Friday, February 3, 2017

The Secret Origin of Zombies-Part Two

Magical Thinking and The Magic Island

Like the title says, I'm looking into the origins of zombies in American popular culture, and I'm doing it for two reasons. First, so we know just when and how it happened. Second, so that we can figure out whether it has anything to do with capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, fascism, or any other -ism you care to imagine.

For the first part of this series, I looked for occurrences of the word zombi(e) in the popular press around 1900 and before. Why 1900? Because that's when Dr. Stephen Olbrys Gencarella of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst says it all happened, to wit:
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 quote is from an article called "The Shameful Fascism of The Walking Dead," by writer Sean T. Collins, dated December 17, 2016, and posted on the website The Week, here. It seems to me that there's a lot riding on Dr. Gencarella's assertion, for if "[t]he zombie trope" didn't come into American popular culture sometime around 1900, then there could be something wrong with his argument. It might take some of the starch out of Mr. Collins' argument as well.

So I did a search for the word zombie in popular sources from before 1910, and I came up empty. That's because no one I have found called them zombies before William B. Seabrook in his newspaper articles of 1928 and in The Magic Island of 1929. (The word zombi, describing a different kind of being or creature, was in print in American newspapers as early as 1838.) I will admit that I didn't exhaust sources in the American popular press from before 1910, but I did what I think were some good, thorough searches, and I came up empty. I wonder if Dr. Gencarella has access to further sources to back up his assertion that zombies arrived on our shores and in our imaginations around 1900.

So if it didn't happen around 1900, when did it happen? When did zombies as we know them today make their entry into American popular culture? The evidence still points to the period 1929-1932 when The Magic Island was published and White Zombie, the first known and extant zombie movie, was released. That's a big gap--1900 to 1929. (1) There was something to fill that gap, but I'm going to hold off on that part of the story for now.

I have a newspaper item from 1932 that reads:
Do zombies really exist? Rumors have been seeping in for years from the island of Haiti about dead bodies being exhumed and, through a process of sorcery, put to work in the fields and mills, but is there any truth in the rumors? (2)
The item doesn't give any source for the "rumors" of zombies. (I guess rumors don't really have sources.) So what does that mean, "for years"? Since 1928, when William B. Seabrook had his first articles on the subject published in American newspapers? Or was it before that? We'll never know as far as this newspaper item is concerned. But the conventional wisdom is that zombies are part of the folklore of Haiti, a nation situated on Seabrook's "magic island" of Santo Domingo or Hispaniola. And just what was going on in Haiti in the 1920s and early 1930s? Well, American occupation was going on, so cheer up, all of you who think zombies have something to do with capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.

All right, that's enough cheer, for there are already problems with the idea that the zombies of Mr. Collins' and Dr. Gencarella's theorizing are somehow related to capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism at the turn of the century, and the American occupation of Haiti. First, American troops did not go into Haiti until 1914, and the actual occupation didn't begin until the following year. So unless you're really math-challenged, 1914-1915 still isn't "around the turn of the 20th century." On the other hand, it's only 14 to 15 percent of a century. That's the same percentage that the New York Times gave as Donald Trump's chances of winning the presidency, so maybe it's accurate after all. As we all know, the New York Times is never wrong.

Second, the American occupation of Haiti was ordered by President Woodrow Wilson, a man who was a lot of the things that academics, journalists, and other people on their side of the political spectrum really love: college professor and college president; Progressive, Democrat, and internationalist; member of the academic, political, and intellectual élite; a hero for presiding over the implementation of the progressive income tax and the direct election of senators. As a bonus, he also presided over a controlled economy during World War I, suppressed dissent in America (just like universities do today), and advocated for the centralization of political power in a supranational organization, the League of Nations. And he really liked golf, just like our most recent ex-president, whom you might call a Wilson revenant. (3)

