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Contemporary French and Francophone Studies

Vol. 15, No. 1, January 2011, 4755

WHITE ZOMBIE

Kieran M. Murphy

The figure of the zombie is perhaps the most overlooked point of contact
between Haiti and North America. Despite the familiarity and popularity it
enjoys in both cultures, the zombie has not attracted much consideration from
scholars, who tend to dismiss it as a phantasm inspired by an anthropological
curiosity that contributed to Haitis bad press through its sensationalist
evocations in travel literature and horror films. For instance, Michael Dash
argues that Haitis continuous portrayal as the land of contagion, carnality,
cannibals, Voodoo, and zombies inexorably led to political attitudes of
exclusion, paternalism and occupation (45). The association of Haiti with the
zombie accentuates and perpetuates Haitis Otherness by linking the
Caribbean nation to bodies defiled by the barbarism of oppressive regimes
and contaminated with infectious diseases (141142). However, by attributing
its popularity abroad solely to sensationalism, such association also neutralizes
the significance of the zombie as an influential and remarkable Haitian invention.
It eclipses the pioneering Haitian experience of modernity that produced
the zombie phantasm in the first place, and that facilitated its passage into the
American imagination during the Great Depression. Beyond the bad press, the
Haitian zombie emerged as a global figure of modernity. That emergence also
carries its own political weight that will be measured here through a genealogy
of the figure of the zombie from early colonial literature to its first appearance in
American cinema.
C.R.L. James has argued that the slaves of Saint Domingue (now Haiti)
experienced to an unprecedented degree the brutality and dehumanization of a
highly systematized and regimented agriculture. An early instance of
industrialized agriculture, the plantations of Saint Domingue also played an
integral part in the global economy revolving around the slave trade triangle
(392). The Haitian zombie was born out of this modern system of subjugation that

ISSN 1740-9292 (print)/ISSN 1740-9306 (online)/11/0100479 2011 Taylor & Francis


DOI: 10.1080/17409292.2011.535263
48 CONTEMPORARY FRENCH AND FRANCOPHONE STUDIES

was geared toward the complete commodification and alienation of its workforce
in order to maximize productivity. This genealogy of the zombie will trace how,
long after colonial rule, the historical slave resurfaces in Haiti through the
phantasm of the zombie as a dead body submissively toiling for its master. The
zombie is a figure of mourning that incarnates the fear experienced by plantation
slaves, that is, the fear of the first modern industrial workers who were stripped of
human dignity as they were turned into the instrument of a masters whim.
Records of the zombie predating the Haitian Revolution are scarce. The
word Zombi makes its first significant apparition in 1697 with the publication
of a semi-autobiographical libertine novel by Pierre-Corneille Blessebois,
Le Zombi du Grand Perou, ou la comtesse de Cocagne. As the twentieth-century editor
of Blessebois erotic works, Guillaume Apollinaire goes as far as to consider
Le Zombi as the first French roman colonial, and situates its importance for the
history of literature in its pioneering use of Creole vocabulary. After tumultuous
years of crime and seduction, the real-life Blessebois was exiled to Guadeloupe
and sold as an indentured servant (engage) to the owner of the Grand-Perou
estate. On the island, Blessebois acquired a reputation as a sorcerer. In Le Zombi,
he recounts how his bogus magic was enlisted to help the social and romantic
scheming of a character based on a certain Felicite de Lespinay, whom he
irreverently portrays as the licentious comtesse de Cocagne.
In the passage where the Creole word Zombi makes its first appearance,
the narrator-protagonist reveals to the comtesse de Cocagnes intended victim,
the marquis of the Grand-Perou, what she plans to do to him:

[. . .] when the marquis of the Grand-Perou came back from the Marigot he
was not joyful. He was rather like a rattled owner who had lost the best of
his negroes. Such a calamity had indeed occurred the night before, and it
was to somehow cheer up his melancholy that I told him about my
conversation with his mistress, during which she expressed her desire to
become a Zombi to frighten and bring the marquis to his senses. (234)

The comtesse de Cocagne believes that the protagonist will render her invisible
by turning her into a Zombi, a kind of evil spirit that is never explicitly
defined in the novel. Blessebois uses the Zombi in a way that suggests its
notoriety in the Caribbean at the end of the seventeenth century. Instead of
ignoring or keeping his distance from this local superstition, as was the tendency
during colonial times when describing African or slave cultures, Blessebois
seamlessly incorporates the term Zombi to his story and its title.1 As an
indentured servant, Blessebois could easily identify with the slaves and their
experience of dispossession. In this light, the fact that the Creole term Zombi
comes in the same sentence that mentions the melancholy felt by a master
after the passing of his best slave is significant. In its first occurrence in
literature, the Zombi was already linked to mourning and a dead slave.
WHITE ZOMBIE 49

