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Zombie Palimpsests: Translating US Occupation in White Zombie

White Zombie, America’s first feature zombie film, situates the zombie as a complex embodiment of Haiti’s history, even as it thrills American audiences with their first cinematic depictions of the living dead. Released in 1932 by United Artists during the United States’s occupation of Haiti, and based upon William Seabrook’s 1929 book, The Magic Island, the film narrates the plight of an American couple pursuing marriage and business opportunities in Port-au-Prince. Although the film never explicitly mentions the occupation, which lasted from 1915–1934, the military intervention serves as the catalyst that brings the Americans to Port-au-Prince, where they immediately confront the threat of zombies—a threat that will interfere with their entrepreneurial endeavors. The film’s covert acknowledgments of heightened political tensions between the United States and Haiti coalesce in its portrayal of the Vodou zombie.

Opening with the nighttime scene of a Haitian burial, complete with the sounds of drumming and what the script calls “a voodoo chant,” the film immediately situates Vodou, zombies, and the local “witch doctor” as antagonistic threats to the American visitors: the ceremony blocks the road, which interrupts and delays the Americans’ journey, even as it allows the Haitian sorcerer, Murder Legendre, to intimidate them and steal their belongings:[1]

Fig.1. Carriage enters burial scene, White Zombie, directed by Victor Halperin (1932).

Because Americans could not legally own land in Haiti until after the US occupation and its forcible revision of the Haitian Constitution in 1918, the film’s next scene, depicting the visitors’ arrival at an American-owned plantation, further heightens its political stakes.[2] White Zombie subversively (if silently) articulates the history of violence and oppression in which the US occupation actively partakes.

Directed by Victor Halperin and following The Magic Island, the film’s script (adapted by Garnett Weston) translates zombie to mean a victim enslaved by Vodou sorcery, transforming a word that had previously been translated as “ghost” or “revenant” into a corporeal creature that embodies Haiti’s complex history of colonialism, revolution, and occupation.[3] The film reinvents the zombie as a palimpsest that reiterates American fears of Haitian resistance. Max Silverman has recently applied the image of the palimpsest to cinema’s memory work, which he describes as follows:

[T]he present is shown to be shadowed or haunted by a past which is not immediately visible but is progressively brought into view. The relationship between present and past therefore takes the form of superimposition and interaction of different temporal traces to constitute a sort of composite structure, like a palimpsest, so that one layer of traces can be seen through, and is transformed by, another.[4]

The zombies of Halperin’s 1932 cinematic production emerge as just such palimpsestic figures, whose superimposition of Haiti’s colonial past and its occupied present offer a palimpsestic portrait of modernity that clearly binds it to the transatlantic trade from which it was produced. Further, such palimpsestic figures connect “not simply two moments in time (past and present) but a number of different moments, hence producing a chain of signification which draws together disparate spaces and times” (Silverman, Palimpsestic Memory, 3). Superimposing imagery of French colonization, the Haitian Revolution, and US occupation, the zombie produces a “chain of signification” that resists linear narratives imposed upon Haitian history, even as it gives physical form to U. S. cultural anxieties surrounding the occupation. Understanding the zombie as palimpsest challenges epochal thinking to make legible the overlap between the seemingly disparate events of the French and US occupations.

Translating Zombi

These American manifestations transform the term zombie into a corporeal and palimpsestic figure, unlike earlier translations that describe disembodied spirits. One of the first translations of the word ‘‘zombi’’ appears in a seventeenth-century French novel by Pierre-Corneille Blessebois, Le Zombi du Grand Pérou, ou la comtesse de Cocagne, and Kieran Murphy observes that Blessebois refers to the ‘‘Zombi’’ as a kind of ghost but never as a corporeal being (“White Zombie,” 49). In 1789, two years prior to the Haitian Revolution, Moureau de Saint-Méry similarly translates ‘‘Zombi’’ as the ‘‘créol’’ word for a ‘‘spirit’’ or ‘‘revenant.” Saint-Méry does not mention bodies either, although he does link the zombi to “Vaudoux,” and even describes “Vaudoux ceremonies” as “a real danger to civil order and colonial power” (“White Zombie,” 49). By describing Vodou practice as a threat to colonial power, Saint-Méry reconfigures the Vodou zombie as a figure of colonial anxiety, one that Seabrook and Halperin would incarnate for a twentieth-century audience during the US occupation. These American translations misappropriate Vodou practice and further the exoticization of Haiti, reinforcing negative connotations of Vodou that were reproduced and strengthened across Europe and the United States following the Haitian Revolution.

