The zombie originated in Hatian Voodoo (with even deeper roots in West African beliefs). A bokor, or witch-doctor, could revive a person who had recently died. Catching their soul inside a bottle (originally, the term "zombi" referred to the trapped soul), the bokor could use the silent, empty shell of a body for hard labor or, if a debt was owed, as an offering to a wicked spirit.
The zombie entered the American consciousness through non-fiction rather than fiction. In 1929, explorer W. B. Seabrook wrote a sensationalist account of Haiti, Voodoo, and zombies called The Magic Island. (This was only one of Seabrook's adventures. Other included traveling with Bedouins through modern-day Iraq and eating, supposedly, human flesh in Africa.)
In the late 1930s, African-American writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston went to Haiti to investigate Voodoo. She wrote a travelogue, Tell My Horse. She describes Voodoo rituals and meets an accused zombie, a woman locals swore had died and been buried 20 years before:
Finally the doctor forcibly uncovered her and held her so I could take her face. And the sight was dreadful. That blank face with the dead eyes. The eyelids were white all around the eyes as if they had been burned with acid. It was pronounced enough to come out in the picture. There was nothing that you could say to her or get from her except by looking at her, and the sight of this wreckage was too much to endure for long.
Hurston held up the mute, helpless zombie as a symbol for the powerless position of Africans in both Haiti and America. That metaphorical level of her writing was largely lost on her audience, though. Instead, they were drawn to the idea of zombies for its strangeness--the mingled fascination and fear of the unknown--and the delicious horror that it might be real. Hurston herself theorized that bokor created zombies using an unknown psychoactive drug that kept them submissive and in a numb stupor. She wrote:
If science ever gets to the bottom of Voodoo in Haiti and Africa, it will be found that some important medical secrets, still unknown to medical science, give it its power, rather than gestures of ceremony.
(Decades later, botanist Wade Davis investigated this idea of drug-induced zombification for his book The Serpent and the Rainbow. He concluded that bokor combined tetrodotoxin and the hallucinogen datura. Davis even got his theory published in the academic journal Science, although his claims have been widely disputed ever since.)
From Seabrook and Hurston, zombies trickled into horror fiction, in movies like Bela Lugosi's White Zombie and in the pulp magazines of the time. H. P. Lovecraft--who captured the mingled fascination and fear of the unknown better than any writer before or since--wrote several zombie stories including the dark comedy "Herbert West: Reanimator" and "Cool Air," about a Spanish doctor who turns himself into a zombie to cheat death, but must keep his apartment constantly cool to keep from rotting.
Zombie stories of this period, both movies and print, stayed close to its Haitian roots. There would only be one zombie or a small number, created by a witch-doctor or mad scientist--a creature meant to be pitied more than feared.
The work that forged the template for today's zombie fiction wasn't about zombies at all. It was Richard Matheson's 1954 science-fiction vampire novel, I Am Legend. (Matherson's other great contribution to horror was the Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.")
In I Am Legend, the protagonist, Robert Neville, is the last known survivor of a virus that turns people into mindless, ravening vampires. It's a stark novel. Neville is alone for most of it, with no real hope of "saving the day." Mostly, it just details of how the germ spread city-by-city, Neville's barricades and protections against the blood-suckers, and how he drinks his way through memories of being unable to protect his family.
And even though Matheson never mentions the word "zombie," most of the familiar tropes are there: hordes of mindless creatures hungry for human blood (or brains), zombieism as a plague spread through bites from other zombies, the collapse of society, and the emphasis on day-to-day survival. Once George A. Romero lifted these ideas for his classic drive-in flick Night of the Living Dead, the modern zombie was born.
Still, zombies mostly stayed on the big screen, not on the page. The few literary standouts include the (sadly out of print) anthologies Book of the Dead and Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2, both edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector. These collections of gleeful gore and dismemberment contained stories from just about every major horror writer of the day--Stephen King, Robert R. McCammon, Poppy Z. Brite--setting them loose in a world overrun by the dead.
Then in 2003, Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore created The Walking Dead for Image Comics. (GLW had a fantastic write-up of the first collection earlier this month.) That same year, Max Brooks published The Zombie Survival Guide, followed in 2006 by World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. These three books jump-started the Great Zombie Craze of the '00s.
These stories are very dissimilar. World War Z is a wide-angled narrative of an entire war. The Walking Dead focuses intensely on a few survivors, isolated and unsure what's happening in the rest of the world. But both tap into the vein that made Haitian zombies so fascinating to audiences seventy years earlier, the horrible idea that it just might be real, or at least they anchor their stories so firmly in reality that readers can easily imagine themselves in their zombie-plagued worlds.
Brooks' books present the zombie outbreak as fact. He knows enough about actual battles and tactics that he can pull off the incredible feat of letting the reader just barely suspend their disbelief. Within the comic book realm--filled with superheroes and villains with Skull Island hideouts--The Walking Dead's band of survivors are extraordinary in just how ordinary they are. They're regular folks trying to get through a horrible situation. (Unfortunately, this is an angle that AMC's television adaption sometimes forgets.) In an introduction in the first issue of The Walking Dead, Kirkman laid out his vision:
This is not a horror book. I like the term "survivalist adventure." This book is more about watching [protagonist] Rick survive than it is about watching zombies pop a corner and scare you.
First, Hurston showed the world zombies and tried to make them see what they were doing to African-Americans. Then Robert Neville hunkered down in his barricaded suburban ranch home. Now, Rick Grimes fights tooth and nail, not to defeat some supervillain bent on world domination, but just to survive another day. The best zombie stories aren't really about zombies at all. They're about survival, about what makes us different from the monsters, and who we are beneath the thin veneer of civilization.
(Cross-posted on my blog.)