Monday, November 24, 2014

The Haitian Zombie Issue Pt. 3

Finishing up what I started on Part 1 and Part 2 of my thoughts on the relationship between Haitian zombies and Romero zombies (i.e. the multiplying, contagious, mindless, flesh-eating zombies we typically think of when we hear the word "zombie"): Ultimately, I would contend that what most distinguishes Haitian zombies from the figure that has appropriated their name, is that they (the Haitian zombies) are not monsters. They are victims. They are not terrifying; what has happened to them is terrifying. Their mode of existence has become monstrous, but they themselves are not monsters. Although you could certainly contend that Romero zombies become zombies by being the victimized (Night of the Living Dead clearly explains that any recently dead person will become a zombie, but the more common understanding that has arisen since then is that you become a zombie by being bitten by a zombie), with Haitian zombies their monstrousness (if it exists) is situated precisely within their victimhood. If they are monsters, a claim that I think is dubious at best, it is based not on what they currently are or do, but rather on what has been done to them and taken from them.  But if we begin to categorize any victim that frightens or unsettles us as a monster, that would really open the whole field up to an unsustainable degree, don't you think? Were do we draw the line? Are acid attack victims monsters? Or Ronald Poppo, the victim of the Miami cannibal? 
I would argue no. They make us uncomfortable, and we absolutely fear ever going through what has happened to them. Monsters, though? I don't see it. We fear becoming them, the same way we fear becoming Haitian zombies, but we do not fear them. Would they be monstrous if they start beheading people or drinking blood or starting fires with their minds? Now we can talk.
In almost all cases, the horror monster is the violator of the natural order and the perpetrator of heinous acts. The monster is never solely the victim of these acts or violations. The Haitian zombie, as much as it may unsettle us, does not engage in horrific acts or exhibit any degree of dangerous or violent behavior unless they have been explicitly commanded to by the Bokor who created them. Indeed, I would have no trouble acknowledging the Bokor as a monster. It is the Bokor that denies the dignity of death in creating the zombie. It is the Bokor that is the perpetrator the crime that is to be guarded against. It is the Bokor that is reviled and feared, not the powerless and obedient zombie. In the context of post-revolution Haiti, this is not at all surprising (those with power were infinitely more frightening than those without).

My argument here is not that Haitian zombies are not real zombies, or authentic zombies, because of course they are. In fact, they are the truest iteration of the zombie and the origin of the term (though not the more popular figure). Rather, my point is they are not what we have (erroneously, but whatever, it's too late to change it) come to refer to as zombies. It's not so much a matter of being more or less real as it is of being completely different constructs that just happen to be identified by the same word. A Haitian zombie is a real zombie, just not the zombie that has come to dominate our current cultural moment. What's more, they aren't even an earlier or originary version of the flesh-eating walking dead figure that has overwhelmed our popular consciousness. If the Haitian zombie is foundational to the Romero zombie (it's not), it's foundational in the way that ghosts, ghouls, revenants, and vampires are as well. I would actually contend that the Romero zombie owes less to the Haitian zombie than it does to a great many other undead figures (ghouls and vampires chief among them). 

A silly but hopefully instructive analogy: in espionage, a mole is a long-term, undercover operative. In nature, a mole is a small, subterranean mammal. The spy mole clearly takes its name from the creepy blind rat thing. But that's about as far as it goes. Like the mole, if the Haitian zombie is foundational to zombies as we know them, it is only obliquely so.

You're an “underground” spy. Moles live underground. You're a mole. 

You're a monster that comes back from the dead. Zombies “come back from the dead.” You're a zombie. 

There's really nothing more to the relationship than that (there is more to being foundational than tangential similarity; werewolves are generally mindless, they eat flesh, and their condition is transmissible via their bite - more profound similarities than those shared by Haitian zombies and Romero zombies - and yet the werewolf isn't a foundational figure for the zombie either). The Haitian zombie does not inform the conventions of the new zombie any more than little moles help us understand spies. Obviously, there is a species gap between moles and moles that helps defer any confusion between the two. We don't have that between zombies and zombies, both of which derive from human corpses (or "corpses" depending upon your personal understanding of Haitian Voduo practice), so the two become conflated. This is unfortunate, because both constructs are wildly interesting and deserving of our attention and each has much to say about the culture that created them. I feel, however, that attempting to correlate the two beyond their passing similarities and shared name only unnecessarily muddles our understanding of either. 

Agree, disagree, think I'm dumb? Comment below.

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