Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Secret Origin of Zombies-Part Six

A Wrapping for Zombies

From their origins in Africa to their transplantation to the Caribbean to their arrival in American popular culture, zombi(e)s remained supernatural creatures. They were first in print in English in the work of a British Romantic, Robert Southey (1774-1843). (1) They came to America during a period of Gothic and Romantic literature. (2) And they remained within the realm of the Gothic and Romantic into the pulp fiction era of the early to mid twentieth century. Gothicism and Romanticism trade in the supernatural, the magical, the mystical, and the irrational. For as long as zombi(e)s were supernatural and within the realm of the Gothic and Romantic, they were not politicized. Only after zombi(e)s had passed from the realm of the supernatural into that of science and materialism did they become politicized. I have not found any evidence for or example of a politicized supernatural zombie except those made in retrospect.

Zombies as we know them today are not only explained by scientific or materialistic means, they are also characterized by their moving in hordes or masses. The first scientific zombie horde that I know of was in I Am Legend (1954), Richard Matheson's novel about a mass of what he called "vampires" infected with disease. Matheson's vampires are, to be sure, only loosely zombies. They effectively became zombies by way of the inspiration they provided moviemaker George Romero, who identified his creatures as zombies and expanded on the idea that zombies are caused by disease and that they move in mindless masses. That creature, the Matheson-Romero zombie, is the one that haunts the popular culture of today. There are, as far as I know, no longer any mythological, folkloric, supernatural, or magical zombies. The zombie of today has slain all of his competitors. 

Reanimated by disease and acting as one of a mass, the Matheson-Romero zombie is the zombie that has become politicized. My guess is that--Bob Hope's quip in The Ghost Breakers (1940) aside--zombies were not and could not have been politicized until they became scientified. Again, for as long as zombi(e)s were treated in Gothic and Romantic genres, they were not political. The politicization of zombies came only after there was a scientific or materialistic explanation for their existence. This only makes sense, as Gothic and Romantic writers are generally apolitical, or at most, anti-political in their writing. (3) Once zombies were given a scientific explanation, they passed into the realm of science fiction, a genre that leans towards the political.

In their original form, zombi(e)s were solitary creatures or beings that existed on the fringes of the physical world. Even in William Seabrook's version, they were individual slaves made by one man's magic. That's not how we think of zombies today, however. Today zombies are not individuals. They are masses or hordes. They are part or can be seen as part of a social, economic, or political system. That dichotomy--the individual vs. the masses--is essentially a political idea. It gets to the heart of the argument between conservatism, which emphasizes the individual, and progressivism, which emphasizes the masses, or synonymously by its formulation, society or "the system." Here's an illustrative quote attributed to the socialist Che Guevara:

Youth should learn to think and act as a mass. It is criminal to think as individuals! 

The individual zombie is not a political unit. A mass of zombies easily can become one in the right hands. It seems clear to me that, just as zombies were not politicized until they were given a scientific explanation, so they were not politicized until they had become a mass.

There is at least one more reason why zombies have become politicized. In popular culture, the outbreak of a disease that causes zombie-ism always results in a pandemic of zombie-ism. I can't think of a single instance where the infected zombie does not infect other people, nor where one zombie does not become a horde of zombies. This is in contrast to other science-fictional diseases in popular culture. For instance, in The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson (1956), one man is afflicted and one man shrinks. Why not a whole population of shrinking people? Why not a shrinking disease that spreads throughout the world? I can't say except that in a world where some people are shrunken and some aren't there isn't much opportunity for conflict. Anyway, in the case of the Matheson-Romero zombie, there is always an apocalypse. Despite the religious origins of the word, the apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic story is a science-fictional genre. I'll say it one more time: science fiction, being about the future, tends to become political.

In getting to the heart of the matter, I think that zombies have become politicized because of academia and its interests. Historically, high culture, including academia, did not treat popular culture, which would have been considered vulgar and unworthy of study. At some point, probably in the 1960s, that changed (although Gilbert Seldes, a respected critic, wrote about American pop culture in The Seven Lively Arts, published in 1924). Only after comic books, science fiction, pulp magazines, and similar subjects became of academic interest did university professors begin looking at zombies. And because academics--especially academics in the liberal arts--tend to be leftist in orientation, zombies have been spun to the left. They may be of special interest to people who subscribe to critical theory. Stephen Olbrys Gencarella appears to be one of that group.

