The popularity of the hit movie 28 Days Later… has made zombies a cultural mainstay. Now frequent characters in Hollywood-backed entertainment, you can catch these shuffling, decaying figures in hot series such as The Walking Dead, or even featured as new antagonists in blockbuster movies and video games like Resident Evil, in which the slaying of zombies — ironically — has been introduced to bring life to the aging franchise.
But as celebrants smear their faces with black and grey paints and practice their “walk of the dead” in honor of Halloween, most would never believe the ghastly history they are enacting as they don zombie tropes: the brutality of slavery in Haiti.
Haitian Voodoo alone is frightening to many, yet people should be more alarmed by the seeds of its germination. Its association with “dark magic” and using craftily fashioned dolls to harm one’s enemies has been emblazoned in the minds of millions by the same fantasy factory that has stripped the zombie of its history. Yet, this folk religion is merely an amalgam of Catholicism and slaves’ native African religions. Voodoo was forged in the fiery pit of suffering experienced when these slaves were forced to adapt to the New World.
This soul-breaking transition forced Africans who had been transported like cargo to raise sugar cane in what was then called Saint-Domingue to develop a new mythology. The zombie, which originated in the Haitian Voodoo tradition that was born of slavery, represented what could happen to a slave if he or she committed suicide to escape the terrors of being chattel under French rule.
Death — a final and usually unthinkable solution to life’s problems — was readily desired by many slaves of that era and region as the only means of escape. Only something worse than death — becoming one of the walking dead — could inspire people living daily through deadening cruelty to endure such circumstances.
In her New York Times essay, A Zombie Is a Slave Forever, journalist Amy Wilentz outlines this eye-opening insight into how this popcorn movie stock character was derived from one of the darkest annals of the African diasporic legacy.
“For the slave under French rule in Haiti — then Saint-Domingue — in the 17th and 18th centuries, life was brutal: hunger, extreme overwork and cruel discipline were the rule,” she writes. “The only escape from the sugar plantations was death, which was seen as a return to Africa, or lan guinée (literally Guinea, or West Africa). This is the phrase in Haitian Creole that even now means heaven. The plantation meant a life in servitude; lan guinée meant freedom. Death was feared but also wished for. Not surprisingly, suicide was a frequent recourse of the slaves, who were handy with poisons and powders.”
Wilentz relates in her enlightening essay how suicide would render one’s soul unable to make the passage back to lan guinée under the new Voodoo religion — rendering one a lifeless zombie. If slaves tried to escape their desperation through self-destruction, in becoming a zombie they would remain half-alive, yet estranged from Mother Africa — and possibly under another’s control, no better than a slave. This strange set of circumstances would result because the Voodoo god of the underworld, Baron Samedi, was apparently offended by self-inflicted death.
“If for some reason a person has thwarted or offended Baron, the god will not allow that person, upon his death, to reach guinée,” the Times author explains. “Then you’re a zombie. Some other lucky mortal can control you, it is believed. You’ll do the bidding of your master without question.”
This fear helped keep Haitian slaves working under pitiless conditions. The threat of offending Baron Samedi by enacting your demise was also used by overseers — often slaves themselves — to prevent what the masters perceived as a loss of costly resources. This twisted story of clinging to life as an alternative to a living death motivated slaves to persist through their living hell. Somehow, it gave them the will to live.
Zombie lovers, take note.
This story might be too much to stomach for the children you encounter this evening pretending to be Zombie Michael Jackson from the Thriller video. After all, Halloween is supposed to be scary — but fun. But adults any time of year might want to remember that the underbelly of human behavior that made the slave trade possible is the source of life’s real atrocities. Atrocities that get fictionalized and then packaged for mass consumption.
It’s a trick that in this case becomes a moviegoer’s treat.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.