Zombies in Our Midst

The image of the zombie suggests that a fusion of African and indigenous Caribbean religious traditions have migrated into the psyche of modern Western society. Reflecting upon the “indifference” of Western colonialism, fast-changing variations on the theme of the un-dead lurking in the shadows has found diverse expression within film, literature, and contemporary conversation. Playing upon dark and sinister aspects of human nature, the image of the zombie has evolved, along with modern culture, into a parody of a soul-hunger that mirrors both the consumptive and the impersonal characteristics of Western society. The zombie, then, has become a personification of the soul left to languish in the lonely darkness, hungering for genuine nourishment, and “coming to embody ‘a fate worse than death'” (Paravisini-Gebert 43).

The influence of the America’s African slave trade on Western culture is far-reaching and often subtle. As the marginalized slave populations extended into the new world a powerful and subtle bond between the dominant West and the enslaved African people was established, intimately linking together the fates of both. Kidnapped into the living death of slavery, servitude, and compelled to do the work of colonialism, the Africans assimilated the indigenous Caribbean cultures and together established a socio-religious tradition that blended traditional spiritual practices, amalgamated the diverse populations in response to their oppressive conditions. The result became an incredibly resilient and influential subculture rich to the imagination and symbolic of the Modern West.

The resulting development of Haitian culture may be viewed as a reflection of Western civilization as a parody of expansion and development. The pride that the West has in being the melting pot of the world is overshadowed by the tragic example of the slavery and conquest found in Haiti, and the surrounding region. The fusion of various one-time indigenous spiritual traditions has helped shape religions such as Vodou as it appears today. The subsequent Haitian spiritual landscape is made up of widely disparate peoples and traditions brought together by adversity, the one true constant of Western society.

Victor Turner’s understanding that “the ‘liminal’ and the ‘inferior’…are often associated with ritual powers” and the “subdued autochthonous people…are…ritually potent” leads one to consider the argument that Western society is fundamentally influenced by the people that it has conquered, enslaved, and oppressed (Turner 99-100). This implies psychological and mythological bonds that embody an intimate relationship between slave and slaver. It is a synthesis that finds expression beneath conscious awareness and emerges in the zombie image.

The premise also suggests that along with a psychological and mythological connection, the West is ritually linked to its once enslaved populations. This is further illuminated by Clyde Ford’s comparison of African and Western spiritual thought:

“[I]n the West we regard deities as facts of life from which attributes proceed, rather than personifications of attributes found in nature and within ourselves … while in the mythic wisdom of Africa, one speaks of a god of compassion, a personification of a force (in this case, compassion) that motivates all life, including our own … [t]hese two different ways of regarding divinity give rise to two different ways of interpreting mythology, for where deities are considered to be facts, tales of those deities are understood historically, and where deities are viewed as personifications of source energies in nature and within ourselves, tales of those deities are understood symbolically” (Ford 144).

The African understanding is inclusive–it is subtly aware that the material and spiritual worlds are in-fused and in-formed with the divine. The contemporary West, however, is less apt to see the mysterious as divine and more likely to cling to objectivity and attempt to maintain an adherence to facts. Yet, there is an undercurrent of supernatural fascination that is expressed regularly in a wide variety of ways in entertainment, religion, politics, music, and even science.

Considering these perspectives, Maya Deren’s reference to the compelling nature of the Haitian relationship with the dead reveals some of the West’s preoccupation with zombies. “Care is taken, as well, that no parts rightfully belonging to the dead matter should remain in circulation in the living world. Such precautions against a false life, which might also be put to magic and malevolent use, are numerous” (43). By understanding zombies as mythic and symbolical entities, and remembering the limitation that the West has in its approach to the divine, the zombie’s presence in the Western psyche exploits the ambivalent nature of the living dead as a reiteration of its unrealized soul hunger and the unresolved legacy of slavery and oppression.

The consumptive aspects of Western society suggests a commodification of all “matter,” including people, as resource available to be used in any manner consistent with the external rules of economics. With this justification in mind, the African peoples were processed body, mind, and soul to become goods to be traded and resources to be used. Adding voice to this conversation, Toni Morrison, in her novel Beloved, elaborates her character, Paul D, and his personal tragedy of slavery,

“He has always known, or believed he did, his value-as a hand, a laborer who could make profit on a farm–but now he discovers his worth, which is to say he learns his price. The dollar value of his weight, his strength, his heart, his brain, his penis, and his future” (Morrison 226).