The assertion that zombi(e)s were somehow political--i.e., representative of the relationship between the capitalist and the proletariat or between the colonial master and the colonial laborer--as early as 1900 doesn't make much sense to me, and I haven't found any evidence to that effect. Zombi(e)s were at that time still within the realm of the Gothic or Romantic. They were in fact more powerful than human beings and not inferior in status at all. Not many people--maybe no one at all--in academia, politics, or science had any interest in them. Likewise they would not have been of any interest to authors in the schools of Realism or Naturalism. (4) And the people who were interested in them--Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) and George Washington Cable (1844-1925), for example--tended to be from outside the worlds of academia, politics, and science. You might instead call them amateur ethnologists and collectors of folklore. William B. Seabrook (1884-1945) carried on in that way, as did writers and investigators after him, including Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), a folklorist and anthropologist, who traveled to Haiti and investigated its folklore (5). As for short stories and novels that mentioned zombi(e)s before and during the pulp fiction era: all that I have found so far are in the Gothic or Romantic genres of historical romance, fantasy, ghost stories, weird fiction, and so on.

Through my research, I have started to understand that zombies may actually have something to do with a historical force far older and far more powerful in the human imagination than American capitalism, colonialism, or imperialism. (Although I'll concede that zombies probably came to this country during the occupation of Haiti in 1915-1934.) Instead, I think zombies--more specifically the fear of zombie-ism--dates (proximally) from the French colonial period in Haiti and that it represents the simultaneous fears of being enslaved and of being held as a slave without end. Deeper than that, it represents the fear that, because a zombie does not die, the person who is made into a zombie will never escape slavery and will never be released into the afterlife. If that's the case, then the fear of becoming a zombie is not material or political at all but psychological, if not spiritual and existential. If that's the case, too, then zombie-ism predates American capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism, circa 1900. It actually comes (proximally) from the period of the French Revolution when leftist revolutionaries in France claimed rights and freedoms for themselves while still trying to hold black Haitians in slavery. If Dr. Gencarella wants to find a historical context for the phenomenon of zombie-ism, he should forget about knee-jerk leftism and begin there. Beyond that, he should look deep into human history and pre-history, for that's where slavery and the fear of becoming enslaved almost certainly began.

* * *

People on the left sympathize and identify with the zombies and/or dislike the human characters in The Walking Dead. That seems clear to me. If they imagine that "[t]he zombie trope" in America originated in a time of capitalism and colonialism or imperialism in America, or if they imagine that the human beings in the show are fascist, do they believe that by sympathizing or identifying with zombies, they also sympathize or identify with some kind of "people's" cause? And what if zombi(e)s are not connected somehow to American capitalism, colonialism, or imperialism, or with fascism, which seems to be the case? If zombies as we know them today entered American popular culture not at the turn of the twentieth century but a generation later, what then? Even if they came from the pulp fiction era, the zombies of 1929 or 1932 or 1943 (when I Walked with a Zombie was released) were not the zombies of today. Between 1929 and 1954 or 1968 or 1978 (when Dawn of the Dead was released) and before the scientific age of zombies, they were isolated human beings reduced to slavery by force of magic. They were without mind or will, and they were subservient to their masters. They were not out-of-control masses of shambling undead seeking to rip people apart, devour their brains, and slaver over their entrails. They certainly weren't brought about by material means, i.e., by the effects of a pathogen or, as in The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985), by natural, biological toxins. (6) Finally, they weren't a social, political, or economic unit waiting to be politicized.

The zombies of today are a different kind of creature. The emergence of the politicized zombie or the zombie as a political symbol coincides with the revolutions of the 1960s and '70s, not with the capitalism and colonialism/imperialism of around 1900 or even around 1929. It seems to me that academics are looking past three developments that took place in the 1960s and '70s and projecting the emergence of the politicized zombie into the historical past. The three developments in my mind are these: 1) Academia began to take an interest in popular culture in the 1960s and '70s; 2) Academia, especially the liberal arts, became increasingly leftist in orientation during the same period; and 3) Because of that, they applied leftist interpretations to everything before them, including popular culture. Have they ever considered the possibility that the mark they see is not on history? That it may actually be on the lens through which they view history?

* * *

I think that one of the reasons that so many people on the left dislike the human beings in The Walking Dead is that they see them as a bunch of gun-totin', Trump-votin', Bible-verse-quotin' deplorables. They're bitter clingers who lack college educations and live in horrifying wastelands like Indiana, Kentucky, and Alabama. In The Walking Dead, the zombies outnumber the humans. They have won the popular vote. Yet the humans resist the imposition of the zombie imperative to take away everything that is most sacred to them--their individual human identity, their autonomy, their rights, their freedom, their lives. In other words, they resist literal dehumanization and a kind of metaphorical slavery. Zombies want to overwhelm humanity. Humans use guns to kill them and build walls to keep them out. They also live under a hierarchical--and arguably more traditional--social structure and resist the anarchic or nihilistic society of the zombie mob. And they recognize the truth about human existence, that we are in our nature fallen, and that in the absence of civilizing influences, we revert to savagery--that we must revert to savagery if we are to survive. The leftist, rightfully in his mind, may ask: "How dare they?"

