Zombies, The Other, & the Spread of Modern Day Fear


Introduction

The popularity of American-centric zombie culture can be linked to fears of the Other and social anxieties over the breakdown of existing power structures. In this essay, we use Critical Discourse Analysis, a methodological approach that centers upon relations of power and inequality in language, to unpack the notion of American zombies. We also provide background on the history of the zombie myth, and contextualize our analysis using real world examples to discuss the Hollywood representation of Vodou, the 2016 Presidential Election, and the New Woman. U.S. Americans appropriated the zombie from Haitian religious culture in the nineteenth century, and transformed it into a story that details a mindless mass of dehumanized beings infecting established social order. In our analysis, we connect the zombie of American popular culture to incursions on historical and contemporary systems of social control through the dimensions of religion, race, and gender.

Background

What exactly is a zombie? The story of the zombie originally arises from Haitians, who are already severely disenfranchised by the nineteenth century, but are revolting for their freedom by the time Americans come to know about the zombie and craft their own versions of the story. Originated in Haitian Vodou, zonbi can refer to several different beings, from a stolen soul to a spirit receptacle.1 However, since its first appearance in American pop culture in the 1932 movie White Zombie, “zombie” (note the difference in spelling with the original Haitian zonbi) has been depicted as a “reanimated, mindless, soulless corpse taken from its grave to serve the master who had awakened it”.2 The social and cultural representation of the zombie in the U.S. is usually strongly linked with social groups that are feared or considered threats by White, middle-class Americans, ranging from immigrants, to people of color, and “modern, strong women.”

Zombies and Vodou as Primitive Religion

From the first American encounter with zombies in the early 1900s, zombies have been viewed as exotic and mythical beings by Abrahamic religious communities within American culture. Consequently, the practice of Vodou is widely viewed as primitive by many Americans due to a fascination with the religion, but also a racialized imagining of what merits as religious practice. Aspects of Haitian Vodou fundamentally differ from elements of Christian religion. For example, Vodou does not connect to any scriptures from a religious text, or follow the belief of an Abrahamic god. Vodou is a religion about family, brotherhood, and community in which “family members who have been separated through the year come together on different occasions to celebrate their faith”.3 Similar to how Christian churchgoers attend sermons to find connections between a higher power and the world around them, Vodou community gatherings assist “the Haitian practitioner in the quest for an understanding of things in this world and attempts to give meaning to human existence”.4 Community is therefore a huge component to the Vodou religion.

The mainstream worldview among Christians underscores the dualisms of body and soul. Zombies, instead, stand in a purgatory of body and soul. This supernatural creature is a receptacle that a Vodou god can captivate and reanimate to heal illness.5 Given these fundamental philosophical contrasts, “[These] religious differences were terrifying” for mainstream Americans of the early twentieth century, and continues to this day.6 The thought of this heathen, non-Christian ‘Other’ existing is intriguing and terrifying to some Christians.

Mainstream American media portrays alternative religions as flawed, underdeveloped, and Other. This can be observed in the contemporary television series, American Horror Story: Coven (2013-2014). In the series, two clans clash: a group of witches and another group of voodoo priestesses. The Coven series portrays Vodou as archaic, animalistic, and savage by exclusively depicting practitioners as involved in the sacrificial worship of goats and snakes. The character Marie Laveau (played by Angela Bassett) is a Voodoo priestess who uses her power to become a zombie queen in order to seek vengeance against her enemies. With the campy and exaggerated nature of the show, Vodou is captured therein as a spectacle.

Zombies are additionally characterized as evil beings, exotic and unfamiliar within the American context of the Coven series. For example, the vengeful motive to resurrect zombies came about because rival witches killed Laveau’s lover, Bastille. Even though the younger voodoo priestesses grew up with stories about Laveau’s “heartbreak” and “blood flowing down the streets” due to all the grief caused between the two groups, Laveau wanted to “paint her bedroom brick red” with the rival witches’ blood to exact revenge.7 The zombie ritual is therefore lost among the dominant motive of wanting to commit revenge rather than be conjured up to do another less violent deed. The appropriation of the zombie as an instrument of American entertainment allows for elements of not only the religion of Vodou, but specifically the Haitian zonbi, to become woefully lost on screen, while racialized and grossly oversimplified. The primitive dehumanizing images that index Haitian people, Vodou, and the zombie in American popular culture have consequently assisted in reinforcing the superiority of White America and its Christianity-based society.