Out of this legacy a mythology has arisen that personifies, embodies, and mirrors this characteristic of the slave experience. “Given a glimpse of Caribbean people’s resolution to assert their autonomy, they are quick to invoke the titillating figure of the zombie as representative of the AfroCaribbean folk as bogeyman” (Paravisini-Gebert 37). As a reflection of the hopelessness lurking in many a contemporary heart, the zombie might even be an anti-hero. Ripe with certain heroic qualities, zombies challenge imposed conditions, they make change by devouring everything in their path, and they do not give up. “The ‘zombification’ of the Haitian people and the subordination of their valiant spirit,” then, becomes a legacy lurking beneath the consciousness of Western society as it confronts the ubiquitous oppression of an indifferent world (Paravisini-Gebert 56).

In film there are many examples of zombie-like behavior, some predatory, some lethargic, yet all inexorable in some way. “A [zombie] is nothing more than a body deprived of its conscious powers of cerebration,” says Maya Deren. “For the Haitian, there is no fate more terrible” (43). This image is amplified in modern films and stories where it is common to hear a phrase such as, “don’t let me become one of those things … kill me first!” More recent films are characterized by conditions of ‘no escape’ and tantalizing final scenes of the prevailing zombies overtaking the world. It is here that the fascination with zombies in the modern Western world begins to become clear.

During the progress of Western cinema, the zombie has undergone the transformation from an individual experiencing a curse to a collective affliction that threatens all life. The zombie’s “pathologizing image [makes] possible a new reflection … coupled with affliction, touching the soul at the point of death” (Hillman 86). Although the flavor of the individual and personal plight remain, the emergence of the zombie affliction as an overwhelming malicious force emerges as a key element in more recent films where appetite and group depersonalization overtake the themes of individual enslavement. The new emphasis shifts from an individual power struggle between Western colonialism and religion (and the so-called primitive spiritual forces personified by the Bokor) to the depersonalized zombies themselves. They are the ravenous and relentless personification of unfettered appetite. Contemporary film is no longer satisfied with the subjugation of an individual. Instead, zombies now consume everything and continue to grow in numbers, making contagion the operative image.

If one makes the assumption that film is a form of ritual (or at least pseudo-ritual in the sense of large social participation), then the zombie genre becomes a ritual incursion into the culture that pervasively links the psyche of the dominant Western population into the marginalized condition of the past (and present) slave generations. Tracking the pervasiveness of the zombie image, along with its transmorgification into something wholly unstoppable, reiterates a steadily growing  rift in society. James Hillman suggests, “[w]hen the dominant vision that holds a period of culture together cracks, consciousness regresses into earlier containers, seeking sources for survival which also offer sources of revival (Hillman 27). The zombie image is active and reactive to growing segments of the society as a ritual that has become a personification of our collective subconscious. Without conscious recognition of the psychological conditions of consumption, affliction, and soul-hunger, the zombie example emerges as the ritual container for our social condition.

It is in this way that zombies offer a commentary on life, death, morality, and ritual potency in Western culture. Much the same as the trickster does in traditional tribal life, the tricksterish and ritually potent zombie ultimately functions as a liminal entity and a powerful force that drives the necessity of descent into the darkness of death and mortification. The zombie provides lucidity to the horrific condition of slavery, and therefore our own condition of self-imposed slavery. The implication is that, culturally and individually, descent and mortification are vital to the condition of freedom (Sacred Possessions 49). The need to contend with the numerous unstoppable forces becomes a primary condition of freedom, darkly hopeless yet irresistibly vital.

The zombie is, at least tangentially, related to the trickster, which begins to make sense when one considers its effect. The appearance of the zombie radically brings attention to Otherness in a profound way. All aspects of life and death pass through the mind and deep soulful questions spring forth, unbidden and without respite, causing a subtle personal reflection upon one’s own zombification. One may view the zombie as a shadow-trickster, a deification of marginality with immense stature and far-flung implications. Jung, however, reminds us that the trickster emerges as an annoyance, as well as a supernatural agent.

