Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Island Theory of Zombiation

The concept of the zombi(e), like much of our culture, was brought to America aboard a slave ship. The word is African, the idea is African, and the culture in which zombie-ism in America developed is African. Once here, zombi(e)s evolved from perhaps one common original to a number of different species. The speciation of zombies--the zombiation of the title here--seems to have happened on islands of African-slave culture, separated from each other by the waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. In Martinique and other smaller islands, the concept was of the zombi, an evil spirit who creates discord in the night. In Louisiana, it was Li Grand Zombi, the great serpent god and perhaps the closest to the original African concept of zombi. And in Haiti, it was the zombie we know today, the walking dead, a slave to some external agent. Coming from a common origin, zombi(e)s in America, evolving in separate island habitats, became separate species. For whatever reason, the undead zombie of Haiti proved to be the strongest or most adaptable of them and has spread throughout our culture and throughout the world.

Author William B. Seabrook (1884-1945) appears to have been the first to describe the zombi(e), species undead. His reporting from Haiti, published in newspaper accounts in 1928 and issued in book form in The Magic Island in 1929, is sober and evenhanded. It doesn't appear to be sensationalized. I think we have three choices when it comes to Seabrook's writing: First, to consider that he was telling the truth. Second, that, though he may have worked from a kernel of truth, he embellished or exaggerated stories of zombies for the reading public. Or, third, that he made it all up himself. I think we can discard the third possibility. The tone of his writing suggests the unlikelihood of the second possibility. That leaves the first possibility, namely, that he reported more or less truthfully on what he heard, saw, and experienced for himself. That would mean that stories of zombie-slaves in Haiti were true, or at least true to the people who passed them on to Seabrook. I haven't found anything to contradict any of that, and I think we have to conclude that Seabrook reported the truth or something close to the truth as he saw it and, consequently, that he was the father of zombies in America.

Seabrook's account of zombies in Haiti, "Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields," opens not on the island of Haiti, but on a smaller island, Île de la Gonâve, located in the Gulf of Gonâve, west of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. Although it is the largest of the islands in the waters of Hispaniola or Santo Domingo, Île de la Gonâve is dry and barren, a poor place to live or to try to make a living. William B. Seabrook visited the island in 1928 and interviewed a prominent local citizen, Constant Polynice. It was Polynice who first told Seabrook about zombies and who first showed him zombies at work in a cotton field on the trail to Picmy. Seabrook described them in various terms, saying among other things that they were "like automatons."

Constant Polynice also told his American interlocutor a story of zombies working on mainland Haiti, in the "big cane season" of 1918, when the Haitian-American Sugar Company--Hasco--"offered a bonus on the wages of new workers." A man named Ti Joseph took advantage of that offer by recruiting what Polynice said were zombies. In Polynice's telling, the zombies escaped in the only way they can escape, and Ti Joseph met a fitting end. The point of all this is that zombie-ism in Haiti seems to have been a response either to economic hardship, as on Île de la Gonâve, or economic opportunity, as with Ti Joseph and his work for Hasco. It was not capitalists who made or exploited zombies, but other Haitians, black Haitians for whom the affair of zombie-ism was their own. As Lamercie, the overseer of the zombies chopping cotton on the trail to Picmy, said to the American Seabrook, when it comes to zombies, "Z'affai' nèg pas z'affai' blanc"--the affairs of blacks are not the affairs of whites.

So the first accounts of zombies as the undead--the first of the firsthand accounts--came not only from an island but also from an island off the coast of an island. As with the evolution of any new species, zombies as the undead came about through (literal) isolation. Diseases, too, often develop in isolation, often, by our experience, in tropical or sub-tropical fastnesses, where they jump from an animal host to a human host with little notice. HIV/AIDS, which has done such harm in Haiti, is an example. (1) These diseases may operate at low levels for decades before being transmitted to larger populations, after which point they proliferate, sometimes exponentially, becoming in the process plagues or pandemics. That was the case with HIV/AIDS, which claimed its first known victims--known in retrospect, that is--in the 1950s. The same process seems to have occurred, on a far more trivial scale, with the concept of the zombie. Purely by coincidence, the first zombies caused by disease--zombies in retrospect, that is--also appeared in the 1950s, in Richard Matheson's science fiction novel I Am Legend (1954). These were scientific zombies, caused by disease, moving in hordes, and always seeking to infect the uninfected. In short, they were a plague--or pandemic--in human form.

