• Zombies: Where Does the Idea Come From?

    This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.


    Zombies: Where Does the Idea Come From?   by Thomas Taylor

    The idea of reanimated corpses taking over the world has become a rather active discussion in society today. It has been the basis for numerous movies, television shows, and horror stories in pop culture dating all the way back to the 1920’s. In more recent times, this idea has spawned zombie apocalypse cults and a wave of apocalypse survivalist. But the sad reality of this idea is that it is a perversion of the belief system of an entire group of people.

    Imagine you live in the western Sahel area of Africa. To the north is the immense expanse of the Sahara desert. To the south is the Savanna, home of some of the largest and most dangerous predators in the world. The temperature is hot, with the average daily high being in the 100’s through much of the year. The region is plagued by decade long droughts followed by massive flooding. The area you live is plagued by regular swarms of as many as 50 million locusts that demolish everything in sight. As I am sure you can imagine, life is both hard and cherished. This is the environment the Fon people of southwestern Nigeria live in.

    The Fon’s had two beliefs as part of their Vodun religion that lead them to an odd problem. The first belief is that death is sacred. This was so central to their culture that they would hold anniversary parties of funerals and mourning activities would include dancing that often lasted for days. People’s ancestors walked beside them every day and were even a part of them. The second belief was that when someone dies, part of them is reincarnated.

    The problem that would unfold with this system of beliefs happens when someone commits a crime against the tribe that was so bad that it would disrupt the lives of the tribe to allow this person to continue life. If the person was sentenced to death, they would be able to roam freely among the population as a spirit until being reborn with the directives of their ancestors, and thus they would be directed to the same types of actions. This would also put the burden of taking a life upon another member of the tribe, creating another crime.

    The answer that the Fon people came up with is something that both fit their belief and turned a negative member of society into a positive one. Rather than executing someone, they would attempt to disable the person’s ability to make the decisions that lead to the crimes the people feared. In the worst cases this involved inflicting a form of brain damage, using various toxins, and allowing the person to contribute to the society in whatever remaining capacity they had. This concept is somewhat the same idea as more modern societies performing lobotomies on their mentally ill population to calm them down and make them easier to manage. This culture was carried across the Atlantic during the slave trade and eventually mixed with the Christian culture and was carried to Haiti.

    Datura stramonium, the “zombie cucumber”

    The method that the Bokor, a Vodun sorcerer, would employ to create zombies is widely disputed. The most commonly released method involves the use of “zombie powder.” This powder is made from tetrodotoxin, pufferfish venom, bufotoxin, toad venom, datura stramonium (which comes from the datura plant, also known as the zombie cucumber) and a little bit of human bone for good measure. This powder puts the person into a coma that appears dead, then after a few days the Bokor will wake the person up and administer zombie cucumber extract to keep the victim in an amnesic, hallucinogenic, and highly suggestive state for as long as desired.

    Something of note here is that these items are mostly used in Asia for medicinal purpose and are not native to Africa or Haiti. This this may prove to be an issue for a tribal witch doctor to acquire. Anthropologist Wade Davis studied this powder in the early 1980s, reporting on these ingredients. These reports, though, have fallen under much scrutiny.  The first issue is that, as with most pharmacological cases, the difference between comas with no vitals and death is a very thin line. The samples reported by Davis all have varying degrees of these ingredients, as would be expected from powders made by tribal witch doctors with little to no exact measuring instruments. This was proven to be even more inconsequential as Kao and Yasumoto (1986) tested the quantity of the toxins provided by Davis and found that they would be insignificant amounts to cause the effects stated. This was also found by John Hartung (1984) who gave the powder to mice and was not able to get any results.

    There have been cases of Vodun zombies that have been reported and presented for study. The most popular study was reported by an anthropology professor Roland Littlewood from the University of London; in this study there were three “zombies” studied. The first one was a woman named FI.  Her family reported that she died at the age of 30 from a short illness, but three years later she was found roaming the outskirts of the village. The study found that she was younger than what the family photo showed and did not have the same build that the original FI had. They also found that her symptoms were caused by catatonic schizophrenia.

