The Naked Dead

How the Haitian zombie was stripped of its meaning

by Marielle Burt

Illustration by Isabelle Rea

published September 22, 2017

content warning: slavery, racial violence, sexual violence

“Your grandmother has always operated by her own logic.” This is how my father describes his mother-in-law’s belief in phenomena called ‘mystical’ in some circles and ‘bullshit’ in others. Angels, aliens, premonitions, possession, ghosts, God, and zombies—all of these are real to my grandmother, an immigrant from Haiti, now an almost 50-year resident of South Dakota.

One evening, when I was old enough to join the adult table for dinner yet young enough that sitting still for the hour-long meal was a challenge, my grandmother told me about the ghost that lurked in her childhood home. She recounted the tale of this specter’s unfulfilled life that kept him from departing the island. Later that night, I asked my father what he thought of the story. With both eyebrows and one corner of his mouth lifted upwards, his third glass of wine in hand, he launched into a sardonic monologue:

“Have you ever heard a story about anyone spotting a naked ghost? Think about it: there is no way a ghost could keep clothes on its body! Until somebody can explain to me why no one has ever seen a naked ghost, I’ll remain a skeptic. Show me some ghost butt cheeks, and then we’ll talk.” 

Amused and convinced by my father’s playful rant and the thought of a translucent ghost tush, I began to take my grandmother’s stories with several grains of salt. 


After traveling to Haiti to study voodoo rituals and Haitian spiritualism, esteemed African American novelist Zora Neale Hurston published Tell My Horse, an ethnographic account of the spiritual ceremonies she witnessed and the legends of supernatural events locals told her. Hurston relays the story of a young girl named Marie M., buried in 1909, who was spotted five years later loitering outside her home. Marie’s town became obsessed with this bizarre story and demanded an inspection of her coffin. As the story goes, the skeleton found inside was much too large for a little girl’s, its limbs contorted awkwardly against the sides of the box. In an even more confounding twist, the clothes Marie had been buried in were neatly folded and placed beside this mysteriously over-grown skeleton. Reports of the initial sighting of Marie did not clarify whether she had any clothes on. However, similar stories of deceased Haitians who were spotted years after their pronounced deaths do specify that the supposedly-deceased rovers were completely naked, butt cheeks included. 


In elementary school I was tasked with giving a presentation on Christopher Columbus. As I began relaying this to my grandmother on the phone, she cut me off. “But Marielle, you know Columbus raped your ancestors?” Young enough to feel scandalized by her use of the word “rape,” I said “Okay, Grandma,” and quickly wrapped up the phone call. Was this another item for my strange-Grandma-story cache? I really wasn’t sure anymore. 


On a hiking trip my father and I took in southern Virginia, he lectured me on the philosophical tradition of rationalism, a way of understanding the world through mathematical logic and deductive reasoning. The value of intellectual study over sensory experiences, he explained, set the groundwork for fundamental concepts of modern philosophy. I’m sure he went into great details about the specific influences of this philosophy, but at the time my focus was primarily on keeping my balance as I navigated the rocky path. 


Christopher Columbus’s first landing in the “New World” was in modern-day Haiti. The site where he and his crew established their first settlement, La Navidad, was on the property my grandmother now owns (or at least very near it—the maps Columbus’s crew made of the island are imperfect). My grandmother has been attempting to sell this property the past few years. When I asked if she advertised the historical significance of the land to buyers she responded curtly, “This is not a history Haitians are proud of.” 

Columbus claimed the island of Haiti for Spain, calling it “Hispaniola,” and thus marked the beginning of a long pattern of colonial violence on the island. The Spanish enslaved the first peoples, brutally working nearly the entire population to death in several decades. To maintain an economy dependent on coerced labor, the Spanish turned to chattel slavery. 

When the French took possession of the island in 1625, they renamed it Saint-Domingue and expanded the plantation economy, further crowding the island with ghosts. The colony became the site of some of the most devastating slave conditions in the Western hemisphere: over one million Africans died brutal deaths in the one hundred years of French colonial rule, while thousands more committed suicide, choosing self-inflicted death over an imposed state of living death. Chattel-slavery was, in the eyes of European colonists, a ‘rational’ system of economic transactions. Slaves were treated as possessions, their names and identities replaced by numbers branded onto their bodies. Slaves’ bodies did not belong to them, but to the plantation owners who determined how, when, and where they would work, eat, sleep, live, and die. 


Narratives about sub-human threats to human existence are among Hollywood’s most lucrative devices. When critics are asked to point to the origin of the zombie craze in America pop-culture, many cite Victor Halperin’s 1932 film White Zombie, the first feature-length zombie movie. White Zombie follows a voodoo priest who aims to possess a white woman and coerce her to carry out his nefarious plots. Though the voodoo priest is played by a Caucasian actor in line with Hollywood’s practice of whitewashing its representations of people of color, the exotification and demonization of Haitian culture preserves the film's moral: the inherent innocence of whiteness. 

Since White Zombie, American audiences have faced an onslaught of zombie horror in fiction, film, and TV. These Hollywood ‘zombie flicks’ might be better termed ‘survivor flicks.’ The zombies in these films usually serve not as characters, but as formulaic plot devices, tools that elevate the importance of the survivors’ lives. The threat of a zombie attack makes viewers invested in the continuation of the survivors’ narratives and the preservation of their bodies. Snarling, flesh-decayed zombies are shot routinely on screen. Killing these soulless creatures is constructed as a necessity, a practicality required for the survivors to endure. The clear divide between survivors and zombies establishes an unquestioned, moral hierarchy of bodies, a hierarchy that bleeds beyond the screen replicating the violence against bodies that Western stereotypes deem threatening.


