William Seabrook

Ghosts and Zombies

by leslie on October 31, 2011

Dr. Tom Carter’s “Intellectual Inquiry: Ghosts and Human Perception” is featured today in a USA Today story, “Creepy U: Tales of campus crypts.” Carter and his students spend a night in Monterey, an historic house on campus, and try to determine if they can detect any paranormal activity.

And in the “strange but apparently true” category of news, on Halloween, of course, comes word that a Roanoke College alumnus had some responsibility for the word “zombie.”

Baltimoresun.com reported last week that William Buehler Seabrook, newspaperman, author, explorer and native of Westminster, Md. who dabbled in occultism and cannibalism, had direct ties to a word now commonly used to describe the living dead.

A bit about Seabrook: After graduating from Mercersburg Academy (high school) in Pennsylvania, he entered Roanoke College, and later pursued graduate studies at Newberry College in South Carolina and the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

According to several online sources, Seabrook, the son of a Lutheran minister, was a reporter for the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle
in 1908 and became city editor at the age of 22. He became a partner in an advertising agency in Augusta, then enlisted in the French Army in 1915. After a period as a farmer in Georgia, he went to New York, where he worked as a reporter for the New York Times, then as a writer for King Features Syndicate.

Seems that a historian who researched Seabrook’s life for an article published in 2001 for the Historical Society of Carroll County (Md.) discovered a review of a book titled “The Strange World of Willie Seabrook.” The book, by Marjorie Worthington, noted that Seabrook’s “principal literary contribution, it would seem, is the word ‘zombie’.”

The precise depth and breadth of Seabrook’s apparent contribution to “zombie” is unclear. According to several online sources, there are several possible origins of “zombie” — jumbie, the West Indian term for ‘ghost,’ and nzambi, a West African word meaning “spirit of a dead person.’ According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word entered English circa 1871 and is derived from the Louisiana Creole or Haitian Creole zonbi.

A word that has worked its way into popular culture — apparently thanks to Seabrook, who died in 1945 — appears to have had lasting impact. 24/7 Wall Street, a Delaware-based financial news and opinion operation, estimates that today’s zombie genre economy — DVD sales, video games, comic books, novels, Halloween costumes, conventions, zombie art, and more —  is worth billions of dollars.

a new word: ‘zombieconomy.’



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