Though zombies are linked to civil unrest through the subversive influence of Vodou, it is through American interpretations of the term that they emerge as embodiments of Vodou’s “profound threat” to colonial power.[5] During the US occupation, American control included a “a strict anti-Vodou policy that authorized raids on religious compounds and ceremonies. Drums and other religious objects were confiscated and in some instances destroyed.”[6]  Within this context  of systematic oppression, Seabrook elaborated the concept of zombie in his 1929 sensationalist travelogue, The Magic Island. The book’s popularity and the ensuing production of White Zombie quickly propelled the zombie into the popular imagination as a manifestation of Vodou’s irrational and subversive powers.

The image of the zombie reinforced popular imagery in the American media that sensationalized Vodou as a violent and promiscuous practice. National Geographic presented Haiti as a barbaric and eroticized land corrupted by Vodou: in 1908, 1916, and 1920, it ran “full-article features that attested to child sacrifice and cannibalism in Haiti” (Twa, Visualizing Haiti, 76). [7] These accounts became increasingly politicized: Marine brigade commander John H. Russell “used his belief in Haitian cannibalism and child sacrifice to justify seizing control of the Haitian judicial system” before becoming American High Commissioner to Haiti in 1922, and in the 1925 novel, The Goat Without Horns, Beale Davis describes a Vodou ritual of sacrificing a white child to overturn white authority on the island (Twa, Visualizing Haiti, 76).[8] As the perceived threat of Haitian Vodou became more extreme, its depictions in American media became more violently antagonistic to colonial power. Yet it was not until The Magic Island and White Zombie that these threats manifested in the figure of the zombie. The backdrop of the US occupation made the zombie an especially effective image for capturing the cultural anxieties of the American audience that produced it, saturating the figure with suspicions of Vodou and echoes of the Haitian Revolution. Halperin’s film builds upon Seabrook’s accounts to configure the zombie as a corporeal palimpsest—one that layers Haitian history in varying degrees of visibility, even as it embodies the complex origins of modernity.

White Zombies

Rather than depicting the threat of zombies, who, in this film, simply perform their master’s bidding, White Zombie instead depicts the threat of white American enslavement. When Legendre uses Vodou to enslave and zombify Madeline (at Beaumont’s request), her possession overturns the US occupation’s status quo; Madeline’s enslavement signals the vulnerability of the American forces in Haiti, of their “property,” and of their “moral” imperative. [9] Consider the following scene:

Fig. 2. Madeline in lingerie, White Zombie, directed by Victor Halperin (1932).

Here, Madeline dresses for her wedding in Port-au-Prince. A Haitian maid opens a window, letting in the sounds of Vodou drums.[10] Although the maid explains, “They are driving away evil spirits,” Madeline becomes visibly upset, shouting, “Close it! Close it!”  (Her anxiety about Vodou has already been established by the film’s opening scene, which features similar drumming.) Here she is featured in her bridal lingerie, which Tony Williams has observed features “underwear with a map of Haiti design.”[11] While Williams compellingly argues that Madeline, “the archetypal white female victim,” here represents Haiti as “the battleground for domination between what is seen as a legal possession by the U. S. forces and the illegal threat of the alien force,” Madeline’s status as white American occupier unduly complicates her ability to represent the Haitian nation, particularly within the film’s heavy-handed script (“White Zombie: Haitian Horror,” 19, 20). Rather, the scene, including the suggestive map on Madeline’s lingerie, emphasizes her vulnerability to both Haiti and to Vodou, as the uncontrollable sounds of drums entering through the window increasingly distress her. She comes to represent American cultural anxieties about the US occupation that center on Haitian subversion and revolt. Legendre’s zombification of Madeline might be read as a challenge to the US occupation, a reading that is reinforced when he later enslaves Beaumont, a plantation-owning ally.

In fact, each of the zombies in Legendre’s personal coterie was enslaved for a distinct political purpose, and the film recites their former identities and civic roles: Legendre introduces them as Ledot, a witch doctor; Von Gelder, a man “swollen with riches”; Richard, the Minister of the Interior; Scarpia, a Brigand Chief; Marcquis, a Captain of Gendarmerie; and Chauvin, the High Executioner .

Fig. 3. Legendre introduces the zombie coterie, White Zombie, directed by Victor Halperin (1932).

From priest to soldier, Murder Legendre gains power from each person he enslaves, and the film recites his zombie coterie as culturally and racially diverse (though its actors are not). The scene explicitly positions zombification as Legendre’s weapon against his political rivals, an aggression that empowers him through their silence and allegiance. This introduction emphasizes zombification as a tool  of political control.

