Virginia loves researching and writing about historical topics and TV shows.
Zombie banks, zombie walks, zombie agents, zombie corporations, zombie dogs, zombie films and games – the walking dead seems to multiply in our culture with the virality of a real zombie. The term has cultural currency and has earned a place in academic considerations. Where does it come from? What can it say about our own culture?
The zombie is one of the few modern monsters whose ancestry, unlike that of werewolves or vampires, cannot be traced back to Gothic literature. Perhaps the closest we get to the Western zombie is Frankenstein’s monster, as both are creatures raised from the dead.
But the similarities end here. The zombie is a body without consciousness, individuality, and capacity for rational thought. The zombie multiplies and is never alone – in contrast, Gothic monsters tend to be individualized and rational.
The zombie’s roots lie outside Europe. It was appropriated by Western cultures from Haiti at the beginning of the 20th century. Before that, the zombie’s history can be traced back to African cultures in the Kongo region and became fully-fledged in the plantation society of colonial Saint Domingue.
The first Western zombie appeared in Hollywood films in the 1930s but in a completely different form than we are used to now – the connection between the zombie and its ethnicity still wasn’t severed. The zombie in those years was a body raised from the dead and controlled by a black sorcerer.
Those early films reduced the culture that gave birth to the zombie to a racist representation of blackness. The zombie was often a tool for conquering white women and thus promoted the association of black males with unrestrained, threatening sexuality.
The zombie diverged from this representation in the 1960s and became what we know now: a mindless swarm creature, multiplying with gory bites, and controlled by no one. The cause behind a zombie outbreak is either scientific (mysterious diseases) or never explained. It articulates modern-day anxieties about capitalism and biological threats.
But what is the original zombie myth? How did it reflect the culture and history of the people who imagined it? What are the links between the Haitian and Western versions?
I will follow Lauro and Embry’s term zonbi to refer to the original creature from Haiti. Zombie will be used for the Western appropriation.
The Haitian Zonbi Astral
The zonbi isn’t always a body. It can be a part of the soul called the ti bon ange trapped in a bottle by a bokor (a Voodoo sorcerer). Haitians believe that the soul is made up of two parts: the gros bon ange, the primary life source animating the body and the ti bon ange, which is the person’s individuality. The gros bon ange goes straight to God after death, whereas the ti bon ange lingers for some time on Earth, and so it can be captured by a bokor.
An imprisoned ti bon ange is obliged to serve its new master. It can be used for healing, protection, or attacking enemies. In return, the owner should feed the soul.
Elizabeth McAlister argues that the ritual of capturing the ti bon ange produces a spiritual slave. Both zonbi astral and zonbi ko kadav (a bodily zonbi) allow the Haitians to ritually engage with their history, and especially with their experience of slavery suffered at the hands of Western powers. During the slavery period, Afro-Caribbean people were considered commodities by law, which is reflected in modern-day rituals of transferring the dead into objects.
These practices may be surprising given the pain that the Haitians suffered under slavery. McAlister argues that by engaging in these rituals, the Haitians can finally take charge of their history. The position of the slave is now elevated, as the zonbi astral is given a sanctified place in culture.
The zonbi astral can be dangerous. If the owner doesn’t provide it with enough food, the zonbi will consume the owner’s life force instead.
The zonbi, therefore, encodes both slave and slave rebellion. In the second meaning can be heard an echo of the Haitian Revolution – the only successful slave rebellion in history. The insurgent Haitian slaves were depicted by Western writers as a supernatural hoard – reflected in the zonbi as both powerless and powerful.
Zombification and the Waking Dead
The zonbi ko kadav is the flipside of the zonbi astral – a body without a soul. This is a concept that Western readers will be more familiar with.
The zonbi ko kadav has political and cultural connotations that were lost in the Western rendition. It is a living person deprived of the soul in the process of zombification and turned into a slave. Although the person is technically alive, he or she is dead in the political and cultural dimensions.
Zombification is a form of punishment meted out by secret societies, which wield a lot of power in Haiti. These societies are equivalent to the Western mafia. Zombification involves removing the ti bon ange from the victim and thus converting an individual into an enslaved body. This body is then sold into modern-day slavery, destined to cut cane on a sugar plantation.