Hollywood directors and critics fail to consider the origins of the zombie myth, as well as the particular context in which the myth was introduced to American audiences. The first report of the zombie legend is traced back to Haiti during French colonial rule. The story held that slaves who tried to take their own life would be caught in a space between life and death, their liminal corpus doomed to wander the island, unable to reclaim control of their bodies even through suicide. Various incarnations of the zombie myth emerged throughout Haitian history, eventually coalescing around the notion that zombies are the creations of witch doctors, who possess corpses to do their bidding often as field laborers or thieves, undead bodies bound by the demands of their possessors. 

Americans became acquainted with Haiti’s zombie lore during the US occupation of the island from 1915 to 1934. This occupation was a response to concerns of the expansion of German influence in the Western Hemisphere, but US politicians crafted a mission of imperial ‘benevolence’ to cloak this nationalist aim. They asserted that the marines were stationed on the island to stabilize a dangerous and backwards nation. The hollowness of this interest in Haitian stability is informed by the almost 60-year period not long before this occupation when the United States refused to acknowledge Haiti’s independence from France. As US leaders feared that the successful slave rebellion in Haiti might inspire insurrections in the states, they denied the existence of Haiti and its freed citizens until it became strategically useful. 

The US ‘stability’ efforts on the island included systematic efforts to destroy local voodoo traditions, as many of the poor Haitian citizens involved in voodoo practices were openly resistant to American intervention. Marines destroyed voodoo temples, sacred drums, and intimidated known voodoo priests and priestesses through threats of imprisonment. It was through this cultural destruction that the marines learned about Haitian spiritualism. They brought these stories back to the US, where they were then co-opted and cannibalized by American pop culture.


Just after the US occupation of Haiti ended, around the same time as White Zombie was released, Zora Neale Hurston published Tell My Horse. American critics who could not digest Hurston’s earnest discussion of supernatural events within a Western system of reasoning mocked the book, writing off Hurston as either gullible or a sensationalist.

Critics were troubled by Hurston’s claim to have encountered and photographed an “authentic zombie.” The photograph shows a woman in ragged clothing with an expression of confusion on her face. In describing the experience of interacting with this woman, Hurston writes: “The sight was dreadful. That blank face with the dead eyes. The eyelids were white all around the eyes as if they had been burned with acid…there was nothing you could say to her or get from her except by looking at her.” Critics argued that this zombie was merely a victim of ‘social’ death, speculating that she had lost her familial ties and was suffering from a psychological condition. While it is impossible to prove what caused this woman to lose her speech and control over her body, dismissing her suffering to discredit Hurston’s book—one of few ethnographic works about Voodoo culture at the time—amounts to a dismissal of an entire cultural belief system.

Critics of Tell My Horse did not consider the possibility that Hurston had intentionally evaded a neat rationality in search of something broader. In the few instances where she broaches on a scientific explanation of a supernatural event, she follows with an anecdote that undermines this logic. By way of illustration, Hurston suggests that zombies may not be a product of mysticism, but rather of a drug which destroys the parts of the brain that control speech and willpower; immediately following this explanation, however, Hurston recounts a popular legend about two child zombies who purportedly predicted the marriage of four sisters in a Haitian village. Within a year of this prediction, the four women were all married. As the premonitions of these child zombies cannot be explained by the brain-damaging zombie drug, Hurston dislodges the tidiness of her own explanation. By offering multiple, non-compatible narratives, Hurston challenges her readers to expand how we hold ideas and how many we hold at once. She presents a view of reality as multiplicitous, unbound by the singularity of logic. Hurston’s goal in Tell My Horse is not to explain or prove the powers of voodoo mysticism, but to destabilize logic that justifies the Western rejection of these beliefs. Yet the rejection of her work by American critics, a rejection in line with the US military’s efforts to terminate voodoo traditions, demonstrates how Western systems of power aim to squash unstable accounts of reality.


My father’s ghost-clothes dilemma, which still defines his skepticism towards the supernatural, deserves deeper scrutiny: it is a little too neat, too clever by half. It presumes ghosts have nakedness to cover up. But if a ghost is a spirit, wouldn’t it leave both its body, and by extension, its nudity behind? In letting go of steadfast, ghost-clothes logic, it becomes much more difficult to categorize away messy information, make dismissive sense of half-truths, and ignore strange-grandma tales and the untold stories lying beneath them.

Ghosts and zombies are two sides of the same supernatural coin: a ghost is a soul without a body, while a zombie is a body without a soul. In classifying ghosts and zombies as ‘unreal,’ Western logic assures that the severing of soul and body is impossible. The same logic that denies the possibility of ghosts and zombies too often trivializes the violence of slavery, which reduced African men, women, and children to possessable bodies––bodies caught in a space between life and death—whose souls were unrecognized by the masters of the prevailing economic order. Whether or not zombies and ghosts are real in a literal sense, the violence they represent is all too real, a violence too brutal, too unthinkable, too incomprehensible to capture through singular, historical frameworks. These supernatural metaphors allow for the erased history of the possession of bodies and dispossession of souls to be glimpsed in the interstices between fact and fiction, the real and the unreal, the living and the dead. 


I visited my grandmother this summer a few months after my grandfather died. She lost the love of her life, a man who meant the world to her and to my whole family. During this visit, she told me that while cooking one day, she heard a loud, pure whistle, a whistle she was sure belonged to my grandfather. Her eyes filled with tears and awe as she explained that this whistle was my grandfather’s spirit communicating with her, telling her he was at peace and will always love her. This story, like so many of my grandmother’s tales, captures a fragments of reality only visible in the liminal space between that which we call ‘real’ and that which we label ‘supernatural.’ 

“That’s astonishing, Grandma.” I replied, “I believe you.”

MARIELLE BURT B’19 is an anti-corporate ghost queer.