Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Secret Origin of Zombies-Part One

Zombies Are Here!

Zombies as we know them today are revenants, a French word that translates more or less as those who come back. I have written about zombies before. Earlier this month I wrote about them again. Now here they are again today. Being revenants, zombies have come back to my blog. I will continue to write about them over the next few weeks. My purpose will be a little different this time around, but I will return to some of the same themes and interpretations as before.

The article with which I began this month of January is called "A Retreat of the Totalitarian Monster." You can read it by clicking here. I'm still not completely happy with what I wrote, but I'll let it stand for now. I can tell you, though, that if you're thinking about writing on zombies, you'd better be ready for a tussle.

At first glance, the zombie story is an entertainment. Millions of people watch zombie movies and television shows; read zombie novels, short stories, and comic books; and participate in zombie walks and other zombie events. They do these things for fun or escape or to pass the time. There may be something more going on, though, something deeper and with greater significance. I wrote about zombies before and I have written about them again because I have sensed deeper meaning in the zombie storyAny meaning or significance is open to interpretation of course. Some people see it this way. Some that. But the fact that discussions of zombies get so contentious indicates that there is indeed some deeper meaning in their story. It's obvious that people on both sides of the argument have something very serious at stake. Usually the argument is or becomes political--and pretty quickly. There are controversies when it comes to other monsters in our culture, but none seems to match the controversy over zombies. I would hazard a guess that no one has ever said that werewolves represent a consumerist, conformist, statist, or socialist society, nor has anyone ever said that people who want to destroy werewolves are capitalists, fascists, or racists. To say those things about zombies and their human opposition, though . . . well, them's fightin' words.

Two questions came up in my article on zombies. The first is a larger question that ought to be answered. The second is much smaller and will be answered when we have an answer to the first.

The first question is this: When did zombies first enter popular culture in America?

The second is this: Was there some kind of connection between: a) the entry of zombies into American popular culture; and b) American capitalism and colonialism or imperialism around the turn of the twentieth century?

An answer to the first question is important because zombies are so popular and pervasive in our culture. We ought to know their history. An answer to the second question is important because of suggestions that human society in the zombie story, specifically in the television series The Walking Dead, represents fascism and/or an extreme of American capitalism and colonialism or imperialism. That case is made by writer Sean T. Collins in an article called "The Shameful Fascism of The Walking Dead," dated December 17, 2016, and posted on the website The Week, here.

My second question was not really prompted by what Mr. Collins wrote. He has his interpretation of the zombie story and I can easily live with that. I have a problem with his expert, though. That expert is Dr. Stephen Olbrys Gencarella of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Dr. Gencarella is an associate professor of folklore, humor, and related subjects. His doctoral degree is from Indiana University, so I'll say hi to a fellow Hoosier. The description of his interests on his university's website is a lot of overly intellectualized academic gobbledygook. But lurking in his list of publications is this: "Thunder without Rain: Fascist Masculinity in AMC's The Walking Dead," published in Horror Studies, 7 (1), 125-146, 2016. I have not read that paper, nor have I seen The Walking Dead. Maybe I'm not the right person for this discussion. But I can tell you what I have found so far in my research.

In his article, Sean T. Collins quotes Dr. Gencarella:
The zombie trope in the United States emerged with the zombie-as-slave phenomenon around the turn of the 20th century, when American capitalism and colonialism led to ethical conflicts about labor and human rights.
The implication seems clear to me: by associating the emergence of "[t]he zombie trope" with an age of "capitalism and colonialism" in America, Dr. Gencarella seems to be saying that zombies represent an underclass of industrial workers and/or colonial laborers. By extension, then, the human beings in the zombie story must represent their overlords. A further implication, it seems, is that capitalism and colonialism have reached an extreme in the present day, and that that extreme is fascist. That's Mr. Collins' argument, anyway. Judging from the title of Dr. Gencarella's paper, I would say that he agrees. Or maybe the idea was his originally, as the title and publication date of his paper suggest.

It seems to me that much of the argument that The Walking Dead--and by extension the country that voted for our current president--is fascist hinges on the supposed emergence of "[t]he zombie trope" coincident with a capitalist-colonialist age, i.e., around 1900. So here's where the first question comes in: When did zombies come into American popular culture? If it was around 1900, then Dr. Gencarella's interpretation might have some weight. But if not, then what? How strong is an argument that hinges on an association that turns out not to be any association at all?

