Notes on a Political History of the Zombie (Part 1)

The birth of the zombie in U.S. mass culture begins with White Zombie, the 1932 movie featuring Bela Lugosi.  Lugosi plays a zombifier named “Murder Legendre” (a moniker full of grammatological possibilities).  By 1932, American cinema had begun a serious romance with the monster movie: Dracula with Lon Chaney, Sr.,  had appeared in 1930; Boris Karloff would feature as Frankenstein’s monster in 1931; and, a year after, White Zombie, King Kong would swing on the Empire State Building,  Manhattan’s most famous avatar of the now-imploded Art Deco 1920s.  The monster movie’s popularity in the early 1930s – – one of the most chaotic and anxious moments in the nation’s history – – parallels the rise of the gangster movie and, in another medium, the emergence of the proletarian novel, each engrossed with the power and violence of social difference.

The genealogy of the zombie in American mass culture extends, however, a tad bit beyond 1932.  The concept of the “zombie” – – a malevolently resurrected corpse – – traveled across the Atlantic with enslaved Africans. ‘Though relatively obscure in the U.S., the zombie became a common folkloric motif across the Caribbean.

The etymology of “zombie” is confused: it derives either from African languages or, as Elsie Clews Parsons, an American feminist and anthropologist, conjectured in 1928, from a pidginization of “les ombres,” French for “the shadows.”  In either case, like its referent, the word bears testament to a long history of linguistic and cultural creolization.

Parsons’ article, appearing in a French journal of American Studies, marks also the first appearance of the “zombie” in the official discourse of folklore and anthropology.  What Parsons notes, most interestingly, is the notion of the zombie as a nightmarish recurrence of slavery:  “Stories in my note books tell what happens when you appeal to the ganga to kill somebody in order to enslave his spirit to you or make him a zombi (“fai” zombi) to work for you. . . In one story the zombi becomes a gardener. Night and day he works for his master, and he catches pilferers.”

In Haitian folklore, the zombie is a human reduced to pure labor.  Recall, also, that the first actual zombies we see in White Zombie are workers in Legendre’s sugar mill – – shuffling silently forward to dump baskets of cane into the mill’s grindstone.  Amidst the strikes, evictions, marches, and riots of the early 1930s, it’s not too far-fetched to see the movie’s zombies as part of an emerging, national-populist drama: the zombie master who reduces humans to abject bodies and labor is a capitalist, evil and european-accented to boot!  From the factory-owner’s perspective, zombies are the perfect workers; they labor without protest, without food, without rest.  The message to proletarian viewers is slightly different, if no less true: capitalism wants to kill us!

Labor, enslavement, exploitation: these are some key of the contexts for the folkloric zombie.

But, the arrival of the zombie in anthropology and cinema depends on one other central context.  In 1915, United States troops invaded and occupied Haiti.  The American government commandeered Haiti’s central bank and customs houses, diverting close to half of the national income to American and French interests.  Resistance to American occupation was, for several years, fierce and widespread: 2,000 Haitians were killed in one general uprising in 1918.  In response, the American military built concentration camps and rebuilt Haiti’s roads to improve military communication and transport.  The occupation lasted until 1934, when the newly-elected F.D.R. pulled out the last U.S. Marine.

For 20 years, however, American soldiers, civilians, businessmen, and other factotums of the occupation came into direct and indirect contract with Haitian culture.  The occupation opened up a cultural conduit between white America and black Caribbean folk culture – – an exchange exhaustively riffed in Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel, Mumbo Jumbo.  One of Reed’s characters lies in the bathtub reading and reflecting on the day’s New York Sun:  “What was this about doughboy zombies?  The tabs were becoming outrageous . . . Recently 1 of the reports had sneaked into a big house chamber and emerged with a picture of a woman undergoing execution – – ghastly but fun.  The picture showed a zombie Marine surrounded by men in white coats.”  Voudou, houngans, loas, and zombies – – all of these forces, unleashed by the U.S. occupation, feed the “Jes Grew” virus, Reed’s metaphor for the black expressivity, incarnated in the novel as jazz,  that threatens to over-run white America and its repressed, protestant culture.

Reed’s novelistic imagining of the afro-diasporic role in U.S. mass culture is not just fictional.  A bit of data mining reveals that “zombie” (or its variant – – “zombi”) only starts appearing in U.S. books around 1920, shortly after the U.S. occupation.  “Zombie” really starts taking off in the early 1930s – – probably thanks in part to White Zombie and its several 1930s and 40s Hollywood successors.

Thus, the U.S. occupation of Haiti adds another important context to the popular cultural birth of the zombie: imperialism and the attendant cultural flows (and racialized anxieties) set in motion by the violent engagement between the U.S. and Haiti.

In a decade, the 1930s, of wide and deep struggle against American capitalism (from the general strikes that rocked  San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo in 1934 to birth of the United Auto Workers and beyond),  the zombie joined an army of monsters (ranging from Kong to Dillinger) that fascinated Americans, each serving as a figure of fear and fascination, each embodying an unstable amalgam of rage and desire.  In the 1930s, Legendre’s slaves were on the march . . . their shouts filled the streets of Detroit, Union Square in New York City, and the fields of California’s Central Valley.

How to explain, then, the resurgence of enslaved, mindless bodies on today’s movie, television, and computer screens?  Our two historical contexts – – labor and imperialism – – should prove crucial to understanding our current fascination with the zombie.  One major shift in the zombie genre – – the figure of the zombie master and his enchanted slaves giving way to the terror of swarming and endlessly multiplying, out-of-control zombies – – underscores the genealogy of zombies and capitalism even as it disrupts and complicates this relation.  The “many-headed Hydra” of zombie power re-emerges under new conditions and within new struggles . . . .


One Response to Notes on a Political History of the Zombie (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Notes on a Political History of the Zombie (Part 2) | Babylon Is Burning

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