Although the protagonist manages to mystify the comtesse de Cocagne who


thinks for a while that she has become the Zombi of the Grand-Perou, Blessebois
only refers to the Zombi as a kind of ghost, not as a corporeal being. A century
later, Moreau de Saint-Mery mentions the Zombi in his encyclopedic study of
Saint Domingue, a work he conducted for the most part shortly before the Haitian
Revolution. Saint-Merys evocation of the Zombi comes soon after his
description of slave religious rituals. In this unprecedented, detailed account of
Vaudoux, Saint-Mery focuses on dancing and possession rituals. Vaudoux
ceremonies presented for him a real danger to civil order and colonial power.
Ironically, he describes these slave gatherings in terms of mind control, a skill not
foreign to colonial subjugation, and also by drawing most of his vocabulary from
the then fashionable lexicon of Mesmerism. On the eve of the French Revolution,
Mesmers proto-hypnotic therapy, animal magnetism, reportedly turned Parisian
patients into docile somnambulists and, as with Vaudoux in Saint-Merys
account of it, was deemed by authorities to be a source of civil unrest (Darnton).
The conflation of Voodoo and Mesmerism was to resurface again in the first
zombie film, White Zombie (1932), to express the power of fascination of Murder
Legendre (Bela Lugosi), the Svengali-like villain and zombie-maker.
In his description of Saint Domingue, Saint-Mery follows his discussion on
the Vaudoux dance by noting the slaves talent for music and whistling, which
prompts him to evoke their love life. He recalls the story of a tryst drawn from
the local folklore featuring a young beauty with ebony skin, her whole body
trembling due to a Zombi tale [. . .]. In a footnote, and similarly to Blessebois,
Saint-Mery defines the Zombi as the creol word for a kind of spirit or
revenant (52). Incorporeal zombies continue to be part of twentieth-century
Vodou lore. According to Alfred Metraux, evil spirits roving the woods are
called ames zombi. Some of these zombie souls are found in cemeteries and
isolated places and are believed to be accident victims who died before their
time. Metraux also mentions another type of zombie, souls stolen from corpses
and stored in bottles that are sought after by sorcerers to increase their magical
power (88, 258).
As an embodied undead, the zombie emerges during the eighteeth century
in colonial records concerning rumors that proliferated in Saint Domingue about
the devil working through outlawed slave healers who represented a threat to
colonial power. A slave and herbalist named Marie Kingue reportedly inspired
fear and attraction among both the masters and the slaves due to her renown as a
powerful sorceress. Locals believed that she possessed the power to kill and
raise from the dead (Weaver 444).
Although the word zombie is mainly linked to spirits before the Revolution,
the fear of corporeal undead slaves being exploited in Saint Domingue looms up,
for example, in what could be considered as a slip of the pen by the great leader
of the Revolution, Toussaint Louverture. In his 1801 constitution, a document
well ahead of its time for its profession of democracy and human rights,
50 CONTEMPORARY FRENCH AND FRANCOPHONE STUDIES

Louverture abolished slavery on the island, while retaining his allegiance to the
French. Article 3 stipulated that There can be no slaves in the territory;
servitude is forever abolished. Here, all men are born, live, and die, free and
French (Fisher 229). Article 3 begs the question: what is the difference
between living and dying free? Sybille Fischer argues that the notion of dying
free and French could simply be rhetorical, or it could point to Louvertures
fear of a possible future where secessionists might claim their independence
from France. Louverture believed in the ideals of the French Revolution and
envisioned the future of Saint Domingue closely tied with Frances. According to
Metraux, despite being a devout Catholic and campaigning against
Vodou, Louverture was a herbalist convinced of the existence of magic (48).
In the context of the superstitious atmosphere reigning in Saint Domingue
and rumors about sorcerers resurrecting the dead, the interpretation of
Article 3 of Louvertures constitution should then also take into account
zombification as another dreaded possible future that entailed a life of
subjugation after death.
The anxiety surrounding the embodied zombie appears again in an anecdote
reported by Michel-Etienne Descourtilz concerning one of Louvertures
soldiers. During the Haitian Revolution, Descourtilz was taken prisoner by
the black insurgent army, in which he then served as a doctor. A few years after
his liberation, he published an account of his experience in the Revolution that
included the story of a former slave who, after serving several years under
Louverture, comes home and claims that his poor, sick, and emaciated mother is
a zombie (219220). Descourtilz describes the old zombie in terms
reminiscent of Blesseboiss and Saint-Merys haunting spirits, but he also implies
that the son feels compelled to reject his mother because she looks like a
dead body.
After the declaration of independence in 1804, Haiti never enjoyed much
political stability, largely due to international cold-shouldering, power-hungry
leaders, and recurrent clashes among the Haitian color-coded classes. Following
the abolition of slavery, the Haitian peasantry became the economic heart of
Haiti. For the new class of leaders, control over the peasantry was crucial to
their grip on power as well as to the countrys economic development. As in
colonial times, Vodou stood as a subversive force which had to be demonized to
be neutralized. Up until the mid-twentieth century, Vodou never evolved into an
official national religion despite being the religion of the majority of Haitians.
Instead it withstood several campaigns of repression.
During his 18181843 presidency, Jean-Pierre Boyer published his Code
Rural (1826) in order to provide the legal support for anti-Vodou witch-hunts
that were conducted to reform and control the peasantry. Boyers Code Rural
instigated new laws that recorded and, in a way, canonized these magical
offenses. Arguably, the current image of the process of zombification has
WHITE ZOMBIE 51

