Zora Neale Hurston on the history of the zombie

Zora Neale Hurston is perhaps best known for her book Their Eyes Were Watching God, a classic of Southern Literature. Students who read about Janie’s love for Tea Cake might not guess that Hurston also believed that zombies were real and that she is one of the most frequently credited sources for stories about “real zombies” coming from Haitian folklore and from voodoo.

Hurston was an anthropologist in addition to being an author. She wrote several books in which she collected ethnographies, or stories about local cultures, from the Southeastern US and from the Caribbean.

Her zombie stories tie the history of the concept of “the walking dead” to voodoo practices in Haiti, and that in turn implies a history of these zombie legends tracing farther back into Africa.

She says in the interview posted above that “zombies are real” but that she did not believe that these so-called walking corpses were ever really dead. She gives both a cultural and a scientific reason for the legends in claiming that people were being raised by voodoo priests from “states of suspended animation.”

This gives us plenty of material to research, but before we get too excited about how to study this particular zombie artifact, let’s not lose sight of our most exciting find here: Zombies are real!!


Hurston’s discussion of zombies is in Chapter 13 of her book Tell My Horse. That chapter is currently available in pdf form online here.

You can also find a scholarly article about Hurston’s  zombie accounts through EBSCOhost. Do a search in the Academic Search Complete database. This database is available for students in Mississippi two-year colleges through your school’s library. Go to the library page on your school website to locate it. Here’s the MLA citation information you can use to find (and to reference) this particular article:  Emery, Amy Fass. “The Zombie In/As The Text: Zora Neale  Hurston’s “Tell My Horse..”  African American Review 39.3 (2005): 327-336. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.

If you are doing a paper on the topic of Zora Neale Hurston and zombie stories, Hurston’s book chapter and her audio interview would be considered primary sources. The journal article would be considered a secondary source, but because it is a scholarly source, it might be seen as having more value than non-scholarly sources.

That said, take a look at a news article from NPR about the history of zombies (secondary source and not-quite-so-scholarly, but possibly still useful and still from a respected source): Zoinks! Tracing The History Of ‘Zombie’ From Haiti To The CDC. Like Hurston, Lakshmi Gandhi, the author of this article, links zombies to Haitian folklore and voodoo as well as to the history of slavery in the West Indies.

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