Like humans, zombies came out of Africa. There they led rich lives being worshipped as Congolese snake gods (nzambi). The ability of certain snakes to use poison to paralyze their prey was ritualistically imitated by tribal priests, who then proclaimed themselves able to resurrect the dead as well. In such vodoun or Obeah cults, the term nzambi migrated in meaning to “spirits of the dead.”

Transported to the Americas, vodoun took root in Caribbean slave culture, mating with indigenous religions to spawn zombies, zumbies, jumbies, and duppies and spreading northward to the continent. By the 17th century vodoun was strong enough to trigger the Salem witch hysteria of 1692. Tituba, a Carib Indian slave bought by Samuel Parris in Barbados and brought to Salem, filled her young mistresses’ heads with vodoun notions like invocation of the devil, possession, trances, animal familiars, and the sticking of pins into “poppetts” (dolls) made to resemble enemies. The girls’ psyches broke down, alternating between hysterics and catatonia. Tituba was among the first arrested and was the first to confess, in lurid detail—yet she survived while 24 others did not.

In this case the ancient European belief in witches, lingering just below the surface of 17th-century Protestantism, reacted violently when brought into contact with the live coal of African sympathetic magic. Although Arthur Miller would have us believe (in “The Crucible”) that the fault lay entirely with the uptight, theocratic “parochial snobbery” of the Massachusetts Bay colonists—frustrated folk keen to punish and avenge—in Salem, at least, culture shock played a major role.

Richard Hughes’s novel A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), set in the 19th century, opens with a British colonial family so spooked by vodoun influence that the mother insists the children be shipped back to England for their souls’ salvation. “Duppies cannot be mistaken for living people,” she discovers that her children have been instructed, “because their heads are turned backwards on their shoulders, and they carry a chain: moreover one must never call them duppies to their faces, as it gives them power.”

The popular cult of the zombie began shambling forth in the 1920s, when Jazz Age hipsters turned their fevered attentions to the West Indies. These slumming lords and ladies thrilled to scenes of forbidden Obeah rituals and inspired Hollywood to get into the act. In 1932 the first “voodoo” film, shot in 11 days on a budget of $50,000, was titled “White Zombie”—once the zombification of white people occurs, of course, attention must be paid! Bela Lugosi plays a ghoulish character who commands an army of the living dead forced to “work in the sugar mills and the fields at night.”

The Zombie cocktail debuted in 1934 at Don the Beachcomber’s, an L.A. watering spot, after a customer reported that he “felt like a zombie” after swilling Don’s mix of dark, golden, and white rum, cherry brandy, orange or papaya or pineapple juice, lemon juice, and grenadine on the rocks. Esquire called the Zombie the “mother of all freak drinks,” and so it remains, listed on menus with the campy caution “Limit Two.”

In 1956 my parents vacationed in Jamaica and brought back maracas and a delightful 78: “Back to back, belly to belly/ I don’t care a damn, I done dead a’ready/ Back to back, belly to belly/ It’s a jumbie jamboree …” The artist listed was The Charmer, backed by Johnny McCleverty and the Calypso Boys. “The [Mighty] Charmer” was the stage name of Louis Farrakhan, ne Louis Eugene Walcott, whose mother had emigrated from St. Kitts to New York City. The song was first performed in 1953 by Lord Intruder; its “jumbies” danced in a Trinidad cemetery, but The Charmer’s 1954 version moved the action to Woodlawn Cemetery in Brooklyn. The Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte were among those to cover the tune.

Meanwhile zombies continued their advance as cultural icon primarily onscreen. No count can be made of these B- and C- and Z-rated movies—“Zombieland,” “Kung Fu Zombie,” “Zombie High,” “Zombie Strippers,” “Zombie Honeymoon,” “Zombie Campout,” “Zombie Beach Party,” “I, Zombie,” “I Was a Teenage Zombie,” “I Was a Zombie for the FBI,” “Zombie Holocaust,” “Zombie Women of Satan,” “Space Zombie Bingo,” “Redneck Zombies,” “Fast Zombies with Guns,” “Motocross Zombies from Hell,” “Hot Wax Zombies on Wheels”—just a splattering of those with the z-word in the title, which excludes the George Romero, “Evil Dead,” and “Resident Evil” film franchises, not to mention AMC’s hit TV series based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel The Walking Dead. There is even a genre of Nazi-zombie films such as “Zombie Lake,” “Oasis of the Zombies,” and “Dead Snow.”

From the ’30s and ’40s we have “King of the Zombies,” “Revolt of the Zombies,” and “I Walked with a Zombie,” all now considered classics by whoever deems zombie movies to be classics. But “Valley of the Zombies” in 1946 may have introduced an innovation: zombie bloodlust. “Will science triumph against the evil thirst of the undead?” shrilled the promo.

The original image of the zombie was a biddable, entranced robotic worker, raised from the grave to labor without complaint or compensation. Like its more murderous brethren the Mummy, or the Somnambulist from “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” this horror tapped into two of humanity’s deep and historically justified fears, of being enslaved and of premature burial. The image of zombies as flesh-eating ghouls—the original Arabian ghul partook only of the dead—had yet to be established. But somewhere along the evolutionary line there appeared a hybrid creature, both cannibal and undead, bastard offspring of a duppy and a vampire, with an inborn taste not just blood but human flesh.

(As another forebear, Frankenstein must receive honorable mention for its versatile monster, at once Golem, botched abortion, problem child, sin against the Creator, science project run amok, and renegade zombie.)