Maybe, too, the leftist's dislike for The Walking Dead comes from its implicit refutation of leftist ideals: That human beings are fundamentally good and that they are corrupted by society (i.e., by civilization); that once traditional (or conservative or reactionary) institutions, including civilization, are overthrown, we will be ushered into a golden age in which our natural selves and relationships will be expressed; that in a state of nature, because of our natural goodness, we will enjoy great happiness and harmony with each other; and that, ultimately, the future will be golden age, a Utopia, and not a nightmarish post-apocalypse. And maybe leftists don't like the idea of an apocalypse at all because of its religious--more specifically, Christian--overtones. As I have written, the Haitian fear of becoming a zombie includes the fear that the zombie-slave is forever denied release into the afterlife and will never be permitted to return to the Haitian's own version of Utopia, Lan GuinĂ©e, the African homeland of his imagination. So maybe there is a religious or theological aspect to zombie-ism, an aspect which the leftist--being a thoroughgoing materialist or atheist--is entirely too squeamish and ill-equipped to consider. (7)

Here's another maybe for us all to think about, me included: Maybe The Walking Dead and the zombie story in general are just stories.

(1) Significantly, Southey's use of the word was in his recounting of a slave revolt in South America.
(2) As an illustration, "The Unknown Painter" first appeared in American newspapers in 1838, the same year in which "Ligeia" by Edgar Allan Poe was published. "Ligeia" is of course a tale of a bodily revenant. Some people consider it a zombie story. Although he wrote proto-science fiction, Poe was essentially an author of Gothic and Romantic works. Weird Tales, which published some of the first zombi(e) stories of the pulp era, was cast in Poe's mold. H.P. Lovecraft, the leading author for Weird Tales, was a great admirer of Poe. He, too, is said to have authored zombie stories, especially in his series on Herbert West, Reanimator. I would say that if zombie and revenant or the undead are synonyms, then maybe. Otherwise, Poe and Lovecraft wrote about two of the oldest fears we have: of death and of the return of the dead. It's worth noting that both Poe and Lovecraft used scientific or quasi-scientific methods to raise or fix life in their deadmen: mesmerism in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (1845) and injections of a serum in the Herbert West series.
(3) Romanticism and Gothicism, as reactions against the Age of Reason and the French Revolution, are especially in opposition to progressive, leftist, and rationalist ideas.
(4) Theodore Dreiser, a Naturalist author, is supposed to have snubbed William Seabrook, though not because of his subject matter but because of his personality and reputation. That's interesting in that Seabrook was essentially a Fortean, though maybe not formally. Dreiser, too, was a Fortean. He was also one of Charles Fort's best friends, if not his only friend.
(5) She was, by the way, a conservative Republican. There are stories that Harriet Tubman was a Republican, too. That may or may not make much sense, as even as a free woman she would not have been able to vote or hold public office. In any case, Harriet packed a pistol to defend herself and others from the depredations of the slaveholder and slave-hunter. So if you want to close a circle of: human beings as prey to masses of vampires (Matheson) to human beings as prey to masses of zombies (Romero) to the phenomenon of the supernatural zombie-slave based on a memory of real-world slavery (Seabrook) to real-world slave rebellions or revolutions to end slavery (the Haitian Revolution and the American Civil War) to enslaved human beings as prey to masses of slaveholding vampires, then look to Seth Grahame-Smith's novel (more accurately, gothic romance) Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter from 2010.
(6) In The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985), zombies were given an alternative scientific explanation: they are caused by the use of natural, biological toxins of the pufferfish and of Datura, commonly called jimsonweed or thornapple. I have written about jimsonweed and its connection to weird fiction before (link here). I didn't mention in that article the part jimsonweed plays in the 1979 horror movie NightwingAnyway, it's not that far to go from Herbert West's serum to a cocktail of toxins as in The Serpent and the Rainbow.
Speaking of cocktails, there is a cocktail called the Zombie. It was invented in 1934 by Donn Beach, also the inventor of the postwar tiki craze. The Zombie has several ingredients, one of which is rum, which was one side of the triangular slave trade and the drink enjoyed by the rebelling zombie-slaves in "Salt Is Not for Slaves."
(7) Remember the question put to the people of the Caribbean: What is a zombi(e)? The rational Westerner was incapable of comprehending the answer because the answer is not rational. The leftist, materialist, or atheist academic of today is even more ill-equipped to understand the nature and meaning of zombi(e)s. He asks the question of himself and can come up only with a materialist explanation, more narrowly, an explanation tainted by Marxism and its relentless criticism of capitalism. In other words, to the critical theorist, zombies must have something to do with capitalism, especially American capitalism, because everything has something to do with capitalism. Here's a question to consider on the other side: What is an academic? Too often, the answer seems to be that he is an obtuse navel-gazer, a person with his mind full of theories and empty of imagination.

Poe's Ligeia in an illustration by British artist Byam Shaw (1872-1919), who died of Spanish Influenza in 1919, that pivotal year in the history of the twentieth century and of the pre-history of Weird Tales.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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