The multitude of zombies running Legendre’s sugar mill  seems, by contrast, to be comprised of anonymous and interchangeable slaves. Legendre describes them as “faithful” and “not worried about long hours,” even offering to provide some for Beaumont’s plantation.

Fig. 4. Sugar mill, White Zombie, directed by Victor Halperin (1932).

Fig. 5. “Not worried about long hours,” White Zombie, directed by Victor Halperin (1932).

Further, their working location, a Haitian sugar mill outside of Port-au-Prince, directly references the fields of the American-owned Haitian American Sugar Company (HASCO). According to Seabrook’s account, the US occupation instigates the emergence of Haitian zombies, who are said to originate in the HASCO fields. His alleged Haitian source, Polynice, insists that zombies began appearing in the fields in the spring of 1918, which Seabrook describes as “a big cane season,” when “the factory, which had its own plantations, offered a bonus on the wages of new workers.”[12] Seabrook explains that the American-owned HASCO “makes rum when the sugar market is off, pays low wages, twenty or thirty cents a day, and gives steady work. It is modern big business” (Magic Island, 95). When the American-owned company offers cash incentives for new workers, zombies suddenly appear to work the land, enriching their Vodou masters. It is twentieth-century American “big business” and its complimentary military occupation that cultivate the emergence of zombie slaves. Such zombies bind the image of the exploited HASCO worker to that of the Saint-Domingue slave, both of whom work the same fields for colonial sugar interests backed by military occupations.[13] In a 1932 film that resists mentioning politics, the zombie offers a rich palimpsestic figure to evoke both modernity and the transatlantic slave trade that underpins it.

Palimpsestic Zombies

It is, as Murphy reminds us, the “Haitian experience of modernity that produced the zombie phantasm in the first place,” and yet it is a sensationalized translation of that phantasm that steeps the zombie in American colonial anxieties and allows the slaves of White Zombie to (safely) challenge the authority of the occupation (“White Zombie,” 47). Yet these zombies offer temporal accounts that are as compelling as their national and spatial narratives. The zombies’ defiance of progressive historical narratives and their seeming refusal to map neatly onto a linear model of time makes them generative critical models. Because the palimpsest offers us “a way of perceiving history in a non-linear way,” it makes visible new (and non-causal) links between events (Silverman, Palimpsestic Memory, 5). Considering the zombie as a vibrant palimpsest makes the French and US occupations of Haiti legible simultaneously, resisting overdetermined histories that threaten to subsume either.

The non-linear model offered by the palimpsest has been called concentrationary, wherein the palimpsest “translates the interconnections between different moments of radical violence . . . into a politicized aesthetic” (Silverman, Palimpsestic Memory, 5). When the zombie is understood as a politically aestheticized figure, its unusual position bridging past and present offers a palimpsest of then and now that bypasses historical contingencies, or, in Silverman’s words, it reveals that “the present is always contaminated by multiple elsewheres” (5). Those elsewheres are temporal as well as spatial, and the politicized aesthetic of the Vodou zombie carries the experience of “multiple elsewheres” through both time and space, offering further dimensionality to Walter Benjamin’s model of the constellation.[14] The zombie-as-palimpsest illuminates points across these occupations and revolutions that might otherwise remain dimmed.

The amnesiac zombie is a cultural product of the occupations and resistances that define Haiti’s history. As enchanted and enslaved individuals, Vodou zombies lack memory and access to their individual and collective histories, echoing conditions of colonial and postcolonial enslavement.[15] Yet the zombie’s individual amnesia does not render it ahistorical.[16] Rather, reading the enslaved zombie as a palimpsest reveals its dynamic participation in a lineage of enslavements that binds modernity to its origins in the transatlantic slave trade and the Haitian Revolution.[17]  

Considering the zombie as a uniquely modern—and as Kyle Bishop has argued, a uniquely “New World” monster—forces us to encounter a figure of modernity that viscerally evokes the US occupation, the Haitian Revolution, the colonization of Saint-Domingue, and the triangle trade at once.[18] These interconnected moments of radical violence merge in the first modern representations of the zombie; reading these zombies as palimpsestic offers dynamic and nonlinear accounts of those histories that articulate their unique particularities as well their interdependencies. It also elucidates how competing narratives of modernity become layered in ways that influence and obfuscate one another’s legibility. That Haiti’s role remains sidelined in modernist discourse illustrates not only the complexities of modernist disconnection(s) but also how networks of translation might reveal illuminating, if adverse, links to our understandings of modernisms.

