The zombie from myth to reality: Wade Davis, academic scandal and the limits of the real

David Inglis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The figure of the zombie is one of the most ubiquitous in contemporary popular
culture. They are also beginning to be more at the centre of academic attention in a range of areas, beyond specialists in ethnology and folkloric beliefs. The image of the zombie seems to symbolise and embody a diverse range of phenomena. But the figure of the zombie was not always so intellectually respectable, especially if it was claimed that zombies were not just symbols but were in fact “real”. In the mid-1980s the ethnobotanist Wade Davis claimed that far from being only folkloric images, zombies were in fact “made” in Haiti. Actual cases of zombification could be demonstrated, and proven to result from the particular religious, social, moral and legal codes of Haitian peasant society. Davis’s publication of the claims caused a storm of controversy that in some ways has still not subsided. This paper traces out the nature both of Davis’s claims, and the scandal they gave rise to. Reasons are offered as to why the zombie subject matter seemed at the time to be so scandalous. The implications of Davis's unintended contribution to the development of taking zombies seriously within the academy are presented and reflected upon.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)351-369
Number of pages19
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2010


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