close up photo of zombies

What is a zombie? You might be thinking of the flesh-eating, undead monsters common in Hollywood, but the origin of zombies is much more fascinating than the stories in film and TV.

From the brutal slave plantations of Haiti to the development of voodoo legends and traditions, to the modern monsters of Hollywood, join us for a look at the history of zombies in this Halloween special episode!

Listen Here!

Interactive Transcript!

You Can Now Read and Listen at the Same Time With an Interactive Transcript!

To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!


  • Practitioner (n): A person who regularly engages in a profession, skill, or belief system.
    • The voodoo practitioner performed rituals to communicate with spirits.
  • Voodoo (n): A syncretic religion with African, indigenous Caribbean, and Catholic influences, often involving rituals, spirits, and magic.
    • Voodoo ceremonies often include dances, music, and offerings to the spirits.
  • Reanimated (adj): Brought back to life or animated again after death or inactivity.
    • In the horror movie, the ancient curse reanimated the mummy.
  • Undead (n): Deceased, but still existing or animated in a supernatural or fictional way.
    • Zombies are a classic example of the undead in horror literature and films.
  • Flesh-eating (adj): Relating to creatures or monsters that consume the flesh of living beings.
    • The flesh-eating zombies in the movie were both terrifying and gruesome.
  • Enslaved (adj): Forced to become a slave, often involving being owned and controlled by others.
    • Slavery was a dark period in history when millions of people were enslaved and subjected to harsh conditions.
  • Plantation (n): A large estate or property where crops like sugar, cotton, or tobacco are cultivated, typically using slave labour.
    • The plantation owner profited from the labour of enslaved workers.
  • Under the control (phrase): Subject to the influence of someone or something else.
    • The villagers believed that the reanimated corpses were under the control of the voodoo priest.

What is a Zombie?


When you think of a Halloween monster, I’m sure that one of the first creatures you will think of is a zombie.

To me, the word zombie conjures images of undead monsters seeking to eat your brains. Darkened eye sockets, blood dripping from their bodies, and wearing dirty torn rags. The walking dead, soulless corpses wondering around looking for their next meal.

In Michael Jackson’s famous Thriller music video, the zombies are dancing in an almost robotic style.

In 28 Days Later, they are immensely violent, with lightning-quick reflexes, no intelligence, and a desire to spread the virus that created them.

In World War Z, the zombies can run really fast and seem to be only interested in biting or attacking healthy people. Those sick with diseases like cancer are of no interest.

In the Walking Dead, there are slow-moving flesh-eating zombies with no ability to talk.

And in the original Zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead from 1968, the mindless zombies cannot be injured or hurt. They can lose body parts and continue to exist.

When I ask ChatGPT for a short definition of a zombie, the answer I get “is a fictional reanimated corpse often depicted in horror literature, films, and games.”

Children around the world will be dressing up as zombies on October 31st during their annual trick or treating sessions. At every Halloween party, there will be at least one zombie. And thousands of people will spend their Halloween evening watching a movie featuring zombies.

However, the vast majority of these people, and those of you listening to this episode, will not know what a zombie actually is.

A zombie is not a purely fictional creation of literature and Hollywood. Instead, the zombie is a product of Haiti, colonialism, slavery, and voodoo.

Let’s take a deeper look into this!

The History of Mummies! (Bonus Episode)

One of the major traditions of Halloween is dressing up in costumes resembling scary monsters. As a child, my mum would always take me to buy a gruesome mask that I could wear while trick-or-treating across my local neighbourhood.

If were to ask you, “what is the scariest Halloween monster?”,…

Keep reading

Haiti and Voodoo


Haiti is a Caribbean country located on the island of Hispaniola, sharing the island with the Dominican Republic. It is known for its history as the first independent black republic, its unique culture, and its challenging socio-economic conditions.

The island of Hispaniola was first colonised by the Spanish. The native population of the island, the Taino people, became extinct through a mix of brutal treatment and European diseases.

In the 17th century, France took over half of the island, now known as Haiti, and brought thousands of slaves from Africa to work on their sugar plantations.

Conditions were terrible. The slaves were forced to work for long hours in Haiti’s hot and humid climate. They were physically abused, with the French plantation owners using violence as a means of control.