“One can see this best of all from the fact that the trickster motif does not crop up only in its mythical form but appears just as naively and authentically in the unsuspecting modern man-whenever, in fact, he feels himself at the mercy of annoying “accidents” which thwart his will and his actions with apparently malicious intent. He then speaks of “hoodoos” and “jinxes” or of the “mischievousness of the object.” Here the trickster is represented by counter-tendencies in the unconscious, and in certain cases by a sort of second personality, of puerile and inferior character, not unlike the personalities who announce themselves at spiritualistic séances and cause all those ineffably childish phenomena so typical of poltergeists” (CW 9.1: 469).

Symbolically, zombies are supernatural, sacralized by their otherworldliness, and un-stoppable in character. Zombies are a shadow deity, a devil if you will, not at all associated with the “compassionate god” of concretized and popular Western theology, which Clyde Ford indicts by noting, “When divinity is understood in factual terms, even the symbols referring to divinity are arrested” (144). The rise of zombie-ism in popular mythology may be attributed to the pervasiveness of the corporate soul, a shadow-culture that tends to appropriate virtually all aspects of independent innovation and creativity.

Recalling the forceful and violent suppression of the imaginally rich and fecund nature of the enslaved indigenous populations reflected in the amalgamated Haitian people, it is not difficult to recognize that, according to Victor Turner, “[t]he attributes of liminality or of liminal personae (‘threshold people’)” exert a tremendous, if subtle, influence on the dominant culture; forcing open cracks in the facade of order and contentment (95). This influence is not the sort of force that is commonly recognized. Rather, it is a subversive, subtle pressure that up-wells through the gaps in the dominant society in a mythologically compelling manner. Maya Deren argues:

Modern technological and primitive ritual are not competitive in terms of man’s relationship to the cosmos … the machine creates a society in which men are no longer dependent upon men, but, instead, upon machines and upon the anonymous, unknown, distant creatures behind the machines, who, like the machines, are impersonally regarded as productive forces. (Deren 190)

Without a conscious connection to the sacred, the shadow entities, tricksters, and zombies arrive to provide sustenance for the ache and longing of our souls. The impersonality of the culture reveals the hunger we have for intimacy and connection. The energies of life found in the “symbols representing the source” are the deities and symbols of the mysterious that reflect our own impoverishment (Ford 144). As Maya Deren observes, “All mythology contains legends in which divinity instructs man in some practical technique for survival” (189). Yet, as the mythic lessons are driven more and more underground, a widening fissure appears out of which the mythology of the inferior arises. Though separated and adapted, the ritual potency of those mythic images and symbols become distilled to their most primal essences. They are chthonically powerful and no longer contained by the cultural framework from which they were born. The modern zombie may be such a figure: “an agent of transformation who mediates” from the margins and is portrayed “as [a] divine linguist” of the soul’s shadow (Pelton 72).

The zombie trickster becomes a repository of fear. Holding our rapt attention to the titillating spectacle of the horror of our lives, diverting us away from our own self-inquiry. When Joseph Campbell suggests that “Mythology is a system of images that endows the mind and the sentiments with a sense of participation in a field of meaning,” he implies that in the absence of functional mythology liminal figures will appear(Thou Art That, 8). They are the zombies, nameless and faceless monsters waiting to devour life and freedom as we know it.

So, what is missing? If, as Deren notes, “religion presumes that the major forces of the universe … are essentially benevolent in nature,” then the psyche that personifies the horror of the modern zombie imagines the opposite (76). When the imagination reckons possibility, a dichotomy occurs and the concretized metaphorical sensibility is unable to accommodate the peculiar truths of life. The result is the formation of imaginal entities, liminal in nature, that embody the archetypal elements that have been suppressed. The essence of the zombie is such an imaginal entity. It is the embodiment of a symbolic fear that the world we call home is not benevolent.

The African story, “How an unborn child avenges his mother,” offers an early reference for the zombie (Feldman 225-29). In this story, an unborn child survives the murder of his mother by his father. By leaving the womb after she is dead, the child, “The Little Wombless,” pursues his father, haunting his path until the father reaches the compound of his in-laws where he is exposed as a murderer and suffers a similar fate.

