Part I: Zombies Become Zombies
This is the Zombie Apocalypse. This time in history, this moment in time. The Zombie Apocalypse is real, it’s happening, and it’s every bit the fevered, desperate nightmare we always hoped it would be.
I’m not sure how we escape it. The path to safety is already under our feet, if it exists, but I can’t see it to follow it. And no one’s sent me a map.
Achieving a sense of direction during the Zombie Apocalypse is clearly harder than it looks in the movies. Exactly three kinds of people run around in zombie movies – two, if you don’t count the zombies: 1. people with a sense of direction who survive for a long time, sometimes even until the end of the movie, and 2. people who run, with their arms flailing, from the fingertips of one group of leering zombies into the embrace of another group of leering zombies. Assuming we aspire to be non-flailing, it probably makes sense to stop, pant here for a second, and think things through.
I desire to be non-flailing. Let’s not flail. Personally, I’m going to calm down, have a cheap, stale cigarette that I found on the ground – like it matters at this point – and try to figure out exactly where we are.
—— We’re in the middle of the Zombie Apocalypse.
Right. Not helpful.
But, how did we get here?
As far as I can tell, we reached this madness by taking two paths through time, and here at the Zombie Apocalypse, the two paths crossed. Along the first path, the zombies became zombies — we learned what the Z-Plague would be, what to call its parts. The first path is pretty clear. We can start there.
See? Already, we’re getting somewhere. If we all stay calm, we might just survive this thing.
—– You hear something?
Americans first learned about zombies from a travel book they read in 1929, from a play they saw in 1932 that was inspired by the travel book, and from a movie they saw in 1932 that was inspired by both the play and the travel book (directly).
First, the movie.
Note: White Zombie has been described in the above terms, including “old-fashioned,” since it opened in 1932. The era of motion pictures with sound had begun, and White Zombie, though it had sound, was too reminiscent of a silent film for contemporaneous taste.
Promotional poster for White Zombie.
With these zombie eyes, he rendered her powerless. With this zombie grip, he made her perform his every desire!
Even in 1932, men dreamed of finding ways to get their girlfriends to answer email.
White Zombie opens with a bride-to-be and her fiancé riding to their wedding in a carriage that must clip-clop uncertainly through a Voodoo funeral that is taking place in the middle of the road.
I know. Subtle. But, obediently staggering along the mouldering pave-stones along which all horror story victims must stagger, our heroes can’t take a hint.
The story of White Zombie isn’t that bad, even if the movie mostly is. Madeleine Short (Bellamy) and Neil Parker (Harron) have been invited by Charles Beaumont (Frazer) to have their wedding at his opulent plantation in Haiti, neither of them knowing that Charles intends to seduce and marry Madeleine himself. To that end, Charles has enlisted the help of his wicked neighbor, the Voodoo master Murder Legendre (Lugosi). After Madeleine and Neil arrive, Murder uses his evil, witchy-man eyeball power, along with a secret potion, a candle whittled into a human likeness, and a weird, Communist hand gesture, to transform Madeleine into a zombie.
The movie is worth seeing. The brief scene of the inner workings of Murder’s mill is likely how the movie continues to earn “atmospheric,” and the scene where room-temperature Madeline plays the piano for anguished Charles is very strange and thought provoking.
White Zombie is just over an hour long.
At the moment, the movie is freely available for watching online and downloading. And since it has a coveted place in zombie lore as the first zombie movie, hordes of misinformational essays, staring creepily at the movie from different angles, are also available. For our purposes: it’s there.
So much for the movie.
To the play.
The play was Zombie, by Kenneth Webb. It was a drama in three acts, set in “the living room of a bungalow in the mountains of Haiti.” It opened on February 10, 1932, in a place called Manhattan (a section of New York City reserved for shockingly wealthy lawyers, as well as their doctors, their bankers, their clothiers, and their man and maid-servants). The play ran for twenty-one performances and was so good that no one bothered to save a copy of it.
I did find an informative review:
Mr. William Seabrook’s romantic fibs about far-off places do no one any harm, and have certainly not harmed Zombie, whose playwright (Kenneth Webb) seems to have read author Seabrook’s The Magic Island. Haitian zombies are those unfortunate people who have been resurrected from the grave and placed in peonage by villainous masters. With one of these voodooistic overlords, a family of white planters comes in contact, thus giving Zombie its motivation. For the most part wretchedly acted (including the work of Miss Pauline Starke, deep-voiced one-time film actress) and beset with deplorably written dialog, Zombie has at least four authentic shudders for your spine, to wit:
1) When the shrouded grave-folk first appear.