 

Notes

[1] Garnett Weston, White Zombie, film script, 1932, 1.  The script was never officially published, but a transcription is available through Kanopy; see White Zombie, directed by Victor Halperin (1932; NYX Channel: Kanopy, 2018).

[2] For more on these revisions, see Magdeline W. Shannon’s Jean Price-Mars, the Haitian Elite and the American Occupation, 1915-35 (New York: St. Martin’s, 1996).

[3] Kieran M. Murphy “White Zombie,” Contemporary French and Francophone Studies 15, no. 1 (2011): 47–55, 49. The etymology of the word “zombie” is contested. For more on this discussion, see Hans Ackermann and Jeanine Gauthier’s “The Ways and Nature of the Zombi,” Journal of American Folklore 104, no. 4 (1991): 466–94.

[4] Max Silverman, Palimpsestic Memory: The Holocaust and Colonialism in French and Francophone Fiction and Film (New York: Berghahn, 2013), 3.

[5] This US rendition of the zombie contrasts with the discourse of Édouard Glissant, who uses zombie imagery to describe subjects who cannot conceive of resistance to annexation by a colonial power. See, for example, Édouard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, trans. J. Michael Dash (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989) and The Overseer’s Cabin, trans. Betsy Wing (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011).

[6] Lindsay J. Twa, Visualizing Haiti in U.S. Culture: 1910-1950 (New York: Routledge, 2016), 84.

[7] National Geographic frequently presented Haiti as a barbaric and eroticized land corrupted by Vodou, and Twa observes that “in 1908, 1916, and again in 1920, National Geographic magazine ran full-article features that attested to child sacrifice and cannibalism in Haiti, thereby proving Haiti’s savageness” (Visualizing Haiti, 76). Despite the fact that the 1908 article acknowledges that “the Haitiens (sic) claim that this is not true,” it persists in asserting that Vodou is a “horrible sorcery” filled with “the most disgraceful orgies” (Colby M. Chester, “Haiti: A Degenerating Island,” National Geographic Magazine 19, no. 3 [1908]: 200–17, 215). For more on this discussion, see Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins, Reading National Geographic (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

[8] See Beale Davis, The Goat Without Horns (New York: Brentano’s, 1925). See also Rapahel Dalleo’s American Imperialism's Undead: The Occupation of Haiti and the Rise of Caribbean Anticolonialism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016), Patricia E. Chu’s Race, Nationalism and the State in British and American Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), and Mary Renda’s Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

[9] Despite these challenges, the film ends with Madeline’s freedom and with the deaths of Murder Legendre and his zombies; the film’s happy ending reestablishes the dominance of the American narrative.

[10] The script states: “It is a most unusual night and there seems to be a strange sound coming from just outside. Two Maids are helping her get ready for her ceremony. One of them walks over to the bay window and opens it to reveal the sound of voodoo drumming. The ladies look out the window in eager wonder” (Weston, White Zombie, 10).

[11] Tony Williams, “White Zombie: Haitian Horror,” Jump Cut 28 (1983): 18–20, 19. While the image does not seem to accurately mimic the shape of Haiti, it does resemble the geography of the Island of Hispaniola, particularly when one accounts for the curvature of the image around Madeline’s body.

[12] William Seabrook, The Magic Island (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1929), 95.

[13] Slavoj Žižek and Kieran Murphy have both noted how these working conditions might resonate with an American audience in the midst of the Great Depression, and Žižek even alludes to the revolutionary potential of White Zombie’s narrative for the working class; see Slavoj Žižek, Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism (New York: Melville House, 2015), 74. Murphy counterpoints by reading the zombie as “the undead slave that points to a Haitian collective crypt” and that “began to haunt and turn the dispossessed of the Great Depression into white zombies” (“White Zombie,” 53). By both accounts, it is the oppressive working conditions of twentieth-century big business that make the zombie an effective figure of global modernity.

[14] See Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Illuminations, ed, Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 2007), 253–64.

[15] In Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman reminds us that “[i]n every slave society, slave owners attempted to eradicate the slave’s memory, that is, to erase all the evidence of an existence before slavery” (Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007], 155).

[16] See Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). See also Harry Harootunian’s “‘Modernity’ and the Claims of Untimeliness,” Postcolonial Studies 13, no. 4 (2010): 362–82, for more on the dangers of spatial narratives that overlook the concrete effects of time.

[17] Susan Buck-Morss also argues that modernity is dependent upon the Haitian Revolution; see Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).

[18] See Kyle William Bishop, American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010).

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