clock menu more-arrow no yes
Javier Zarracina / Vox

How the zombie represents America’s deepest fears

A sociopolitical history of zombies, from Haiti to The Walking Dead.

The zombie, by its physical nature, inspires fear.

It is gray-skinned and bloodied, missing a limb or an eyeball. It lurches forward in tattered clothing, arms reaching out for supple flesh. Among a sea of gaunt, gangling bodies, it hobbles over its own intestines and chatters its decaying teeth.

But looking back at the history of the zombie in American culture, from its entry into our consciousness to The Walking Dead, the creature is more than an aesthetic horror — it is a form of political commentary.

For 80 years, the undead have been used by filmmakers and writers as a metaphor for much deeper fears: racial sublimation, atomic destruction, communism, mass contagion, globalism — and, more than anything, each other.

From Haiti to Hollywood: fear of voodoo and primitive culture

A depiction of Felicia Felix-Mentor, a Haitian “zombie” reported to be real in the 1930s.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

Though various concepts of the dead rising date back thousands of years in many different cultural variations, the American depiction of the zombie was borrowed from 19th-century Haitian voodooism.

The rural Haitian spiritual belief system — which was largely formulated by the millions of West African slaves the French brought to the country in the 17th century — held that those who died from an unnatural cause like murder would “linger” at their graves. During this time, the corpse would be susceptible to being revived by a bokor, or witch doctor, who would keep it as a personal slave, granting it no agency. The Haitians called this creature — suspended in some ambiguous state between life and death — a zombi.

After staging a successful slave rebellion and gaining independence from France in 1804, Haiti was demonized by the Western world as a threat to imperialism. Voodoo culture was perceived to be a signifier of the country’s savage inferiority — and when the United States occupied Haiti in 1915, Catholic missionaries set out to dismantle it.

It was during this occupation that an American by the name of William Seabrook was made aware of the zombi.

Voodoo practitioners in Haiti (circa 1860s).

While researching voodoo in Port-au-Prince, Seabrook was taken to the Haitian American Sugar Company, where he was introduced to four “zombies.” In a late 1920s text, he recounted the moment:

“The supposed zombies continued dumbly at work. They were plodding like brutes, like automatons. The eyes were the worst.They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind but staring, unfocused, unseeing.”

The catatonic beings before Seabrook’s eyes were most certainly slaves employed by American manufacturers, made to work 18-hour shifts and living in squalid conditions. But Seabrook, ignorant to this, sensationalized the account in his 1929 book The Magic Island — and in doing so, exposed America to the zombie.


The first zombie film — White Zombie (1932) — was released at the onset of the American horror movie genre, just one year after Dracula and Frankenstein. Largely based on Seabrook’s accounts, it came out at the tail end of the Haitian occupation.

In the film, a white couple visits Haiti, where they plan to get married. A plantation owner falls in love with the woman and, enlisting the help of a voodoo master, transforms the woman into a zombie. A dastardly plot ensues, involving multiple “zombifications” at the hands of evil Haitians — but in the end, the white couple emerges unharmed, and the voodoo master is pushed off a cliff to his death.

White Zombie explicitly stoked America’s worst fears of voodooism and turned the spiritual belief system into a horror motif. Haiti is presented as a primitive, orderless place where witchcraft and zombies run rampant. The ultimate tradition of Western religion, marriage, is savaged by the dark magic of the uncivilized world.

A scene from White Zombie (1932), illustrated by Vox.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

The film was a box office success, sparking a slew of similar, voodoo-fear-inducing zombie films in the 1930s and ’40s.

In Ouanga (1936), a female Haitian plantation owner falls in love with a white man and uses voodoo to conjure two black zombies, who capture the man’s fiancée for a sacrificial voodoo ceremony. Her plan eventually fails, and she is strangled to death by a “noble” black servant. I Walked With a Zombie (1943), which features a white nurse who goes to the Caribbean and has a series of wildly primitive hallucinations about zombies, explores the psychological fears of voodoo.

Until the 1940s, zombies were largely a reflection of the fears of voodooism and blackness. But as the political landscape of America shifted, the creatures soon acquired new symbolism.

The atomic zombie: fear of nuclear extinction and the Red Scare

A scene from Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), illustrated by Vox.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

By 1940, the zombie had staggered from a little-known piece of Haitian folklore to a widespread cultural phenomenon in America. Zombies were the créature du jour in big band songs, radio programs, and nightclub routines. At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the Zombie — a cocktail made with rum (and sugarcane tilled by Haitian slaves) — was a huge hit.

It was also a time of great fear: World War II was emerging, and would bring with it mass genocide, atomic warfare, and the threat of communist dictatorships. The ensuing Cold War reinvigorated anxieties over Soviet communism and scientific advancements, like the space race.

Zombies became an integral part of how Americans grappled with these fears.