2) When one of them is released from half-life to total death by spell and incantation.
3) When actress Starke discovers that her husband has become a zombie.
4) When the zombies grope their way toward their master, who is in peril.
“Theatre: New Plays in Manhattan: Feb. 22, 1932”
Note: For anyone that has seen the movie White Zombie, the above review for Zombie probably sounds suspiciously familiar. The creators of Zombie thought so. They sued the movie creators for copyright infringement. They lost.
So much for the play.
To the book.
The travel book, as already revealed out-of-sequence by the above big-mouthed Time reviewer, was The Magic Island, by W. B. Seabrook (William Buehler). This non-fictional book chronicled Seabrook’s experiences in Haiti. Since nothing I could write could be more interesting or on-point than Seabrook’s own account, the following is an excerpt from the chapter “. . . Dead Men Working,” the wildly seductive sixteen pages that introduced the world to the word “zombie.”
“As Polynice talked on, I reflected that these tales ran closely parallel not only with those of the negroes in Georgia and the Carolinas, but with the medieval folklore of white Europe. Werewolves, vampires, and demons were certainly no novelty. But I recalled one creature I had been hearing about in Haiti, which sounded exclusively local — the zombie.
“. . . strange tales are told of Voodoo in the boudoir and salon”
Plate from The Magic Island.
“It seemed (or so I had been assured by negroes more credulous than Polynice) that while the zombie came from the grave, it was neither a ghost, nor yet a person who had been raised like Lazarus from the dead. The zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life — it is a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive. People who have the power to do this go to a fresh grave, dig up the body before it has had time to rot, galvanize it into movement, and then make it a servant or slave, occasionally for the commission of some crime, more often simply as a drudge around the habitation or the farm, setting it dull heavy tasks, and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens.
“As this was revolving in my mind, I said to Polynice: ‘It seems to me that these werewolves and vampires are first cousins to those we have at home, but I have never, except in Haiti, heard of anything like zombies. Let us talk of them for a little while. I wonder if you can tell me something of this zombie superstition. I should like to get at some idea of how it originated.’
“My rational friend Polynice was deeply astonished. He leaned over and put his hand in protest on my knee.
“‘Superstition? But I assure you that this of which you now speak is not a matter of superstition. Alas, these things — and other evil practices connected with the dead — exist. They exist to an extent that you whites do not dream of, though evidences are everywhere under your eyes.
“‘Why do you suppose that even the poorest peasants, when they can, bury their dead beneath solid tombs of masonry?
“‘Why do they bury them so often in their own yards, close to the doorway?
“‘Why, so often, do you see a tomb or grave set close beside a busy road or footpath where people are always passing?
“‘It is to assure the poor unhappy dead such protection as we can.’”
“As I clambered up, Polynice was talking to the woman. She had stopped work — a big-boned, hard-faced black girl, who regarded us with surly unfriendliness. My first impression of the three supposed zombies, who continued dumbly at work, was that there was something about them unnatural and strange. They were plodding like brutes, like automatons. Without stooping down, I could not fully see their faces, which were bent expressionless over their work. Polynice touched one of them on the shoulder, motioned him to get up. Obediently, like an animal, he slowly stood erect — and what I saw then, coupled with what I had heard previously, or despite it, came as a rather sickening shock. The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as though there was nothing behind it. It seemed not only expressionless, but incapable of expression. I had seen so much previously in Haiti that was outside normal experience that for the flash of a second I had a sickening, almost panicky lapse in which I thought, or rather felt, ‘Great God, maybe this stuff is really true, and if it is true, it is rather awful, for it upsets everything.’ By ‘everything’ I meant the natural fixed laws and processes on which all modern human thought and actions are based. Then suddenly I remembered — and my mind seized the memory as a man sinking in water clutches a solid plank — the face of a dog I had once seen in the histological laboratory at Columbia. Its entire front brain had been removed in an experimental operation weeks before; it moved about, it was alive, but its eyes were like the eyes I now saw staring.
“. . . no one dared to stop them for they were corpses walking in the sunlight”
Plate from The Magic Island.
