zombie mania, I have decided to take a lexical look at these horrid creatures and discovered a softer (more toilsome) side. The word ‘zombie’ has roots in the West African Bantu languages. In Kikongo and Kimbundu similar words still exist, like zambi ‘ghost,’ zumbi ‘objects with supernatural powers,’ and nzambi, ‘god.’

When the West African people were brought to the Caribbean as slaves, their languages, superstitions and religions came with them. Working on French plantations, their native languages mixed with French and formed what is known as Haitian Creole, a language that is still spoken in Haiti, the Bahamas and other neighboring islands.

When the slave population was forced to convert to Christianity, a natural hybrid religion formed—Haitian Voodoo. This is where zombies came into the picture. Some scholars have suggested that perhaps the first zombies came from voodoo sorcerers who induced a death-like state in people and woke them with powerful drugs. As you can imagine, these poor souls would walk around dazed, confused and probably quite injured. Rather than send them to the local hospitals, Haitian folklore says that greedy plantation owners forced their zombie workers to put in long hours in the house and in the fields.

The word ‘zombie’ first came to English in 1929, when William Seabrook published The Magic Island (Armchair Traveler). He describes the beautiful, tropical green gulf of Haiti, the ruins of French palaces and the voodoo drums at night. In a chapter called Dead Men Working, he writes “But I recalled one creature I had been hearing about in Haiti, which sounded exclusively local—the zombie…a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life…a servant or slave, occasionally for the commission of some crime, but more often to drudge around the habitation or farm, completing dull heavy tasks.” It turns out that the original zombies were hardworking, indentured servants of sorts, who committed only an occasional crime—not the flesh-eating fiends depicted today. Basically, if you didn’t bother the neighbor’s zombie, it wouldn’t bother you. After all, it had work to do.

Later in 1932 the word ‘zombie’ was used in the title of a Bela Lugosi movie, White Zombie. Although many credit Night of the Living Dead for bringing the zombie into modern American culture, it was actually White Zombie that made the word a household name.

In fact, the film producer sued a subsequent movie maker who wanted to use the word ‘zombie’ in his title. The White Zombie people successfully argued that the word’s popularity in English came directly from the success of the film and, therefore, could be copyrighted by them. This is perhaps why the word ‘zombie’ does not appear even once in the movie Night of the Living Dead.

Clearly the statute of limitations has run out on this one. Nobody thinks of Bela Lugosi anymore when they think of a zombie. Instead we imagine terrifying, relentless maniacs, tall powerful alcoholic drinks or dazed teenagers who have played one too many video games in a day. I say we get back to basics and put some servitude back into the zombie image. If my teenager decides to dress as a zombie this Halloween, he will be in for a big surprise when I hand him a broom and bucket and tell him to get started.



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