So when did zombies enter popular culture in America? The story on the Internet seems to be that zombies arrived with the publication of William B. Seabrook's book The Magic Island in 1929 and the subsequent release of the movie White Zombie in 1932. From what I have found so far, that seems to be true. People had encountered the word zombi(e) before in print, but nothing before seems to have matched the popularity or the staying power of The Magic Island or White Zombie. There were Vikings in America before Columbus (and probably other Europeans, too) but Columbus gets the credit for discovering America because once he had discovered it, it stayed discovered. Likewise, once William Seabrook wrote about zombies and people saw them on screen in White Zombie, zombies stuck. They haven't been forgotten in the almost ninety years since. But there were zombi(e)s in America before The Magic Island. Long before.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (more accurately, according to accounts on the Internet of what the Oxford English Dictionary says), the first use in print in English of the word zombi(e) was in Robert Southey's History of Brazil, published in three volumes from 1810-1819. I haven't found the exact passage yet, but I think the word was spelled zombi rather than zombie. (The spelling has some importance, as we'll see.) Just nineteen years later, the word zombi entered popular culture with the publication of a story called "The Unknown Painter" in Chambers' Edinburgh Journal for June 30, 1838. Within weeks, that story was reprinted in American newspapers. (The earliest occurrence I have found is in The People's Press and Wilmington Advertiser of Wilmington, North Carolina, for August 24, 1838.) That began an extraordinary run, for "The Unknown Painter" was reprinted again and again in American newspapers, popular magazines, and books for more than half a century after its first appearance. In short, Americans had encountered the term zombi long before 1900 and long before the age of capitalism and colonialism in America.

Now to be fair, the zombi in "The Unknown Painter" is not one of the undead. He appears to be more of a nocturnal mischief-maker or trickster, like the African folkloric character Anansi, or like the elves in the story of the elves and the shoemaker. There were other zombis in American popular culture after the unknown painter's zombi, though. There were also related creatures and beings, including duppies, loogaroos, and jumbies (also spelled jumbis or jumbees). All were supernatural creatures or beings. Most were spirits. Even as the story of the unknown painter faded, Americans continued to write about these creatures and beings, often after having been in direct contact with Caribbean culture. Chief among them was Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), who went to the Caribbean in 1887-1889 and returned dispatches for publication in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. He collected his stories in book form in Two Years in the French West Indies, published by Harper and Brothers in 1890. Again, in the stories and accounts of Lafcadio Hearn, zombis are not really the undead, certainly not the bodily undead. (1) They are more nearly evil spirits, and they remained evil spirits in the popular fiction of his time and later, such as in The Isle of the Winds: An Adventurous Romance by Samuel R. Crockett (1900) and The Marathon Mystery: A Story of Manhattan by Burton E. Stevenson (1904). (See below.)

So we have arrived at the turn of the century, and zombis are still one of three types: 1) The mischief-maker or trickster, an interpretation that seems to have disappeared after "The Unknown Painter" fell out of print; 2) An evil spirit of varying kinds and manifestations; and 3) One I haven't mentioned yet, Li (or Le) Grand Zombi, the Serpent God of Voodoo culture, apparently equivalent to the Damballa or Damballah of African mythology. (George Washington Cable mentioned Zombi in his book Creole Slave Songs [1886].) What is missing in all of this is William B. Seabrook's version of the zombie, i.e., one of the undead, a bodily creature who has been enslaved through magic. That zombie--spelled with an -e, apparently for the first time in The Magic Island--is the version that has come down to us today as the shambling, mindless slave, only today, he is a slave to his appetite for human flesh rather than to a human master.

So there were zombis in American popular culture as far back as 1838, there were zombis throughout the 1800s, and there were zombis into the early 1900s. My research isn't bulletproof by any means, but I have not found, in any source before the 1920s, an example of or a reference to zombi(e)s as bodily revenants, the undead, the walking dead, or mindless or soulless slaves made that way by slave masters of whatever color. No zombies suffering under the capitalist, colonialist, or imperialist America of the turn of the century. No zombies yoked to the machine of American oppression. No zombie underclass, no zombie proletariat, no zombie peasants or zombie farm workers exploited for their labor, no mass of industrial zombie workers or zombie wage slaves. Nothing but evil spirits, tricksters, duppies, and serpent gods.

I hope Dr. Gencarella has found something more.

(1) Hearn in fact asks a young woman, Adou, straight out:
"What is a zombi? [. . . .] Is it the spectre of a dead person, Adou? Is it one who comes back?"
She answers:
"Non, Missié,--non; çé pas ça."
("No, Monsieur,--no; that's not it.") Italics are in the original. The trouble Americans (or maybe just white people) have in getting an answer to the question What is a zombi(e)? is a recurring theme in the early literature of zombi(e)s, i.e., from 1838 to 1929. I believe there is some significance in the question and answer, even if the point is only that the rationalist modern mind may try but is not up to the task of understanding something from the pre-rational past.