“I recovered from my mental panic. I reached out and grasped one of the dangling hands. It was calloused, solid, human. Holding it, I said, ‘Bonjour, compère.’ The zombie stared without responding. The black wench, Lamercie, who was their keeper, now more sullen than ever, pushed me away — ‘Z’affai’ nèg pas z’affai’ blanc’ (Negroes’ affairs are not for whites). But I had seen enough. ‘Keeper’ was the key to it. ‘Keeper’ was the word that had leapt naturally into my mind as she protested, and just as naturally the zombies were nothing but poor, ordinary demented human beings, idiots, forced to toil in the fields.
“It was a good rational explanation, but it was far from being the end of this story. It satisfied me then, and I said as much to Polynice as we went down the slope. At first he did not contradict me, even said doubtfully, ‘Perhaps’; but as we reached the horses, before mounting, he stopped and said, ‘Look here, I respect your distrust of what you call superstition and your desire to find out the truth, but if what you were saying now were the whole truth, how could it be that over and over again, people who have stood by and seen their own relatives buried have, sometimes soon, sometimes months or years afterward, found those relatives working as zombies, and have sometimes killed the man who held them in servitude?’
“‘Polynice,’ I said, ‘that’s just the part of it that I can’t believe. The zombies in such cases may have resembled the dead persons, or even been “doubles” — you know what doubles are, how two people resemble each other to a startling degree. But it is a fixed rule of reasoning in America that we will never accept the possibility of a thing’s being “supernatural” so long as any natural explanation, even far-fetched, seems adequate.’
“‘Well,’ said he, ‘if you spent many years in Haiti, you would have a very hard time to fit this American reasoning into some of the things you encountered here.’”
“In all Haiti, there is no clearer scientifically trained mind, no sounder pragmatic rationalist, than Dr. Antoine Villiers. When I sat later with him in his study, surrounded by hundreds of scientific books in French, German, and English, and told him of what I had seen and of my conversations with Polynice, he said:
“. . . here are deep matters not easily to be dismissed by crying blasphemy”
Plate from The Magic Island.
“‘My dear sir, I do not believe in miracles nor in supernatural events, and I do not want to shock your Anglo-Saxon intelligence, but this Polynice of yours, with all his superstition, may have been closer to the partial truth than you were. Understand me clearly. I do not believe that anyone has ever been raised literally from the dead — neither Lazarus, nor the daughter of Jairus, nor Jesus Christ himself — yet I am not sure, paradoxical as it may sound, that there is not something frightful, something in the nature of criminal sorcery if you like, in some cases at least, in this matter of zombies. I am by no means sure that some of them who now toil in the fields were not dragged from the actual graves in which they lay in their coffins, buried by their mourning families!’
“‘It is then something like suspended animation?’ I asked.
“‘I will show you,’ he replied, ‘a thing which may supply you with the key to what you are seeking,’ and standing on a chair, he pulled down a paper-bound book from the top shelf. It was nothing mysterious or esoteric. It was the current official Code Pénal (Criminal Code) of the Republic of Haiti. He thumbed through it and pointed to a paragraph which read:
“‘Article 249. Also shall be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the administration of such substances, the person has been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.’”
The Magic Island is crawling with freaky stories, zombie related and otherwise. There’s no room here for anything else, and that’s tragic. A few notes I couldn't part with, for later:
So much for the book.
Portrait of W. B. Seabrook, who described the taste of cooked human flesh as, “so nearly like good, fully developed veal that I think no person with a palate of ordinary, normal sensitiveness could distinguish it from veal.”
No, really — The freak ate veal.
This is a bite or two off-topic, but it might not be possible to look at the travel book, The Magic Island, and ignore the travel-book’s author, W. B. Seabrook. I need to mention a few things about him, things I suspect most people would want to know about him if they know about him at all – elephants in the room, so to speak. So here’s a brief, haphazard dissection of the man who, for all practical purposes, freed the knowledge of zombies from its little island:
1. Seabrook was born on February 22, 1884, and he died on September 20, 1945
2. Seabrook is usually called an occultist, but he was probably a strict materialist who desperately wanted to believe in the supernatural. He was a friend to the celebrated occultist Aleister Crowley, and the two shared a significant amount of time together.
In his book, Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today, Seabrook writes a broadly illuminating anecdote:
One following summer — it was around 1920 — I invited A. C. to spend July and August with me on a farm near Atlanta. We got to talking one night about the Trappist monks, about their vows of silence, etc., and he suggested that we try an interesting variant. He proposed that for a week we limit all verbal communication and all conversation to one prearranged monosyllable. We experimented with several, tried various animal monosyllables, including urr, woof, moo, baa, and finally decided upon “wow.”
