Zombies in American Culture, Essay Example
In the Americas, stories about zombies have been around since the days of African slavery and colonialism in Caribbean islands where folklore about the zombies dates back to voodoo practices in Haiti. Those stories involved people coming back from the dead as creatures that are shadows of their earlier life, under the control of a master but usually just wandering around. In the early 1920s, the flesh-eating zombie of America made a way in popular American culture, like in the American film in 1932. This occurred after the film White Zombie was released. It told the tale of a good heart white Haitian uses zombies to operate his sugar mills. This paper will discuss the zombie’s lasting presence in the American culture and historical and cultural significance.
According to Richard Dawkins, memes are replicators that are propagated by “leaping from brain to brain via a process… which could be called imitation” (Dawkins, 1976, p. 1). A person comes across a new concept, and passes it on to another friend, and so on until the idea catches on when it can be said to have propagated itself. This is the definition of memes: they are living structures that replicate themselves over and over in various forms but are essentially surviving intact. For memes, as with genes, the “qualities of high survival” are “longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity” (Dawkins, 1976, p. 2). The longevity of the zombie meme is demonstrated by the fact that the stories about and images of the creatures are portrayed in films that will last for decades or longer, and will come to represent one of the significant genres of art and literature in these times. More significant is the fecundity of the zombie memes, its richness as measured by number of films about zombies which appear in popular films in modern times; it is unclear how long they will last as popular subjects, but currently the zombie meme is a vivid theme in popular culture.
The “copying-fidelity” (Dawkins, 1976, p. 2) of the zombie meme is how successful a replicator it is. It appears that memes are not exactly uniform replicators because they are passed down from person to person, film to film, in altered forms from their original presentation so that they are exposed to constant mutation. But unlike genes, whose traits will be passed on for a few generations and then forgotten, memes such as zombies are part of the culture which will live on endlessly, documented by film and literature. Classic films are preserved in the National Film Registry, including Night of the Living Dead, the first of five such zombie films in a series; its place in the registry ensures that its place in American film culture is permanent, whether or not the zombie meme remains a mainstay of cinema. This is a significant demonstration of longevity of the zombie meme.
Elizabeth McAllister has written extensively on the Haitian zombie, appearing in Caribbean literature from as far back as 1797, which depicted the slaves’ belief in the return of a body without the soul, a person that is raised from the grave to become a slave-worker (McAlister, 2012). The Caribbean portrayal of zombies represent stories of mystical arts, as opposed to the zombies who wander around in American films, dead people who are still alive and whose mission is to kill and eat other people. McAllister makes the point that unlike other characters in horror movies that originate in European fiction such as werewolves, Frankenstein, and vampires, zombies derive from African-Haitian beliefs that originate from religious practices and ideology. McAllister believes that in more modern form, the zombie was created as a result of the plantation societies in the Americas that came to represent the mystification of slavery as well as the continual political repression of the era. Furthermore, she makes the connection between the extremes of capitalism, the link between capitalism and cannibalism, and the relationship between capitalism and race (McAlister, 2012).
The zombies of Haiti represent the ordinary spirits of people who have recently died, rather than the walking dead represented by the American zombies. The spirits of the zombies are captured from a cemetery during religious ceremonies, and placed into a bottle were they will remain until the spirit is accepted by God. While remaining in the bottle, people are able to ask the zombies for favors or blessings, suggesting the relationship between the slaves and their masters wherein those in charge are in the position of controlling and making demands on the slaves. However, this interaction can also be viewed as allowing the living to take charge of their history by imitating slave-master relationships with those spirits. The slave trade regarded human beings as commodities, and the mystical interaction with the zombie, says McAllister, replicates the capturing, containing, enforcing the labor of people to do their bidding, but unlike slavery which regarded Africans as non-human, the zombies are held in a respected place in the Haitian religious custom.
In addition, like slaves’ during colonial times zombies also have the ability to rebel, since Haitian literature describes many tales of people who request from them wealth, land, or political gain but who are not able to provide the demanded gifts and return. In those situations, the zombies rise up and turn on their masters, devouring their essence for payment. By cannibalizing them through magic, the zombie is able to become increasingly powerful while the master is fading away due to illness. In this way, the theme of capitalism is present in the tale of the Haitian zombies in the creation of value for some people through the consumption of energy of others (McAlister, 2012). Through this interpretation, the American history of extreme consumption and dehumanizing of people as commodities explains the zombies as a religious, philosophical and artistic result of the cannibalizing force achieved by capitalism.