To be continued . . . 

The Isle of the Winds: An Adventurous Romance by Samuel R. Crockett (1900) is a historical adventure involving, among other things, a search for the treasure of Sir Harry [sic] Morgan. On board a jolly boat, young Philip Stansfield and his companions are beset by a school of devil fish . . .
"But this is rank witchcraft," I cried. "This is the blackest of black magic."
Eborra shrugged his shoulders.
"It is my mother," he said, as if the explanation were sufficient; "my mother and Obeah--Obeah always great magic."
(Obeah is a type of magic of the West Indies and is related to Voodoo.)

A little later:

"It is nigh to the hour of the zombis!" said Eborra behind me, speaking in a whisper with his lips close to my ear.
"And what are the zombis?" I asked him without moving [. . . .]
"They are the spirits of the dead," he answered solemnly. "They come when my mother calls them. It is they who have entered into the devil fish. Soon they will depart."
And so they do, in a scene worthy of Weird Tales.  

The Marathon Mystery: A Story of Manhattan by Burton E. Stevenson (1904) is a contemporary mystery/adventure set in New York City. In it, the narrator questions a young woman named Cecily, late of Martinique, about a man named Tremaine, whom she refers to as doudoux (an endearment referring to one's lover or boyfriend):
"You were happy there [at Fond-Corre]?"
"Yes--except for the times when doudoux was in his black spells."
"His black spells?"
"Yes--oh, then every one ran from him--even I. He was terrible--raving and cursing M'seur Johnson."
"Johnson?" I repeated with a sudden leap of the heart. "Who was he, Cecily?"
"He was doudoux's zombi," she answered with conviction, and crossed herself.
"Then he didn't live at Fond-Corre?"
"At Fond-Corre? Oh, no! He was a zombi--in the air, in the earth, everywhere. Doudoux would fight with him an hour at a time. Oh, it was terrible!"

Here, then, are two examples of the zombi of the turn of the century. In the first--set in the historical past--zombis are indeed revenants, but they are spirits, not bodies. In the second, the zombi is obviously a spirit in fleshly form, but like the spirits that possess the devil fish in The Isle of the Winds, the zombi Mr. Johnson is a tormentor, seemingly in a position superior to that of the tormented person and nothing like the zombies of today.

Original text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Terence,
    Those are some interesting revelations about the zombie in American popular culture.
    The version of the zombie legend that I am most familiar with is that which is presented as being of Haitian legend, in which reanimated corpses are used as the ultimate in slave labor to work plantations. Without doing any real research, I had always thought this to be an actual cultural belief from that island nation, but now I'm beginning to wonder if that's just a Hollywood invention. That is certainly the way that zombies are presented in White Zombie, and a decade later in Val Lewton's I Walked With a Zombie.
    Clearly, this is the zombie concept that Dr. Gencarella was drawing upon when he made a logical if debatable observation. I will agree that the accuracy of his timeline is of importance, although getting the timing of the popular emergence of the zombie wrong wouldn't necessarily delegitimize his overall conclusion as to why zombies became popular. Both Fascism and Communism were on the rise in the thirties, and Colonialism was still ongoing. Zombies "could" just as well be seen as representative of the victimization occurring within any of these during the thirties and forties.

    The quote that you included from Lafcadio Hearn's 1880s experiences in the Caribbean would seem to indicate that there was a legend of the living dead extant at that time. Otherwise, why would he have posed the question to Adou?

    I can see that your research is just beginning. i'm anxious to see where it will lead...

    1. Mike,

      You make a good point about Lafcadio Hearn's question to Adou. Maybe he thought of the zombi as one of the undead or--if he was speaking to her in French--a revenant. That thought may have come from the local culture. Maybe he encountered it in talking to other native people. On the other hand, maybe it was an artifact of his European background, where stories of ghosts and vampires were so common.

      Like you, I'm beginning to have my doubts about the origins of the zombie in Haitian folklore. It seems to me that it was there, but it also seems to me that Seabrook and the moviemakers who came after him hyped the story. After all, it's the movie version of zombies that have come down to us today, not the original Haitian folklore version or Seabrook's book version.

      You're right in pointing out that if zombies didn't arrive in the United States until 1928, they were still within the decade of communism, fascism, and nazism. Nineteen twenty-eight is just about halfway between the rise to power of Italian fascism--1922--and German nazism--1933.