The Trump Virus: How to Spread Fear of the Other

As opposed to the Haitian zonbi, which is conjured through religious practice, the modern-day zombies of American popular culture are typically created by a virus that then creates mass hysteria among communities. Contemporary zombie narratives claim that viruses are the root cause of these zombie outbreaks. Without an effective way of curbing these uncontrollable viral outbreaks, human survivors in these fictive stories are forever on the run, and remain continually vulnerable. This is a perfect analog for our contemporary American fears of real life contagion, whether by biological virus, or “viral” hordes of immigrants, people of color, and others. Thus, in these on-screen zombie narratives, we thereby find a corollary to the fears propagated in the name of maintaining established order.

These narratives “provide indexes of how we collectively grappled with past (and present) social issues”.8 Zombies have been used by writers and directors as a way of exploring current social and political issues. Word of mouth is the most constructive way in widening fear within a group of people. This is exactly what we find the film, Pontypool (2008)9, in which rhetoric is used as a way to spread the zombie virus. In the film, a virus breaks out that infects people whenever they hear terms of endearment in the English language, in addition to hearing English in general. Similarly, in the current 2016 Presidential Election, we see examples of language taking on a viral quality, in the contagious spread of suggestive rhetoric regarding American immigrant populations and other populations. In essence, we argue that presidential candidate Donald Trump has created a “virus” for American citizens when it has come to mainstream discursive behaviors, particularly regarding Latinx citizens and Americans of color. Through this viral discourse, and by extension, dangerous language, Trump has harnessed the simmering fears and anxieties of White America to propagate mass hysteria which subverts social progress.

The Trump virus contains the rumors he actively disseminates to get his audiences riled up. Trump is on record throughout the 2016 presidential election as having to referred to Mexican, Latinx, and Hispanic populations, as well as Muslims, with phrases such as, “they’re bringing drugs,” “they’re terrorists,” “they’re bringing crime,” and “they’re rapists,” to even telling a well-known Mexican journalist to “Go back to Univision!”.10 This infamous they or they are is a key viral component because it refers to an unidentifiable threat, that like a zombie horde, could appear from nowhere to threaten mainstream American existence. Trump’s comments are anything but endearing. This has contributed to a chain reaction of fear about Latinx immigrants or Muslims and non-normative Others living within the U.S., as well as those trying to immigrate to the country.

The New Woman and Limited Patriarchal Control Over Bodies

Feminism is seen as a threat to the patriarchal hierarchy set out by empowered males, particularly in the case of American institutionalized white, cisgender, heterosexual patriarchy. These men fear ceding their power to women who demand equal treatment not only for women but also for all, because they view any inequity as a loss of power. The emerging concept of the New Woman in the 1930s drew attention to the progressive woman seeking a sense of independence apart from the limited role set for her within society. “The stereotypical New Woman was a young woman who delighted in engaging in pursuits previously thought acceptable only by men”.11 The newfound freedom of doing some of what men were empowered to do (including higher education, professional careers, and un-chaperoned activity) allowed these women to gain a sense of agency and challenge the system. The New Woman was “usually well educated often having attended or graduated from college,” and “was interested in social and political issues”.12 She proves to be a threat to American society through her education and knowledge because she subverts cultural expectations and upsets empowered hierarchy, in seeking opportunities for women to be able to think for themselves. The concept of the New Woman continues to be relevant in our modern day, because women in the U.S. and around the world remain in the fight for autonomy and equality.

When men bring observance to the abuse and oppression women face within this system of injustice, the threat symbolized by the New Woman becomes all the more intensified. Alternatively, men (those with institutional power) can collaboratively align with women and seek to interrupt structures that would champion men over others. As the U.S. Civil Rights Movement gathered prominence in the 1960s, Malcolm X emphasized the longtime struggles of African American women, saying that “the most disrespected person,” “the most unprotected person,” and “the most neglected person in America is the Black woman”.13 By pointing out the historically limited agency of African American women continue to experience, Malcolm X’s legacy is able to push back at the intersectional oppression experienced by American women who are also Black. This helps to make visible both the racialized and gendered experiences of Black women.