    The second case was a person referred to as WD.  WD died at the young age of 18 from a mysterious illness; 19 months later he was found at a cockfight. He exhibited all the symptoms of a zombie and claimed his uncle was responsible for the zombification. His uncle was tracked down and reported that this case was, “A trick on the part of WD’s father to expropriate his property entirely, and his confession had been induced through torture by the police.” As for WD himself, he was younger and thinner than in the picture and the cousin whose land he was “buried” in would not allow the grave to be exhumed to see if there was a body in it. WD was diagnosed as having organic brain syndrome and epilepsy consistent with a period of anoxia.

    The third and final case is of MM. MM died at the age of 18 from diarrhea and fever. Thirteen years later, she appeared in the town market claiming to have been retained as a zombie and had produced a child to another zombie in a village 100 miles north of theirs. After they found her, they treated her with a daily “laying on of hands.”  Once again she was younger and thinner than the photos, but unlike the others she was responsive and emotional. The diagnosis was fetal alcohol syndrome. When she was taken to the town she claimed to be held captive in, she was immediately recognized in the town market and had a family there that claimed she was theirs. It is likely that this too was a case of misidentification.

    In this brief overview, you have seen the origins of the zombie myth. None of these “zombies” actually studied would have the possibility of surviving without direct care of a human or the ability to transmit their illness as portrayed by Hollywood. The cases of reported zombies have all fallen under suspicious circumstances and likely not been the same person that was reported dead. Finally, the powder that is “used” to create them did not work on mice and would have insignificant amounts of the chemicals to work on humans. At this point of time, it is difficult to say that zombies have ever existed or if they have all been cases of superstition and mistaken identity mixed with mental illness.

    Category: MedicinePseudoscienceReligionScienceTeaching


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com

    4 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • Shatterface

      There’s speculation in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend that the ‘vampires’ merely believe they have come back from the dead which made me think of this:


      There was a character with Cotard’s in the recent series Hannibal called Georgia Machen. She was played by Ellen Muth who also played a dead character called George Lass in Dead Like Me

      • Shatterface

        Sorry, should be Georgia Madchen – German for ‘Lass’.

        Both shows were created by Bryan Fuller so it’s an in-joke on many levels.

    • Shatterface

      I’ve been thinking about psychological conditions and science fiction recently for a feature I’m working on.

      The word ‘paranoid’ is usually thrown around for books/films like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, for instance, but it’s more a representation of Capgras delusion – the delusion that loved ones have been replaced by lookalikes.

      • Sounds to me like someone wants to write a guest-post on rare psychological conditions and horror films for the Halloween season 🙂

        • Shatterface

          I’ve been working on a feature on Blade Runner and Aspergers for a while and that’s coming to completion.

          I’ve been a fan of the film since childhood but I was only diagnosed with Aspergers quite recently despite suspecting it for a while.

          There are a lot of connections between the film and the condition such as the flattened affect of Deckard and Rachael, the mix of cold logic and childlike wonder you see in Batty and Pris, Tyrell and J. F. Sebastian’s isolation appart from their mechanical companions, etc. but the film also directly addresses a quality Aspies and replicants supposedly lack: empathy. The Voight-Kampf test used to identify the replicants has certain similarities with some of the diagnostic tests involving hypothetical role-taking too and the bulk of the essay looks at what the word ’empathy’ actually means, whether it is a ‘quintessential’ human characteristic and whether it can be quantified.

          I take in a few ‘side issues’ such as the correspondence between Aspergers and atheism and the way Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep anticipated the current ‘cult of empathy’ in Dick’s fictional religion of Mercerism.

          You might find it quite interesting.

    • Shatterface

      Getting back to zombies, the belief in life after death might well be associated with the same mechanism behind empathy: ‘theory of mind’. Humans have a predisposition to interpret phenomena as if it is intentional because if our ancestors saw the reeds rustling and assumed there was a predator lurking there that obviously gave them an evolutional advantage over those who did not. That cognitive bias is useful in certain circumstances but in a modern environment leads to pathetic falacies like interpreting earthquakes as god’s anger at gay marriage. More commonly it makes it difficult to believe loved ones are really gone because their ‘mind’ can’t just cease.

