The word “zombie” is not as clear cut as one might think. It can infer a fictional, undead creature, a state of stupor, or an act of mindless devotion. The term has been a part of popular culture the world over for over a century. Not only is a zombie an appealing character for horror films, it is often seen as a metaphor for our way of living. In the following paragraphs, I will flesh out the word “zombie” in its intricacies in order for readers to comprehend what this word means to us on a more profound level.
The English language usage of the word “zombie” first appeared in writing in 1819 when poet Robert Southey was putting together a history of Brazil. He wrote about “zombi,” and was referring to Zumbi, an Afro-Brazilian rebel leader (Radford, Benjamin). Essentially, it is a misprint, but the Oxford English Dictionary tells that the origin of the word “zombie” derives from the Kongo words “nzambi” (god) and “zumbi” (fetish). Also, in Haitian folklore, a zombie or “zonbi” is a corpse raised from the dead, usually by witchcraft (Oxford English Dictionary). How the word “zombie” started to be used in popular western culture is difficult to trace, however with the film Night of the Living Dead (1968), the director George Romero described the creatures in his film as “zombies” in interviews, though there is no direct mention of this term in the film. But with Dawn of the Dead (1978), Romero exclusively used the term “zombie” in the script. These zombies were disconnected from their African roots, unlike the zombies portrayed as early in films such as White Zombie (1932). It is said that with Night of the Living Dead, though, that the word “zombie” became mainstream and “western” (Maçek III, J.C.).
An informal usage of the word “zombie” in English corresponds to a state of stupor. If you want to say you are extremely tired, you can say, “I feel like a zombie,” or “I’m a zombie right now,” and other such phrases. Whether or not this is tied to the term’s West African roots is unclear, but it is most likely connected to the western interpretation of a zombie devoid of its voodoo history. Often, when someone wants to refer to themselves as a zombie, he or she even puts on an act as if he or she is an actual zombie. Though this infers extreme tiredness, the word “zombie” can mean a mindless devotion as well.
When we want to express that people are following the status quo without a bat of an eye, we often use the term “zombie” for these type of individuals. In fact, there are even protest marches or demonstrations where people dress up as zombies. Called “zombie walks,” these events parody political extremism or apathy (Colley, Jenna). The term being used as a metaphor for a citizen’s lifeless state within a government’s clutches is more popular than ever. According to Vox, “For 80 years, the undead have been used by filmmakers and writers as a metaphor for much deeper fears: racial sublimation, atomic destruction, communism, mass contagion, globalism — and, more than anything, each other. Fear, which once compelled us to appropriate the zombie, has also governed the new symbology we’ve given it over the years. This makes the zombie not only a fascinating study of our country’s historical fears but also a window into how foreign ideas adopt new meaning when stripped of their original context over time” (Zarracina, Zachary Crockett and Javier). Like most metaphors, the term “zombie” has transcended its roots, and has become a portrayal of our deepest fears and regrets.
Though the term “zombie” is commonly associated with a fictional creature displayed in films and included in literature, the term “zombie” most likely came from Haitian folklore, and was later appropriated by western culture. Besides a zombie being a fictional creature, people often employ the term to describe themselves as tired, and also as a person who blindly follows authority. I do not know if Haitian witch doctors would be rolling in their graves if they saw what would be happening to their zombies, but it is for definite that zombies have infiltrated western cinema, literature, and language.
Radford, Benjamin. “Zombies: The Real Story of the Undead.” LiveScience, Purch, 10 Oct. 2012, www.livescience.com/23892-zombies-real-facts.html.
“Zombie.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1998.
Maçek III, J.C. (15 June 2012). “The Zombification Family Tree: Legacy of the Living Dead.” PopMatters.
Colley, Jenna. “Zombies haunt San Diego streets.” signonsandiego.com.
Zarracina, Zachary Crockett and Javier. “How the zombie represents America’s deepest fears.” Vox, Vox, 31 Oct. 2016, www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/10/31/13440402/zombie-political-history.
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