Indeed, patriarchal standards have long institutionalized female inferiority (particularly non-White women), but these structures of oppression are weakened when attacked by women and male-identifying allies who have identities that intersect race, class, and sexuality. The creative performance of Beyoncé exemplifies a continuation of the idea of the New Woman. In her music and stage presence, she speaks to themes centering on reclaiming Black femme agency and power. Songs in her 2016 visual album Lemonade feature images associated with independence, freedom, and “taking no shit” from the men in her life who continue to hurt her.

Beyoncé’s album Lemonade additionally touches upon the intersectional ideas of Blackness and femininity as constructs that are each condemned under American patriarchy. Visually, the album serves to challenge the dominance of explicitly White male narratives. Some of the album’s footage is set in the Deep South, portraying non-White religious and cultural practices, with explicit references to Igbo Landing in southern coastal Georgia, and African enslavement in the visual for her song “Love Drought.” The song’s visuals feature African American women walking into water with their hands up singing. Together, these elements constitute significant visual, discursive interventions because the scene in “Love Drought” is strongly reminiscent of documented instances at Igbo Landing in 1803, in which African women chose death by self-drowning over a certain future of enslavement in the American South.14 Beyoncé directly pays homage to these women and calls out the complex history of patriarchy and White supremacy here in the U.S.

Importantly, the New Woman actively asserts agency over her body and decision-making, avoiding the control of men. Much in this way, song lyrics of Beyoncé’s “Formation” narrate being “a Black Bill Gates in the making” who “gets what’s her’s” because “she’s a star”.15 This is extremely powerful language, highly connotative in Standard American English of success and the agency to claim power. These song lyrics are also a response to the ways in which power structures set up within the U.S. do not expect African American women to be successful agents of change. By naming herself a Black version of Bill Gates, Beyoncé is promoting how empowered and prosperous she and other women have become in a White male-dominated world. The creative, public platform to which Beyoncé takes in protesting the oppression faced by women illustrates her resistance to the supremacist viruses of misogyny and racism. She demands the respect, protection, and attention that Malcolm X and others have asserted African American women deserve.

Conclusion

The American zombie is a symbol that parallels the interfering social change brought by groups within and moving into the U.S. The historical appropriation of the Haitian zonbi provides an example of how American society has transformed as a result of the influence of new populations on key dimensions of our popular culture. Within new viral imaginings of zombie outbreaks, immigrant Others are feared as a threatening and pollutive element. This strikes fear within mainstream American society that then develops into politicized paranoia. However, the spread of this unfounded fear can be combatted. The New Woman is able to counter gendered power structures by transcending these barriers set against her, to accomplish things previously thought to be only within the reach of men. Religion, race, and gender remain empowered constructions through which our societal hierarchy is perpetuated.

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  2. Kordas 16.

  3. Hurbon, Laënnec. “Vodou: A Faith for Individual, Family, and Community.” Callaloo 15.3 (1992): 787-96. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.

  4. Hurbon 787.

  5. Kordas 16.

  6. McAlister, Elizabeth. “Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-Whites: The Race and Religion of Zombies.” Anthropological Quarterly 85.2 (2012): 457-86. Web.

  7. Murphy, Ryan, and Brad Falchuk, prods. “American Horror Story: Coven.” American Horror Story. FX. New Orleans, Louisiana, 9 Oct. 2013. Television.

  8. Platts, Todd K. “Locating Zombies in the Sociology of Popular Culture.” Sociology Compass 7.7 (2013): 547-60. Web.

  9. Pontypool. Dir. Bruce McDonald. Perf. Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle. Maple Pictures, 2008. DVD.

  10. Moreno, Carlina. “9 Outrageous Things Donald Trump Has Said About Latinos.” Huffpost Latino Voices. Huffington Post, 31 Aug. 2015. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.

  11. Kordas 26.

  12. Kordas 26.

  13. X, Malcolm. “Why Do You Hate Yourself?.” May 5, 1962.

  14. Owunna, Michael. “Beyoncé’s ‘Love Drought’ Video, Slavery and the Story of Igbo Landing.” Web blog post. Tumblr. Tumblr, April, 29, 2016. Web. May 4, 2016.

  15. Knowles, Beyonce. “Formation (Explicit).” YouTube. 06 Feb. 2016. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.