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Zombies in Print  

Sarah Juliet Lauro and Christina Connor

A general discussion of literary living dead might begin with the Epic of Gilgamesh, European Gothic tales, some of Edgar Allan Poe’s perturbations, or any number of well-known walking corpses from classic literature. However, zombies are one particular kind of living-dead creature among many others, separate from the fleshy embodied ghosts of diverse cultures, including the Jewish golems, European revenants, and Chinese jiangshi. The zombie is distinct because of its origins in the folkloric myth of the corpse raised by a bokor (a witch doctor, for lack of a better term), a Caribbean belief that has roots in African soul-capture mythologies and that was a direct reflection of the transatlantic slave trade. This folkloric figure migrated into U.S. popular culture via anthropological narratives and thereafter was repurposed in cinema. Any discussion of the zombie in literature is inseparable from its cinematic sibling, but for the creature that developed out of Caribbean mythologies, folklore is its ultimate ur-text. Zombies were first registered in a few scattered colonial accounts documenting the beliefs of the enslaved population of Caribbean isles. These accounts were penned by authors who denigrated the foolishness of the enslaved people’s belief in reanimated corpses (17th–19th century). The first zombie stories to be popularly consumed came out of nonfictional pseudo-anthropological texts reporting on the culture of Haiti during the U.S. occupation (1915–1934), but the zombie quickly moved into the horror genre. Its marketability was recognizable after the 1932 film White Zombie (dir. Victor Halperin) depicted the threat that the Vaudou zombie could pose for white protagonists. The zombie’s migration into U.S. fiction occurred first in the pulps of the early 20th century. This would continue throughout the 1950s, as many zombie-like living dead dripped and oozed across the pages of EC horror comics. The Vaudou zombie, a folkloric living dead that was deeply shaped by the Haitian people’s history of slavery and colonialism, remained visible in Caribbean literature but this iteration very rarely cropped up in U.S. fiction after the cinematic transformation of the zombie into a flesh-hungry viral undead. Primarily, the zombie is considered a cinematic monster because it underwent its major transformation on screen with George Romero’s ghouls rising from the dead to devour their victims in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. The zombie’s evolution from a mindless Vaudou slave to a cannibalistic, contagious reanimate can be traced throughout the middle decades of 20th-century horror films and this same transformation occurred in horror literature. During these middle decades, many crossover monsters in science fiction tales incarnated the fears of the period—particularly fears of technological capability and Cold War tensions. Various characters in these works had traits that have come to be associated with zombies, such as mindlessness and cannibalism. One might point to a kind of lull in zombie fiction (both on-screen and in literature) in the 1980s and 1990s, but the zombie experienced a resurgence in the new millennium and a return to prominence in both cinematic and textual narratives. In the era of the new millennial zombie, the living dead could be found everywhere, spawning beyond even the boundaries of genre fiction. The cinematic zombie’s newfound speed (associated with Danny Boyle’s 2002 film 28 Days Later) mirrored the rapidity of the zombie’s production and proliferation: no longer consigned to the pages of horror paperbacks or science fiction dystopias, zombies appear in comedy, romance, historical fiction, literary mash-ups, parodic how-to guides, and even children’s books. In addition, zombie-themed video games and merchandise flooded the market, and one could find a plethora of zombie cultural events, including college courses, art exhibits, and costumed foot races during this zombie renaissance. In a few short centuries, the zombie evolved from a folkloric figure associated with Vaudou cosmology and its reflection of slavery, to a horror and science fiction bogeyman representing a range of social ills, to a perplexing liminal figure that cannot be contained in one genre or medium. But no matter how much the zombie changes—perhaps because of its ancestral origins in the slave trade—zombie narratives continue to have resonance with colonialism, critiquing capitalism’s abuses of humans by their fellows.