At first, we see fears of voodoo and espionage clash in zombie films. In King of the Zombies (1941), a pilot crashes in the Caribbean and comes across a foreign spy who is using zombies to coax war intelligence from a US admiral. Likewise, in Revenge of the Zombies (1943), an evil doctor creates an army of Nazi zombies to ensure a German victory.

Creature With the Atom Brain (1959) claimed to be “based on scientific facts” in promotional materials.
IMDB

But following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and the first Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949, American fears of nuclear radiation and communism began to manifest in zombies.

The comic Corpses: Coast to Coast, published in a 1954 issue of Voodoo, is a prime example of this.

In the strip, gravediggers form a union and go on strike, causing a massive buildup of unburied corpses. A Soviet communist then sends the corpses through an “indoctrination tank” (which mutates them into zombies), and forms a coalition called United World Zombies (U.W.Z.). One by one, U.W.Z. takes over the White House, the United States, Europe, and the world. But the entire uprising is ultimately quelled by an atomic bomb: “Zombie tissue doesn’t stand up well to radiation!” the comic’s antagonist yells out in the final panels.

We see similar plots play out in Hollywood’s zombie films. Creature With the Atom Brain (1955), features an ex-Nazi scientist named Wilhelm using radiation to reanimate corpses. In Teenage Zombies (1960), a “scientist from the East” intends to zombify everyone in the United States using an experimental gas.

Corpses ... Cost to Coast (1954) tells the story of a socialist zombie uprising.
Via The Horrors of It All

All the while, the Soviet Union was winning the space race: In 1957 it launched Sputnik, (the world’s first artificial satellite), and in 1961 it sent the first human into space. Zombies were used as a mode of expressing Americans’ fears of losing ground in the space frontier — and the fear of space itself.

Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952) revolves around an evil alien force that steals atomic bomb plans from the Soviets, with the intention of using its force to swap orbital positions with Earth. In Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), benevolent aliens resurrect a human zombie force and use it to stop the development of a sun-powered mega bomb. The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) features a bulletproof alien force that uses a strange gas to obliterate mankind, then animates corpses with radio signals.

By the mid- to late 1960s, new turmoil emerged in the United States, and with it, the modern zombie was born.

The apocalypse zombie: a response to civil rights and the Vietnam War

A scene from Night of the Living Dead (1968), illustrated by Vox.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

The 1960s — rife with assassinations, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and counterculture rebellion — were among American history’s most turbulent years.

In the midst of it all came a movie that entirely changed the zombie film as we know it: Night of the Living Dead.

George Romero’s 1968 epic begins with a young woman named Barbara arriving at a cemetery to lay a wreath on her grandfather’s grave. A zombie stumbles forth, and she runs through the countryside, taking refuge in a farmhouse. Here, she encounters a young black man named Ben and a small group of other survivors. Ben avoids an onslaught of hundreds of zombies and emerges as the house’s sole survivor, only to be shot and killed in the final scene by a white Southern police officer.

Released just five months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Night of the Living Dead teems with political undertones that address the nation’s turbulent race relations.

Racially charged interactions are woven throughout the film — mainly between Ben and Harry, a white authoritarian whose power is increasingly threatened. When Tom, a young idealist in the group, interjects with the line, “We’d all be a lot better off if all three of us were working together,” he is largely ignored.

The closing credits of the film are a series of still, grainy images, in which a mob of white Southerners puncture Ben’s lifeless body with meat hooks, then pose for photos. As the final shot fixates on a raging fire reminiscent of a Ku Klux Klan ritual, we hear the sound of barking police dogs echo in the distance.

The closing credits of Night of the Living Dead mimic the Jim Crow–era lynchings of black Americans.

“The film was a direct response to cultural events,” says Roger Luckhurst, author of Zombies: A Cultural History. “It was shown to inner-city, mostly black youth, and paired as a double feature with Slaves (1969) — a film about an 1850s slave rebellion. It was shown in Greenwich Village among radical student groups, and was showcased in the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a form of political filmmaking.”

Night of the Living Dead was also revolutionary in that it was the first prominent film to feature vast hordes of zombies (in the film, they are referred to as “ghouls”), as opposed to an isolated few — and to use those hordes as a symbol of an impending apocalypse.

For the first time, many Americans were being exposed to the wide-scale horrors of war. Graphic video footage of the Tet Offensive (1968) and piles of dead bodies were routinely broadcast. The “massification” of the zombie in Romero’s film is a nod to this.

Toward the end of the film, in a television broadcast, the anchor reports that a “search and destroy” method will be used to take down the zombies. This seems to be a reference to the method employed by US troops against the Viet Cong — a method that used “body count” to measure the success of an attack, rather than strategic efficiency.

In George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), zombies overtake a shopping center. Illustrated by Vox.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

Despite the social progress of the 1960s, the nation’s wealth distribution became increasingly unequal in the ’70s and ’80s.

