The Walking Dead: US’s troubling zombie history

Then in her informal travel book about Haiti, Tell My Horse (1937), Hurston not only informs us that zombies exist, but that “I had the rare opportunity to see and touch an authentic case. I listened to the broken noises in its throat, and then, I did what no one else has ever done, I photographed it.” The image of Felicia Felix-Mentor, the “real-life” zombie, is indeed truly haunting. Pretty soon after this meeting, Hurston left Haiti hurriedly, believing that secret voodoo societies were intent on poisoning her.

If Hurston did encounter a zombie in Haiti, the poor woman she captured with her camera might have been not so much an undead creature as a person who had suffered social death, cast out by her community and perhaps suffering from profound mental illness (Hurston met her in one of Haiti’s mental hospitals). Nevertheless, the historical trauma of slavery underpins this terrible condition of being emptied out of the self, a woman without attachments left shuffling through a living death.

The Walking Dead, too, carries the echo of this history. The series rarely made much of the setting, but various knots of survivors passed through Georgia, through abandoned landscapes that once housed huge slave plantations. To understand the history of the zombie is to understand the anxieties this figure still addresses in contemporary US culture, where race remains a matter of deadly serious importance.

Roger Luckhurst’s Zombies: A Cultural History is out from Reaktion Press.

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