Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Secret Origin of Zombies-Part Four

A Zombie Taxonomy

At the beginning of January, I wrote an article in this space called "A Retreat of the Totalitarian Monster." In it, I quoted Dr. Stephen Olbrys Gencarella of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as follows:
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.
I dismissed what Dr. Gencarella said about "American capitalism and colonialism" as "typical leftist claptrap." I confess that I haven't read his original paper, "Thunder without Rain: Fascist Masculinity in AMC's The Walking Dead" in Horror Studies from 2016 (7 [1], pp. 125-146). I would like to. But unless I see some evidence that "[t]he zombie trope" came into American popular culture around 1900, moreover that there is actual evidence in the texts of that time of some connection between zombies and capitalism/colonialism, I will stick by what I wrote: It's all a bunch of leftist claptrap, unsupported by evidence, based on a confirmation bias, and spoken from a position of authority.

So when did zombi(e)s come into American popular culture? I'll do some hypostulatin' here and say that it happened at least four times and possibly five (or maybe four and a half).
  1. Li (or Le) Grand Zombi--Zombi(e)s probably first arrived in America as Li (or Le) Grand Zombi, the serpent spirit or serpent god of Voodoo. The place would appear to be Louisiana, in which case the time was probably the eighteenth century, when Louisiana was a French colony and as black slaves were imported from the West Indies. It's interesting that the zombi(e) in the Western hemisphere, brought here from Africa, is a creature of colonies that were largely Catholic and largely French: Haiti, Martinique, Louisiana. African slaves were of course imported into British colonies as well, but zombi(e)s seem not to have gained a foothold here. Catholicism has its aspects of mysticism and has historically tolerated and eventually assimilated pagan beliefs. The British in America were Protestants, however, some of them pretty harsh and strict. I don't think they trucked with that kind of thing, so no zombi(e)s in the Colonies. (One place to test that theory is Maryland, a colony settled by Catholics but which was also a slave colony and a slave state. My guess is that there aren't or weren't any zombi(e)s in the folklore of Maryland: the Catholic influence may have been too minor or short-lived and there probably wasn't a large enough African/Caribbean community to have given rise to them, plus Maryland was not an island or "island." To that point, I can put forth the idea that the different versions of zombi(e)s developed on different islands or "islands" of African/Caribbean culture--the slave-zombie in Haiti, the spirit-zombi in Martinique, and Li Grande Zombi in Louisiana--something like speciation in the Darwinian scheme of evolution.)
  2. The Zombi as Spirit--The word zombi came into American popular culture in 1838 with the publication in American newspapers of "The Unknown Painter." The zombi in that story (who is only mentioned and never makes an appearance) is a spirit, and zombis remained spirits--evil spirits--throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Lafcadio Hearn was the most prominent author to write about zombis, but there were others, including authors of popular novels and short stories after 1900.
  3. The Zombie as Slave--Zombies with an -e arrived in 1928 with William B. Seabrook's dispatches from Haiti, which were collected in book form in The Magic Island in 1929. The book was a sensation and led to a stage play, more stories and novels, and a number of zombie movies, beginning with White Zombie in 1932. There is no evidence that zombies first arrived in America around 1900, nor that they had anything to do with American capitalism, colonialism, or imperialism, except that Americans in Haiti sent back or carried back stories of zombies to their native country. It's more likely that the slave-zombie dates to the French colonial period and that, as a representation of slavery, zombie-ism is far more ancient than any capitalist institution. It's worth noting that if the first zombie-as-slave in literature was in The Magic Island, then that slave was a black man who was the slave of a black man. If we can believe Seabrook, zombie slavery was an affair for black men, and as Lamercie, a black woman in his book, says, "Z'affai' nèg pas z'affai' blanc'." (Roughly, "The affairs of blacks are not the affairs of whites.") As I have pointed out, slavery is not a capitalist institution. It predates capitalism and is in fact anathema to capitalism. Slavery and related forms of servitude are ancient and medieval institutions. Capitalism is a later development, an invention of free and prosperous people, and one that thrives on free and prosperous people and free exchanges of goods, services, labor, etc. Further still, to say that zombies came to America around 1900 and that they are related to capitalism and colonialism/imperialism may be to suggest that they are also related somehow to the Republican Party. (There were Republican presidents from 1896 to 1912, the period "around the turn of the 20th century.") We should remember that the Republican Party was founded explicitly as an anti-slavery party; that the Republican Party was the driving force behind emancipation and the passage of the anti-slavery amendments to the Constitution; that the Democratic Party was historically the party of slavery and other ancient or medieval institutions of servitude; and that the majority of Democratic presidents from Thomas Jefferson (1800-1808) to Woodrow Wilson (1912-1920) were either slaveholders or the sons of slaveholders (including, strangely enough, Martin Van Buren). In any case, zombie slaves, or at the very least, zombies as "dead bodies walking, without minds or souls," as William Seabrook described them, seem to have been the predominant version of the zombie from 1928 into the 1950s or 1960s, possibly into the 1970s or '80s. (Let's call him the Seabrook zombie.)
  4. The Zombie as One of a Mass of Scientific Anthropophages, aka the Matheson-Romero Zombie--Okay, that first label is really long and cumbersome, so I'll offer an alternative, a label after the two men who gave us our current version of zombies: Richard Matheson in I Am Legend (1954) and George Romero in Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its sequels (1978-2010). If my hypostulatin' is right, then the zombie-as-slave or soulless automaton faded away sometime during the late 1950s to the late 1970s or early 1980s and was replaced by the Matheson-Romero zombie that we have today. That zombie has two distinguishing characteristics: 1) It is one of a mass or horde; and 2) It is explained by scientific or materialistic means. The Matheson-Romero zombie is also an anthropophage, a fancy word for cannibal (except that zombies aren't people anymore, so they can't really be cannibals). And because of those three characteristics--because they are hordes of cannibals who carry a virulent disease--zombies went from being harmless slaves to being things to fear. It's as if the slaves were in revolt except that they are never released from their zombie-state. There are two other things to consider here regarding the Matheson-Romero zombie: 1) It was the version of the zombie current when popular culture became a legitimate subject of academic or scholarly inquiry, that is, during the 1960s and '70s; and 2) It is the version that has become politicized. The second development probably has a lot to do with the first, as the academics who came up at the same time as the Matheson-Romero zombie tended to be--and still tend to be--leftists, and they tend to see things through the badly cracked and very foggy lens of either: a) The old left, meaning Marxism; or b) The New Left, especially critical theory. As evidence, I'll offer these tidbits from Stephen Olbrys Gencarella's description of his interests and list of publications: "intersection," "critical folklore studies," "activist," "social injustice," "excluded," "democratic," "anti-democratic," "fascist," "commodification," and the kicker, "Gramsci, Good Sense, and Critical Folklore Studies." If you feel like rolling around in your mouth some nonsensical leftist/academic verbal stew, read the abstract of that paper here. (For those who don't know much about him [I don't], Gramsci was a Marxist theorist. In other words, he theorized about how he could take from you the things that are yours.)
  5. The Missing Zombie--There's a gap in my chronology of zombies. The gap is between 1910 or so--when the zombi-as-spirit was still the predominant version--and 1928--when William Seabrook first wrote about zombies in American newspapers. What was in that gap? Well, there were some stories about Voodoo and related subjects in pulp magazines, especially in Weird Tales. Were there zombi(e)s in those stories? Yes, at least in a couple. What kind of zombi(e)s were they? Well, at least a couple of them were the old spirit zombis. But was there a new kind of zombi(e), too, a zombie out of Haiti, like the Seabrook zombie? I don't know, and that's what we ought to find out.
To be continued . . .

