Witches, werewolves, and vampires appear repeatedly in numerous works of fiction, with a number of historical inspirations for these fictional works. Similarly, zombies also keep showing up in popular culture, from Resident Evil to The Walking Dead. Yet, zombies have outside inspirations as well.
This list features ten such instances, where historical people were alleged to have actually been zombies, or something depicted in some form of media turns out to have basically been a proto-zombie.
10. Roanoke Colony
The Roanoke Colony on Roanoke Island in Dare County, North Carolina is no stranger to mystery and conspiracy theories. Historically, the colony represents a risky attempt by Queen Elizabeth I to establish a permanent English settlement in North America. Sir Walter Raleigh gained his deceased half-brother’s charter from Queen Elizabeth I, and subsequently dispatched an expedition to explore the Eastern coast of North America. This expedition arrived on Roanoke Island on July 4, 1584 and was followed by additional voyages to Roanoke Colony.
Unfortunately, the final group of colonists disappeared mysteriously during the Anglo-Spanish War, three years after the last shipment of supplies arrived from England in 1787. When Englishmen landed on August 18, 1590, they found the settlement deserted with no trace of the 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children who previously inhabited the colony. Nor did the sailors discover any sign of a struggle or battle. They did, however, notice the word “Croatoan” carved into a post of the fort, and “Cro” carved into a nearby tree.
This lead them to conclude that the disappeared settlers must have moved to Croatoan Island. Threatening weather prevented a search of that island. As such, with the mystery not solved, the colonists’ disappearance gave rise to the nickname “The Lost Colony,” and a diverse list of hypotheses regarding what happened to them. These include integration with local tribes, loss at sea, starvation, destruction by the Spanish, and yes, zombies. Well, sort of, at least according to Max Brooks’s fictitious Zombie Survival Guide. The book is presented in a manner intended to aid survivors of a zombie apocalypse that includes references to supposed real life incidents of zombies in history, including, of course, Roanoke Colony. But it does not stop there; the Zombie Research Society includes an article on the topic, and even that is not the end of zombies in Roanoke as seen here.
9. Alexander Kinyua and the 2012 Zombie Apocalypse
In May 2012, Alexander Kinyua, a 21-year-old student at Morgan State University in Baltimore, was arrested for not only murdering his 37-year-old roommate Kujoe Bonsafo Agyei-Kodie, but for also dismembering him and eating his brains and heart. The case became part of an alleged wave of “zombie apocalypse” attacks in 2012, that included several other bizarre (and rather sickening) incidents. These included Wayne Carter, a 43-year-old from Hackensack, New Jersey disemboweling himself and throwing his skin and intestines at police, and an occurrence in Palmetto, Florida, where 26-year-old Charles Baker got naked and bit off some of 48-year-old Jeffery Blake’s arm, before police arrived to rescue him. Not surprisingly, the media (some more seriously than others) covered these events as if they were part of some connected zombie phenomenon.
8. Baron Samedi
One of the original historical zombies is none other than Baron Samedi (Baron Saturday). Baron Samedi is one of the Loa (spirits) of Haitian Voodoo, specifically a Loa of the dead and the Loa of resurrection, hence the zombie connection. One of his “jobs” is to ensure all corpses rot in the ground, to stop souls from being brought back as brainless zombies. Nevertheless, he is himself depicted as the titular zombie in the famed second entry of the Nightmare interactive board game series. He also appears as a playable character in the other games of the series.
In Voodoo lore, he also has a wife named Maman Brigitte, who has been syncretized with the Irish Saint Brigid. The African slaves in Haiti syncretized the Loa with Roman Catholic saints, so as to appease their European masters who otherwise prevented them from practicing their own religions.
7. Clairvius Narcisse
Whereas Baron Samedi is more of a mythical figure, Haiti also has been home to alleged zombies with a more historical basis. The strange case of Clairvius Narcisse concerns a Haitian man allegedly turned into a living zombie by a combination of tetrodotoxin (pufferfish venom) and bufotoxin (toad venom) by his brother, as punishment for breaking one of the traditional behavioral codes. Most likely, these drugs induced a coma, mimicking the appearance of death. He was later given doses of Datura stramonium to create a compliant zombie-like state, so that he could work for two years on a plantation. After the plantation owner died, Narcisse walked away to freedom, returning to his village after eighteen years.
