The Anthropology of Zombies

          It’s no great secret that I have a weakness for zombie movies, the good and the bad and the strange. Since it’s Halloween season, I’ve been thinking about and watching zombies an awful lot. Personally, I don’t find zombies scary at all, with their slow shambling gait and lack of complex consciousness. I’ve been wondering why I like them so much, or why anyone would like them enough to birth an entire subgenre of film. My anthropological curiosity won over and in my spare time I started reading what other scholars have written. The true horror of zombies is not the monsters themselves, but in the racial understructure that created them.

          Zombies have been represented on film since the 1930s. Zombies of the first half of the 20th century had inconsistent traits, though they were commonly associated with generic “voodoo” practices and the African diaspora. Scholars generally agree that zombie movies experienced a renaissance in the 60s and 70s, a period that also defined our contemporary understanding of the zombie in American culture.

White Zombie (1932)

A zombie plantation worker in White Zombie (1932).

          One of the unifying traits of the genre is eating, particularly unbridled consumption of human bodies. While early film zombies did not necessarily eat people, the idea of cannibalism among the undead certainly has roots in white fears and fantasies about the eating habits of dark-skinned Others. Suspicions of cannibalism ran rampant in the imaginations of early anthropologists and their audiences with little evidence besides pointed fingers and the assumption of unenlightened, anti-modern, and non-white food practices that must be shocking and immoral. Voodoo zombies played on white American racial fears by merging extremes of death, consumption, and skin color into a single monster. After the 60s, zombies were usually disconnected from their origins, but the specter of the Voodoo zombie remained in the renewed attention to literal cannibalism, albeit now often wearing a white face. The metaphor for shocking and immoral consumption was then turned on accelerated industrialization of food at home, gobbling up American society in a cannibalistic frenzy, while the primitive, foreign, and simple gained purity and nobility on a modern apocalyptic landscape. These modern movies suggest fears about the collapse of a top-heavy racial hierarchy where capitalist consumption is the downfall of white American culture as civilization.

Traditional farming techniques gain significance in The Walking Dead (2010).

Traditional farming techniques gain new significance in The Walking Dead (2010).

          The cultural history of zombies as anthropologists now understand them began in Haiti as a way to engage with and invert the violence of slavery and revolution, rather than the sensational black magic or devil worship popularized by Hollywood films. In the Haitian belief system, Vodou, zonbi are subversive, symbolic of the overlap between capitalism and cannibalism in slavery and contemporary repression. In essence, they enable descendants to take charge of their history through interaction with the dead.

While reading a totally unrelated book (or so I thought), I realized other food anthropology concepts could be applied to zombies on a smaller scale. The book, Edible Memory by Jennifer Jordan (2015), is mostly about heirloom tomatoes, but edible memory as an idea has special versatility. Edible memory is not just about consuming and thus participating in your own heritage, but gaining insight into the heritage of others as well. It is a way to approach stories about the past. In Elizabeth McAlister’s (1995, 2012) understanding of zonbi astral, fragments of human spirits trapped in a specialized container, food offerings prepared without salt is important to caring for the spirits inhabiting the bottle. Zonbi kò kadav is an alternate form in which a person’s spirit is removed from their body and then they are sold into slavery to work in sugar production. McAlister describes zonbi as able to eat the “life force” of living humans in both cases, especially in rebellion when the owners are unable to provide food for them. The concept of food and eating traditions are interwoven in the spiritual and historical processes of Haitian Vodou—in other words edible memory. Zombies in film also have the capacity to consume the present as a way to remind us of the past.


Sources, inspiration, and other interesting reading:

Davis, Wade. 1985. The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey Into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic.

Dwyer, Kevin. 2003. “Alimentary Delinquency in the Cinema,” in Eating Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Food. Doring et al, eds., pp. 255-272.

Dwyer, Kevin. 2014. “Alimentary Delinquency,” in The Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics, Thomson and Kaplan, ed., pp. 114-121.

Jordan, Jennifer A. 2015. Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Foods.

McAlister, Elizabeth. 1995. “A Sorcerer’s Bottle: The Visual Art of Magic in Haiti,” in Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, Cosentino, ed., pp. 305-427.

McAlister, Elizabeth. 2012. “Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-Whites: The Race and Religion of Zombies,” Anthropological Quarterly 85(2): 457-486.

Peressini, Mauro and Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique. 2012. Vodou. (exhibit guide)

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