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The Monsters Are Real! SEL Fall Exhibit: Zombies, Revenants, and other Undead

The Science behind our favorite Halloween Monsters; “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” ― Stephen King

Zombies, Revenants, and other Undead

Zombies, Revenants, and Other Undead

Technically, vampires could also be classified here, but the topic of vampires is so huge, especially in popular culture, the overlap would be the bulk of the topic. Zombies, revenants, mummies, liches, and other undead and/or corpses deserve equal attention.



Wade Davis, a Harvard-trained ethnobotanist, has written two books about Haitian zombies, The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) and PASSAGE OF DARKNESS :  The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1997).  In his dissertation, Davis writes,

The anthropological and popular literature on Haiti is replete with references to zombies. According to these accounts, zombies are the living dead: innocent victims raised in a comatose trance from their graves by malevolent Voudoun priests (bokors), and forced to toil indefinitely as slaves (Davis).

THERE ARE TWO types of spiritual intermediaries in the voodoo religion, houngans and bokors. Houngans (priests) are the prime clergy. The preside over traditional ceremonies, intercede between individuals and the many voodoo gods, heal the sick, see the future, and dispense personal and political advice. Houngans know magic, but reputable houngans practice it only for good ends. Bokors (sorcerers) are not so scrupulous, dealing with the less savory voodoo gods (Zuckerman et al.).

Certain toxins, as from the the puffer fish, are believed to create a trance-like state which would allow the bokor to control the victim.

In 1962, a man named Clarvius Narcisse was admitted to the Schweitzer hospital in Haiti and was subsequently pronounced dead, put into cold storage, and then buried by his family. In 1980, a man walked up to Clarvius’s sister and identified himself using a childhood nickname and other facts, known only to Narcisse as Clarvius Narcisse. Wade Davis travelled to Haiti to study the matter and wrote his dissertation and the two books on Haitian zombification.

Zombies in popular culture are not the zombies of Haitian religious beliefs. According to Luckhurst,

The zombie , they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life – it is a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive. People who have the power to do this go to a fresh grave, dig up the body before it has had time to rot, galvanize it into movement, and then make of it a servant or slave, occasionally for the commission of some crime, more often simply as a drudge around the habitation or the farm, setting it dull heavy tasks, and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens (30).

So far, only the reanimated corpse part of the Haitian zombie is the same as the “Walking Dead” type zombies, although is if Davis’s research is right, tetradotoxins create a state in which the victim is paralyzed and only appears dead until he or she is “resurrected” by the bokor to be a slave.

In 1968 and American independent horror film, Night of the Living Dead, directed, photographed, and edited by George A. Romero, with a screenplay by John Russo and Romero changed the popular culture image of zombies forever.

You can watch the film HERE



The primary difference between revenants and zombies is location, location, location. Zombies are from the Carribean, revenants from old Europe. Modern iterations of movie zombies are reanimated corpses which are flesh eaters, primarily brains, but revenants may maintain some semblance of their former identity. Often the term is used interchangeably with vampires or ghosts.


While mummies actually exist, the notion of them being renaimated or resurrected is more of a modern convention, like in the 1932 Universal Film, The Mummy starring Boris Karloff in the title role. The film was not the first such story of a mummy brought to life, though; in 1827, Jane (Webb) Loudon wrote the science fiction novel The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century. Other examples of this type of story are The Mummy's Foot (1840) by Théophile Gautier, Some Words with a Mummy (1845) by Edgar Allan Poe, Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy's Curse (1869) by Louisa May Alcott, “The Ring of Toth” (1890) and Lot 249 (1892) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903) by Bram Stoker, to name a few.

Liches, Wraiths, Etc.

These creatures are found primarily in fantasy novels, such as Clark Ashton Smith's "The Empire of the Necromancers" (1932) and in Role Playing Games (RPGs) such as Dungeons and Dragons.


References and Recommended Further Reading

Bibliography and recommended Further Reading

Ackermann, Hans W., and Jeanine Gauthier. “The Ways and Nature of the Zombi.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 104, no. 414, 1991, pp. 466–94. JSTOR,

“American Scientist Interviews: Wade Davis on Zombies, Folk Poisons, and Haitian Culture.” American Scientist, vol. 75, no. 4, 1987, pp. 412–17. JSTOR,

Anderson, Eric Gary, et al. Undead Souths : the Gothic and Beyond in Southern Literature and Culture. Edited by Eric Gary Anderson et al., Louisiana State University Press, 2015.

