In today’s world of pop culture TV, movies, books, and even video games you would be hard pressed to find a single person in the first world that doesn’t know what a zombie is. Classically they stumble and gather in herds mindlessly seeking out the flesh of their victims.
In some versions the classic zombie has been adapted to a rampaging, sprinting monster, but there are a few basic traits which remain the same. These are the zombie’s desire for flesh, the mindlessness having risen from the dead, and the viral capacity of their bite often resulting in a zombie plague.
None of this is new. None of this began with the films of George A Romero or other modern creators. The tales of walking dead spreading a zombie plague. Tales of the risen dead devouring their way through humanity predates the literature of the cultures that first spoke of them almost two thousand years ago. This is the history of zombies…
Real African Zombies
Many may be familiar with the zombies of Haiti whether it be through lore or through the works of Wade Davis, but would it surprise you to know that almost no zombie movie or show uses the term “zombie”? Not 28 Days Later, not The Walking Dead, and in fact the word “zombie” is not said once in any of the Living Dead movies.
The reason for this is that the zombies of Africa, Haiti and elsewhere throughout the Caribbean are lacking one important trait – they’re not dead. Despite that, Africa is where popular culture has taken the name from.
These are real zombies witnessed by many and studied by Western medicine. An ancient practice of wiping a person’s memory, brainwashing them, and resurrecting them as slaves to a master through the use of psychotropic plants.
In the religion and practice of Vodun (or Voodoo as we know it) these brainwashed slaves are referred to as the “zonbi”. Carried from Africa to the Caribean the practice has been ongoing for what one can only guess has been centuries, but it wasn’t until 1980 that it came to the attention of the West via the work of Canadian ethnobotanist Wade Davis in his book The Serpent and the Rainbow, later to be popularized in a Hollywood adaptation by the same name.
Zombies in Pop Culture
Of course Americans had been aware of the concept of the living dead since 1968 when George A. Romero first released Night of the Living Dead.
Even earlier than that Richard Matheson had described within a short story found within I Am Legend the exact phenomenon of Romero’s Living Dead right down to the cause. Matheson’s depiction was released in 1954 and Romero has openly admitted to “borrowing” the concept from that book.
Throughout all of this Western culture had not yet put a name to the ______ uprising. When The Serpent and the Rainbow was released in film in 1988 we quickly adopted a name for the creatures and they would from then on be called by “zombie”.
Zombies in Ancient Cultures
Whether or not Richard Matheson was aware of the following ancient creatures when he wrote his short story in 1954 we may never know, but the fact is… he really nailed it!
In the East the Tibetans believed in a creature known as the Ro-lang, which translates literally as “to rise up”. Millennias ago they didn’t have military experiments or chemical weapons to attribute the rising dead to, so in this case it was caused by sorcerers or other magical practitioners.
In description the Ro-langs match modern zombie depictions perfectly. They cannot speak or otherwise communicate and in movement they cannot bend at the joints, which causes their walk to take a shuffling form and their mouth their only weapon.
In keeping with the three traits of a zombie, Ro-langs can infect the living with their bite, and the epidemic is to put it modestly, rapid, sometimes told as infecting an entire region in a single night.
Unlike modern zombies the ancient Tibetans told that there were several varieties of Ro-lang and that for each a different method was required to dispatch them. None could be killed, but all could be made to fall over and thus rendered harmless.
For some a person would need to break the skin of the Ro-lang to make it fall over, others the method needed was making them bleed, breaking their bones, or of course destroying the brain. Each was specific to a type of Ro-lang and what worked on one wouldn’t work on another.
In the case of the Ro-lang amongst the Tibetans these ancient zombies were not regarded as some otherworldly concept. They were very real, and a very imminent threat, so much so in fact that the Tibetans would build their homes with doors considerably shorter than a person to avoid entry by the risen dead.
Many other cultures around the world have folklore based around creatures of the undead, and many almost depict what we now know as zombies, but none so exactly as those described in Tibet.
Richard Matheson, possibly the originator of the modern zombie passed away in 2013, and unfortunately he took with him his inspiration for his undead creatures. Given the exacting similarity we can only say that it is very possible that the Ro-lang was the original “zombie”.