The Sub-Subaltern Monster: Imperialist Hegemony and the Cinematic Voodoo Zombie
Bishop, Kyle, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)
With the popular success of the first talkie horror films, Hollywood of the 1930s was anxious to find the next big-screen monster. Surprisingly, the creative efforts of filmmakers lead them not to the usual mythologies of Europe but rather to exotic Caribbean travel literature. Sensational books like William B. Seabrook's The Magic Island of 1929 had begun to draw the American public's attention away from the Old World and toward the New, specifically the island of Haiti. According to Seabrook and other ethnographers, powerful voodoo priests, commanding the knowledge of African mysticism and ritual, were able to kill their enemies and bring them back from the dead as mindless servants. This violation of the taboos of death peaked people's interest in a previously unknown horror: the zombie. It did not take long for this voodoo-based monstrosity to make the jump from folklore to popular entertainment, and the first true zombie movie arrived in 1932: Victor Halperin's White Zombie. Based on the stylistic model of Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), this movie presents audiences with the exoticism of the Caribbean, the fear of domination and subversion, and the perpetuation of the imperialist model of cultural and racial hegemony.
White Zombie uses the exotic setting of post-colonial Haiti to entrance eager viewers while accentuating the prevailing stereotypes of the "backwards" natives and western imperialist superiority. In fact, the film emulates the sociopolitical theories and criticisms of Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and Edward Said, emphasizing a type of Hegelian master/slave dialectic as well as the dominance of one culture (embodied in the voodoo master) over another (that of the zombie slaves). However, casting the native in the position of power over his peers allows a film like White Zombie to present a more complicated view of a postcolonial society, one in which the western model of colonial imperialism has been adopted by the new nation's cultural apparatus. In this light, the film may also be critiqued as cultural discourse through the theoretical lens of Gayatri Spivak, for the new "sub-subaltern" class of the zombie is literally silent, enslaved, and unable to connect with the dominant culture through any liminal space of discourse.
For a western white audience, the real threat and source of terror in these films are not the political vagaries of a postcolonial nation or the plights of the enslaved native zombies, but rather the risk that the white protagonists might become zombies themselves. In other words, the true horror in these movies lies in the prospect of a westerner becoming dominated, subjugated, and effectively "colonized" by a native pagan. This new fear-one larger than merely death itself-allowed the voodoo zombie to challenge the pantheon of cinematic monsters from Europe, becoming the first thoroughly postcolonial creature from the New World to appear in popular horror movies.1 Yet in spite of recent critical acclaim from film scholars like Gary D. Rhodes, White Zombie is a fundamentally negative portrayal of race differences and class struggle; the movie ultimately re-presents negative stereotypes of the native by propagating the imperialist paradigms of the West.
Historical Context and the Zombie Paradigm
As I have discussed at length elsewhere (Bishop 2006), the zombie is a unique Hollywood monster inasmuch as it originated in the folkloric and ritual practices of the New World, specifically in the Republic of Haiti. Because of this distinctive etymology, one must first consider the historical, political, and cultural environment that produced the zombie before making a detailed critique of a film like White Zombie. As a former colonial establishment, Haiti is a complex land of synthesis and hybridity, a liminal space where western Christianity fused (albeit irregularly) with ancient African ritual and mysticism. The resulting religious system came to be known in the West as voodoo? …