Chasing Haiti's Zombies: Separating Fact From Fiction While Exploring the History of the Undead
" Europeans go to church and speak about God, we dance in the temple and become God." - Vodou Proverb
I must admit that Haiti has been on my mind recently especially after watching the phenomenal Tariq Nasheed directed and produced documentary 1804: The Hidden History of Haiti. Tariq has gathered together a very knowledgeable and talented ensemble, everyone from conscious artist like rapper/poet Akala and Fugees member Wyclef Jean, to scholars like James Smalls and Dr. Wade Nobles, as well as artist and human rights attorney Ezilio Danto (Marguerite Laurent). 1804 documents the history of the enslaved Haitians successful revolution against France which lead to their liberation. You cant help but fall in love with the resilience of Haitian people after learning about how they soundly defeated the French armies. What is more astounding is at the time the slaves rose up France was the world superpower the same status the United States commands today, and they were under the leadership of the military genius Napoleon. If Napoleon is acknowledged as one of the world's greatest military minds the fact that the Haitians defeated him speaks volumes of their fortitude and military prowess. Throughout the documentary Tariq and many of the other scholars he interviewed often stressed how the Haitian zombie phenomenon was exploited by Hollywood, political leaders, and white supremacist within the church to make black people be ashamed of African religious systems, and further more distance themselves from the Haitian Revolution an event that otherwise black people should be collectively proud of because it symbolizes the epitome of the true definition of liberty. It is clearly obvious that both the French and the United States had a very narrow definition of liberty when compared to the Haitians, especially since both countries even after they produced documents like the Declaration of Independence and The Rights of Man continued to support slavery.
Was it true what Tariq and others were saying about the zombie? What I discovered was that Hollywood was guilty of waging a propaganda war on Haitian (African) culture, especially during the time of the American occupation of Haiti which lasted into the 1930s. This war manifested itself in literature like the stereotypical "black savage" found in William Seabrook 's book The Magical Island, as well as the racist images of blacks attacking white women found in movies like White Zombie. Even Disney got in on the act with movies like The Princess and the Frog that seem innocent at first until one realizes that the chief antagonist in the film was a negative representation of the Vodou Loa (God) Baron Samedi in the character of Dr. Facilier.
In some versions of the Bois Caiman Ceremony Loa (God) such as Ezili Danto were honored. In other versions of the story Baron Samedi was the god who the Haitian called upon at the Bois Caiman Ceremony.These enslaved Africans in Haiti who started the rebellion knew that death could be a reality; therefore, honoring Baron Samedi the Loa who gives the dead souls passage back to Africa makes sense. Baron Samedi could also have been called to bring death onto the French slave masters. In any case it does seem as though Hollywood wants to demonize or invalidate the African struggle for liberation. If indeed what Tariq and others were saying seem to be true then it is time for us to reassess the zombie phenomenon put it in its proper context, and not be afraid to celebrate the Haitian Revolution or African religious systems that many associate with "black magic." In your typical zombie movie whether it is Night of the Living Dead, The Walking Dead, or World War Z, the protagonist in the film are usually running for their life from the zombie threat; however, when writing this article I wanted to do less running and more chasing, as I attempted to track the history of the zombie down in order to separate fact from fiction.
actress Danai Gurira as Michonne from The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead 2005, issue 19. Michonne captures two zombies. Imagery very similar to Haitian artist Hector Hyppolites zombie oil paintings from the 1940s
Hector Hyppolite, Zombie oil painting, 1946. Notice the two captured zombies imagery that obviously influenced The Walking Dead.
When researching the subject of zombies it will take you to some strange and unforeseen places for example I would have never realized that my path would lead me to Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurtson.
Hurston's claim to fame was a book called Their Eyes Were Watching God. A book that was original for giving a voice to African-American women who Hurston often describes as the "mules" of the world caught between the dual worlds of oppressive white racism, and the controlling reins of male patriarchy that could often be wielded by black men. Hurston was a Howard University educated anthropologist that often wrote her books in a black vernacular that infuriated black propagandist like W.E.B Dubois who believed the goal of a black writer was to elevate the race through art, not to speak in broken English which will only further reinforce stereotypes. Hurtson was a pure artist however her training as an anthropologist allowed her to respect the folk traditions and customs of black southerners without judging them.