The slaves were forced to living in unsanitary and cramped conditions, without proper clothing or food. Families were separated and children sold off on the slave market. Slaves had no rights, no education, and were not allowed to openly practice their indigenous religions or traditions from their homelands in western Africa.

Against this backdrop of brutal treatment, the enslaved African population of the island led a series of revolts and eventually gained their independence from France.

The revolution unfolded in multiple phases. It began in 1791, marked by conflicts among different factions. Under the leadership of former slave Toussaint Louverture, there was an attempt to bring stability to the colony. However, Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power in France in 1801 led to renewed tensions, as he sought to reintroduce slavery on the island.

The turning point came on January 1, 1804, when Jean-Jacques Dessalines made the historic declaration of Haiti’s independence. This marked the culmination of the Haitian Revolution and established Haiti as the first independent black republic and the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, following the United States.


One of the best known, and most infamous, features of Haitian society is voodoo.

 Voodoo is a syncretic religion with African, indigenous Caribbean, and Catholic influences. This sounds confusing, but it is just a complicated way of saying that voodoo is a belief system that mixes elements of different religions and beliefs together.

Voodoo originated in the communities of African slaves and their descendants, particularly in Haiti, and is practiced in various forms in parts of the Caribbean and the Americas, including New Orleans in the USA.

Voodoo practitioners believe in a vast number of different spirits, often referred to as “lwa” or “loa.” Each lwa has distinct characteristics and abilities, and they are sometimes associated with Catholic saints. This was an attempt to disguise the religion from the Christian colonial authorities.

Blending African, indigenous, and Catholic religious elements allowed enslaved Africans to keep their spiritual traditions while appearing to convert to Christianity.

Rituals, ceremonies, and offerings are prominent features of the religion. Voodoo rituals often involve music, dance, singing, and the use of objects, such as altars, candles, and sacred symbols. These ceremonies are led by a houngan (male priest) or mambo (female priest), and they aim to influence the spirits.

One of the most well-known features of voodoo is its belief in magic and healing powers. It encompasses a wide range of practices, including divination (predicting the future), herbal medicine, and magic. Believers may seek spiritual guidance, healing, or protection through these practices.

I’m sure many of you have pre-conceptions about voodoo. It has been widely misunderstood and mischaracterized in popular culture, often portrayed as a sinister or evil practice associated with curses and zombies.

In reality, Voodoo is a complex and diverse religion.

Zombies and Voodoo

It is from Haiti and voodoo beliefs that the concept of zombies developed.

The word “zombie” comes from the Haitian Creole word “zonbi,” which in turn is believed to have roots in the Central African Kikongo word “nzambi,” meaning “spirit of a dead person.” While the term is indeed tied to Haitian Voodoo, the portrayal of zombies in popular media, movies, and Halloween costumes is significantly different from the real-world Voodoo context.

In Haitian folklore, a zombie is a reanimated corpse brought back to life through supernatural means, typically by a Voodoo practitioner called a “bokor.”

Unlike the Hollywood version of zombies, Haitian zombies are not usually depicted as flesh-eating monsters but as individuals under the control of the bokor, lacking free will and often used for labour or other purposes.

The person under the bokor’s influence is thought to lose their consciousness and individuality, becoming an obedient and almost robotic servant.

A Product of Slavery?

One argument comes from Professor Amy Wilentz who argues that the conditions and treatment of African slaves was so brutal that the only way to escape the planation was to die.

Death was a way to return to the homeland and ancestors in Africa. Even today, we can see this connection in Haiti’s language. The Haitian Creole for heaven is lan Guineeliterally meaning Guinea and West Africa. Heaven was Africa.

However, the fear of becoming a zombie, according to Wilentz, stopped many of the enslaved people from deliberately ending their lives. The Zombie was an undead person who would not be able to return to Africa. The tile of Wilentz’s article – A Zombie Is a Slave Forever – demonstrated the people’s fears. They would never be free if they became a zombie.

One of the suggestions is that the slave drivers on plantations and managers, many of whom were slaves, former slaves, and voodoo believers, would use the fear of becoming a zombie to influence and control their slaves.

Real Zombies?

According to believers in voodoo, zombies are created through magic. Another explanation is that it is through poisoning.

The practitioners would mix together different herbs, animal bonus, and animals from the fish to create a kind of potion.

Sometimes this powder would contain small amounts of tetrodotoxin, the poisonous substance found in pufferfish. Used carefully, this toxin could create some zombie-like symptoms.

