Zombies, as we know them, are a relatively new type of monster. Derived from Haitian folklore and modified through decades of movie magic, we have settled on one or two versions of the undead that we are comfortable with. They could very easily ended up differently, though. There are many other types of zombie myths that exist in other cultures. For example: the Chinese Jiangshi hops. That’s how those zombies move. Hopping around.
The core of the zombie story is that the dead rise and keep on going. They’re usually aggressive and they’re definitely not quite people. They’re generally pretty rude.
The idea of the walking dead on it’s own is not particularly unique - as you’ll see, pretty much every culture has some form of the zombie myth to work from. And while they share a lot in common, there is some pretty major differences in some cases. Had our version of the zombie been derived from another cultures’, some of our favorite movies could have ended up looking very different.
Chinese Zombies - Jiangshi
The Chinese Jiangshi (pronounced something like “jong-shee”) or “hopping zombie” are usually unable to move their limbs. They hop around because rigor mortis has set in and they cannot move their arms or legs freely. In many cases, this results in them keeping their arms outstretched in front of them. They generally have a greenish skin, possibly caused by the body beginning to rot or being affected by mould while in the ground.
In Chinese folklore, people who are buried too far away from their hometown become homesick. Unless their body is prepared in a suitable way, the dead will rise as Jiangshi and hop home. These stories may derive from other stories about paying a Taoist priest to transport the dead to their home. It was believed that a soul would become homesick if the body was buried too far from its home.
These priests were said to bring the dead to life to hop home so they wouldn’t need to be carried. They also only travelled at night, and they rang bells to notify people in the area that they were coming. Conveniently, it was considered bad luck to lay eyes upon a priest transporting a jiangshi home.
A more realistic explanation comes from oral histories available on corpse transportation: two men carrying corpses tied upright to bamboo rods could result in the belief that the corpses were “hopping” home. They would have been transported at night to prevent exposure to high temperatures and, of course, also to prevent parading the dead around regular people.
Jiangshi are also sometimes compared to the modern vampire. They weren’t always decayed corpses, depending on when they rose, and they were thought to drain the life force (qi) from the living. In more recent interpretations, this is taken more literally and the “life force draining” is accomplished by sucking blood.
Norse Zombies – Draugr
Draugr are unpleasant people of strong will who refuse to die. Once dead, they rise up to take revenge on the people who have wronged them in their lives. They are able to infect others, and have specific abilities that make them more powerful than average zombies. They use their superhuman strength and ability to increase their size to easily consume the living. Or, when they were feeling generous, they would sometimes just crush them.
The Draugr would rise due to sheer force of will. In some cases, their sole purpose would become to guard any treasure they owned in life. Because of this, draugr are often depicted as guarding rich people’s tombs. They would sometimes rise for other reasons, though – including the need for revenge or to complete “unfinished business” of some kind.
Draugr are said to have some shapeshifting abilities as well. So while they would often use their size and power to stop people, they would sometimes attack their victims in sneakier ways. Including, shapeshifting into a cat, lying on the chest of their victim while they sleep, and then gradually increasing their own size/mass to crush them or suffocate them as they sleep.
Once risen, the Draugr are extremely difficult to kill again. In many cases they are immune to traditional weapons and will only be stopped if you burn their bodies and dispose their ashes into the sea. Alternatively, you can force them back into their resting place and hope they stay dead the second time around.
As it was easier to stop them from rising in the first place than it was to stop them, it was traditional to jam needles into the feet of the recently deceased to prevent them from being able to begin walking again. It was also believed that the dead could only enter a home through the door they left from, so the dead would often be removed from a small window or door that was then closed up permanently.
More recent versions of this myth involve sailors rising from the sea. More recently, Icelandic and Norwegian stories of Draugr are about men returning from being lost at sea with their faces composed entirely of seaweed.
British Zombies – Revenant
Picture a Viking warrior. Someone massive and tough and impressive. That’s basically your Draugr. Now picture a normal British foot soldier. That’s your revenant.
They are the reasonable version of the Norse Draugr. Lacking magic powers or super strength, the revenant is literally just the walking dead. They were also a little bit less mean. Most stories of revenants rising had to do with a family member tormenting their loved ones shortly after their death.
More recent legends, of course, toughen up the revenant in retrospect. Stories have evolved (or perhaps only the worst stories have survived) of murderers and other specifically terrible people rising from the dead and tormenting villages across the countryside.
Many early accounts of revenants that are available to us now come from the 1100s. William of Newburgh, a historian who lived during the middle ages, was responsible for many such accounts. He went as far as to say:
“were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome”
Basically, a real-live historian says that the dead rose so frequently that it was too much work to bother recording it for history. He did, however, have a plan. According to William of Newburgh, you could prevent the dead from continuing to rise through a combination of decapitation and burning their heart. And conveniently, they would return to their tombs during the day so that you could remove these important parts and destroy the revenant more permanently. In some cases, they would burn the entire body – just to be sure.
Canadian(sorta?) Zombies – Wendigo
The Wendigo isn’t really an undead creature but it shares a lot of characteristics with the classic zombie. The Wendigo is a human-turned-monster that craves human meat. They hunt people down and devour them.
The myth was spread as a means to deter people from cannibalism in the Algonquin tribes that lived where Canada is now. Due to the intensely bad winters and other harsh conditions, the possibility of starving throughout the winter was much higher than it is now. If you had to fear turning into a bloodthirsty inhuman monster as a result of cannibalizing another person, you may think twice. It was considered more palatable to commit suicide in the face of a serious famine.
There was two ways that this process was viewed:
- The human would turn into a Wendigo as a direct result of cannibalism
- The cannibalism invites an evil Wendigo spirit that possesses the person and turns them into a monster
Regardless, the result was a monster that hunted down and ate people.
Pretty much every society has some form of living dead creature that rises up and does mean things to people. It’s probably a requirement to provide uneducated people with a deterrent to prevent them from hanging out with dead bodies. Sometimes “eww, that’s gross” just doesn’t cut it.
And the best way to get people to listen is to provide a sensational over-the-top story. Sometimes that means that your dead loved ones might wind up being a flesh-eating shape-shifting monster that turns into cats and suffocates you to death while you’re sleeping. Sometimes it just means that they’re going to run around bugging people all the time, killing sheep and stuff.
We all have one thing in common – we want the dead to stay dead.