Zombie Lore Began as a Symbol of North American Slavery, 1929 Story Suggests

Cover of Weird Tales of the Future

Like the undead themselves, the zombie fad has overstayed its welcome. That's not to say it doesn't have its charm. That's also not to say we won't watch Night of the Living Dead and Zombieland again next month. Yet the deluge of new (and mostly derivative) zombie-inspired novels, movies, dolls, turkey basters, and who knows what else has dulled our senses. And the zombie walks — oh, those cursed zombie walks! Please cease now!

So, paradoxically, we turn to the past to find a fresh perspective. Indeed, we would do well to page through a wonderfully thorough new anthology of short fiction called, straightforwardly enough, Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! This 800-page behemoth collects several dozen short stories, documenting the origins and development of zombie mythology — and its first entry traces the Haitian “origin story” of the zombie.

Titled “Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields,” the story is an excerpt from W. B. Seabrook's 1929 book The Magic Island, which was primarily an ethnographic study of Haiti and voodoo practices. The book also introduced the zombie concept to an English-language readership. With contemporary hindsight, what is most striking about the story is that, in Haiti, the zombie legend held a significance that had nothing to do with brain-eating, but everything to do with the fact that Haiti was founded by former slaves.

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