The image of the “little wombless” evokes the image of the modern zombie, “a little red thing…it still has the umbilical cord hanging on…’how swollen are those eyes’ … coming on feet and buttocks with its mouth wide open…” inexorably pursuing its father (Feldman, 229). Yet, the importance of this story is not merely the injustice toward the child and the murder of its mother, but the relationship the father has with his world. The fascination we have with the horrifying image of the pursuing child wonderfully distracts the audience, allowing a deeper message greater access to our souls. The father’s approach to life, his treatment of his wife, child, and community all are examples of the lessons that are reinforced by the horror of the story.

Functioning as a guide through the labyrinth of human experience, the tale evokes strong emotions. The image of mindless horror, frightening and commanding, place the zombie in the same realm as the “little wombless,” both are provocateurs of deep moral issues (Feldman 225-9). According to Jung, the trickster has an ambivalent role in society. “This collective figure gradually breaks up under the impact of civilization, leaving traces in folklore that are difficult to recognize. But the main part of him gets personalized and is made an object of personal responsibility” (9.1: 469). The prevalence of zombies has a hidden life within our psyches, resonant and uncertain. They are intimately tied to both our cultural history and our collective unconscious, offering insight, reflection, and the subtle soul-food we unknowingly crave.

Finally, what is evoked by the presence of the modern zombie are the “gastric fires of human fantasy,” craving a new and authentic experience of the shadow (Campbell, Wild Gander 23). For most of us death is primarily known as an absolute. In the absence of those powerfully rich elements of ritual initiation and transformation, true experiences of life, death, and rebirth no longer expose us to the vibrant tenuousness of life. Framed by the chaotic potentials of birth and death, and in the face of such profound hunger of the soul for authenticity, we manufacture playful symbolisms that find us at the edge of our seats, safely clutching barrels of popcorn, as we are frightened to our bones when the zombies try to get us.

(Note: following this article is the complete story, “How an Unborn Child Avenged its Mother’s Death”)

Works Cited:
Campbell, Joseph. Flight of the Wild Gander. Novato, California: New World Library,
2002.
—. Thou Art That, Novato, California: New World Library, 2002.

Deardorff, Daniel. The Other Within: The Genius of Deformity in Myth, Culture, And Psyche. Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud P. 2004.

Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Kingston, New York:
McPherson, 1970.

Feldman, Susan. Ed., “How an Unborn Child Avenged its Mother’s Death.”
African Myths and Tales. New York: Dell, 1963. 225-29.

Ford, Clyde W., the Hero with an African Face: Mythic Wisdom of Traditional Africa. New York: Bantam Books, 1999.

Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992.

Jung, C. G., The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Vol. 9.1.
Bollingen Series 20. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin. 1987.

Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. “The Representation of Woman as Zombie.” Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santeria, Obeah, and the Caribbean. Ed. Margarite Fernandes Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 2000.

Pelton, Robert. The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight. Berkley, California: University of California P. 1980.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1977.

HOW AN UNBORN CHILD AVENGED ITS MOTHER’S DEATH

A man had taken a wife, and now she had the joy of being with child, but famine was acute in the land.
One day, when hunger was particularly severe, the man, accompanied by his wife, was dragging himself along in the direction of her mother’s home in the hope of getting a little food there. He happened to find on the road a tree with abundant wild fruit on the top. “Wife,” he said, “get up there that we may eat fruit.”
The woman refused, saying, “I, who am with child, to climb up a tree!”
He said, “In that case, do not climb at all.”
The husband then climbed up himself and shook and shook the branches, the woman meanwhile picking up what fell down. He said, “Do not pick up my fruit. What! Just now you refused to go up!”
And she: “Bana! I am only picking them up.”
Thinking about his fruit, he hurried down from the top of the tree and said, “You have eaten some.”
And she: “Why! Of course, I have not.”
Then, assegai in hand, he stabbed his wife. And there she died on the spot.
He then gathered up his fruit with both hands. There he sat eating it, remaining where the woman was stretched out quite flat.
All of a sudden he started running. Run! Run! Run! With-out stopping once, he ran until he reached the rise of a hill.
There he slept, out of sight of the place where he had left the woman.
Meanwhile the child that was in the womb rushed out of it, dragging its umbilical cord. First, it looked round for the direction which its father had taken, then it started this song:

Father, wait for me,
Father, wait for me,
The little wombless.
Who is it that has eaten my mother?
The little wombless . . . !
How swollen are those eyes!
Wait until the little wombless comes.