An illustration for "The Challenge of the Snake" by Meigs O. Frost, a zombi story reprinted in newspapers in 1926 after having first appeared in Short Stories for February 25, 1924. Frost's story is set in Louisiana. The villain is Zombi Le Veau, a powerful Voodoo man who has named himself after Le Gran' Zombi, the snake-god. The story was published long before Short Stories, Inc., acquired Weird Tales. The artist's signature looks like Machamer; there was an artist, Jefferson Machamer (1900-1960), who worked as an illustrator and cartoonist and was active at that time. He's probably our man. In any case, the fact that this story was published in 1924 shows, I think, that the spirit zombi or serpent-god zombi was still the version known by readers of popular fiction. And that was only four years away from Seabrook's jaunt in Haiti.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Terence,
    You've certainly been doing your homework! And as with most such pursuits of information, each discovery seems to yield more questions than answers.

    Yes, thanks to Lincoln the Republican Party was originally identified as the anti-slavery party. Too bad that that turned about. I well remember that in the 1960s the southern Republicans were the party of George Wallace and segregationists while the Democrats led by JFK and LBJ were passing civil rights legislation.
    There's no denying that Southern Democrats were the supporters and enforcers of slavery in the antebellum era. But it is important to remember that they did not represent the entirety of the party. For the first quarter of the 19th Century there was essentially only one political party in this country; the Democratic Republicans...a powerful but fractured party with many divisions. The heavily contested presidential election of 1820 had four candidates from that party running for the office, each with very different ideals. Even when the party split into the Whigs and the Democrats, the new Democratic Party was a large and diverse entity, with sharp divisions between north and south.
    After the Civil War, the "term" slavery was no longer used, but the practice still continued under both Republican and Democratic administrations who simply turned a blind eye and deaf ear. Blacks were still bought and sold in the Deep South and coolies built the transcontinental railroads. The Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Rockefeller fortunes were constructed on business practices that treated workers as property.
    Interestingly, it was the Progressive Republican (a phrase that sounds oxymoronic today) Theodore Roosevelt who began to turn things around. But Teddy was not typical of his party; his concerns for the rights of the working class made him an embarrassment to Republicans of the day.
    Maybe Dr. Gencarella was "on the right track but the wrong train" when he stated that the rise of interest in zombies was because of the practices of American capitalism. Perhaps it was looking back upon late-19th Century nationwide indentured servitude of the American workforce that made the zombie analogy of interest to the public in the 1930s.