While zombie films slipped into an era of exploitation and low-budget groaners, Romero’s follow-up, Dawn of the Dead (1978) recrystallized the genre as a potent form of social commentary — this time, shifting his target to late-stage American capitalism.

Here, a zombie apocalypse rakes the United States, leaving urban centers — largely populated by lower-class minorities — especially vulnerable. SWAT teams bust through the doors of housing projects, killing dozens of living humans who pose a potential infection risk. Survivors take refuge in a giant shopping mall, where they “enjoy a hedonistic lifestyle” — but a gang of bikers soon breaks in and loots the place, in the process letting in thousands of zombies.

In the final moments of the film, zombies overrun the mall — escalators on, music playing, fountains gurgling — and we see little difference between a typical holiday weekend shopping crowd and a zombie apocalypse.

The zombies in Dawn of the Dead underscore the fears of capitalism and mindless consumption that racked the late 1970s. Here, the zombies are consumers, aimlessly roaming through shops: “This was an important place in their lives,” one survivor comments on the zombies’ presence in the mall. But the survivors are just as guilty, as is evident in this exchange between the film’s protagonists:

ROGER: Well, we're in [the mall], but how the hell are we gonna get back?

PETER: Who the hell cares? Let's go shopping!

ROGER: Watches! Watches!

PETER: “Let's just get the stuff we need. I'll get a television and a radio.”

ROGER: Ooh, ooh, lighter fluid! And chocolate! Chocolate!

PETER: [Running down a clothing aisle] Hey, how about a mink coat?!

“Having been essentially brainwashed by capitalist ideology, the [survivors] cannot see the shattered world around them in any terms other than those of possession and consumption,” writes film studies professor Kyle William Bishop. “And this misplaced drive ultimately proves strong enough to put all their lives in jeopardy.”

The pandemic zombie: fear of mass contagion

In 28 Days Later (2002), a zombie-producing virus threatens the future of mankind. Illustrated by Vox.
Javier Zarracina / Vox

Beginning in the 1980s, a fear of global contagion consumed the minds of Americans.

Over several decades, the world had witnessed a number of major, previously unidentified viruses: Ebola was detected in Sudan in 1976, AIDS manifested itself in the 1980s, the avian flu broke out in China in the mid-’90s, and SARS sent global shockwaves in 2003. Fears of “devastating epidemics” prompted the World Health Organization to establish a detailed preparation infrastructure.

These contagion fears — like all fears before it — were swiftly integrated into the zombies’ sense of being: An early 1986 article about AIDS in the Journal of the American Medical Association was titled “Night of the Living Dead II.”

Contagion soon joined the ranks of voodoo and radiation as an explanation for how zombies are reanimated.

The cover of Resident Evil (1996).

In the widely popular video game Resident Evil (1996), a major pharmaceutical company, the Umbrella Corporation, secretly experiments with bio-organic weaponry and develops the "T-virus" — a mutagenic virus that brings corpses back to life. A “green flu” virus is to blame for zombies in the plot of the 2008 video game Left 4 Dead.

The film 28 Days Later (2002) follows a similar arc: Apes infected with a highly contagious, rage-inducing virus escape from a medical research lab, and the infection spreads throughout the world, resulting in a dystopian collapse.


In recent years, the zombie — and its new medically induced origins — has been appropriated by hardcore survivalists.

In 2011, Steven Schlozman, a Harvard neurobiologist, released The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks From the Apocalypse, in which he presented a “realistic” zombie scenario, farcically based on scientific “evidence.” He even coined a name for the zombie contagion: Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency syndrome (A.N.S.D.).

That same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention famously released "Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse" — a guide on how to prepare for a widespread epidemic outbreak. The campaign was so wildly popular that it was expanded into a blog, promotional posters, and a novella. "You may laugh now,” writes the CDC’s preparedness director, Ali S. Khan, “but if a [zombie apocalypse] happens you'll be happy you read this."

A promotional poster from the CDC’s zombie awareness campaign.
CDC

In both cases, a small contingency of the public — no doubt, those with very real fears of apocalyptic doom — took the ideas of Schlozman and the CDC very seriously.

After pulling an Orson Welles and jokingly passing off his theories as truth on a national radio program, Schlozman got inundated with terror-stricken letters from listeners. “The show generated a ripple of genuine concern,” he recalled. “Mails showed up in my in-box, and I got questions along the lines of: What’s the best medicine to stave off the zombie infection? How do I keep my house safe from the zombie onslaught?”

Similarly, the CDC’s communications director related that most of the genuine responses he received were inquiries about weapon recommendations to stave off zombies.

The idea that mass contagion could start a zombie apocalypse was soon appropriated by a new survivalism fantasy — one predicated on ample weaponry, rugged individualism, and a fear of globalization.

