The Origin of Zombies by Jasie Stokes

The leap from Haitian zombie to Romero’s zombies may appear logical, but the fact remains that important steps are taken out of the equation, that the contemporary zombies born from Night of the Living Dead may actually have a Gothic, European literary origin, an origin that has often been ignored in zombie scholarship.

Not only does the zombie have a literary origin, but the undead have existed in some form or another in the same folklore which brought most of the horror tales to the present day movie theatre. In his article, “The Folklore of the Zombie Film” Mikel J. Koven offers an interesting examination of the possible folkloric origins of the modern zombie, although he falls into a similar predicament as McIntosh by conflating the more European zombie of Romero’s design with the Haitian zombie. He even goes so far as to split his article into two different almost unrelated parts, talking first of the European-North American folkloric tradition of the reanimated corpse and then addressing the “ethnographic zombie” of the Haitian tradition. This creates a difficulty for Koven in coming to any kind of cohesive conclusion, since the two types of zombies are not so closely related as some like to think. In the article he explores Stith Thompson’s six volume index Motif-Index of Folk Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Medieaval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends, identifying motifs within the index which resemble and could possibly preclude the zombie. Some of these include “The Dead,” “Ogres,” “Resuscitation by demon’s entering corpse,” “Blood thirsty revenants” and “Corpse bites off woman’s nose”. Koven claims that the “‘living corpse’ tradition of the reanimated dead body has a stronger link to the British and northern European ballad tradition” and that within this ballad tradition the “ghosts” take on a materiality not found in other ghost tales. According to Koven the zombie is most closely related to these “revenants” who come back for the dead for a specific purpose to torment, except for the fact that zombies are a completely random phenomenon. Koven argues that this difference is accounted for in that “the modern cinematic zombie film has a more sociological purpose behind it: that the dead have come back to life for the sins of modernity”. Koven also cites Norse mythology, for example, the story which recounts “Viking warriors who kill each other in the day, but are revitalized at night to return and kill each other all over again the next day”. The one motif which holds the closest resemblance to zombies is the “cannibal ogre” motif, the same motif of which witches, giants, trolls and wolves are variants. According to Koven and Thompson, the “cannibal ogre” is simply a term for any corporeal being, not a ghost, which torments and eats humans. Therefore, if we look at zombies in light of the folkloric index we find that their closest relatives are the witch in “Hansel and Gretel” and the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood.” What Koven does well in this article is in presenting a possible folkloric history for the zombie by showing us how living corpses and monsters have been devouring humans for ages. The zombie is not a brand new creature but a combination of the “living corpse,” the “ghoul,” and the “cannibal ogre”. Furthermore, Koven begs us to ask the question:

recognizing these folk revenants and ogre-like monsters as retrubitionary figures sent to avenge some kind of particularized wrong within the narrative world of the song or tale, what happens when we apply this notion to those cinematic clambering mobs of the living impaired?

Indeed, perhaps the closest tie to folklore that the zombie possesses is in its social function. Although there is not often a specific plot-driving motive for the dead to walk again and avenge some wrong, there is always an underlying social or cultural problem being addressed in the film, a problem magnified and focused upon by the zombies and how people react to the zombie apocalypse.

One piece of zombie pop culture which can shed light on the difference between Haitian zombies and Romero’s ghouls is Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead. Although considered a work of fiction and more satirical than scholarly, the Zombie Survival Guide is one of the only works on zombies that successfully codifies the conventions of the subgenre. Brooks makes exceptionally good points in the distinction between voodoo zombies and those which may actually pose a threat to humans. Among the distinctions is the important fact that voodoo zombies can be controlled whereas other zombies are autonomous creatures. Not only are the voodoo zombies actual living people, but they remain in the control of a more powerful person. Brooks also points out that voodoo zombies exhibit thought, show emotion, feel pain, can communicate and recognize their surroundings, all traits which are found in the earliest zombie films. Voodoo zombies are in fact not monsters at all. They are victims of an outside party, someone who is controlling them for personal gain. Although the zombie films of the early 1950s and ‘60s began to show the creatures as more than just shabbily dressed automatons, and some even resembled corpses, they still “more or less followed the traditional model in that they were controlled by a master”. The zombies in Romero’s diagetic world cannot be controlled, however, and there is little evidence of a transition from the zombie films even in the 1950s and The Night of the Living Dead. The two types of zombies are fundamentally different, and the leap from a creature enslaved to a creature completely independent is interesting at best, but not as helpful in understanding the allure of the undead.

Rather than a product of the early “zombie” films, zombie culture is instead born of creatures which never took on the name “zombie”. Naming is very important in this respect, for the creatures in Romero’s films; the creatures which set forth the conventions of the modern zombie film were called ghouls, creatures, things, and never “zombies”. Despite his argument that zombies are non-literary and “non-Gothic” McIntosh also points out that “Romero has said the story of Night was derived from Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend” and that he “essentially conflated the zombie with the ghoul, a cannibalistic monster type that never became very popular”. This is a questionable statement considering the immensely far reaching popularity of Romero’s ghouls. McIntosh also points out that Romero initially called his monsters “ghouls” but that “zombies” became the most accepted term. He fails, however, to explain why. Nor does he relate Romero’s zombies back to the traditional Haitian zombie. It appears that rather than a solid connection between Romero’s ghouls and the zombies of early Hollywood, there is simply a coincidence between the two monsters. In fact, we may be able to attribute the term’s introduction in to mainstream culture to the first Italian zombie film entitled Zombi II which was intended as a remake of, but marketed as a sequel to, Romero’s Italian release of Dawn of the Dead in order to cash in on its high grossing success and popularity. The film took the Dawn of the Dead story and characters and placed them in a Haitian setting, thus being the first to combine the Haitian zombie and the modern ghoul. Before this film the term zombie was rarely used to describe Romero’s creatures. Certainly the term “zombie” is derived from the voodoo films and adopted by fans to refer to Romero’s creatures, but the actual monsters are fairly unrelated. We therefore turn to the literary traditions which Romero himself claims as the influence for the zombie genre.

Regardless of the use of the same term and a few similar traits between the different creatures, the contemporary zombie is largely an invention of George A. Romero and is most closely based on the undead found in the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. This monster has changed little since Romero’s remarkably successful cult classic, Night of the Living Dead. The zombie film which sets forth the conventions of the enormously popular genre is far more complicated in origin than most scholars suggest. Romero’s foundation for his work lies not only in previous “zombie” films, but rather in a rich American Gothic tradition, as well as a literary tradition that goes back to Dracula and Frankenstein. While I Am Legend is technically about vampires, the highly formulaic model of the zombie horror film is set forth within the work. The basic foundation for this model is a post-apocalyptic scenario in which the survivors are forced to defend themselves against the walking dead that seek to cannibalize them. Often we find an individual who has little need or trust for society and who forges his own way in a new and dark world. When there are groups of people they are usually pitted against each other and tend to seek for their own personal survival rather than the survival of the group. This model provides a crucible in which Matheson, Romero and later other artists are able to examine human frailties. Additionally, the legacy left by Poe and Lovecraft is not lost on Romero. We find in Poe’s “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” the one of the first appearances of the “undead”, a man who is neither living nor dead, in American literature. In his iconic “The Fall of the House of Usher” Poe presents us with an ambiguous instance of the walking dead, one which resembles closely the conventions found in Romero’s oeuvre. Although Lovecraft’s “Herbert West--Reanimator” is an obvious parody of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, we find the same sense of ridiculous humor and grotesque revelry in the absurd as we find in almost every zombie work created. As I look at these works in the remaining portion of this chapter I will suggest that zombie culture originates closely from both the American gothic tradition as well as the deeply embedded folkloric past already discussed. We will see how zombies as we know them today have existed in American culture long before the term zombie even entered the English lexicon. Romero would have been familiar with this gothic tradition, and as Kim Paffenroth claims:

Romero uses horror rather more as it is used in the tradition of American Gothic literature, which includes such luminaries as Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, and Flannery O’Connor, where shocking violence and depravity are used to disorient and reorient the audience, disturbing them in order to make some unsettling point, usually a sociological, anthropological, or theological one.

Not only are the actual monsters created from the tradition of the American gothic, but Romero’s very approach to the stories he tells is rooted in a history of disturbing disorientation and reorientation that brings the audience to an awareness of cultural and sociological failings. Therefore, we see that with its folkloric roots and heavy American gothic influences, the zombie film takes up the role as a cautionary tale, as a subgenre fit for a close and disturbing examination of social problems.

Lots of professional writers and artists have generously shared their work with us. You can show your appreciation for their efforts by leaving comments.


This article is really interesting and well written. My only suggestion for it would be to include more images to break up the text a little bit. I know there's the issue of copyright but I think it would read better with some illustrations of some sort.

This is actually an excerpt from a thesis, which is why it tends towards lengthy explanations.

I'd found it really interesting and it certainly makes sense. The flesh-eating monsters of modern myth and movies really aren't at all like Haitian zombies, regardless of the name.

It's a nice article, but doesn't say anything that isn't already well known and oft-stated. The European origins of the modern conception of zombies has not "often been ignored in zombie scholarship". Sheesh.

Baldwin, are you familiar with "zombie scholarship" then? I've got to admit, I've only ever paid attention to it as entertainment. When I was in college, we didn't spend any time doing literary analysis on anything quite like this.

Damn whitey! Can't a black man have anything? Now Zombies come from Europe? Y'all just trying to hold a dead brother down.

Wasn't Jesus the first zombie?

Quote Originally posted by ivan astikov View post
Wasn't Jesus the first zombie?
No, the ancient Egyptians had some traditions of the dead walking among others and Jesus was considered a resurrection by God. Full life, not the half life of the Undead.

(Yes, I know you were joking, but what the heck, might as well answer it.)

Cool article!

Quote Originally posted by What Exit? View post
No, the ancient Egyptians had some traditions of the dead walking among others and Jesus was considered a resurrection by God. Full life, not the half life of the Undead.

(Yes, I know you were joking, but what the heck, might as well answer it.)
They go further back than the Egyptians, IIRC. I think the Sumerians had some stories about the dead rising in an unpleasant manner. I'm betting that if we could know what prehistoric people were telling stories about, they were telling them about zombies, too. Our fear of death is pretty well-embodied in the dead getting up and recruiting us.

Zombie bump!