We stuck to this for the whole week. Katie was amused and tolerant, visitors wondered whether we’d gone crazy, while Shep and Vonie, our two Negro servants, were convinced we’d either joined or were founding a branch of some new religion. We learned in the first couple of days, or believed we did, a good deal about the manner in which animals communicate with one another. We were both surprised how much, by mere change in intonation, volume, etc., we could communicate. After we’d become pretty good, or thought we had, in “Pass the butter,” “I don’t care for any more,” “Would you like to take a walk?”, “That’s a pretty girl!”, “It’s a fine morning,” “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” “I like it,” “I don’t like it,” “The hell with it,” “Isn’t it wonderful?” and elementary things of that sort — it chanced that one night Shep brought me a gallon of moonshine corn.
A. C. and I sat up that night, drank most of it, and held a long, deep, philosophic conversation, in terms of “wow,” until the wee small hours, when Katie finally made us shut up and go to bed. She still insists that we simply got drunk and sat and barked at each other all night, but A. C. and I felt the talk had been profound and illuminating.
It was at any rate profitable, for I later wrote a fantasy on what might happen if human language were abolished, and sold it to H. L. Mencken. It is entitled “Wow,” and has appeared in a number of anthologies.
The short story Seabrook referred to above was published in The Smart Set, in January, 1921. It’s not really worth reading. “Wow” is a worldly-wise (foolish) few pages that present a parody of a parable, vaguely Asian, the “truth” of which is false, and as it unravels on its author, it ends with a jarring and pointless brutality, a metaphorical series of punctuation marks that succeeds only in throwing the hollowness of the whole thing into sharp relief. The full text is available here and there online, for anyone bored, curious, or self-destructive.
Portrait of Aleister Crowley, complete idiot.
3. Seabrook might have been a cannibal. His account of his cannibalism is convoluted, but to strip away the fat and boil it down: He visited the Guerò tribe in western Africa, hoping to participate in their cannibalism and include the experience in a book that he was writing; for a time, he believed that he had been successful and had eaten human flesh; he eventually came to believe that he had been deceived; with the help of an acquaintance, from a French hospital, he obtained select portions of the corpse of someone recently deceased, which he then prepared and ate.
4. Seabrook struggled with alcoholism, and hoping to escape it, he committed himself to an institution in December of 1933. He spent about six months there and published an account of his experience, Asylum, in 1935.
5. About ten years after publishing Asylum, Seabrook committed suicide by drug overdose.
6. Noting Seabrook’s death in his diary, Aleister Crowley wrote, “The swine-dog W. B. Seabrook has killed himself at last, after months of agonized slavery to his final wife.”
— And with that, since it’s threatening my mellow with its harsh, I leave these free-thinking and enlightened people to — whatever the hell it is they think they’re doing.
The knowledge of the Z-Plague, at first limited to the fevered hallucinations (hopefully) of a few rum-soaked and miserable occultists, began in Haiti. Through the writings of an American travel author — who was, coincidentally, also rum-soaked and a student of the occult — it spread to America. From the travel-author’s infectious pen-scratching, the knowledge spread to a particularly consequential play, and then to a particularly consequential movie. And after that –
The knowledge of the Z-Plague spread around the world nearly a hundred years ago, and since its original description, both the pathogen said to cause the Z-Plague and the characteristics of the resulting zombies have changed. Originally, evil Voodoo masters were said to use supernatural power to create mindless slaves from corpses. The slaves worked, albeit slowly and stupidly, as directed by their masters’ magic. Today, both Voodoo masters and their slaves are still said to exist, but only in a small percentage of Z-Plague cases — the principle agents of zombie creation today are said to be viruses, and the zombies created by them rarely answer to anyone. And still other zombies today are said to be created by chemicals, aliens — a multiplicity of causes — and each cause creates a class of zombies with characteristics that may differ significantly from those of other classes.
This situation is madness. Madness, I say!
Speculating about the cause of all these mutations — all the different, new pathogens and all the different, new resulting zombie characteristics — I’m tempted to suspect that people are deliberately introducing slight changes as they pass the knowledge of the Z-Plague along. The potential motivation is a mystery.
Unlike the infamous “hockey-stick chart” of Global Warming fame, the above is not fictitious. The graph presents the number of zombie-related movies released each year, globally, for the interval 1930 to 2010, inclusive.
To be continued:
The Zombie Apocalypse is Upon Us, Part II: The Z-Plague —
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