    Or maybe zombies are just a fascinating premise...

    1. Mike,

      I like you're last sentence. You're anticipating some of my thoughts and conclusions on this whole topic.

      As a correction, I would point out that George Wallace and his fellow segregationists were Democrats, not Republicans. As for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, I think that Democrats in Congress voted in higher percentages against the legislation, while Republicans voted in higher percentages in favor of the legislation. For example, in the voting for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the House of Representatives, the Democratic vote was 63 percent for and 37 percent against, while the Republican vote was 80 percent for and 20 percent against.

      You're right in pointing out that there were divisions within the Democratic-Republican Party. There were pro-slavery Democrats and abolitionist Democrats. Even the Whig Party had its divisions between "Cotton Whigs" and "Conscience Whigs." The Republican Party was the only major party of the period 1796-1865 that was explicitly anti-slavery.

      You're right also in pointing out that involuntary servitude and other forms of exploitation of workers continued after the war and into the twentieth century. Again, most if not all of those institutions were either ancient or medieval in origin. And again, Republicans have historically opposed and outlawed them. The record isn't perfect by any means, but the record stands. And if I had my choice, I would rather have the Republican record than the Democratic record.

      I am not a registered Republican, but everyone has to face the fact that Republicans have, since the founding of their party, opposed slavery, involuntary servitude, racism, Jim Crow, segregation, and other forms of racial oppression and discrimination. Everyone also has to face the fact that the Democratic Party was the party of slavery and other institutions of involuntary servitude, nullification, the Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan, anti-miscegenation laws, Jim Crow, segregation, racial discrimination, and so forth. Those are facts. There is no getting around them, no matter how inconvenient they might be to some people.

      I think that in the same way that there were divisions within the Democratic-Republicans, there were divisions within Progressivism. Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft were Progressive Republicans. Woodrow Wilson was a Progressive Democrat. Progressivism was a powerful force in American politics for decades, from the late 1800s into the mid to late 1900s. Within both major parties, there were progressives (or liberals), moderates, and conservatives. That has gone by the wayside, as the parties have moved away from each other.

      The situation has been complicated by the fact that the words people use to describe this or that have become essentially meaningless. Democrats are considered liberal, but is it liberal to impose speech codes on people or to create so-called "free-speech zones" on college campuses? Republicans are considered conservative, but is it conservative to enshrine in the U.S. Constitution a prohibition against burning the flag, a prohibition that would restrict the rights of the people and expand the powers of the State?

      Like you say, the study of zombies is fascinating, but the study of the study of zombies can be enlightening, too . . .



  2. You are right on the money about descriptive terminology loosing its meaning. I wonder just how many folks who toss the words "conservative" or "liberal" about ever stop to think what those words actually mean. Then on the other hand they obsessively nit-pick over the most minute semantics of language. Makes me think of something Ross Perot said -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- "if people in Washington DC talk about a problem long enough they think they are doing something about it."

    Yes, George Wallace was originally a Democrat. But with the signing and passage of the Civil Rights Act he became a founding member of the far right American Independent Party, and at the same time The Democratic Party stopped being a force in the more racially divided southern states...a factor that has been noticeable in every presidential election to this day.

    Free Speech Zones. Now there's a concept. I thought the entire United States of America was a free speech zone...

  3. Mike,

    Here we are in complete agreement on a matter of real importance: The entire United States is a free-speech zone, and if you believe as I do that freedom to speak is a unalienable right, then the entire universe is a free-speech zone.

    Thanks for writing.


    1. I believe that freedom of speech SHOULD be an unalienable right. "Tain't so, unfortunately.
      About the only unalienable right in this world is the freedom of thought...

    2. Mike,

      I puzzled over that word "unalienable" for a long, long time. I think I understand it now. I think the meaning is that an unalienable right is one that cannot be separated from us as human beings or us from it. In other words, an unalienable right is one that is an essential part of us as human beings--it comes from our identity, nature, or existence as human beings. So even if you are denied that right or punished for exercising it, it cannot be taken from you--it's still your right. And that's the thing that drives dictators crazy: eventually they come to learn that human beings ARE free, that even if a person is thrown into the deepest, darkest cell, he remains existentially free and still in possession of all of his natural and unalienable rights.

      As for freedom of thought, it, too is an unalienable right, but that doesn't keep people from trying to infringe upon it. All the people who are rushing out right now to buy a copy of 1984 by George Orwell are going to find out--if they read carefully enough--that the book is a depiction of the leftist/statist program, made manifest today in political correctness, speech codes, etc. The book is meant to be a warning, not an instruction book. I'm glad people are reading it again, but I hope they aren't taking any pointers from it.