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From Bondage to Brains: A Cultural History of Zombies

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
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Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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Did Queen Victoria Really Save Prince Albert From Drowning in an Icy Lake?
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many British queens have also served as daring emergency rescuers. But when the moment arose, Queen Victoria was ready to save the day. In 1841, she saved her husband, Prince Albert, from an icy lake he had fallen into while skating.

The incident didn't need much dramatization when it was included in an episode of the PBS drama Victoria. It really was a life-or-death situation, and 21-year-old Victoria was the hero.

On a cold February day in 1841, Victoria and Albert, who had married almost exactly a year earlier, went for a walk around the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Albert, an avid sportsman who loved to skate and play hockey, strapped on his ice skates and headed out onto the lake. In a diary entry, Victoria wrote that the ice was smooth and hard that day—mostly. As he skated toward her, she noticed that the ice around a bridge looked a little thin.

"I, standing alone on the bank," she wrote in her journal that evening, "said, ‘it is unsafe here,' and no sooner had I said this, than the ice cracked, and Albert was in the water up to his head, even for a moment below." By her own telling, Victoria screamed and reached out her arm to him, holding onto her lady-in-waiting, the only attendant present.

Albert grabbed Victoria's arm and she was able to pull him to safety. He had cut his chin and was dripping wet, but returned home, took a hot bath and a nap, and was up a few hours later to socialize when their uncle Leopold (Victoria and Albert were first cousins) came to visit.

"Her Majesty manifested the greatest courage upon the occasion, and acted with the most intrepid coolness," an account of the event that appeared in The Times a few days later proclaimed. "As soon as the Prince was safe on dry land, the queen gave way to the natural emotions of joy and thankfulness at his providential escape."

Albert recounted his side of the experience in a letter to his step-grandmother, Duchess Caroline of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. "I was making my way to Victoria, who was standing on the bank with one of her ladies," he described, when "I fell plump into the water, and had to swim for two or three minutes in order to get out. Victoria was the only person with the presence of mind to lend me assistance, her lady being more occupied in screaming for help." (Both the queen's diary entry and the newspaper account give the lady-in-waiting a little more credit, suggesting that she at least served as an anchor for the queen as she reached out to the prince.)

According to The Times, the problem was bird-related. That morning, the groundskeepers in charge of the various waterfowl that called the lake home had broken the ice around the edges of the water so that the birds could drink. By the time the queen and the prince arrived, those spots had frozen over with a deceptively thin layer of ice.

Thanks to Victoria, though, Albert emerged from the incident with little more than a bad cold and went on to live for another 20 years.

Had Albert died that day on the ice, it could have completely changed European history. Victoria and Albert had already had a daughter, and the future King Edward VII was conceived around this time. If Albert had died, seven of Victoria’s children wouldn’t have been born—children who were married to nobles and rulers across Europe (during World War I, seven of their direct descendants were on thrones as king or queen). And if the future Edward VII hadn’t been conceived, Albert died, and everything else remained the same, it’s possible Kaiser Wilhelm II may have become the ruler of both Germany and the United Kingdom.

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