CLOSE
iStock
iStock

From Bondage to Brains: A Cultural History of Zombies

iStock
iStock

Whether you’re deeply invested in their modern lore or roll your eyes at the mere thought of undead fever, there’s no denying it: zombies have infiltrated pop culture. Found throughout contemporary culture, zombies can be fast, slow, sexy, goofy, or just gross, and their headcount just keeps growing.

Believe it or not, though, today’s zombies all descend from the same series of characters—ones that united diverse spiritualities against the real-life horror of slavery, and which have helped us explore our greatest fears and faults, from contagion to consumerism.

WHERE DO ZOMBIES COME FROM (OTHER THAN THE GROUND)?

According to BBC Culture, the word “zombie” may come from any number of terms in West African and colonial-era languages, such as ndzumbi, the Mitsogo word for “corpse,” and nzambi, “spirit of a dead person” in Kongo. In several West African traditions, such terms have alternately referred to harnessed spirits of the dead, fairies, humans transformed into animals, and even misbehaving children, to name a few. According to the book Race, Oppression and the Zombie: Essays on Cross-Cultural Appropriations of the Caribbean Tradition, “Aside from being scary monsters, what all of these [figures] share in common is an idea of subjugated agency.”

The closest relative to modern brain-hounds, however, is the Haitian zombi. It’s often been depicted as a soulless human shell that may be reanimated by potion, enchantment, or other foul means to toil for all eternity under total command of a bokor, or sorcerer, of the Vodou religion. Not to be confused with ‘voodoo,’ Vodou is “a loosely affiliated, syncretistic religion ... [that] began when slaves of wide-ranging African backgrounds were brought together in what became the hub of the slave trade—Haiti … [and] systematically 'converted' to the Catholic Church,” according to Race, Oppression and the Zombie.

According to Farewell, Fred Voodoo author Amy Wilentz, the idea of zombies developed among these Haitian slaves. As the slaves endured notoriously cruel conditions through the 17th and 18th centuries, West African traditions evolved to reflect these horrors. Between the new spiritual traditions of Vodou in Haiti, Obeah in Jamaica, and la Regla De Ochá (a.k.a. Santería) in Cuba, BBC Culture says, “[it] gradually coalesced around the belief that a bokor or witch-doctor can render their victim apparently dead and then revive them as their personal slaves, since their soul or will has been captured.”

Overall, said Wilentz, the zombie was "a very logical offspring of New World slavery. For the slave under French rule in Haiti—then Saint-Domingue—in the 17th and 18th centuries, life was brutal: hunger, extreme overwork, and cruel discipline were the rule.” BBC Culture pointed out, too, that while the new figure was real-life horror manifested in myth, it also threatened something even worse: an eternity on the plantation, “without will, without name, and trapped in a living death of unending labour.”

VOODOO SPREADS—AND CREATIVITY ERUPTS

In 1791, a slave rebellion erupted against colonial rule and the fatally cruel conditions in French Saint-Domingue (then renamed Haiti), and after a long revolutionary war, Haiti became the first independent black republic in 1804. Word of the carefully engineered overthrow spread as far as Europe and the Americas, inspiring slaves and troubling their oppressors. Soon after, bolstered by plantation owners and investors, shocking rumors of so-called voodoo practices among slaves began spreading around the world.

“The imperial nations of the North became obsessed with Voodoo in Haiti,” BBC reported. “From then on, it was consistently demonized as a place of violence, superstition, and death ... Throughout the 19th century, reports of cannibalism, human sacrifice, and dangerous mystical rites in Haiti were constant.”

Artists from imperial nations began picking up those stories and putting them to enthusiastic use. Articles, short stories, and novels in English on the imagined ‘dark magic’ of voodoo were popular fare in the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to filmmaker Gary D. Rhodes. Generally, however, “those English authors who wrote of Haiti were not in the least concerned about the negative repercussions of their work,” Rhodes wrote in White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film, saying “such depictions of Haiti and voodoo both echoed and inspired dominant U.S. prejudices that have existed through the 19th and into the 21st centuries.”

YouTube

According to Rhodes, it was information and flourishes from this kind of writing—and particularly material in William B. Seabrook's 1929 book The Magic Island—that inspired the first full-length zombie flick in history: 1932’s White Zombie. Starring Bela Lugosi (and with a plot not unlike Dracula’s), the film depicted a betrothed young woman being forced into a romance in Haiti using a version of the island’s "black magic."

The movie impressed audiences enough to earn its producers a small bundle but never garnered much critical success. However, along with a series of scary-to-goofy films that also took up these premises in the ‘40s and ‘50s, according to Rhodes, White Zombie provided key, largely invented details about voodoo, its practitioners, and "zombification" that future directors would bring to shores around the world.

ROMERO’S LIVING DEAD TAKE OVER, CHANGING ZOMBIES FOREVER

Over the past several decades, zombies in popular films and television series have alternately run or walked, groaned or chatted, and chewed human flesh or rather saved themselves for brains; however, according to Kim Paffenroth, author of Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth, they all reflect the work of a particular filmmaker. Paffenroth explained, “When one speaks of zombie movies today, one is really speaking of movies that are either made by or directly influenced by one man, director George A. Romero.” Beginning with his “landmark” 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, Paffenroth said, Romero established a new and now widely accepted set of rules for the undead that has shaped modern zombies across all mediums.