The post-apocalyptic zombie: fear of each other

The Walking Dead (2010 to present) is indicative of a new zombie genre — one predicated on rugged individualism and the art of survival.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

In 2013, an interesting civilian army popped up in the Midwest: the Kansas Anti Zombie Militia.

“Can a natural person change into this monster that many fear?” Alfredo Carbajal, the militia’s spokesperson, inquired. “The possibilities are yes, it can happen. We have seen incidents that are very close to it, and we are thinking it is more possible than people think.”

The militia’s members, who grew up on movies like 28 Days Later and video games like Left 4 Dead, deeply fear the “global pandemic” zombie — and their preparation strategy rests largely on guns (though Carbajal recommends a blunt object, like a bat or a baton, to kill a zombie). A number of other militias — including a faction of the Michigan Militia — have followed suit, using the pandemic-themed zombie apocalypse as justification for gun rights.

These militias’ dialogue is indicative of the latest zombie trend. Today’s storylines critique the tenets of right-wing survivalism: rugged independence, a hands-off government, and guns.

Daryl, of The Walking Dead, has become a cult hero outside of the show.
The Walking Dead (AMC)

In The Walking Dead (2010 to present) — a television show based on a comic of the same name — presents a post-apocalyptic hellscape, where “walkers” (zombies) are the least of the survivors’ problems.

Over the series’ seven (and counting) seasons, the protagonists are constantly imperiled by other survivors: groups of armed bandits, psychotic cult leaders, biker gangs, and thugs.

The post-apocalyptic world is dotted with tribes interested only in their own self-preservation; all other life is considered disposable. After a particularly gruesome clash between two survivor communities in season six, a bearded man named Jesus scans piles of freshly massacred bodies and murmurs, “So this is what the New World looks like.” Indeed, it does.

Author Roger Luckhurst attributes this inability to cooperate to the survivors’ “deeply conservative value of ‘defending your own.’”

Nobody exemplifies this better than The Walking Dead’s Daryl Dixon, a self-proclaimed redneck who “makes racism lovable.” Daryl is at once fiercely loyal to those like him and staunchly independent. He maintains an off-the-grid mentality, relies on nobody, and is never caught without his crossbow, a gun, and at least three knives. He is the embodiment of the “Don’t Tread on Me” Southern mentality.

A promotional poster for the zombie film Range 15 (2016).
David Snider, via Indiegogo

A recent film, Range 15, takes this value system to an extreme: Five military buddies — each outfitted with absurd amounts of ammo and patriotic paraphernalia — proceed to “take names and kick ass” for 92 minutes, absolving America of its foreign, unfamiliar zombie threat.

Zombies, by nature, grapple with the fear of losing agency. But these stories are just as much about the fantasy for regaining it. A hygienic collapse brings with it truly horrific consequences, but also, in the eyes of a certain faction, cleanses society of its rot and provides a chance to start from scratch on a new set of terms.

But this fantasy is threatened by one of the key elements of the pandemic zombie narrative: globalization. In the eyes of survivors, interconnectedness is the reaper of all personal freedoms — and they do all they can to avoid it.

Walls are prominently featured in The Walking Dead as a way to keep out both zombies and other humans. In the film depiction of World War Z (2013), Jerusalem is besieged by hordes of zombies, which crawl up the walls like a slow-moving bacterial infection. Unlike the creatures of previous films, these migrant zombies move at fast speeds, with a sense of urgency, riffing on our fear of rapid migration rates.

A mass of zombies attempts to climb over a wall in World War Z (2013).
IMDB

In the early zombie films, small groups of survivors banded together to increase their chances of survival. In the post-apocalyptic genre, global unity is not possible; there are simply too many differing belief systems at play.

Instead, our world is fragmented into tribes — all insistent on surviving, but on their own terms. More than zombies, the true carriers of death and destruction are the remaining human factions, battling over limited resources.

And so the globalization of the zombie exposes our truest, deepest fear: each other.

A closing note

While zombie films have exploded in popularity in recent decades, they’ve been a part of American culture for 80 years.

In 80 years, Americans managed to take the catatonic zombie of Haitian voodoo tradition and transmute it into a bloodied, vicious creature, intent on devouring everything in its wake.

Fear, which once compelled us to appropriate the zombie, has also governed the new symbology we’ve given it over the years. This makes the zombie not only a fascinating study of our country’s historical fears but also a window into how foreign ideas adopt new meaning when stripped of their original context over time.

But one thing has not changed: The zombie scares us by purging our darkest deeds — and in doing so, it makes us question what it means to be human.

Explainers

How screwed are Democrats in the Senate?

Politics

What to know about the latest fight over Trump’s executive privilege claims

Energy & Environment

Joe Manchin won’t support a key climate program. Alternatives won’t be enough.

View all stories in Politics & Policy

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.