The case of Narcisse is historically significant, as the first potentially verifiable example of an individual being transformed into a “zombie.” It is also a major aspect of the book The Serpent and the Rainbow, written by ethnobotanist and researcher Wade Davis. The book inspired a 1988 horror film of the same name.
6. Other Haitian Zombies
In 1997, English medical journal The Lancet published a set of case studies detailing three reports of zombification in the island nation. One was around thirty years old when she died. Three years later, she was seen waling around, identified via a unique facial scar. Then there was a 26-year-old male whose grave was not watched over the first night, as is Haitian tradition. Nineteen months later, he showed up at a cock fight, alive and angry at his uncle for turning him into a zombie by not watching the grave. Finally, a 31-year-old girl died after attending a vigil for someone else who had become zombified, only to reappear 13 years later as a Mommy zombie, having given birth to a child whose father was also a zombie.
5. Rumored Zombies in Cambodia and Russia
In 2010 and again in 2012, various reports and even videos (probably of drugged or mentally ill people, or actors) purporting to show Russian zombies popped up on the Internet. While some of these websites are clearly hoaxes, others seem more valid, including news concerning a drug known as krokodil that rots the flesh off its abusers in such a way that they resemble “zombies.”
Even earlier, in 2005, reports claiming to have originated with BBC alleged that some kind of zombie outbreak occurred in Cambodia, in which people’s hearts restarted after apparent death, and they then acted violently upon “resurrection.” In both scenarios, forum posters and bloggers denounced the mainstream media for not adequately covering this bit of unverified news.
In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated anthropomorphic being, created entirely from inanimate matter. As such, they are not traditionally zombies in the usual sense, yet they have many similar characteristics. Moreover, although they are technically an example of a folkloric being, they have also been alleged to really exist in a few memorable historic instances.
Three notable examples are worthy of mentioning. First, the oldest description of a golem by a historical figure is included in a tradition connected to Rabbi Eliyahu of Chelm. A Polish Kabbalist, writing in about 1630–1650, reported the creation of a golem by Rabbi Eliyahu, and Rabbi Jacob Emden elaborated on the story in a book published in 1748. Second, the most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a sixteenth century rabbi of Prague, who reportedly created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from antisemitic attacks and pogroms. Allegedly, some strictly orthodox Jews actually do believe that this particular rabbi did in fact create a golem. At least one rabbi writing in the twentieth century even claimed to have seen the Prague golem’s remains!
Finally, the Vilna Gaon said that he once began to create a person when he was a child but, during the process, he received a sign from Heaven ordering him to stop. Yet, he claimed to have tried again anyway as an adult. He wrote an extensive commentary, claiming also tried to create a golem to fight the power of evil at the Gates of Jerusalem.
3. George Forster
George Forster was a convicted murderer of his wife and child. He allegedly drowned them in Paddington Canal, London. He was then hanged for his crimes at Newgate on January 18, 1803, but his story does not end there. His body was subsequently taken to a nearby house, where it was used in an experiment by Italian scientist Giovanni Aldini, who was an enthusiastic proponent of stimulating muscles with an electric current, a technique known as Galvanism. Several of those present at the experiment in 1803 seriously believed that Forster was indeed being brought back to life, due to the strange contortions made as Aldini jolted the corpse with electricity. As such, the incident serves as a possible likely inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and has been referenced in such History Channel documentaries as Zombies: A Living History.
2. Miami Cannibal Attack
On May 26 2012, a nude Rudy Eugene assaulted Ronald Poppo in Miami, Florida. After accusing Poppo of Bible theft, Eugene beat Poppo unconscious, removed his pants, and proceeded to bite off most of his face above the beard, including his left eye, leaving him blind in both eyes. The shocking attack, which received worldwide media coverage that frequently tossed around the Z-word, ended when Eugene was fatally shot by a Miami police officer. Eugene has since been nicknamed the “Miami Zombie.”
1. Various Victims of Jeffrey Dahmer
Finally, we come to one of the most bizarre episodes in American history. Jeffrey Dahmer, an American serial killer and sex offender, murdered at least seventeen men and boys between 1978 and 1991. His abuse of these victims not only included cannibalism, but also his theory that he could turn his victims into submissive “zombie” lovers, by drilling holes into their skulls and injecting hydrochloric acid or boiling water into the frontal lobe area of their brains with a large syringe. Needless to say, he failed in this project. Fortunately, he was caught, tried, convicted, and subsequently murdered in prison.
By Dr. Matthew D. Zarzeczny, author of Meteors That Enlighten The Earth