not changed much since 1835, when the Criminal Code stipulated in
Article 246:

Also to be termed attempt to kill by poisoning, is that use of substances


whereby a person is not killed but reduced to a state of lethargy, more or
less prolonged, and this without regard to the manner in which the
substances were administered and whatever resulted from such substances. If
following that state of lethargy the person is buried, then the attempt will be termed
murder. (emphasis added, qtd. in Hurbon 112113)

The Criminal Code, by condemning an act of sorcery, thus acknowledges its


existence. Although Article 246 omits the word zombie, it appears to be the
first official record of the process of zombification. It describes the process that
continues to this day to describe the production of zombies: a lethargic state
induced by a drug that could potentially lead to the burial of the victim. To
consider the burial of the numbed victim as murder appears contradictory,
unless the final outcome of the victim is already known. If he or she survives the
poisoning, then what constitutes murder? This option is not envisaged by the
author of this law, to whom the buried victim, no matter what happens, seemed
officially dead. This contradiction, then, betrays the authors uncomfortable
conjecture about what he does not mention in this text: after the burial, a
sorcerer secretly exhumes the lethargic victim, who is now collectively
considered as an undead body bound to toil on the plantations.
Article 246 is often cited by sensational travel writers as proof of or as a way
of accentuating Haitis Otherness.2 But, it should not be overlooked that the
process described in Article 246 has also provided a key trope in Haitian
literature. Franketienne and Rene Depestre, among others, have argued that,
beyond mere folklore, zombification has developed into a larger scale affliction
due to the succession of brutal dictatorships that have marked the recent history
of Haiti. For example, in Le Mat de Cocagne, the trope of the zombie is central to
Depestres thinly veiled allegory on the structures neo-coloniales (80) of the
repressive Duvalier regime. Such Haitian novels suggest that, long after the
Haitian Independence of 1804, the structure of colonialism resurfaced in a
people still haunted by the Saint Domingue slave. With his brutal methods and
the exploitation of Vodou lore, Duvaliers dictatorship conjured up the ghost of a
slave from another era that appears to have taken possession of Haitians and
turned them into zombies.
Anthropologist Franck Degoul has recently analyzed the similarities between
the historical and allegorical slave of Haiti, the slave from the colonial era
and the zombie figure that emerged after the Haitian Revolution. Although the
connection between the two is obvious and has been noted by Metraux and
others, Degoul, through the comparison of colonial documents on slavery and
ethnographic research on the Haitian zombie, demonstrates how their
52 CONTEMPORARY FRENCH AND FRANCOPHONE STUDIES

resemblance is manifest in the smallest details. They share similar eating habits
and ragged clothing, their transitions to thralldom are marked by baptism,
renaming, and the negation of any kind of link to their former selves; this kind
of social death, which the zombie symbolically exacerbates by being considered
undead, signals their status as mere expendable objects and explains the absence
of funeral rite following their real death. According to Degoul, this concordance
is particularly strange in light of recent studies that point out the total
collective amnesia amongst the general Caribbean population concerning the
slavery era. The zombie must then be the product of recondite memory (313).
The notion of recondite memory linked to an undead figure brings to mind
the theory of the crypt as developed by Abraham, Torok, and Derrida. The
atrocities and losses inflicted by slavery sealed a collective crypt that
symptomatically resurfaces through the widespread belief in an undead slave
figure and, along the lines of Franketienne and Depestre, through the
reemergence during the Duvalier regime of a form of collective bondage that
the ancestors of the Haitian people had successfully fought off.
Susan Buck-Morss has recently argued that the traumatic experience of loss
and meaninglessness caused by modern slavery is at the origin of a compulsion to
repeat. She locates this compulsion in the relentless need in Vodou rituals to
create everything anew. For example, Vodou gods must constantly be brought
back through possession, or the veves, the ritualistic Vodou symbols, must always
be redrawn at the beginning of each ceremony. For Buck-Morss, the transitory
nature of its rituals is what differentiates Vodou from its African origin and
makes it endemic to its Caribbean socio-historical context. She invokes the
figure of the zombie to illustrate this claim:

