The now ubiquitous and popular concept of the zombie (first spelled “zombi”) originated in the fusion of African folklore with the particularly brutal form of slavery practiced in French-ruled Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue). The precise genesis of the concept is unknown, but as one could imagine, its emergence is a long and painful story.
The life of a Haitian slave was one of never-ending fear and suffering. Hunger, extreme overwork, and cruelty were everyday occurrences. Slaves did not eat enough to have children, and those few who were born usually died. The sheer labor intensity required to cultivate and produce sugar – one of the most profitable commodities in the 17th and 18th centuries – required literally working people to death. In the cold logic of plantation masters, the breeding of slaves was a waste of resources: it was better and more cost-effective to work them to death and just bring in more from Africa.
[Note that this is why people of African descent living in former Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonies – from Louisiana and Haiti to Cuba and Brazil – have generally retained more of their African heritage, in the forms of Creole, Voodoo, Santeria, and so on. Unlike in the English colonies, where deaths rates were comparatively lower and birth rates higher, new Africans kept being brought in to replenish the labor force. Thus, by the time these colonies became independent, there were enough African-born individuals who retained some form of their language, folklore, religion, and so on.]
Given the constant agony of slave life, many slaves sought solace in the idea of going back to their homeland, which they called lan guinée – literally “Guinea” or “West Africa”. It says a lot that in Haitian Creole, this phrase is now synonymous with heaven, since the only conceivable way out of slavery was death. Though African slaves feared death like anyone else, they also wished for it. Suicide was common, as it not only offered an escape, but served as the sole means of asserting freedom – to take back control over the body your master owned and exploited. It was also the only way the slave could defy their master, through deprivation of their labor, without punishment.
[Slaves generally committed suicide through homemade poisons, and this handiness with toxins made some plantation masters fearful of being targeted in this covert manner. The cultural trope of the African or Voodoo witch doctor may have stemmed in large part from this concern.]
This is where the zombie mythos emerges. In traditional Vodou belief, the zombie is a dead person who cannot go to lan guinée. Rather, the zombie is fated to remain mindless and without control – a slave for eternity. To get to the final resting place of Africa, you needed to be transported by Baron Samedi, a loa, or spirit, of the dead. Among his roles is to dig a person’s grave and welcome him to the other side. But if for some reason one has offended Baron, the god will not allow that person to reach guinea upon death, thus leaving them behind as a zombie (which in some variations can be controlled by someone else, such as a bokor, akin to a witch or sorcerer).
Needless to say, becoming a zombie was a slave’s worst nightmare: it meant that the only path to liberation was gone, and you would continue to be enslaved. It is believed that Africans developed this concept to instill hope: keep being a good and pious person, and avoid offending Baron and other spirits, and soon you would be free. However, many slave drivers also exploited this fear, invoking it to keep slaves motivated and to discourage them from acting out or committing suicide.
Though it originates in the folklore of Haitian Vodou (which itself is a descendent and variation of the original African religion of Vodou), contrary to popular belief, zombies are not part of any formal religious practice.
Moreover, the idea of reanimating corpses or wandering souls is fairly common in mythologies and religions around the world. But the zombie concept that has become popularized in the West seems to stem mostly from Haitian and Louisianian Vodou (which in the former’s case was to the transmitted to the U.S. through our occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century).
Source: New York Times