      There will be more about colonialism in this series. Thanks for reading and writing.


    2. You're certainly right; the zombies of current popular culture are of a type spawned by motion pictures -- and not from Hollywood, but from Pittsburgh; the flesh-eating walking dead of George Romero. Conceptually, they are very different from earlier movie zombies, which always seemed to serve a purpose (such as slave labor or as revenants who continue to walk the earth because of some past wrong.) But the Romero-esque zombies exist solely as a dominant destructive threat to mankind, an anti-human plague which, like all physical disease, is outside of morality and reasoning.

    3. Mike,

      You've gotten right to it: the zombies we have now are what I will call the Matheson-Romero zombie. They're not the Seabrook zombie, no matter how much anyone wants to make zombies about slavery or colonialism.

      Stay tuned for more (a lot more).


    4. With the mention of Matheson, I'm assuming that you're referring to his story "I Am Legend". Interesting thought; are the returning dead in that tale actually zombies?
      I tend to think of zombies as being virtually mindless automatons, motivated either by a voodoo priest's commands or by blind instinct. On the other hand, Richard Matheson's pathologically created vampires have their own intellect and logical reasoning -- very different creatures in my estimation.
      Matheson and Romero's apocalyptic visions are similar in that their undead creations are each global plagues that threaten -- and nearly do cause -- human extinction.

      Got my interrossiter tuned to this channel for future updates...

    5. Mike,

      Yes, I'm talking about Richard Matheson and "I Am Legend." You're right, the creatures in that book aren't zombies. They're called "vampires." Also, like you say, they have held on to at least some of their intelligence and reasoning.

      As I understand it, the vampires in "I Am Legend" were the inspiration for the creatures in "Night of the Living Dead." Those creatures weren't called "zombies," either. From what I have read, they were called "ghouls." It wasn't until the sequel, "Dawn of the Dead," that they were called "zombies." And it looks like by the time that movie was released in 1978 that the various parts of the zombie apocalypse scenario were in place.

      The release of "Dawn of the Dead" coincides pretty well with what might have been the end of the supernatural zombie. I can think of two supernatural zombies from the 1970s--from Kolchak: The Night Stalker and from the Marvel Comics magazine Tales of the Zombie--but nothing from after that.

      Can you think of any supernatural zombies after the mid 1970s? Or were they all Matheson-Romero zombies, i.e., caused by disease, moving in hordes, and hungry for human flesh?


    6. Great question. Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island is the only example that immediately comes to mind...

    7. Mike,

      Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (1998). Unlike in the TV series, the monsters are real supernatural creatures.

      The cartoon is set in Louisiana and involves Voodoo and people turned into cats. There are stories of people turned into cats in Caribbean folklore.

      The zombies are a warning (the very meaning of the word "monster") against any human being's sharing of their fate. (In Haitian folklore, zombies don't know it, but they want to escape their fate of death-in-life. Only when they eat salt--or sometimes meat--do they remember that they are dead.)

      The details on the plot are from Wikipedia. The rest is my theorizing.


  2. After further contemplation, I wonder if the long-running TV series Supernatural ever featured old style zombies among the supernatural menaces? I never watched the show much, but it seems a likely candidate.

  3. You might be interested in the observations of Hesketh Prichard, around 1899, on the powers of the Mamaloi - "They can produce a sleep which is death's twin brother. For instance, a child marked for the Vaudoux sacrifice is given a certain drug, shivers and in some hours sinks into a stillness beyond the stillness of sleep. It is buried in due course, and later, by the orders of the Papalois, is dug up and brought to consciousness." The concept of the false-death, leaving the individual believing they are dead and zombie, crops up later in a number of media, I believe.I was going to write about it for my greydogtales.com, but probably won't bother now you're on the case! :)

    1. John,

      The false-death that you describe here is exactly as in the Haitian zombie story. I will follow the lead you have provided as best I can, but it looks like a description of the zombie (if not the word itself) is pushed back at least to ca. 1899.

      Mention of the Mamaloi leads in a totally different direction, to Hanns Heinz Ewers. I'll have to follow that lead, too.

      Thanks for the information and sorry to steal your thunder. If you're like me, you hate to be beaten to a story, not out of envy of another person's success (which I don't envy at all) but because it's always nice to get the scoop.

      Thanks for reading and writing, too.


    2. Not a problem. I'll link to you on greydogtales when I do a general site update next. We did a big three part hunt on the true roots of the ghoul concept last year, which was fun. :)