The History of Zombies
The history of zombies
- Jeremy Story Carter
From 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' to 'The Walking Dead', zombies have shuffled into our bookshelves, TV screens and movie theatres. Yet according to one academic, these modern tales echo the unpleasant and racially charged history of the zombie myth.
Eyes bulging out of an emaciated figure with exaggerated, grotesque features: zombies might be more popular than ever, but break down their physical traits and they start to resemble antiquated racist caricatures.
Many think that the zombie in a sense is a metaphor for being a slave; literally working yourself to death, as so many people did in Haiti.
PROFESSOR ROGER LUCKHURST
According to Birkbeck, University of London professor of literature and author Roger Luckhurst, that's no coincidence.
'The original zombies are associated with the Caribbean and Haiti, which had the most brutal slave trade in the 18th century. It seemed to emerge from the plantations there.'
Luckhurst says many of the early depictions of zombies drew from these origins.
'Many think that the zombie in a sense is a metaphor for being a slave; literally working yourself to death, as so many people did in Haiti.'
The professor has traced Zombies' strange and unsettling past in his new book, Zombies: A Cultural History.
He argues that early zombie representations align with the black, demonised 'other'.
'Haiti was the only successful slave rebellion that turned itself into a republic. It was called Haiti from 1804 after the slaves overthrew the French, British and Americans,' he says.
'After that point, it is utterly demonised. They are savages, they are cannibals, they have this horrible voodoo religion that is invented largely by terrified westerners.
'What's interesting is that it's the western world's fantasies of the savage; it's not actually the practices of the so-called savage. It's us imposing something, fantasising about what the other does.'
Luckhurst points to wildly popular US television series The Walking Deadas an example of how the racial origins of the zombie myth are never far away.
'The idea now that we have in The Walking Dead of them being completely obsessed with devouring meat of the living, that goes straight back to the awful cliches of the savage and the cannibal in the colonial imagination,' he says.
He argues the show is uncomfortably grounded in the slave roots of America's Deep South.
'I think it's coming from a very particular place in America, and that it's set in the south of America, in the former slave states, is very significant and very problematic,' he says.
'There is always an uproar whenever a black character is killed, which is quite often. They don't last very long.
'That sort of sense of undertow, that background, that takes the zombie still all the way back to colonialism.'
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