If there is anything people fear more than death and the dead, it is being eaten, especially eaten alive. Eat or be eaten is the law of nature, and deep down we have not forgotten. As many have observed, the horror of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) was not of being eaten but of the individual being replaced by a soulless, mass, robotic sameness – the horror of egalitarianism taken to extremes. The modern zombie apocalypse goes beyond the terror of conformity to the terror of consumption. It is a brilliant fusion of two skin-crawling horrors, corpses and being devoured, with a third—being hunted by your own flesh and blood, your neighbors and fellow countrymen in invincible multitudes.

Director George Romero, the godfather of cinematic zombies, wrote the current narrative with “Night of the Living Dead,” shot for peanuts in the Pennsylvania countryside and released in 1968. The elements of the contemporary zombie are all present: (1) Radiation bursts from outer space have reanimated the brains of the unburied dead, (2) making them ravenous for living human flesh, and (3) stoppable only by a round to the brain. (4) Their bite infects and zombifies the bitten, and (5) they are on the move, in revolt as it were—conquering the world of the living one victim at a time.

Since ’68 the zombie apocalypse storyline has exploded in all directions. There now exist schools of zombiology: fast vs. slow zombies, extraterrestrial radiation vs. earth-borne virus as the etiology of zombification, all-flesh diet vs. brains only—there is even a lively debate over whether zombies have souls. Social satire using the zombie trope began with Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” in 1978 and extends from Britain’s “Shaun of the Dead” to Cuba’s very first entry, “Juan of the Dead.”

The most fun is to be had when the topic is taken (semi-)seriously. In 2011 the Centers for Disease Control viewed the zombie apocalypse as a way to teach pandemic emergency preparedness: “You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this…” Survivalists are overjoyed to welcome fans to their world of “41 Crucial Items You Cannot Survive Without When the Fight for Food Begins.” Sites like SurvivalOutpost.com and ChaosPlanning.com paint a picture of “violent mobs” of “savage beasts” “battling to the death over a loaf of bread.” Cognitive neuroscientists have likewise seized the opportunity to parlay interest in “brains” into interest in their profession—they playfully posit a Consciousness Deficit Hypoactivity Disorder to explain zomboid behavior. The zanily earnest Zombie Research Society (“What you don’t know can eat you”) dedicates itself to minute examination of everything from “Zombie Decay Theory” to “Zombie Hunting Behavior.” And so on.

But do zombies have a basis in fact? Reports of Haitians buried in a cataleptic states and later revived for enslavement—for example, the 1980 case of Clairvius Narcisse—have been credible enough to prompt several scientific investigations. One of the best known is that of Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist who wrote The Serpent and the Rainbow in 1985. His quest for zombinol, the “zombie poison” he hoped might have applications for anesthesia and prolonged space travel, was actually successful in isolating several toxins with the property to yield the results Friar Laurence described in Romeo and Juliet:

When presently through all thy veins shall run
A cold and drowsy humour; for no pulse
Shall keep his native progress, but surcease;
No warmth, no breath, shall testify thou liv’st;
The roses in thy lips and cheeks shall fade
To paly ashes, thy eyes’ windows fall
Like death when he shuts up the day of life;
Each part, depriv’d of supple government,
Shall, stiff and stark and cold, appear like death;
And in this borrowed likeness of shrunk death
Thou shalt continue two-and-forty hours,
And then awake as from a pleasant sleep.

Most rich and strange of all zombie references, though, is this from the website GlobalSecurity.org:

[The] trance-producing potion might seem to be a creation of the imagination, if it were not for the fact that many observers of Haiti from early colonial times down to the early 20th Century had vouched for the evidences of its use. Such a poison was necessary to the cannibalistic Voodoo devotees of slavery days, because slaves, as valuable chattels, were carefully enumerated. The chosen victim, usually a child, was dosed with the poison that brought on a condition simulating death. The master, satisfied that he had lost one of his human animals by natural causes, ordered the burial. Afterwards, the victim was resuscitated for the sacrifice, since the Voodoo rites require a living, conscious offering. … The formula of the poison was obtained at four widely separated localities in Haiti. The consistent ingredients included one or more species of puffer fish (Diodon hystrix, Diodon holacanthus or Sphoeroides testudineus) which contain tetrodotoxins, potent neurotoxins fully capable of pharmacologically inducing the zombi state. 

Why GlobalSecurity.org requires a report like this… maybe we don’t want to know. At any rate, let’s conclude with a look at what the zombie meme symbolizes today.

The central horror of the zombie-apocalypse narrative is that zombies resemble and are your own recently departed near and dear. That ambivalence has been present all along, but more and more today the moral status of the zombie is being probed. If carnivorous animals can’t be accused of murder when they kill to eat, why should zombies be, cursed as they are with the need to cannibalize? Can zombies be tamed, trained, rehabilitated, even cured? Can they be taught to eat chicken, or vegetables? The cannibal history of mankind is revisited here to a disquieting degree.

Some have explained the zombie-apocalypse phenomenon as fear of alien invasion or global plague or even plain old urban anomie. But Max Brooks, author of World War Z, notes that humans have always had good reason to fear the horde: huge, human, and hideously hungry. Right now this horde is our fellow man in the form of millions faced with starvation in the developing world. In the age of mass transportation and communications, they are no longer content to sit and wait for death. “They” are coming. The real-world images are haunting: gaunt figures wearing ragged clothing, disheveled, scrambling over fences and clawing through tunnels, lurking in the darkness waiting for a break…

There is never just one meaning to a symbol as rich as the zombie. People have feared many things in many different guises over the centuries, but some fears are eternal and universal. Fear of the dead’s resentment—survivor guilt—is one enduring terror. Zombies as Morlocks, have-nots overflowing into the realms of plenty, tap into our sense that we may not be able to hold onto our post-industrial advantages much longer. Is there a remedy for the zombie apocalypse other than a bullet to the brain? There had better be. But the narrative so far has failed to imagine one.

Marian Coombs writes from Crofton, Md.