How Haitian “zombie” folklore entered the American imagination

The Haitian “zombie” folklore and mythology entered white American cultural consciousness during the 1920s-30s, that is, during the U.S. occupation of Haiti. At the same time that U.S. officers were subjecting poor Haitians to forced labour schemes (they reintroduced the corvée system), Haitian culture was being sensationalised, distorted and commodified in order to sell theatre tickets. The military officer behind this was Smedley Butler, one of the most decorated marines in U.S. history. Butler resurrected this forced labour system via an 1864 Haitian Law with the aim to improve and augment a large network of public roads as their condition had been a hindrance to U.S. military movements.

In 1920 a U.S. Admiral admitted that the Haitians forced into this labour system had been treated abominably. They had been forced to work away from their families, were kept under armed guard and even “marched to and from their work bound together.” When Butler was praised by his superiors with regards to the progress of this project, he wrote to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt that “it would not do to ask too many questions as to how we accomplish this work.” (Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti, 1915–1934)

There was of course resistance to the corvée system and to the U.S. occupation in general. One of the leaders of the guerrilla forces was Charlemagne Péralte. He was assassinated by U.S. marines who were disguised as Haitians (and probably in blackface) on Halloween night 1919. Hanneken, the marine who fired the shots that killed Péralte, was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1920 “for extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity…resulting in the death of Charlemagne Peralte, the supreme bandit chief in the Republic of Haiti.”

Years later Smedley Butler reflected on his military service (1935): “I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business…I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism…I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.”

In 1932 the first American zombie film was released. It was entitled “White Zombie”. The “Haitians” in the film were white actors in blackface and their enslavement was treated as something in the background. A banality. The horror of the film is that a white person could be reduced to that state. This is partly an echo of white supremacist views contemporary with the transatlantic slave trade but also a renewal of prejudices and belief in racial hierarchies necessary to support or tolerate colonialism, past or present.

Almost 100 years later we find Blackface voodoo doughnuts on sale in Oregon.

The Oregon Constitution of 1857 included a clause that ordered that “No free negro, or mulatto, not residing in this State at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein and the Legislative Assembly shall provide by penal laws, for the removal, by public officers, of all such negroes, and mulattoes, and for their effectual exclusion from the State, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the state, or employ, or harbor them.”

This former sundown state did not repeal this section of their constitution until 1926 and did not ratify the 15th Amendment until 1959. The following is some commentary on this phenomenon from various scholars.

Ann Kordas: “Almost as soon as the Haitian zombie entered the American imagination, American popular culture, especially Hollywood films, transformed [it] into a creature that revealed more about the hopes and fears lurking in the [white] American psyche than in the Haitian one.”

Raphael Hoermann: “US-American writers and directors invented the zombie of popular North Atlantic culture: a soulless slave without consciousness directed by a zombie master. This amounts to a neo-colonialist act of symbolic re-enslavement of the self-emancipated Haitians. This time they are deprived not merely of their freedom as under the slave regime, but even of their consciousness.”

Sarah J. Lauro: “In contemporary accounts of the Haitian Revolution, the ferocity of the rebels was denigrated: they were less than men…[their] comportment is often presented as otherworldly [and it is intimated] that they were [anesthetised]. For the rebel slaves are characterised as either superhuman and uncannily courageous or subhuman, blindly following orders. In a letter in the Archives nationales from Pierre Mossut to the Marquis de Gallifet (1791), a slaveholder describes the rebellion [and the rebels]…“There is a motor that powers them and that keeps powering them and that we cannot come to know. All experienced planters know that this class of men have neither the energy nor the combination of ideas necessary for the execution of this project.” [This planters’] choice of a mechanistic metaphor contributes to the idea that the slaves are machines run amok, inhuman, incapable of agency, the intimation being that they are under the control of an unseen force.”

The all-encompassing and malleable racism engendered by planters who enriched themselves via the racial slave system. Incapable of agency when enslaved and incapable of agency when killing their enslavers during a carefully organised revolution.

Aimé Césaire: “And this land screamed for centuries that we are bestial brutes; that the human pulse stops at the gates of the barracoon; that we are walking compost hideously promising tender cane and silky cotton and they would brand us with red-hot irons & we would sleep in our excrement & they would sell us on the town square & an ell of English cloth & salted meat from Ireland cost less then we did, & this land was calm, tranquil, repeating that the spirit of the Lord was in its acts”

Hannah Arendt: “Race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death.”

Kette Thomas: “[The] one-dimensional reading of Vodou and its mythology implies that either no other pressing concerns occupied the minds of Africans prior to the Middle Passage or that imperialism was such a cataclysmic event, no prior philosophical perspectives survived the onslaught. An understanding of the zombie needs broader perspectives if we are to gain an understanding of the enigmatic figure. We must read beyond Europe and the Middle Passage. The zombie is not focused exclusively on the historical relationship between Western cultures and Africa…”

Frantz Fanon: “The master laughs at the consciousness of the slave. What he wants from the slave is not recognition but work.”



This blog post is derived from a twitter thread that I published in 2018.