Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Haitian Zombie Issue

No. No. No.               


Okay, so I’m about half of the way through Doc of the Dead on Netflix (it’s a little too goofy for its own good, but it has some stunning visuals in its interlude pieces and it includes fascinating interviews from some very heavy hitters in the zombie community) and I’m getting really frustrated, so I’m going to take a few minutes to just vent here.

Cool? Good.

Here’s my problem: Haitian zombies aren't zombies. 

There, I said it. They just aren't. 

Although they share a name with the creature introduced and popularized by the works of Romero (a slow moving, mindless, reanimated corpse that craves human flesh, that multiplies by killing victims who then become zombies, and that can only be (re)killed by a direct attack on its brain), the Haitian Vodou zombie should not be confused with zombies as we now think of them (i.e. the zombies this blog is dedicated to). Despite a few obvious similarities, in most observable ways the Haitian zombie and the Romero zombie are two separate constructs and, though linked thematically, should be considered as distinct from one another. Of course, I'm not implying that we should not refer to Haitian zombies as zombies (it is THEIR name, after all), but rather that it is necessary to acknowledge the fundamental differences between the two concepts in order to gain a full understanding of either.

First, though, let's get through the apparent similarities: Haitian zombies are people raised from the dead*, and Haitian zombies are mindless**. That's pretty much where it ends. And, in both cases, the seeming similarity is undermined in some sense (hence, the asterisks).

To begin with, *Haitian zombies are not actually raised from the dead, but rather are raised from the grave. This qualification, of course, is in reference to the fact that our current understanding of the Haitian zombie (and even certain early Haitian understandings), does not identify the zombies as dead but as seemingly dead. This is indicated as early as W.E. Seabrook's "... Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields," the short story most responsible for introducing the Haitian zombie to the popular consciousness. At the end of the story, the narrator relates a passage from the official Haitian penal code which seems to offer a non-supernatural explanation for presence of reanimated corpses: "Article 249. Also shall be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the administering of such substances, the person has been buried, the act shall be considered murder, no matter what result follows" (Seabrook 49). However, whether working under this seemingly more rational explanation, or the folkloric understanding of the zombie as "a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life [...] a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive,” the Haitian zombie is a corpse that "came from the grave" (Seabrook 41). Which, on the surface, is a bit of a nitpicky distinction, but it signifies nonetheless. In both cases, Romero and Haitian, it is the newly dead (or apparent dead) who return. However, in Haiti, it is exclusively corpses that have been buried that are revived while in Night it is exclusively those bodies that have not been buried that return. The latter indicates an interruption of the proper death rites. The former, however, gestures to a willful violation of death itself (more on the Bokor later).

Zonbi, by Wilson Bigaud, 1939
Next, although, for people like zombie connoisseur John Skipp the tragic truth about Haitian zombies is that "they [are] slaves. Either raised from the dead to do some vile master's bidding, or somehow mesmerized into mindless subservience, zombies were the husked-out shells of humanity, whose sole purpose was to do the degrading shit no willful soul would do. In that sense they were the ultimate slaves, in that they had no will of their own," ** Haitian zombies are not actually mindless (Skipp 10). Though the same could be said of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead - who try car door handles, use basic tools, shield their eyes from branches, and demonstrate basic self-preservation skills in avoiding fire - the Haitian zombie is un-mindless in a very different way.
Know what sucks? Doin' this.
Photo: Sean Smith
Not only are they capable of far more intricate tasks (reaping sugar cane is not an easy chore), but they are actually able to follow orders. This indicates a level of receptive communication that the Romero zombies simply lack. This is decidedly not a trivial distinction; the Haitian zombie is defined by its tractability, the Romero zombie by their inability to be controlled. Where the Haitian zombies are literal slaves, the Romero zombie is a slave only to its appetite. These are very clear indications of the stark differences in cultural anxieties between the two societies that created these very distinct monstrous figures. To grossly oversimplify, one fears being controlled, one fears being out of control.

(I just realized that Haitian zombies and Romero's both shamble very similarly in a way that is not readily undermined in any demonstrable way. So there's that linking them, I guess. In the immortal words of Deep Blue Something, "Well, that's the one thing we've got").

To be continued...

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