Not Your Average Zombie
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Not Your Average Zombie

Rehumanizing the Undead from Voodoo to Zombie Walks

Chera Kee

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eBook - ePub

Not Your Average Zombie

Rehumanizing the Undead from Voodoo to Zombie Walks

Chera Kee

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A thorough analysis of zombies in popular culture from the 1930s to contemporary society.

The zombie apocalypse hasn't happened—yet—but zombies are all over popular culture. From movies and TV shows to video games and zombie walks, the undead stalk through our collective fantasies. What is it about zombies that exerts such a powerful fascination? In Not Your Average Zombie, Chera Kee offers an innovative answer by looking at zombies that don't conform to the stereotypes of mindless slaves or flesh-eating cannibals. Zombies who think, who speak, and who feel love can be sympathetic and even politically powerful, she asserts.

Kee analyzes zombies in popular culture from 1930s depictions of zombies in voodoo rituals to contemporary film and television, comic books, video games, and fan practices such as zombie walks. She discusses how the zombie has embodied our fears of losing the self through slavery and cannibalism and shows how "extra-ordinary" zombies defy that loss of free will by refusing to be dehumanized. By challenging their masters, falling in love, and leading rebellions, "extra-ordinary" zombies become figures of liberation and resistance. Kee also thoroughly investigates how representations of racial and gendered identities in zombie texts offer opportunities for living people to gain agency over their lives. Not Your Average Zombie thus deepens and broadens our understanding of how media producers and consumers take up and use these undead figures to make political interventions in the world of the living.

"Kee provides a compelling synthesis of theory and criticism... useful for horror scholars interested in how portrayals of zombie intersect with race and gender." — Popular Culture Studies Journal

"Kee's Not Your Average Zombie is an important book... Put simply: if it's the one book you read about or cite on zombie, you've made an excellent choice." — American Quarterly

"[ Not Your Average Zombie ] offers a fresh theoretical framework to a fast-growing field... A fascinating contribution to the critical conversation about the zombie as a fantastic figure." — Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

"I'm impressed by Kee's scholarship across several fields—film history and gender and critical race studies, especially—and her cultural and historical contextualizing of the current zombie renaissance." —James H. Cox, University of Texas at Austin, author of The Red Land to the South: American Indian Writers and Indigenous Mexico