The victim of zombification is literally a walking corpse in the eyes of society.
Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American novelist, suggests how the myth of zombification is sometimes used as a political tool. As a girl, she heard a radio broadcaster announce that there were zonbis wandering the hills, and he encouraged family members to collect their relatives. Danticat’s aunt was convinced that those zonbis were in fact people damaged mentally and physically by state-funded torture. The call for families to collect their relatives was probably a ploy to capture them.
The Western zombie is significantly different from its parent – it is cannibalistic, it reproduces itself, it is not owned by anyone. It also lacks the overtly religious and cultural meanings that the Haitian zonbi has.
The motif of cannibalism is an interesting addition to the Western myth, as it plays on racist representations of Haitians as Others that can be traced back to the colonial era. In films from the early 20th century, the zombie still wasn’t divorced from its ethnic background – presented by Hollywood in a derogatory and racist fashion.
But today, zombies are most often white people. The person who changed the rules of the game was George A. Romero with his zombie trilogy. Although Romero didn’t refer to his imaginary creatures as zombies at first, critics and viewers were quick to give them this label.
Romero’s rendering of the zombie was so influential that few people now know about the zombie’s ethnic origins. The image of a decomposing creature, lumbering forward to feed on people who still haven’t been infected is now firmly established in our popular imagination.
The Western zombie isn’t controlled by a sorcerer. It’s a swarm organism, multiplying as it eats. The cause behind a zombie attack in Hollywood cinema is either scientific (mysterious disease) or not explained at all. The zombie film normally has apocalyptic undertones and disrupts the social order without offering any viable alternative.
According to Lauro and Embry, the zombie terrifies, because it represents a threat to our bodily boundaries and individuality. Without stable bodily boundaries and consciousness, we can have no sense of self.
The zombie also mocks our mortality and desire to be immortal. It reminds us that we are all already zombies in the making – not yet dead but sure to die.
The Zombie and Capitalism
But the Western zombie still preserves some of the characteristics of the original zonbi – it has been read by critics as representing enslavement to our mortal flesh and to the capitalist system.
According to Horkheimer and Adorno, individuality in a capitalist system is a fiction that gives us the illusion of freedom, thus preventing us from rebelling. Capitalist workers and consumers alike have been compared to zombies in that the first perform mindless work, and the second consumes without the physical need to do so. Both worker and consumer are constructs that are necessary for the system to exist.
For Lauro and Embry, the zombie preserves the original meaning of both slave and slave rebellion. Capitalist zombies – the worker and consumer – are slaves to the system. In the figure of zombie, we can see the inhumanity and monstrosity of the capitalist system. However, those slaves have the potential to rebel, and this potential is exploited by filmmakers. In Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the zombies both follow the logic of capitalism (by being rampant consumerists) and disrupt the social order (and, by implication, capitalism). This shows that the system can implode itself from within.
For Lauro and Embry, the zombie points towards the way that we can move past capitalism by destroying the fiction of individuality, which keeps us in the shackles of the system and promotes egoism. If people care only about themselves, there can be no collective disposition necessary for effective rebellion against the system.
Individuality is nullified in the figure of the zombie, which has no consciousness. But the zombie rebellion is completely negative – the zombie disrupts the social order without offering a viable alternative.
The zombie is a tantalizing creature with a history of cultural and social meanings. From the Haitian zonbi to the Western zombie, it can teach us about the lived experience of colonialism, slavery, and capitalism. The zombie fascinates and terrifies – maybe because we recognize in it our own image in this age of advanced capitalism.
Kette, Thomas, ‘Haitian Zombie, Myth and Modern Identity’, Comparative Literature and Culture, 12, no. 2 (2010).
McAlister, Elizabeth, ‘Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-Whites: The Race and Religion of Zombies’, Anthropological Quarterly, 85, no. 2 (2012), pp. 457-485.
Lauro, Sarah Juliet and Embry, Karen, ‘A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism’, boundary 2, 35, no. 1 (2007), pp. 85-108.
Boluk, Stephanie and Lenz Wylie, ‘Infection, Media , and Capitalism: From Early Modern Plagues to Postmodern Zombies’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 10, no. 2, pp. 126-147.
© 2017 Virginia Matteo