That gave the man a shake. . . . “There,” he said, “there comes the thing which is speaking.” He listened, he stared in that direction. . . . ‘This is the child coming to follow me after all that, when I have already killed its mother. It had been left in the womb.”
Then rage took his wits away, and he killed the little child! . . . There he was, making a fresh start, and going on. Here, where the little bone had been left: “Little bone, gather yourself up! . . . Little bone, gather yourself up.”
Soon it was up again, and then came the song:

Father, wait for me,
Father, wait for me,
The little wombless.
Who is it that has eaten my mother?
The little wombless . . . !
How swollen are those eyes!
Wait until the little wombless comes.

The father stopped. . . . “Again the child that I have killed! It has risen and is coming. Now I shall wait for him.”
So he hid and waited for the child, with an assegai in his hand. The child came and made itself visible at a distance as from here to there. As soon as it came, quick with the assegai! He stabbed it! Then he looked for a hole, shoveled the little body into it, and heaped branches up at the entrance.
Then with all speed he ran! With all speed! . . .
At last he reached the kraal where the mother of his dead wife lived, the grandmother of the child.
When he came he sat down. Then his brothers and sisters-in-Iaw come with smiling faces. . . . “Well! Well! You have put in an appearance!”
And a hut was prepared for him and his wife, who was expected.
Then the mother-in-law was heard asking from afar, “Well! And my daughter, where has she been detained?”
Said he, “I have left her at home. I have come alone to beg for a little food. Hunger is roaring.”
Food was procured for him. So he began to eat And, when he had finished, he even went to sleep.
Meanwhile, the child, on its part, had squeezed itself out of the hole wherein it had been put and, again, with its umbilical cord hanging on:

Father, wait for me,
Father, wait for me,
The little wombless.
Who is it that has eaten my mother?
The little wombless . . . !
How swollen are those eyes!
Wait until the little wombless comes.

The people listened in the direction of the path. . . . “That thing which comes speaking indistinctly, what is it? “ . . It seems to be a person. . . . What is it? . . . It looks, man, like a child killed by you on the road. . . . And now, when we look at your way of sitting, you seem to be only half-seated.”
“It cannot be the child, Mother; it remained at home.” The man had just got up to shake himself a little. And his little child, too, was coming with all speed! It was already near, with its mouth wide open:

Father, wait for me,
Father, wait for me,
The little wombless.
Who is it that has eaten my mother?
The little wombless . . . !
How swollen are those eyes!
Wait until the little wombless comes.

Everyone was staring. They said, “There comes a little red thing. It still has the umbilical cord hanging on.”
Inside of the hut there, where the man stood, there was complete silence.
Meanwhile the child was coming on feet and buttocks with its mouth wide open, but still at a distance from its grandmother’s hut. “Straight over there!” noted everyone. The grandmother looked toward the road and noticed that the little thing was perspiring, and what speed! Then the song:

Father, wait for me,
Father, wait for me,
The little wombless.
Who is it that has eaten my mother?
The little wombless . . . !
How swollen are those eyes!
Wait until the little wombless comes.

Bakoo! It scarcely reached its grandmother’s hut when it jumped into it . . . and up on the bed:

Father, wait for me,
Father, have you come?
Yes, you have eaten my mother.
How swollen those eyes!
Wait till the little wombless comes.

Then the grandmother put this question to the man: “Now what sort of song is this child singing? Have you not killed our daughter?”
She had scarcely added, “Surround him!” when he was already in their hands. His very brothers-in-law lied him. And then . . . all the assegais were poised together in one direction, everyone saying, “Now today you are the man who killed our sister. . . .”
Then they just threw the body away there to the west. And the grandmother picked up her little grandchild.
(BENA MUKUNl)

About Ben

Mythologist, Fire Fighter
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