Third--and this is a bigger part of the story--the United States has been since its inception an opponent and even a destroyer of empires. Since 1775, we have fought wars against the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Japanese Empire. We have also fought wars against states that were de facto empires, Russia under the Bolsheviks, Italy under the Fascists, and Germany under the Nazis, for example. And we have opposed other empires with which we did not go to war, such as the Mexican and French empires. You could make a good case that the United States established an internal empire on the North American continent, but as far as an overseas empire goes, there was never very much of one (the Philippines, Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, etc.), and we willingly gave up most of it, or we have allowed our possessions their autonomy and have provided for their prosperity in ways that aren't very imperialistic-y. For example, no one thinks of Puerto Ricans as being a bunch of poor, oppressed people, laboring under the yoke of American imperialism and yearning for their freedom and independence. In fact, when they have been offered their independence, they have said no thanks. 

Anyway, like in most other places, American forces eventually pulled out of Haiti--not a very imperialistic-y thing to do, either. So now we're on the horns of dilemma: How can we possibly lay American capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism as the cause for zombies at the feet of a Progressive and Democrat like Woodrow Wilson? Well, don't worry, I'm about to let you off the hook: Wilson came from a family of slaveholders and is supposed to have been a racist. He was also a supporter of eugenics (as most good Progressives were in those days). And he committed a sin against liberalism (and against the Constitution, I might add) by clapping socialist (and Bernie Sanders equivalent) Eugene V. Debs in prison for sedition. (I'm surprised that a photograph of a young Bernie with an old Debs hasn't surfaced yet.) So maybe Wilson and his capitalist, imperialist lackeys caused zombies after all.

Wait, there's more: American troops remained in Haiti throughout the 1920s under Republican presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. Bad, bad Republicans. The troops finally came out under Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934. Yay, FDR! There's still more in which leftists can take heart in their attempts to link zombies with capitalism: William B. Seabrook's book The Magic Island was published in 1929, the year of the stock market crash. White Zombie was released in 1932 in the worst year of the Great Depression. All of those events took place during the presidency of Herbert Hoover, one of our favorite bugaboo presidents. Oh, but wait a minute, Hoover is sometimes seen as a technocrat, i.e., as an expert, as one of a governing élite. We like élites. He was also something of a Progressive. We really like Progressives. And he worked for Woodrow Wilson during Word War I. We really, really like . . . wait, was Wilson a good guy or a bad guy? I can't remember now. Anyway, Hoover caused people to live in shantytowns in the Great Depression like a bad capitalist oppressor. Boo! On the other hand, he was, like Bill Nye the Science Guy, an engineer. Hooray! We love Bill Nye. He knows everything about global warming, even if he is only a mechanical engineer. Now I'm confused. Was Hoover good or bad? Was he a capitalist and an imperialist, or was he a Progressive and a technocrat who saved Europeans (who we know are superior to us) from the scourges of the bad, bad German Empire during World War I? (4) Didn't he oppose war? Didn't he have an American-Indian as his vice-president? And didn't he arrange for the American withdrawal from Haiti before leaving the presidency to his smiling successor? Too bad it all didn't happen under Calvin Coolidge, the worstest and most heartless capitalist we had as president until Ronald Reagan came along. If Coolidge had caused zombies, then we could all really put our minds at ease.

Anyway, there were zombis in the popular American press from as early as 1838 to the early decades of the twentieth century. There have been zombies in popular culture since 1929. In recent years, they're everywhere and have taken over everything. Today they actually live rent-free in the minds of academics and journalists. (I guess you could say that zombies have consumed their brains.) But what about the period of, say, 1900 to 1929? Where were zombis or zombies then? Well, where else but in pulp magazines?

To be continued . . .