George Romero gets the credit for the first movie--Night of the Living Dead (1968)--showing zombies as we know them today. (It might be more accurate to say that Mr. Romero invented zombies as we know them today.) But two years before, in 1966, Hammer Films released The Plague of the Zombies, a movie far less well known today, but perhaps equally important or more important in evolutionary terms. I have never seen this movie, but by description, it was or may have been the first to show a zombie plague and the first to show threatening zombies rather than harmless zombie-slaves. In fact, The Plague of the Zombies seems to have been a bridge or the bridge between the harmless Haitian zombie-slave (i.e., what I have called the Seabrook zombie) and the lethal scientific zombie horde as in Night of the Living Dead (i.e., what I have called the Matheson-Romero zombie). The bridging effect is made obvious in the movie in that there seems to be a combination supernatural/scientific explanation for its zombies. There is also a zombie-maker who has been to Haiti and has returned to his native Cornwall, carrying zombie-ism from one population to another and from one island to another, where he puts them to work, as Ti Joseph put his zombies to work, this time in a tin mine. Because I haven't seen the movie, I don't know the answers to some key questions: How exactly are the zombies in The Plague of the Zombies threatening--are they murderous or cannibalistic? How are they made? How exactly are they a plague--does the disease of zombie-ism spread from zombie to person somehow? And how exactly are the zombies destroyed? Curiously, The Plague of Zombies is set in 1860, more than two generations before William Seabrook's trip to Haiti.

A long time ago, I read of the concept of the meme, a sort of gene of culture that is propagated, like genes, through a population. Zombies and zombie-ism can be interpreted as memes. As in the evolution of a species, they developed in isolation. (Evolution is defined as a change in gene frequency.) As with any successful species, they have shown themselves to be well adapted for survival. Like a pandemic or an invasive species, they have proliferated in a host or in an environment not like their original host or environment, one in which there are no natural controls on their populations. So what will be the controls on zombies and zombie-ism? Or will they be uncontrolled and continue to adapt and proliferate in our culture? If zombies are, as William Seabrook described them, like automatons, will they simply evolve into a different form, that is, into the form of the robot-zombie, as on the graph of the uncanny divide? Will they cross over from the world of fantasy (or at least allegory) into the real world? And will they eventually overwhelm us, as so many people fear, once robots reach a technological singularity?

(1) Oddly enough, the origin of HIV/AIDS in humans coincides roughly with the American occupation of Haiti, though HIV/AIDS originated in Africa and is not supposed to have reached the New World until after World War II. The first known victim of HIV/AIDS died in Africa in 1959.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Clark Ashton Smith makes a fair amount of text about enslaved dead bodies via the magic of necromancy in his Zothique short stories. The story that stands out in my mind, as far as zombies go, is his Necromancy in Naat, which has the enslaved dead serving the necromancers of that dreaded island. It first appeared in July 1936 issue of Weird Tales, well before my time. However, his Zothique Cycle stories were collected together and published in one volume as Zothique in the Ballentine Adult Fantasy Series in 1970, which is where I first made my acquaintance with these stories.

    The story can be viewed online at and some interesting discussion here:

    1. CoastConFan,

      Thanks for the tip. I have read through "Necromancy in Naat," and there is an unmistakable similarity to stories of zombies, including the slave-state of the undead creatures, made by necromancers who are like zombie-masters. Clark Ashton Smith described the creatures as "like automatons," as "the living dead," and as "liches." (The swimming undead--a very creepy image--remind me of the zombies in the book World War Z.) It seems clear to me that CAS read stories of zombies and, recognizing possibilities, included them in his stories.

      Thanks for writing.