The Walking Dead

4 Nov

Zombies, it has to be said, are big business right now. As well as The Walking Dead, which is one of the best shows on TV at the moment, there is a list of recent movies as long as my arm that feature the shambling, rotting yet terrifyingly vital ‘living’ dead, including Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, 28 Weeks Later and Resident Evil: Afterlife to name just a few. Scary as the thought of a zombie apocalypse is, however, it is reassuring to think that this is almost certainly something restricted to the realm of fiction. Why did I use the term ‘almost’? Well, there is evidence, tenuous but nevertheless there, that zombies have existed in the past, are still around today and may well rise from the grave in the future.

The myth of the zombie originated in Africa and from there reached the Caribbean and America’s Deep South through immigration and slavery. Although such tales have met with scepticism in Europe, in Haiti in particular there are few, even among the educated, who do not give some credence to macabre stories of the walking dead. One of the earliest recorded incidents of zombiism (I think that’s the official term) in the modern age occurred in 1936, when a naked woman was found wandering in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley. Her name was Felicia Felix-Mentor and she had died at the age of 29. Despite being buried she had somehow returned from the grave horribly changed, with a blank face, dead eyes and eyelids white as if they had been burned with acid. Again and again similar stories have come out of Haiti, all the way down to the present day, but few know the truth behind these Haitian zombies.

One common belief in Haiti was that people were ‘zombified’ if they betrayed the secrets of certain Haitian arcane societies by means of a fast-acting poison, perhaps derived from the puffer fish. In the Voudoun tradition there are bokors (sorcerers) or houngan (priests) for hire who are said to ‘serve the loa with both hands’, meaning that they can practice both the black arts and benevolent sorcery. Their darker acts include the creation of zombies and ‘ouangas’, talismans that house evil spirits. Bokors are featured in many Haitian tales and are often associated with creating zombies by the use of a deadening brew or potion usually containing non-fatal poisons. This potion makes the drinker appear to be dead and thus is often buried; days later, the bokor will return for the ‘corpse’ and force it to do his bidding, such as manual labour. It is a process akin to mind control in the sense that the person is fully alive but in a detached state whereby he cannot control what he says or does; at this point, when the person has been ‘reanimated’ from the grave, or at least is moving about working for the bokor, they can be termed ‘zombies’.

However, some zombie legends dispense with this more rational explanation, and have the bokor raise zombies from dead bodies whose souls have departed. Also, bokors are said to work with zombie astrals, souls or spirits which are captured in a fetish and made to enhance the Bokor’s power. Bokors normally work with the loa, who are the intermediaries between the Creator and humanity. The loa are each individual beings with their own personal likes and dislikes, distinct sacred rhythms, songs, dances, ritual symbols, and special modes of service. Greatest of the loa are the terrifying Baron Samedi, whose entourage, the ghede, comprises ghosts, zombies and the revered ancestors; the more benevolent Papa Legba, keeper of the spirit gate and watcher of crossroads and doorways; and the priest-king of the loa, Papa Shango, lord of thunder and hunter of thieves and liars. Whilst to Europeans the loa may seem quaint it is a very different matter in Haiti, where these spirits crowd the sultry night and are to be respected and feared. Take care to pay the loa their due if you are ever in Haiti – if you don’t, you may find yourself turned into a zombie by the spell of a bokor!

3 Responses to “The Walking Dead”

  1. Genki Jason November 4, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    A very interesting post. I must admit to having grown up on zombies of the Romero type so I found the post illuminating. You should read Way of the Barefoot Zombie by Jasper Bark for an original take on voodoo lore. It mixes fact and fiction, film and reality and is very amusing.

  2. anilbalan November 4, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

    Thanks for the recommendation – sounds interesting

  3. oldsharky November 7, 2011 at 4:18 am #

    The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis is another good voodoo read.

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