From my fascination with Michael Jackson’s Thriller video as a kid, all the way to my habit of binge-watching The Walking Dead the past few years, I thought I knew a thing or two about zombies. That is, until I met Sarah Juliet Lauro, my colleague in the English department at The University of Tampa. A professor of hemispheric literature, Sarah Juliet is the author of The Transatlantic Zombie, a book that grabbed hold of me like a hand shooting up from the grave. In her book, she explores the history and evolution of zombies — from African folklore to Haiti and eventually Hollywood. After reading her fantastic book, I was able to ask her a few more zombie-related questions.
In your book, you mention some specific occasions when zombies grabbed your scholarly interest. But tell us about what got you interested in zombies in the first place. Have you always been fascinated with the undead?
No, not at all. This is one of the things that makes me weird—I don’t like horror films. I didn’t grow up watching zombie movies, unlike many people. I came to it very late. Early in my graduate studies, I was writing a master’s thesis (at NYU) and I was also pregnant with my first child. I came across this theory that Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was actually about motherhood. Shelley had very difficult pregnancies and had many miscarriages and still-births. There’s one argument that states that the book is really about how she felt about her own reproductive “failure.” Reading that was the first time that I realized that horror could be deep—I was a late bloomer—but I guess this theory affected me personally because I was pregnant at the time and I felt the full weight of what a strange thing it is to bring forth life from the unknown with your own body. From there, I started looking further into other myths about the living dead and I found them equally fascinating—though of course, the difference is that the zombie is not about one author’s struggles, but about an entire culture’s struggles.
Before reading your book, I mistakenly thought the zombie myth came from New Orleans, where (1) a certain drug slowed down people’s pulse and made them look dead, (2) some of these people were accidentally buried, and (3) a few of them climbed out of their graves. I have no idea where I got that from. Maybe I dreamed it. But your book chronicles the REAL journey of the zombie myth. What’s the nutshell version of how the myth came into being?
Well, you’re not totally wrong! You just have to shift New Orleans to Haiti. But let me back up a bit. My book argues that the myth of the zombie evolves out of an African belief that one’s enemies could steal your soul and make it labor for them indefinitely, even after death (an obvious allegory for slavery). This tale is transported to our hemisphere on actual slave ships during the transatlantic slave trade, where it takes root in the Caribbean, primarily the French colony Saint Domingue, which would become Haiti. There, the myth combined with the Vaudou (you might spell it “Voodoo”) practioner’s knowledge of the herbs and other natural poisons of the land, such as from the venom of certain fish and toads. Powerful “witchdoctors” were capable of using poisons to make people appear dead and then revive (think of Romeo and Juliet) and also of keeping them drugged to the point where they could only perform menial labor, effectively, making them work as slaves. So, there very definitely were people buried as dead who later were discovered toiling in the fields. This phenomenon is chronicled in accounts written during the U.S. Occupation of Haiti, when there was an increased interest in Haitian culture, and Hollywood knows a good thing when it sees one! From there, the idea of a walking corpse is taken up in cinema (beginning in 1932) and propelled by our own cultural crises (like the Great Depression, the Cold War, and Vietnam), it changed radically in American cinema over the rest of the 20th century.
As you note in your book, the zombie myth helped Haitians deal with the injustice of slavery. But white Americans love to appropriate things, and they stole the zombie myth and used it for their own purposes. Tell us a little bit about that.
I often like to say that this is a book about zombies, but it’s not JUST a book about zombies, and I’m glad you ask this question because I think that one of the bigger lessons is that we need a more complex understanding of what “appropriation” is. It’s very definite that Hollywood took the Haitian zombie and rebranded it as a bogeyman representing white America’s fears rather than the injustices suffered in a postcolonial culture. And that sucks and it’s something that we see our society do a lot and we need to pause and think about these acts as cultural conquests—but we often paint things with too broad a brush. If your readers need an example of what I mean when I say “cultural appropriation,” here’s one from recent popular culture: one of the Kardashians (don’t ask me which one) wore her hair in cornrows and fashion magazines almost acted like she had invented the hairstyle; many were crying foul as this is traditionally an African coif, centuries old.
What I learned from the Haitians I spoke with on research trips is that there’s also another way to think of these things. Some Haitians choose to say that Hollywood was “invaded” by the zombie or charmed by it, rather than that it was stolen or appropriated by the U.S. This position recognizes that there’s power on both sides of any cross-cultural borrowing. I do think appropriation is a problem in some cases, as when a religious symbol is demeaned—like white kids wearing Native American headdresses as fashion statements—but in other cases it is a way of saying you have been charmed by a culture, that it is powerful, and you are paying it respect. I spent a good part of my childhood in West Africa, and I like wearing African jewelry and bold wax prints from that part of the world, because I want to hold Africa close to me. So, to return to Ms. Kardashian, the appropriation in that case is not the fact that she wore her hair in that fashion (which to my mind is a way of acknowledging the beauty and power of black culture) but that some people would act like a white person wearing it made it somehow new. This is one of the ways that this book is about more than just the walking dead: the zombie’s journey can teach us how to think and talk about other cross-cultural transmissions.
You’re not a big fan of George Romero. In fact, one of my favorite quotes from the book is “Romero is to the zombie what Columbus is to America.” Tell us more about why he gets too much credit.
Yeah, I actually threw that line in right at the end—at the proofing stage, and as I recall, I had to beg them to add it because it was about to go to press. I’m glad to have the opportunity to clear the air here because I respect Romero immensely. I love his films, though my favorite is actually Crazies, which is not technically a zombie movie. In every interview I’ve ever seen with him, he is completely humble and acknowledges two important things for this conversation: firstly, that filmmaking is a team sport and inherently collaborative, and secondly, that he had many influences, notably Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend. So, in short, my quarrel is not with George Romero, but with his fans who for some reason need to elevate him to the role of the Founder. I stand by my line that he is the Columbus of the zombies, but unlike Columbus, Romero hasn’t claimed the territory as his own. Rather, this is a move that comes from his fan base, and I definitely do find it troubling. It’s that same move of cultural appropriation where, almost like alchemy, when a white person takes a concept with a particular cultural history and modifies it, the thing in question is changed into something else entirely and the clock is reset. That people act like Romero gave birth to the zombie boggles my mind—the zombie’s lineage is very definitely there and Romero is a major part of its evolution, but his intervention in the myth isn’t some kind of baptism that claims the myth for Christendom, as it were. I think Romero would agree with me.
One of the most fascinating parts of your book is where you describe your ideal art installation of a zombie exhibit. Tell us just a little bit about that.
This is probably my favorite chapter in the book, and it was definitely one of the most exciting parts to research and write. As I was working on the project (over about a decade) first as a dissertation and then as a book, I looked for zombies in all the places you would expect to find them: film, television shows, horror fiction, heavy metal, comic books, but I also found the zombie in unexpected places, most notably in poetry and in art. I was shocked to find that the zombie was a concept that had gained traction even in the upper echelons of the art world, and I began to collect a kind of archive on the artists who were integrating zombie imagery into their work. What made this so exciting was that the artists I wanted to write about were very enthusiastic about my work—they invited me to their studios, sent me pieces, gave me interviews, asked me to be involved with their works in progress. In particular, three of the artists that I profiled in that chapter became almost collaborators, Debra Drexler, Jillian Mcdonald, and George Pfau, with whom I continue to work on other projects. Drexler’s installation Gauguin’s Zombie is a biting critique of the postimpressionist Paul Gauguin; Mcdonald has created zombie and other horror-themed work in a variety of media, all of it stunning to look at; Pfau’s zombiescapes, for example, are gorgeous impressionist style renderings of scenes from iconic zombie films, but he has many other zombie pieces as well. It was great fun imagining what it would look like to put all of their work and those by many other artists, too, together in one space, but it’s great that we live in a digital age where you don’t have to wait for an exhibit to come to you to see their work; it can be found easily online. Therefore, this chapter of the book is almost interactive, as readers are sure to do much googling to get the full picture.
Photo of Sarah Juliet Lauro by David R. Wheeler, editor of AliveTampaBay.