Haitian writers often used zombies as a metaphor for the problems caused by dictatorships, reinforcing the notion that it was possible for them to awaken and rebel against their tyrannical leaders: signifying a nightmarish force for those leaders. McAllister traces the evolution of the Haitian zombie with its disfigured physical presence void of soul and will, to its American counterpart, which was initially portrayed with “barbaric racial blackness” (McAlister, 2012, p. 472), to its American version, a human-sized, asexual creature that does not have any supernatural powers and is threatening not individually, but in a group. In American films, zombies almost always foreshadow the chaotic breakdown of society, with their most disturbing and frightening feature the violent way in which they devour and flash, biting them and leaving huge holes in their arms, throats, and other parts of their torsos. They threaten to destroy civilization itself, but their attacks coincide with Doomsday scenarios that signify the beginning of the Apocalypse. American zombie films’ message is generally that they are the result of extreme capitalism, racism, corruption, and the kind of violence that has become emblematic of the American landscape. Americans are being condemned for their overconsumption and materialism.
Interestingly, during the early Hollywood films about zombies the creatures were usually black, but in the more recently made movies the situation became reversed: the zombies are always white and the heroes are generally black. In addition, the newer movies question basic religious doctrine from, for example, the Book of Revelations in which the bodies of the saints are resurrected in exchange for bodies that are healthy and without sin or death; in American zombie movies, the idea is presented that the zombies are the sinners who reside in hell which is completely packed full of them. The zombies are empty vessels, catatonic, inhuman because they are completely void of any substance.
Kyle Bishop’s article discusses the relationship between terrorist events, the War on Terror, and the need to create monsters such as zombies in order to have enemies to fear. The feeling of insecurity and fright that has become characteristics of the United States after September 11 is reflected in the cultural manifestations of the threats that pervade atmosphere by presenting creatures such as zombies. Many works of art during this period focus on the constant threat of unnatural ways of dying such as by disease, infection, or violence; the atmosphere is usually one of apocalyptic devastation, deserted streets, bodies strewn about, unclaimed, and gangs of murderous thugs roaming the streets. In a world that has become desensitized to the horrors of war and natural disasters, says Bishop, the appearance of zombies in film are a certain way to terrify and appall even the most blasé viewer.
In American life, zombie movies continue to be seen as metaphors for political and social causes. Night of the Living Dead has been seen as a commentary on the atrocities of the Vietnam War as well as the racism that pervades this society (Bishop, 2009). Typical zombie movies have a common formula: there are zombies that come with their implicit threat of violence and death, there is an apocalyptic foreboding, society has collapsed, there are fantasies that are survivalist in nature, and there is a great deal of fear of the other people who have survived. One aspect of the zombies that makes them so terrifying is that they represent familiar people, friends and relatives who are known and raised from the dead (Bishop, 2009).
The zombies’ mission is a compulsive desire to kill their victims and eat them alive. Their brains are rotten so that they are incapable of reason or sanity, and are completely lacking in any emotional capacity, making them completely monstrous. They are visually repulsive, with their rotting flesh, black and shadows around their eyes, emblems of death. What makes them so disturbing is that they represent our own mortality: if our loved ones can die and return to earth as zombies, perhaps we will as well. In cinema, zombies can provide a sort of commentary on the boredom and shallowness of contemporary life. In addition, zombies also have made significant appearances in the violent video games that are so frequent for the American public; those games, as in the zombie movies, the more one kills, the more people keep appearing to present themselves as new targets.
The popularity of zombie movies likely attributed to the marrying of apocalyptic, survivalists, and doomsday fantasies into one film, book, or video game. The connection to social issues and commentary that they portray is the threat to capitalism, militarism, and racism that an entourage of zombies can accomplish. The films are generally a subtle attack on rampant consumerism and capitalism which result in ennui that can only be the result of so much decadence.
Throughout the history of American cinema and literature, there have been a variety of monsters that have been presented in conjunction with metaphors to reflect the political and social climate of the period during which they were created. For example, the monster Frankenstein and his story contained many themes that were relevant to understanding society: the use and abuse of science; what actually defines monstrosity: the physical, the intellectual, the emotional; and the crippling effects of secrecy. The relatively recent appearance of zombies in American film and literature presents a unique sort of monster, one which is not human but has a human form, was once a family or friends to its victims, but is now bent on violently destroying them; and symbolizes the death that will ultimately confront each and every person. As discussed, the zombie movies go beyond simply presenting a horror story, but rather reflect harsh judgment on societal norms such as unlimited and unnecessary consumerism, a boredom and emptiness towards the existence the individual as well as society, and the persistent racism that has been and continues to be a cancer in the American Society. Initially, the racism in the films was overt as in the early zombie films the monsters were black; more recently, the heroes are African-American or Caribbean American and the zombies are whites, an ironic reversal. Zombie movies reflect the notion that the society is devouring itself; recently, during the Occupy Wall Street, some of the protesters were dressed as zombies, clearly making this point: that capitalism is destroying the society from within. Zombie movies, though many see them as simple horror films, typically carry messages that are far more profound and what is overtly being played out on the screen.
Bishop, K. (2009). Dead Men Still Walking: Explaining the Zombie Renaissance. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 37(1), 16-25.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.
McAlister, E. (2012). Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper Whites: The Race and Religion of Zombies. Anthropological Quarterly, 85(2), pp. 457-486.
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