At low levels, it can restrict mobility and movement, make it difficult to breath, and cause confusion. At higher levels, it can temporarily paralyse a person, making it seem like they have died and then come back to life.

A famous paper in the renowned medical journal the Lancet from 1997 that looked a “three cases of zombification” and found something a little different.

The cases included that of a 30-year-old female who died after a short illness and war buried in a tomb. After 3 years, the woman was recognised walking around in a nearby village. She could not talk, could not eat, and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

In all three cases in the medical journal, the researchers suggested that these Haitian zombies were not the product of magic or poisoning, but the product of undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses and brain injuries.

In the paper, they diagnosed the 3 “zombies” with 3 different ailments – one with schizophrenia, one with epilepsy and brain damage, and one with fetal alcohol syndrome.

You might not know this about me, but as an undergraduate student my research speciality and graduation thesis were on the topic of medical history and mental health.

And as soon as I read the paper connecting Zombies and mental illness in Haiti, it reminded me of other “similar” cases. There is an argument that witches and the Salem witch trials of the 16th century were a persecution of mentally ill or non-typical women.

Zombies in Popular Culture

How did these Haitian “zombies” enter popular culture and become the brain eating undead that terrifies people today?

While the word zombie did appear in a few English books and articles in the 19th century, the first mainstream mention came in 1929. The travel writer William Seabrook wrote a book called The Magic Island on Haiti and Voodoo. He talked about seeing voodoo rituals and ceremonies and introduced the topic of cults and zombies to a wider audience.

In 1932, a classic horror film was released: White Zombie.

White Zombie was not what you’d expect is you are used to modern zombie movies. It features a young couple who get married on a Haitian plantation. The plantation owner, wanting to marry the bride himself, obtains a zombie potion to use on the couple.

This movie clearly references the Haitian Voodoo origins of the word zombie. Later movies would start to change things.

The most influential zombie movie probably came in 1969 with the movie Night of the Living Dead. Director George Romero’s depiction of these “zombies” – as flesh-eating, undead monsters – has now become the dominant image.

And since then, zombies have constantly appeared in successful movies, TV shows, and video games. The Walking Dead, the Last of Us, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Train to Busan, Dawn of the Dead, World War Z, Zombieland, Resident Evil, Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island…. There are so many examples of zombies in popular culture!

Moreover, governments and organisations have also capitalised on the popularity of zombies. The Centre for Disease Control in the USA, for instance, has created a zombie preparedness website. The idea is to encourage people to prepare for large scale catastrophes and natural disasters.

Next time you watch a zombie movie, hopefully you’ll take a second to think about the word’s origins in the culture and religion of Haiti’s enslaved population.

Final Thought

The concept of a zombie is often associated with Halloween and popular culture, but it is rooted in the rich history of Haiti, colonialism, and voodoo.

It’s a term that has evolved from its original Haitian meaning, where zombies were not flesh-eating monsters but individuals under the control of Voodoo practitioners. The fear of becoming a zombie kept many enslaved Africans from deliberately ending their lives, as it meant they would never be free.

While there are various explanations for the creation of zombies, including magic and poisoning, some researchers suggest that these cases might be linked to untreated mental illnesses and brain injuries.

Zombies, as we know them today, with their hunger for brains and portrayal in movies like “Night of the Living Dead,” have become iconic in popular culture. However, it’s essential to remember their origins in the culture and religion of Haiti’s enslaved population, where they represented a very different concept.

So, the next time you encounter a zombie in a movie or Halloween costume, you can appreciate the complex and diverse history behind this iconic monster.

What do you think?

Extended Vocabulary List

Become a Patreon Subscriber to Access the Extended Vocabulary List!

To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!

Vocabulary Games and Activities!

Learn and practice vocabulary from this Thinking in English episode.
Practice using 5 different study games and activities – including writing, listening, and memorisation techniques!

To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!
Matching Game
To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!
Learning Game
To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!
Test Yourself
To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!
Listening and Spelling
To see this content become a Patreon member and supporter of Thinking in English!

Donate to Thinking in English!


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

Do you want to Think in English?

I’m so excited that you found my blog and podcast!! If you don’t want to miss an article or an episode, you can subscribe to my page!

Liked it? Take a second to support Thinking in English on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

Leave a Reply