Oddly enough, the director didn’t set out to reinvent the concept of zombies. In fact, Romero told WIRED that the famously slow-but-unstoppable undead characters in his first film were simply called “flesh-eaters.” His legions of fans consistently called them “zombies,” though, so for 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, he gave into popular demand and renamed the hordes. Romero’s choice to drop the Haitian context for zombies (realistic or demonizing) led to major changes for the genre, too. “I just took some of the mysterioso stuff of voodoo out of it, and made them the neighbors,” he told WIRED. “Neighbors are frightening enough when they’re alive.”

Intentionally or not, Romero's work with zombies had a big impact on the horror genre from the get-go. In the post-Romero film tradition, zombies are no longer living people who’ve been rendered powerless supernaturally, Paffenroth explained. “Such zombies are more victims than monsters, and can usually be released from the malevolent control by killing the agent that is controlling them, thereby returning them to human status, or to the peaceful rest of death,” he said. “The new type of zombie, on the other hand, is a horrifying killing machine in its own right that can never revert to 'human.’”

With these fundamental changes, Paffenroth said, Romero and his colleagues pivoted modern zombie stories not just into new shapes and geographic regions, but also new areas of meaning. Whether it’s caused by a virus, a solar flare, or an otherworldly scheme, the revolutionary “zombie apocalypse” scenario popularized by Romero’s films has allowed artists to explore the fears and potential consequences of contemporary society, from authoritarianism to pandemics.

YouTube

“In the movies, the cause of [zombism] is, of course, more or less irrelevant: it is only a necessary plot device to get us to the point of, 'What would happen if corpses got up and started walking around?' And the story that each movie offers is to look at one very small band of survivors in their struggle to survive, not to find explanations.”

SO, WHAT HAVE THEY BEEN UP TO LATELY?

In recent years, zombies have pretty much invaded Western culture, popping up everywhere from popular comedies to blockbuster video games. In some ways, they’ve become welcome figures (or, at least, more manageable ones) as part of a favorite new world fable. As such, the zombie apocalypse is even starting to serve as a kind of shorthand backdrop for tough times that may lie ahead—or, put another way, for when "all hell breaks loose."

The CDC, for one, has been pushing Zombie Preparedness as a way to help get humans better equipped for handling a host of different disasters. There’s the potential impact zombies could have on international politics, too, while the inevitable challenges of “Death and Taxes and Zombies” continue to be areas of concern.

For zombie expert Max Brooks, who authored The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, the immense popularity of zombies makes perfect sense. "The [zombie] genre cannot exist outside of the apocalyptic," Brooks told The Independent. "Since we are living in times of great uncertainty, zombies are a safe way of exploring our own anxiety about the end of the world."

And while, from certain angles, the modern zombie may seem to have branched far away from its Haitian roots, experts aren’t so sure. In many ways, this character that “sprung from the colonial slave economy [is] returning now to haunt us,” and for good reason, said Wilentz. She explained to The New York Times:

"The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself."

No one knows if there’s a zombie apocalypse in our future, but given our long cultural history with the undead, it seems likely that many humans can already see bits of ourselves and our civilization reflected in those zombie hordes—and vice versa.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
arrow
Retrobituaries
Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theatre. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora last spring. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They’ve recently secured a protective easement for the site, which prevents future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker.

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted television show about her life, which is based on a biography by Bundles and is allegedly courting distribution by Netflix.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulton Archive//Getty Images
arrow
science
Newly Discovered 350-Year-Old Graffiti Shows Sir Isaac Newton's Obsession With Motion Started Early
Hulton Archive//Getty Images
Hulton Archive//Getty Images

Long before he gained fame as a mathematician and scientist, Sir Isaac Newton was a young artist who lacked a proper canvas. Now, a 350-year-old sketch on a wall, discovered at Newton’s childhood home in England, is shedding new light on the budding genius and his early fascination with motion, according to Live Science.

While surveying Woolsthorpe Manor, the Lincolnshire home where Newton was born and conducted many of his most famous experiments, conservators discovered a tiny etching of a windmill next to a fireplace in the downstairs hall. It’s believed that Newton made the drawing as a boy, and may have been inspired by the building of a nearby mill.

A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
National Trust

Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in 1642, and he returned for two years after a bubonic plague outbreak forced Cambridge University, where he was studying mechanical philosophy, to close temporarily in 1665. It was in this rural setting that Newton conducted his prism experiments with white light, worked on his theory of “fluxions,” or calculus, and famously watched an apple fall from a tree, a singular moment that’s said to have led to his theory of gravity.

Paper was a scarce commodity in 17th century England, so Newton often sketched and scrawled notes on the manor’s walls and ceilings. While removing old wallpaper in the 1920s and '30s, tenants discovered several sketches that may have been made by the scientist. But the windmill sketch remained undetected for centuries, until conservators used a light imaging technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to survey the manor’s walls.

Conservators using light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor,  the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
A conservator uses light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor, the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
National Trust

RTI uses various light conditions to highlight shapes and colors that aren’t immediately visible to the naked eye. “It’s amazing to be using light, which Newton understood better than anyone before him, to discover more about his time at Woolsthorpe,” conservator Chris Pickup said in a press release.

The windmill sketch suggests that young Newton “was fascinated by mechanical objects and the forces that made them work,” added Jim Grevatte, a program manager at Woolsthorpe Manor. “Paper was expensive, and the walls of the house would have been repainted regularly, so using them as a sketchpad as he explored the world around him would have made sense," he said.

The newly discovered graffiti might be one of many hidden sketches drawn by Newton, so conservators plan to use thermal imaging to detect miniscule variations in the thickness of wall plaster and paint. This technique could reveal even more mini-drawings.

[h/t Live Science]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios