Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cultural Differences Among Zombies

There has been a lot of zombie talk lately in the blogs I follow. Probably, because as I learned from my buddies over at Gravedigger's Local 16, May is Zombie Awareness Month. I'm not too much of a modern zombie fan (unless you consider Night of the Living Dead modern). So I decided to go a little old school with this blog entry.

In Haitian, the word "Zombi" translates to: "Spirit of the dead." In "Vodun" or what you probably know as Voodoo, Zombies are seen as people who have lost all control. They are just bodies who no longer have any free will, because a sorcerer has taken control of their minds. In the Haitian culture, zombies are seen as an empty shell of a person who must work as a slave to the person who made them that way. They aren't thought of as rotten corpses feeding on brains.

In 1932, a movie came out that was heavily influenced by the Haitian concept of zombies. In "White Zombie" Bela Legosi's character controls zombified people who he uses as undead slaves. They may be used to make him more successful, and even at times kill for him, but they aren't really evil. The zombies in this movie are more victims than villains. Here's the "White Zombie" trailer:

In 1938, the book "Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica" was published. The book was written by Zora Neale Hurston (pictured below) and documented her experiences visiting Haiti and Jamaica during the 1930s. Zora was an anthropologist as well as a writer. She was also associated with the Harlem Renaissance. She was very productive as a writer, essayist, theatrical producer, and anthropologist.

While visiting Haiti to gather material for "Tell My Horse", Zora met a woman who was thought to be a zombie. She took a photo of the woman who claimed to be Felicia Felix-Mentor (someone who died in 1907) When Zora met the supposed zombie, it was 1937. Here is the photo that Zora took of her:


I can see from this photo that the woman made a convincing zombie. She was seen wandering around a farm where the real Felicia had lived. Felicia's family and husband did identify this woman as their lost loved one. Since she was staggering around and acting strangely, the woman was sent to a hospital. Once at the hospital, she laughed for no reason, spoke about herself in the first and third person, and seemed to have lost all sense of time. Doctors decided that she wasn't the once dead Felicia, since Felicia walked with a limp and this woman did not. However, Zora did state: "I know that there are Zombis in Haiti. People have been called back from the dead." So whatever Zora witnessed in Haiti made her a believer.

If you aren't familiar with Wade Davis, you should take a look at some of his work and youtube videos. He is also an anthropologist who has documented his experiences in Haiti. He provides a modern look at Voodoo and his videos are interesting and even a little funny in places. If you want to explore what he has to say, I found a nice, long NPR interview you can either read or listen to here: Wade Davis Interview about Haitian Voodoo

I admire Zora and Wade for being so fearless in exploring new cultures. I like to read and learn about this topic, but I can't see myself searching out Voodoo ceremonies in Haiti. I think there is power in thought, especially when a group of people focuses their thoughts at once. Watching some ceremonial videos tonight, I'm so struck by how into this people get. Some of these people are in a trance that you can argue is either self-made or a spiritual possession. Either way, it's intense to watch.

Here's a short clip from a BBC special on Haitian Voodoo. It's a little campy, but entertaining.

I was surprised to learn that Voodoo was recognized as an official religion in Haiti in 2003. Millions of Haitians have practiced Voodoo for hundreds of years. That's not to say everyone there believes in this religion; there are many groups of people in Haiti who do not approve of it. Here is a more serious and respectful look at the Voodoo religion. The following video is of a ceremony that is interesting but may be hard for some people to watch. If you think you might have a difficult time seeing someone chew on a live chicken's neck, you might want to skip out on this one. Despite that scene in the video, I thought the ceremony was educational, so I still decided to put it up.

So what scares you more - The modern American concept of a zombie or the Haitian Voodoo concept of a zombie?


  1. I find the modern American zombie scarier. The Voodoo zombie reminds me of a Scooby-Doo episode. Not that there's anything wrong with Scooby-Doo. I just don't think Scoob and the gang would fair so well against Dawn of the Dead's fat lady zombie in the Pottery Barn. Fred would've been scared straight.

  2. Love Wade Davis - his stuff is quite interesting. But I have to agree the American zombie is just creepier to me.


  3. I can see how the American zombie looks scarier, but I think the Haitian idea of what happens to you after you've been zombified is worse. In America, the zombie is free to stumble around and feast on brains at will, but in Haiti the zombie is under someone else's control for eternity. So from the zombie's perspective, the Haitian idea is worse, but from a human's perspective the American zombie is worse (since all it wants do is kill you) If that made sense. :)

    Sean ~ Really? That sounds like one intense Scooby-Doo episode! Scare him straight...Ha!

    Frog Queen ~ That's cool that you know about Wade Davis! I actually wasn't familiar with him until I ran into his name while doing some research last night. He's a pretty entertaining guy. I can't wait to read some of his work!

  4. Never knew it was a recognized religion. BTW...made you blog of the day

  5. OMG ok for me i think Haitian zombies are scarier cause they are actually REAL u knw, i mean yea american zombies are more scary visually and all but u will still sleep at night cas u knw underneath all the makeup are just normal...but this actually happens, like i have a haitian friend at my college and he told me this actually does happen and that he actually saw a zombified person, it freaked the HELL outta me!! Im sorry but anything Voodoo related gives me nightmares, i think the movie The Serpent and the rainbow is the best voodoo related movie that sums up all haitian voodoo...oh awesome post by the way :)

  6. i meant underneath all the makeup are just normal actors....

  7. Copyboy ~ Thanks so much for making my blog the "blog of the day" :) Well, there are so many believers in Voodoo, that it makes sense that it is a recognized religion. Although, for a long time it was probably seen as too controversial to be recognized.

    Pixie ~ Hey there! Thanks for following. I've been liking your blog so far. :) Yeah, I agree that the American zombie is seen more as an actor than the real deal.

    That's interesting that you have a Haitian friend. I'd be interested to hear more of his perspective and his zombie story! Did your friend actually grow up in Haiti?

    Just watching some Youtube videos of Voodoo rituals made me nervous, so I know what you mean. I wouldn't want to mess around with it, or honestly even be witness to some of it. I respect it as a religion, but some of the Voodoo rituals aren't positive. I think there can be power formed when multiple people focus their energy like that.

    I don't know about "The Serpent and the Rainbow", but I'll be checking into that!

    I'm glad you liked my post and thank you for your thoughtful comment! :)

  8. Aww thank you sooo much for liking my blog i actually had already added your blog on my list of awesome blogs people should check out.

    Yeah my friend grew up in Haiti and conveniently right after watching Insidious(which already made me paranoid) he tells us about the voodoo rituals that go on in Haiti. He told us that he knows this guy that was killed in a car accident but his parents asked that he not be buried just yet ad like a week later, he saw the same guy ALIVE but he said his voice wasn't the same it sounded nasally and weird.

    He also told us that once when he was walking to school a neighbour of his was outside in the middle of the road shouting outloud because someone had robbed something from her house, and she was shouting that if the person didnt come forward and apologize and bring what was stolen back, that person would die on the spot she was standing in. When he came back from school on the very spot the woman was standing in was like a police white body outline and when he asked what happened they said a guy was run over by a car and he was the one who robbed the before mentioned woman!!! I know right! SUPER FREAKY!!!

    He said its pretty intense in Haiti but like another story he told us was like in Haiti if a guy thatlikes you comes up to you and wants to start a conversation , like you can't just blow him off all rude and stuff because he could some voodoo spell to make you in love with him!!! or he could put a spell on you to mess with the way you look and make you ugly!!! so yeah if a guy comes up you have to blow him off in a really nice way.

    He said he knew more stories but we were all past the point of freaked out so we just all went to sleep (we all squeezed ourselves on his bed because we were too scared to move anywhere else)lol

  9. Cool! Thanks for adding my blog to your list. :)

    Wow ~ Your Haitian friend has a lot of interesting stories. I'm kind of thinking his stories are part of his being a ladies man. He's scaring girls into turning guys down nicely, if they aren't afraid to turn them down at all after that story. Also the part about him scaring you all onto the bed with him! haha

    Seriously, wouldn't the world be a scary place if any time you rejected someone, that could exact some kind of revenge on you like that?

    That is a freaky story about the car accident and also about the lady with the chalk outline in front of her house! I'm trying to imagine the paranoia that a lot of Haitians must have. You would definitely be afraid to cross anyone!

  10. Hahaha yeah maybe it was a plot to get us to be nicer with guys, but i still wouldn't try and test that theory out haha.

    Yeah the car accident story really just killed me..but as a joke he tried to scare us cas he all of a sudden went serious and was like 'Guys my shadow doesnt move with me' and we all went sooooo silent you cud hear a pin drop..when we asked him to elaborate he was like ' Yeah my shadow doesnt move with me, i can be lying down but my shadow is still up'

    I swear we all just slowly started making our way to the door in silence hahah but he just burst out laughing saying it was a joke and got the idea from watching mirrors the night before, but he did say all the stories he told us about haiti are true there is even this building or rather chateau he was talking about that has like human skulls all over it and its like a chateau above a hill and oversees haiti but is apparently haunted, i can't remeber the name of the chateau cas its in french but will ask my friend and get back to you...

  11. Haha, well I'm sticking to my theory about him using those stories to charm the ladies. Especially since he was suggesting he had a few powers of his own with the shadow story. :)

    I remember a friend's brother in high school being convinced that he had some mind control powers and pretty much convinced the rest of us that he did too. I could go on about that here, but it's kind of a long story. Anyway, I know what you mean about being freaked out by someone who talks like that.

    I would love it if you would find out more about that chateau! That sounds like some good blog material. It sounds terrifying from the way you describe it!