For several years, I’ve been on a fact-finding mission focused on the history of traditional Halloween “monsters” including their origins and evolution in folklore, literature, and pop culture.
Today, let’s take a look at ZOMBIES.
Okay, so technically mummies are more traditional as Halloween monsters than zombies. BUT as a fan of The Walking Dead, I decided to start with zombies. 🙂
Unlike with many of the Halloween creatures I’ve been researching, where various cultures across the world have some form dating back to antiquity, zombies seem to be a newer concept with roots in various spots. The word “zombie” is said to have come from “nzambi,” which in Kongo means spirit of a dead person, and also has strong ties with Haitian folklore and Voodoo.
In some versions of lore, zombies are unthinking henchmen magically controlled by some kind of human or supernatural master. However, in most popular incarnations of the concept, a zombie is a person coming back from the dead, typically with rotting flesh of some sort, and with the mindless hunger for human flesh and/or brains.
Like with Frankenstein’s monster, I originally thought zombies were a more recent monster invented in literature and blown up by pop culture. And, to some extent for the modern version that is true. However, I stumbled across a website for a class at MSU, indicating there is some evidence that earlier cultures actually believed in the dead rising from the grave, usually in a vengeful state. For example, the traditions of gravestones in some early cultures might be linked to the idea of putting a heavy item over a fresh grave to keep the dead from getting out.
Or, in some cultures, there is rumor/mythology linked to the existence of zombies. Some historians and researches even have even posited that the Mayans were destroyed by zombies. Reports of widespread cannibalism at the end of the Mayan civilization suggests something much more sinister than a simple drought or cross-tribal dispute. Bones found in and around Mayan cities show signs of being violently ripped from their sockets, and chewed to bits on the spot. Evidence has even been found of children eating their parents, and entire villages devouring themselves within a matter of days. History of Zombies, Great Discoveries in Archaeology, MSU
Unlike most of the other Halloween monsters I’ve posted (werewolves, ghosts, witches), it appears zombies don’t really crop up in wide-spread mythology or in popular books or other media until the 1900s. Earlier works, like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, with its reanimated man made of many parts of corpses, and various works by Edgar Allen Poe and others may have influenced the idea. H.P. Lovecraft penned stories in the 1920s and 1930s that depicted vengeful and violent undead. The movie White Zombie in 1932 is the first of its kind, but not with the undead flesh-eating kind of zombie, instead depicting the magically controlled henchmen kind.
The current pop-culture version of zombies is usually the undead mindlessly eating flesh and/or brains. These seem to have truly gotten started with the 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead. That movie was in turn partly inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, later made into a film and depicting a different take on a zombie-like monster which many define as vampires more than zombies in the book. And, interestingly, the word zombie is never used in Night of the Living Dead, but was voiced later by fans.
Obviously zombies have grown in popularity since the 1960s in may forms of media including massively popular movies, TV shows, comics, video games, and books. Most everyone has heard of titles like The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, Resident Evil, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, and on and on. Even music videos…Michael Jackson’s Thriller video had dancing zombies.
Heck, even the romance industry is trying to get in on the phenomenon.
As a paranormal romance author and a die-heard Walking Dead fan, I love the concept. However, I’ll be honest, I find it difficult to see romance in zombie lore in terms of the monster becoming a romantic hero or heroine. Unlike other monsters such as werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and yes, even Frankenstein’s monster, which pop culture has glamorized, humanized, and romanticized with arguable success, there is little I can find as romantic or sexy about a rotting corpse mindlessly trying to eat flesh or brains. In the movie Warm Bodies, they did sort of manage it, but even then, they had to bring him back to a more human state.
So in the case of this Halloween monster, my opinion is the zombie must remain a monster. The romance will have to be found among the surviving humans. (Dear Walking Dead producers and writers Gimple & Kirkman I’m talking to you. Lets please get Daryl a girlfriend! She must be equally bad-ass, and don’t kill her off 3 episodes later.)
By the way, for you zombie apocalypse fans out there, check out this fabulous article on the best U.S. cities for surviving. Being in Texas, it looks like my best local chance is Houston. But, not being a big fan of the humidity there and the tendency to get hit with hurricanes, I’m thinking my family might just have to risk it and make a trek for Denver. 🙂
Looking for some gruesomely great zombie-related romances? Check these out…
- Pride & Prejudice & Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
- Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
- Alice in Zombieland by Gena Showalter
- Hollowland by Amanda Hocking
- Bloody Sunrise by Gwendolyn Harper
Interested in the history and evolution of other traditional Halloween “monsters” in folklore, literature, and pop culture? Check out my other posts…