During her own lifetime Hurston was less famous and often criticized, but her name has since been redeemed by everyone from acclaimed author Alice Walker to talk show host Oprah Winfrey. It astonished me then when I first discovered that Hurston wrote on the subject of zombies in one of her lesser known books titled Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. What is even more astonishing is that Hurston believed the stories of the zombie to be factual, and she even claimed to be the first person ever to take a photo of an actual zombie. In 1936 a naked woman who had missing eyelashes, as if her eyes were burned by acid was discovered walking, or rather limping into a Haitian village. Many in the village claimed to recognize her and believed her to be the person known as Felicia Felix Mentor. Mentor had died more than 20 years earlier, and was also known to have a broken leg. It seems as if she had now suddenly returned, but now as a zombie who had no memory of who she was.
Hurston's zombie story was later explored in 1945 by a doctor named Louis P. Mars who doubted whether the story was true. Mars noted that the person who was discovered did not have a broken leg at all, but only walked with a limp because of poor nutrition. Once the person diet was returned to normal the limping stopped. Mars also believed that what many attributed to the zombie like state was really a case of schizophrenia. Her menstrual cycle returning also hinted at the fact that the woman was not as old as many villagers believed. Hurston may have been writing during a time when folklore was in vogue and naively and even wishfully believed many of the stories she was told were true.
As a kid growing up in the 80s I remember watching the Wes Craven movie the Serpent and the Rainbow, and being scared out of my mind. Wes Craven is the movie director that is famous for introducing to the world iconic characters like Freddie Krueger. One of the things that stuck with me the most about The Serpent and the Rainbow is that many in the black community especially those who were heavy into culture and activism viewed the movie as racist. Indeed the documentary 1804 did an excellent job highlighting Hollywood's history of doing an affective job demonizing Vodou, African religious system, and by extension African people. In much the same way Hollywood created the African cannibal they also stereotyped the religion of Vodou, as these half crazy religious practitioners who created zombies, and unleashed them on white people. By denigrating African religious systems through the use of mass media most black people are afraid of their own culture thus rendering them afraid of themselves.
It was only later that I learned the movie the Serpent and the Rainbow was actually based on a book by the same name. The book was written by a Harvard trained ethnobotanist by the name of Wade Davis. Davis and his research come off much different than the actual movie. In fact Davis when interviewed sounds more like an intellectual hippie than a tool of racism. To Davis credit he is very progressive in his thinking, he wrote his book to prove that sub-Saharan Africa has a religious system just as worthy of respect, as the five major faiths of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. What Davis did not mention was that Christianity was not a European creation but was very much based on African mythology. In fact Christianity pulls heavily from the death and resurrection stories of Osiris and Isis made famous by mythologist Joseph Campbell, and according to the Greek historian Diodorus the Osiris legend has its origin in the sub-Saharan country of Ethiopia.
Nevertheless Davis correctly observed that the only reason we don't look at African religions in a respectable light is because of prejudice and racism. He sought to prove through science and investigation that he could restore some respectability to African religions like Vodou by proving that the Africans had an advanced knowledge of plants and herbs. Africans had a vast pharmacology and an awareness of toxins that could enable them to create the living dead. Davis claimed to be initiated into some of Haiti's secret societies who showed him how the zombie making process worked. Davis said that the Haitians had knowledge of the puffer fish that had a deadly poison called tetrodotoxin, and when rendered in less powerful doses would mimic the appearence of death. Only later as the individual recovers from their "death like" state they are later administered another poisonous plant called datura stramonium that produces the easily controlled "zombie like" state. Davis freely admits that he never actually witnessed a live zombie being created, but he interviewed people claiming to have once been zombies. He also was able to buy zombie powder from Vodou priest known as Bokur. Most scientist who later tested the powder doubted whether the zombie powder was affective enough to do what it claims to do. Davis believes that the zombie powder includes certain ingredients that could make the process possible if given the correct dose. Like his predecessor Zora Neale Hurston who arrived on the island before him his research leaves much to be desired in the area of definitive proof, and in many ways though this was not their intent both Davis and Hurston contributed to further stereotypes about Vodou and African religious systems.
It also must be said that any western scientist that are foolish enough to play "Indian Jones" and travel to an impoverished island and pay people thousands of dollars to spin tales about zombies and magic powder, there will always be some clever entrepreneurial Haitians willing to take their money and make fools out of them. Of course there is the curious case of "former zombie" Clairvius Narcisse whose DNA was never tested, but in cases where the DNA of "zombies" was tested it turns out they weren't who they claimed to be. In fact most Bokur and people that practice African religious systems have very little concern for zombies. The main focus in a Vodou ceremony is to become one with god. It is also interesting to note that the famous "Voodoo doll" has its origins in Europe not in Vodou or African religious systems which is very telling indeed.
