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A History Of Zombies In America


It's Halloween. And you can't talk about Halloween without talking about zombies. They are a global phenomenon by this point, the subject of countless books, TV shows, video games and movies. NPR's history podcast Throughline looked at the history of zombies and our collective obsession with them. I am joined by one of the hosts of the show, Rund Abdelfatah. Rund, thanks for being here.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So zombies - seems like there was always a time when they were central to American culture, right? They've always been around. But of course, that isn't the case. When did zombies actually appear?

ABDELFATAH: One of the first things that really introduced zombies to an American audience, like, on a wide scale...


ABDELFATAH: ...Was the 1932 movie "White Zombie."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As narrator) From Haiti, land of the Voodoo, the sinister power behind the white zombie.

ABDELFATAH: If you don't know this movie...

MARTIN: I do not.

ABDELFATAH: ...(Laughter) In it, a white couple travels to Haiti for their wedding. And there, they encounter zombies.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ABDELFATAH: It's a far-fetched, dramatic story. But at its core is a truth about zombies. They were an idea originally brought to the U.S. from Haiti. Throughline producer Laine Kaplan-Levenson picks up the story in the episode.


LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In Haiti, zombies aren't just scary, flesh-eating monsters that only exist in movies.

PATRICK SYLVAIN: I grew up in fear of becoming a zombie.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This is Patrick Sylvain.

SYLVAIN: I'm a lecturer at Brown University.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: His fascination with zombies goes back to his childhood growing up in Port-au-Prince.

SYLVAIN: Is a very prevalent fear in Haiti because of the zombie is real, right? It's not abstract. It's real.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Zombies are associated with being in a death-like state, a body without a soul. It's an idea that emerged in Haiti back when it was a French colony called Saint-Domingue and it was one of the most profitable colonies in the world.

SYLVAIN: So the rate of accumulation of wealth, we can also equate that to the rate of death.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Life on the plantation was so brutal for the enslaved Africans that many didn't live past their teenage years. They were literally worked to death. And that backbreaking, endless labor hardly felt like living.

SYLVAIN: It was a place where the slaves were broken, right, to be made docile and servile. This person becomes, in a sense, a machine of production. And therefore, the loss of the will, symbolically speaking, this person becomes a zombie. The slave is the perfect zombie.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: That is one type of Haitian zombie, the broken slave. But there's a second type of zombie in Haiti, the revolutionary slave, zombies who rise up to defeat their masters.

SYLVAIN: These are people who refuse to submit themselves to the harshness of slavery.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Individual acts of resistance against the French planters eventually grew into one of the largest and most successful slave rebellions in the history of the Americas, the Haitian Revolution. It's during the middle of this war that the word zombie was written about by a French writer.

ELIZABETH MCALISTER: Named Moreau de Saint-Mery. And he refers to zombie as the slaves' belief in a returned soul.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This is Elizabeth McAlister.

MCALISTER: And I'm a professor of religion and African American studies at Wesleyan University.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The Haitian people ultimately defeated their colonizers. They called their newly freed nation Haiti, the first independent country to be founded by former slaves.


KAPLAN-LEVENSON: But after the revolution, many Haitians were forced back onto plantations when France demanded reparations. France refused to recognize Haiti's independence until it paid them 150 million francs, the modern equivalent of $21 billion.

SYLVAIN: It's injustice.

MCALISTER: And I think that the figure of the zombie is a reminder that slavery happened to people, that they freed themselves from it, that it still happens in a kind of an afterlife and it echoes in social practices.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Even by the early 20th century, Haiti was still in a state of social and political turmoil.

SYLVAIN: The U.S. claimed they wanted to stabilize Haiti.

MCALISTER: It turns out that it's really about Americans gaining interest in business opportunities in Haiti.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And so in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the U.S. Marines to invade Haiti. They instituted a formal system of unpaid labor which forced Haitians to build new roads. This imposed yet another form of slavery and zombification.

MCALISTER: And along with this occupation comes a kind of a vanguard of journalists and travel writers.

SYLVAIN: And they had never encountered autonomous, independent black men who resisted white rule. And so how do you then demonize these people who resisted? Call them cannibal. Then the black men, the black body, becomes a consumer of flesh.

MCALISTER: And there's this one guy, named William Seabrook.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: William Seabrook was a World War I vet turned New York Times reporter and was known for his sensationalist travel writing.

MCALISTER: Seabrook finds his way to somebody who tells him about the phenomenon in Haiti where someone is punished by having their soul extracted and by being made to work in the cane fields. And he writes a whole chapter about this, dead man working in the cane fields.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Seabrook said that's how it was described to him by people he met in Haiti, that he didn't believe in these zombies. Nonetheless, he wrote about it with high drama.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) 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.

SYLVAIN: Oh, my God. This is so juicy. But yet, oh, my God, these people are barbaric. Right? And they kill each other, turning each other into zombies.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: In 1929, Seabrook published "The Magic Island."

SYLVAIN: It became a bestseller.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Giving Americans a new nightmare, the living dead.

SYLVAIN: So it wasn't until the U.S. occupation in which the zombie is made into this walking monster.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And before long, Americans grew to love zombies. Nearly a century later, the zombie has been exported all over the world.

SYLVAIN: Once we've had this globalized figure of the zombie then the question becomes, who owns it? Right? Does it really belong to Haiti? No. To lose the genesis of the zombie within trans-Atlantic slavery, that would be a problem.

ABDELFATAH: That was a report from Laine Kaplan-Levenson on our latest episode of Throughline.

MARTIN: Which is about the history of...


MARTIN: Zombies.


MARTIN: All right. Rund, thanks so much for bringing us that story. Rund Abdelfatah with Throughline. Happy Halloween.

ABDELFATAH: Happy Halloween. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laine Kaplan-Levenson
Laine Kaplan-Levenson is a producer and reporter for NPR's Throughline podcast. Before joining the Throughline team, they were the host and producer of WWNO's award-winning history podcast TriPod: New Orleans at 300, as well as WWNO/WRKF's award-winning political podcast Sticky Wicket. Before podcasting, they were a founding reporter for WWNO's Coastal Desk, and covered land loss, fisheries, water management, and all things Louisiana coast. Kaplan-Levenson has contributed to NPR, This American Life, Marketplace, Latino USA, Oxford American (print), Here and Now, The World, 70 Million, and Nancy, among other national outlets. They served as a host and producer of Last Call, a multiracial collective of queer artists and archivists, and freelanced as a storytelling and podcast consultant, workshop instructor, and facilitator of student-produced audio projects. Kaplan-Levenson is also the founder and host of the live storytelling series, Bring Your Own. They like to play music and occasionally DJ under the moniker DJ Swimteam.
Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
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