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Part I
ZOMBIE IDENTITIES
1
FROM CANNIBALS TO DEAD MEN WORKING IN THE CANE FIELDS
Haiti, Vodou, and Early Zombie Films
In the first few moments of the zombie film Ouanga (Terwilliger, 1935), a narrator describes “Paradise Island” in the West Indies, with its “majestic mountains wreathed in clouds” and its “palm-lined shores.”1 As bright music plays, he tells us that “the daily life of its inhabitants is marked by an unhurried peacefulness,” and the accompanying images corroborate this: people walk to market and wash clothes in a nearby river. However, the narrator suddenly announces, “Night falls.” A shirtless black man emerges from the darkness, looming toward the screen, and the narrator tells us, “Mysterious figures slip silently from shadow to shadow. Nature becomes ghostly and unearthly, alive with evil movement, shuddering incantations and gruesome rites, and seemingly from everywhere comes the throbbing, pulsating beat of the voodoo drums.” Drums and voices fill the air, and the filmmakers suddenly transport us to a voodoo ritual. The message is clear: by day, this island—a thinly veiled substitute for Haiti—is peaceful and simple, but something dark is waiting just below the surface.
Early zombie fiction often created exotic locations where young Americans became embroiled in what was lurking behind pleasant facades, and this story trope owed much to a more than century-long fascination with Vodou and Haiti. In the years leading up to the first zombie films, writers often portrayed Haiti as the same sort of place as “Paradise Island”: innocuous at first glance but harboring a threatening secret. As the fictionalization of a 1938 radio broadcast put it, “Even at noon, under the blazing scrutiny of the tropic sun, there are dark places in Haiti.”2 Much of that darkness supposedly stemmed from Vodou. Even before Haiti officially became a nation in 1804, stories of Vodou circulated throughout the world, and they generally aimed to portray Haitians as barbaric, wholly different from the God-fearing peoples of the United States and Europe.
When the zombie entered US popular culture in the late 1920s, then, it was not simply an instance of translating Haitian folklore into fictional American myth. The zombie was a supposedly real creature, unique to Haiti, where Vodou sorcerers raised and controlled zombie slaves. The zombie was thus able to provide yet another variation in a more than century-long practice of framing Vodou and Haiti in a threatening light. Haiti, in particular, needed to be demonized: as an example of postcolonial self-rule, it stood in defiance of colonial thinking of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Haiti raised potent questions over who could and could not effectively govern themselves, and these questions were inevitably couched in racist terms: Haiti was, after all, the black republic.3
These questions haunted early zombie fiction as well. From the very beginning, it wasn’t necessarily the zombies that were the threatening creatures in zombie media. Rather, the cultures and people who produced and controlled zombies posed the biggest threat. Thus, the legacies of colonialism and fears surrounding self-rule that had become bound up with depictions of Haiti throughout the preceding century shone through in early zombie texts, which purported to let audiences see exactly what happened in the places where these cultures ruled themselves.4 In many ways, nostalgia for the colonial world permeated these films.
The fears enacted in the earliest zombie stories in US pop culture—that “black” magic would corrupt the pure US citizen’s body—led to stories about rescuing people from the clutches of unscrupulous zombie masters. Time and again, these films set up a dichotomy, not only between zombie-making cultures and those who would fight them, but also between those bodies in need of rescuing from zombification and those more suitable to being zombified. Therefore, we might assume that the zombie, as it first entered US pop culture, was an unthinking, ordinary slave-style zombie, but this chapter questions that assumption.
In the introduction, I showed how one can read a certain amount of power or resistance in the zombi’s slavery, making the zombi already a bit extra-ordinary. Here, too, what we see is a blurring of the lines between the ordinary and extra-ordinary zombies. Early slave-style zombie narratives are predicated on the idea that zombification doesn’t have to be permanent—especially if one is a young white American—and thus, these zombies exist as extra-ordinary zombies from the start. They might not be thinking, talking, active zombies, but there is very little danger of their zombification ever being permanent, which dilutes the loss of agency ascribed to the zombie state, at least for them. I am not suggesting that these zombies become extra-ordinary in hindsight, but rather that these zombies were never really ordinary to begin with, even if that is how they were originally intended to be read. Furthermore, these zombies almost always existed in contrast with the ordinary zombies of color who populate the backgrounds of these movies and are much less often assured of receiving the same sort of rescue. In these films, then, zombiism exists along racialized structures that only some can escape.
HAITI’S (VODOU) REVOLUTION
Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola in December 1492, claiming it for Spain, which established settlements throughout the territory. Under the Treaty of Ryswick (1697), Spain ceded the western third of the island—the land that is today Haiti—to the French.5 Saint-Domingue quickly became France’s most profitable New World colony, in large part because of sugar, coffee, and indigo exports. The Spanish had imported African slaves to the island beginning in the sixteenth century, and as the economy grew in the French colony, so too did the importation of African slaves. According to Jon Kukla, by the time of the French Revolution, “St. Domingue imported thirty thousand African slaves a year.”6
In August 1791, two years into the French Revolution, the colony’s slaves revolted. During the next several years, they faced local soldiers and French royal troops, as well as Spanish and British troops. Some scholars suggest that the revolt was almost entirely motivated by slaves seeking their freedom, but according to C. L. R. James, the revolt was an extension of the French Revolution. After the abolition of slavery in the colony in 1793, the struggle became an attempt to maintain freedom, and only in the very late 1790s, once it was clear that France could not protect the former slaves’ freedom, did it become about (black) independence.7 What shocked the world at the time was that the former slaves succeeded: in 1804, after over a decade of fighting, the independent nation of Haiti was born.
Mary Hassal’s Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo, in a Series of Letters (1808) is a work of fiction set in the final days of Saint-Domingue, just before the birth of Haiti. Near the end, she writes, “A settled gloom pervades the place, and every one trembles lest he should be the next victim of a monster from whose power there is no retreat.”8 It was no conventional monster that Hassal described. Rather, to Hassal and many like her, the Haitian Revolution and its revolutionaries were monstrous. Haiti had become the first black-ruled independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. The country and its revolution almost instantly became easy targets for racist stereotyping.