This finally brings me to a New York Times article written in 2012 by Amy Wilentz entitled "A Zombie is a Slave Forever." It was in this article when I first discovered that the idea of what we know today as a zombie could have been a lie created on the sugar plantations of Haiti by the plantation owners themselves. It is pretty well documented how horrible slavery was, but sometimes one feels the need to remind people just how horrorible it actually was. Rebellious slaves were often whipped to the point of having no skin on their backs, and then further tortured by having salt placed in the wounds. They would have body parts cuts off. For overcooking pie they were placed in ovens. They even had gunpowder exploded in their genitalia. Some slaves were buried up to their necks in the ground only to have killer ants slowing feast on their heads. Slaves were sealed in barrels and rolled to their death down hillsides. They were hunted and ripped apart by attack dogs. Slavery was so harsh that in Haiti the life expectancy for a slaves was as little as 3 to 6 years. Under terrible conditions no wonder that the slaves would often turn to suicide as a form of escape. In fact it was part of the belief found in the African religious system that the soul or nzambi upon death would to return to la guinee/Guinea or Africa. It is probably not a coincidence that the African (Congo) word for soul nzambi sounds very close to the word zombie. Africans in Haiti and their belief in their"nzambi" or souls returning to Africa made them fearless during slave revolts. A rebellious slave did not fear death because death meant freedom. It is through this concept that the nzambi or zombie has its origins.
It is most likely that the zombie concept was then corrupted by slave masters, as a way of thwarting the slaves from committing suicide. The purpose was to make the slaves believe that even in death there is no escape. A dead slave can be reanimated brought back to life and still enslaved. It is well documented that religion was always weaponized as a tool to make slaves passive. In fact one of Nat Turner's roles before his insurrection in Virginia was to preach to the slave population that they should obey their white masters. It also must be said that slaves in the United States like Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey would find different interpretations for the Bible, and would use particular Bible verses for insurrection and liberation the same way their Haitian cousins found liberation in Vodou. The concept of the zombie like the slave masters interpretation of the Bible was also used as a tool to strike fear in the hearts of slaves in order to maintain control over their property. We should no longer be afraid to embrace or celebrate African religious system like Vodou and the Haitian Revolution.
In one of the most ridiculous statements I can remember in a long time 700 Club talk show host Pat Robertson in what seems reminiscent of how slave masters manipulated religion took the opportunity to blame the Haitian earthquake on the fact that it was their African religion, and the devil that inspired the Haitians to lead a revolt against their French slave masters. Yes this was the same French slave masters that were raping and killing them. Of course Pat Robertson's comment was thoroughly addressed by Whoopi Goldberg on her show The View, and even more thoroughly addressed in Nasheed's 1804. Indeed the belief in Vodou did play a role in the Haitian Revolution, but not the demonized version Robertson made reference to because if that's the case both the American Revolution, and the French Revolution would also be considered demonic because were these not secular revolutions inspired by the reason and science of the enlightment. Both the American and French Revolution were also vehemently against religion and monarchy. What Pat Robertson is practicing is a form of white supremacy cloaked in religious rhetoric condemning one revolution, and yet granting legitimacy to another clearly based on skin color and false notions of superiority.
In fact it was Vodou priest and priestess like Mackandal and Cecile Fatiman that were instrumental in giving birth to the Haitian Revolution at its early stages before leadership was assumed by the more famous names of Toussiant Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessaline. In fact the more I study religion the more I realize that they all in some way blend into each other in a sort of religious sycncertism. Black Christians who shun Vodou's animal sacrifice need only read their old testament and see that animal sacrifice is all throughout the Bible from the stories of Abraham and Isaac to Cain and Abel. People who frown on the fact that Vodou practitioners allow themselves to be overtaken by African spirits like Ogun are blinded to the obvious realization that this is very similar to Black church goers being filled with the Holy Ghost. The more we study the more we realize that what bonds us is way more powerful than what separates us. If the devil did play a role in the Haitian Revolution he was most certainly on the side of the French whose atrocities are too long to mention.
Toussaint Louverture - Leader of Haitian Revolution
Jean-Jacques Dessaline - Leader of Haitain Revolution
Mackandal - Vodou Priest Precursor to Haitian Revolution
1791-1804 Haitian Revolution
Randall Robinson. An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President. BasicVivitas Books. 2007.
Mambo Chita Tann. Haitian Vodou: An Introduction to Haiti's Indigenous Spiritual Tradition. Llewellyn Publication. 2016.
Martin Ros. Night of Fire: The Black Napoleon And The Battle For Haiti. Sarpedon. 1994.
C.L.R. James. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Vintage Books. 1989.
Roger Luckhurt. Zombies: A Cultural History. Reaktion Books. 2016.