(1) Please don't make the argument that 1929 was "around the turn of the 20th century." That's like saying World War II ended around the time of the Battle of the Somme.
(2) From "At the Elwood," evidently a canned press release for the movie White Zombie, printed in the Call-Leader of Elwood, Indiana, Dec. 23, 1932, p. 6. For those who haven't been there, Elwood is one long, straight, well-lighted street.
(3) Update (Feb. 5, 2017): And guess who was in charge of the operation in Haiti? Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, who claimed to have rewritten the Haitian constitution. Here is a quote from an article by Roosevelt from 1928: "In Haiti a worse situation faced us. That Republic was in chronic trouble, and as it is close to Cuba the bad influence was felt across the water. Presidents were murdered, governments fled, several time [sic] a year. We landed our marines and sailors only when the unfortunate Chief Magistrate of the moment was dragged out of the French Legation, cut into six pieces and thrown to the mob. Here again we cleaned house, restored order, built public works and put governmental operation on a sound and honest basis. We are still there. It is true, however, that in Santo Domingo and especially in Haiti we seem to have paid too little attention to making the citizens of these states more capable of reassuming the control of their own governments. But we have done a fine piece of material work, and the world ought to thank us." From Foreign Affairs, Volume VI, 1928, pp. 573-586. This quote is from a secondary source on the Internet; I have not looked for it in its original. The point again is that if American colonialism and imperialism are related somehow to zombies in America, then that colonialism and imperialism were carried out not by one party "around the turn of the 20th century" but by the other party half a generation later. The simpler explanation is to separate zombie-ism in our popular culture from American colonialism and imperialism and call it a cultural rather than a political development.
(4) And what about the German Empire? Yeah, they did horrible things to black people in Africa, but they stood against American imperialism in the Caribbean, plus they implemented a program they called State Socialism. As long as your program is socialist, it's okay to do horrible things to black people in Africa. Just ask Robert Mugabe and his apologists in the West. One more great thing the German Empire did: In 1917, they put Lenin in a train car from Switzerland to Sweden so that he could re-enter Russia. Revolution forced Russia out of the war, and after that, Lenin and his comrades created a workers' paradise in the new Soviet Union. Or was it that he and they sent millions of Russian workers to Paradise? I can't remember.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Terence,
    Lots of thought-provoking stuff here (as there always is when you get on these socio-political rants). and it's way too much for me to address in this comment section at this time. As you've likely guessed, I agree with some of what you said, have issues with other comments. But I am in total agreement with the overarching observation that it is difficult, often downright impossible, to pigeon-hole any person, policy or administration as being all good or all bad. Evil people have done some good things, great people have done some horrible things, failed policies have yielded some positive results, successes have had negative side effects. The world, its people, its societies, are complex, multi-layered, multi-facetted organisms, and anyone who tries to over-simplify that fact is not paying attention. I think that we (as in all people) tend to do this to some degree. We'd all like easy answers. But those who actually see the world and it's issues in terms of black and white really are color blind to the myriad shades of reality.

    Thanks for the stimuli.

    1. Mike,

      I hope that what I wrote doesn't sound like a rant. To me, ranting is angry and irrational. I wasn't angry and I wasn't being irrational when I wrote what I wrote. Instead, I was trying to poke fun at people who want to blame zombies on something that has nothing to do with zombies, at least without their offering any evidence. That's what I'm looking for: You can say any kind of outrageous thing you want as long as you present good, sound evidence in support of your argument.

      Anyway, you caught on, because my point is that things (and people) aren't so simple that they're all bad or all good all of the time. That's thinking like a child. University professors should not think like children. (Or like Frankenstein's monster when he said, "Fire bad!")

      There's more to come. The next part will be more to your liking. I hope you're able to help out with what I ask for in part three.


    2. Terence,
      I've always thought of a rant as being any lengthy, boisterous, impassioned dissertation. But now that you brought it up, a bit of online research yielded a couple of definitions -- one in agreement with my concept of the word and the other in agreement with yours.
      So, no, I didn't think you sounded angry when I referred to your commentary as a rant, just passionate.

    3. Okay, Mike,

      I'll accept your meaning. No offense taken.

      I hope you have a big library of fantasy and science fiction for the next part of this series.