Bishop, Kyle. "The Sub-Subaltern Monster: Imperialist Hegemony and the Cinematic Voodoo Zombie." The Journal of American Culture, vol. 31, no. 2, 2008, pp. 141-152. ProQuest,

  Booth, William. “Voodoo Science: A Popular Claim That a Chemical Found in Puffer Fish May Be a Crucial Element in the Creation of the Zombies of Haitian Folkore Has Been Challenged; Critics Claim Contrary Evidence Was Ignored.” Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science), vol. 240, no. 4850, 1988, pp. 274–77,

   ---     “Zombification: Response.” Science, vol. 240, no. 4860, 1988, pp. 1716–1716. JSTOR,

Bourguignon, Erika. “The Persistence of Folk Belief: Some Notes on Cannibalism and Zombis in Haiti.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 72, no. 283, 1959, pp. 36–46,

Caciola, Nancy. “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture.” Past & Present, no. 152, 1996, pp. 3–45. JSTOR,

---          “Revenants, Resurrection, and Burnt Sacrifice.” Preternature, vol. 3, no. 2, 2014, pp. 311–38, 

Castricano, Jodey. Cryptomimesis : The Gothic and Jacques Derrida's Ghost Writing, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Cusack, Andrew, et al. Popular Revenants: The German Gothic and Its International Reception, 1800–2000. Boydell & Brewer, 2012,

Davis, E. Wade. “The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombi.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology, vol. 9, no. 1, 1983, pp. 85–104,

   ---     "Preparation of the Haitian zombi poison." Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 29.2 (1983): 139-149.

Davis, Wade.  “Zombification.” Science, vol. 240, no. 4860, 1988, pp. 1715–16. JSTOR,

 ---       Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie. The University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

 ---       The Serpent and the Rainbow. 1st Touchstone ed., Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Doyle, Sir Arthur  Conan. “Lot No. 249.” Owl Eyes,, Inc., 2022,

 ---       “Ring of Thoth.” Owl Eyes,, Inc, 2022,

Drezner, Daniel W. “Metaphor of the Living Dead: Or, the Effect of the Zombie Apocalypse on Public Policy Discourse.” Social Research, vol. 81, no. 4, 2014, pp. 825–49. JSTOR,

Glover, Kaiama L. “Exploiting the Undead: The Usefulness of the Zombie in Haitian Literature.” Journal of Haitian Studies, vol. 11, no. 2, 2005, pp. 105–21. JSTOR,

Guercio, Gino Del. “From the Archives: The Secrets of Haiti's Living Dead.” Harvard Magazine, 31 Oct. 2017,

Handwerk, Brian. “Curse of the Mummy.” History, National Geographic, 4 May 2021,

Hirsch, David A. Hedrich. “Liberty, Equality, Monstrosity: Revolutionizing the Family in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, NED-New edition, University of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp. 115–40. JSTOR,

Killeen, Jarlath. “Undead.” The Emergence of Irish Gothic Fiction, Edinburgh University Press, 2014,

King, Charles. “When Zora Neale Hurston Studied Zombies in Haiti.” Medium, ZORA, 23 July 2019,

Lindahl, Carl, et al. Medieval Folklore : A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Livermore, Christian. When the Dead Rise: Narratives of the Revenant, from the Middle Ages to the Present Day. Boydell & Brewer, 2021.

Loudon, Jane. The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century. Second ed., vol. 3 3, HENRY COLBURN, 1828, Project Gutenberg,

Luckhurst, Roger. Zombies : A Cultural History, Reaktion Books, Limited, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central,

McDaniel, Justin. "Encountering corpses: Notes on zombies and the living dead in Buddhist Southeast Asia." Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia 12 (2012): 1-16.

McFarland, James. “Philosophy of the Living Dead: At the Origin of the Zombie-Image.” Cultural Critique, vol. 90, 2015, pp. 22–63. JSTOR,

Nugent, Connie, Gilbert Berdine, and Kenneth Nugent. "The undead in culture and science." Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings. Vol. 31. No. 2. Taylor & Francis, 2018.

Sayers, William. “The Alien and Alienated as Unquiet Dead in the Sagas of the Icelanders.” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, NED-New edition, University of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp. 242–63. JSTOR,

Simpson, Jacqueline. “Repentant Soul or Walking Corpse? Debatable Apparitions in Medieval England.” Folklore, vol. 114, no. 3, 2003, pp. 389–402. JSTOR,

  Stephens, Elizabeth. “‘Dead Eyes Open’: The Role of Experiments in Galvanic Reanimation in Nineteenth-Century Popular Culture.” Leonardo (Oxford), vol. 48, no. 3, 2015, pp. 276–77,

Walter, Michael. “Of Corpses and Gold: Materials for the Study of the Vetāla and the Ro Langs.” The Tibet Journal, vol. 29, no. 2, 2004, pp. 13–46. JSTOR,

Weiner, Jesse. "Lucretius, Lucan, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein." Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (2015): 46-74.

Wylie, Turrell. “Ro - Langs: The Tibetan Zombie.” History of Religions, vol. 4, no. 1, 1964, pp. 69–80. JSTOR,

Zuckerman, Edward, et al. “The Natural Life of Zombies.” Outside Online, 24 Feb. 2022,