      There have been several recent studies that show a correlation between people on the autistic spectrum and a relative lack of teleological reasoning which theorists associate with a ‘deficient’ theory of mind – though in this case ‘deficient’ doesn’t seem appropriate.

      It’s interesting that many modern zombie stories feature characters who feed the zombies of their deceased family members to keep them ‘alive’ (The Walking Dead, for instance). This seems to suggest that writers and audiences are at least partly aware that behind the horror of the zombie there’s a desire to hold onto a form of life after death even if it is restated in (pseudo-) scientific terms of radiation leaks (Night of the Living Dead) or plague (Resident Evil)

      • Thomas Taylor

        I have long struggled with the term teleological reasoning; it seems that the more I read up on the various pseudoscientific ideas around the more I see religious views at their foundation. It seems that these religious views are part of what makes them difficult to let go. Your mentioning on the afterlife clearly illustrates how this effect works. Even though zombies are clearly from Voodoo doctrine, predominate Christian vies of an afterlife and a “soul” are all over the literature and the American portrayals in the
        movies. It seems that often in movies people will kill the zombies out of “mercy” when the same movies state they have no human cognition. If they do not know they are alive then how can one do them a favor by killing them? Has anyone ever seen a depressed zombie? By legal standards, zombies should be protected by the ADA and would be exempt from execution based on the inability to recognize the consequences of their actions.

        • IvyBrown

          Zombies protected by the ADA, gotta love that! I think just about everything can be traced to some type of religious beginning. Christians are concerned with what happens to the soul after death, of course they would take a stance of mercy killing on zombies (never mind the fact that mercy killing is still killing, thus violating the fifth commandment). The soul must be released so the person can move into the afterlife. And come back as spirits, demons, angels, possess small children/animals, whatever.

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    • narges30

      Yes, I believe it was just Mistaken identity mixed with mental illness. there are too many people in this world who are alike, and it is not a reason to say that he or she is that one who died many years ago. I am wondering in these cases why everyone was 18, and they got younger and thinner after their death. (probably was a part of the policy of Zombies.)

    • Alexa Riffe

      It is very interesting how the cases of zombies began to look younger, when from what we “know” as zombies look older. However my real interest is in the concoction of toxins and how these toxins made it to that area. That is very interesting and highly debatable. Of course in matter such as zombies one would like to imagine some elaborate scheme, but it would be nice to hear some explaination.

    • Dustin Belden

      This is an interesting take on the zombie culture. The assumptions people make, applying inferences to natural occurrences is a cross cultural phenomenon. Unfortunately for some, it leads to beliefs like the ones mentioned, of zombieism. Fortunately for America, we get good movies like World War Z.

    • Adam Braly

      With the surge of media related to zombies, I find it interesting that a significant number of people actually believe that a zombie apocalypse is possible. Movies, TV shows, and comics are a great source of entertainment, but biting something to transmit a disease sounds like a terrible way to acquire some brains. Not to mention the fact that they would be useless in temperate environments. Nevertheless, having an army of jaguars to take out zombies does sound promising.

    • JazzySmall

      In each zombie case, the individuals were not rotting corpses, which would imply that they did not actually rise from the grave. Instead, they all seemed to be very much alive, indicating that the “zombification” occurred on live beings. When I see an actual rotting figure moseying down the street rather than a person that’s going crazy on bath salts, then I’ll run.

    • fghani

      I did not realize claims of the dead rising again were taken seriously enough for there to have been studies. It should not come as a surprise that the cases involved mental illnesses and different people altogether. I am reminded though of the cannibal in Florida who was eating someone by the side of a road.

    • dandymandyl

      There has been such an increase in zombies lately and this fad has created a massive following of people who completely believe that this zombie invasion situation is a serious threat, and I am not shocked that there were people with mental illness involved in the studies.

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