[Melville] Herskovits has traced the Haitian zombi, phantasm of the living
dead, to Dahomean legend. But [Joan] Dayan is surely right to argue that
this figure, a soulless husk deprived of freedom and the ultimate sign of
loss and dispossession, takes on unprecedented meaning in response to
colonial slaverys peculiar brand of sensuous domination, and the
conditions of forced, free labor that followed Haitian independence. (129)

As with Dash, the figure of the zombie does not get much consideration from
Buck-Morss. She does not mention this ultimate slave figure beyond this passage
even though her essay primarily traces the undeniable influence of the Haitian
Revolution on Hegels master-slave dialectic, and consequently argues that
modernity would be unthinkable without taking into account the events that led
to the first successful slave revolution of the modern era.
She defends this latter claim by concentrating on the context informing the
political, epistemological, and, by extension, cultural breakthroughs contained
in Hegels master-slave dialectic, which was published in 1807, three years after
Haiti had won its independence. Europes insatiable need for sugar generated an
WHITE ZOMBIE 53

industrialized and global economy of exchange based on mutual dependency


(9). On the eve of the Revolution, the slaves of Saint Domingue, the exploited
workforce of the worlds most profitable colony, became the first visible victims
of the violence and alienation of the new modern global economy. What made
Hegels master-slave dialectic such an emblem of modernity for Marx and many
others was its unprecedented emphasis on the importance of labor and the
struggle of life and death in order to achieve freedom and mutual
recognition (10, 5155). As Buck-Morss demonstrates, Hegel saw the new
master-slave dialectic unfold for the first time in history while he was reading
newspaper reports on a revolt taking place in the industrialized plantations of
Saint Domingue.
Hegels master-slave dialectic and the Haitian zombie could then be
considered as twins born out of Saint Domingue, and as two of the most original
and significant expressions of modernity, particularly of its monstrous side.
During the nineteenth century, with the spread of industrialization from the
colonies to Europe and North America, this experience, as Hegel had theorized,
became universal. Starting in 1932, the popularity of the first zombie movie,
White Zombie, shows how the image of expendable Haitian zombies slaving in the
sugar mill resonated with an American audience stricken by the Great
Depression. The appropriation of the Haitian zombie by American mass media
did contribute to the accentuation of Haitis Otherness, but it also signaled a
modern and shared experience of loss and meaninglessness that reached beyond
cultural differences.
Mary Renda writes that Haiti is the locus and source of evil, but also
provides, in the figure of the zombie, a vehicle for commenting on an
industrial civilization that threatens to turn men into a species of zombie
(226). Although Renda systemically uncovers the paternalistic and gendered
power relations at work in various American cultural productions during
the occupation of Haiti, she does not explore the genealogy of the zombie,
one of the most striking figures to give expression to modern power
relations. Following Alexandre Kojeve, Buck-Morss suggests that Hegels
master-slave dialectic concludes, as in Article 3 of Louvertures constitution,
with the abolition of slavery. In the Haitian myth, the zombie breaks the
masters spell when it ingests salt and can die, once again, but this time free.
A breakthrough in the history of human rights, Louvertures constitution
abolished the colonial master-slave dialectic without providingas
Franketienne and Depestre would argue, and despite what the rhetoric of
Article 3 stipulatedthe salt necessary to end its afterlife. The historical slave
lives on in the phantasm of the zombie, the undead slave that points to a
Haitian collective crypt that was sealed during the advent of a global and
industrial economy, and that began to haunt and turn the dispossessed of the
Great Depression into white zombies.
54 CONTEMPORARY FRENCH AND FRANCOPHONE STUDIES

Notes
1 Many possible etymologies exist for the word zombie (Ackermann and
Gauthier). Some have argued in favor of French, Arawak, or West and
Central African roots. Most commentators lean toward the African
influence, which possesses many examples of phonetically similar words,
even though they may differ in meaning.
2 As, for example, in Seabrooks bestseller The Magic Island, which was also the
main source of inspiration for the film White Zombie.

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WHITE ZOMBIE 55

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Kieran M. Murphy is a lecturer in the department of French and Italian Studies at


Dartmouth College. He received his PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of
California, Santa Barbara. He has published on Haitian culture, its American
appropriation, and on the impact of magnetism and electromagnetism on modernity.
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