Following colonialist discourse elsewhere, many writers portrayed Haiti as a country in ruins, evidence of French colonialism left to waste. Often, authors cited Vodou as the root cause of the regression they saw in Haiti, and they rarely viewed the religion as anything other than malicious cult belief. Vodou was of particular interest to outsiders because of its links with the Haitian Revolution. Before the revolution commenced, clandestine Vodou gatherings provided its future leaders with the opportunity to meet and gather supporters, and it was, supposedly, at a Vodou meeting that the revolution began.9
Commentary that painted Vodou as central to the revolution presented opponents of Haitian independence with a means to disparage revolutionary ideas by linking them with a supposedly barbaric superstition. This rhetoric may have seemed vital in those nations that saw Haiti—the living symbol of a successful slave revolt and black self-rule—as anathema. Ignoring the Catholic and other European influences on Vodou, for instance, made it a completely, organically black religion, opening the door for Haiti’s foes to use Vodou as a means to discredit the country.
The heroes of Haiti’s revolution were also heroes to slaves throughout the Americas, who, in some areas, shared Vodou beliefs. Slaveholders throughout the Americas thus feared similar revolts and mistrusted slave gatherings, especially those connected with Vodou. There was some merit to these fears. Slaves began resisting their lot in greater and greater numbers as the nineteenth century progressed: the Underground Railroad began in the early nineteenth century; in 1822, Denmark Vesey led an unsuccessful slave revolt; and in 1831, Nat Turner’s rebellion took place. As Bryan Senn notes, slaveholders saw Vodou “as a powerful unifying force, one that could incite action and build hope in . . . oppressed slaves.”10 Slaveholders did not consider Vodou a religion, but rather “a heap of superstitions, and of magical practices and sorcery, stripped of coherence.”11
Nineteenth-century texts on Haiti devote many pages to descriptions of Vodou ceremonies and beliefs. For instance, Spencer St. John devoted a great deal of his 1884 book, Hayti; or, The Black Republic, to Vodou. St. John tied it to cannibalism, human sacrifice, and grave robbing. His account became one of the most popular texts on Haiti in the nineteenth century.12 St. John devoted a chapter to cannibalism, asserting, “Every foreigner in Hayti knows that cannibalism exists.”13 Writers who borrowed directly from St. John or built upon his assertions picked up on this theme—even claiming that Haitians ate their children in sacrifice to Vodou gods.14 St. John’s argument suffered from warped a priori reasoning: because he and the other foreigners “knew” cannibalism existed, it existed. Still, from time to time, stories of cannibalism tied to Vodou rites surfaced in American and European newspapers and magazines. These stories often implied that Haiti needed outside tutelage. For instance, St. John was careful to claim that cannibalism had not been tolerated under the French, maintaining that it was never mentioned in French colonial accounts of Saint-Domingue. He also noted that the practice would have been difficult to perform before the revolution: colonial masters kept such a close eye on their property that one missing slave would have raised suspicions. St. John’s argument thus implied that cannibalism was the result of Haitian self-rule.
To many in the United States of the nineteenth century, Vodou was something to be feared. They saw it as an intrinsic part of Haitian life that corrupted Haiti’s people because they allowed it to operate without restraint. Vodou thus came into direct conflict with the Protestant virtues so integral to the nineteenth-century Victorian worldview. If civilization, in the Victorian mind, meant moderation and self-control, Vodou was uncivilized because it seemed to have no such limitations: even ignoring the charges of cannibalism and blood sacrifice, according to reports, Vodouists danced freely and openly enjoyed rum, among other things. Vodou was far more uninhibited than Victorian Protestantism.
The view that Vodou corrupted Haitian life led some outside observers to conclude that Haitians were unable to govern themselves. Frederick A. Ober claimed in 1893 that Vodou high priests and priestesses in Haiti were so powerful that they were a “menace to good government, and it is well known that even some of the rulers of Haiti have been dominated by them.”15 Similarly, in Where Black Rules White: A Journey across and about Hayti (1900), Hesketh Pritchard noted that Vodou was a central part of every Haitian’s life and that its power would remain undaunted “as long as Hayti retains an entirely negro Government.”16 The belief was that Vodou corrupted Haiti so thoroughly that it tainted even institutions, such as a republican government, that might otherwise grant the nation the appearance of civilization.
Almost constant turmoil in Haiti after the revolution compounded those beliefs. Upon the 1806 assassination of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Haiti’s first ruler, the country was divided between a kingdom in the North and a republic in the South. By 1822, the nation had been reunified, but a series of coups and armed revolts soon followed. The impoverished nation was often in a state of near rebellion from then on.17 Furthermore, by the time Haiti won independence, what had been one of the richest colonies in the world was a shell of its former self, and the impact on the global economy was immense.18
The revolution disrupted markets and created massive shortfalls of products like sugar and coffee. It forced waves of refugees and migrants into neighboring countries. The island existed in virtual isolation: trade embargoes and the lack of international diplomatic recognition effectively sealed Haiti off from the rest of the world.19 Thus, what little information was available about Haiti couldn’t be subject to much critical interrogation. Even those commentators who looked kindly upon the new nation tended to do so with reservations. In Sketches of Hayti: From the Expulsion of the French, to the Death of Christophe (1827), W. W. Harvey, in many ways an admirer of Haiti, nevertheless remarks that Haiti’s history since the revolution “presents to us the picture of a people newly escaped from slavery, yet still suffering and exhibiting in their character, its pernicious and demoralizing effects.”20 Although Harvey was reluctant to condemn the nation outright, he still felt Haiti cried out for guidance from the white world.
Critics of Haiti were far less kind. In an 1805 letter from French foreign minister Charles Talleyrand to US secretary of state James Madison, Talleyrand observes: “The existence of a Negro people in arms, occupying a country it has soiled by the most criminal acts, is a horrible spectacle for all white nations. . . . There are no reasons . . . to grant support to these brigands who have declared themselves the enemies of all government.”21 Spencer St. John, writing seventy-nine years later, minces no words in his opinion of Haiti: “I know what the black man is, and I have no hesitation in declaring that he is incapable of the art of government, and that to entrust him with framing and working the laws ...

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