Subtitled “A Cultural History”, this enjoyable read sets out to understand the origin and the changing cultural meanings of the concept of the zombie in Western popular culture.
Luckhurst roots the zombie in American responses to Haiti — the first independent post-slavery state in the Caribbean, formed through a slave revolt. He draws a route through colonial fear of the black-led nation, which led to (literally) demonising cultural practices that drew on West African traditions, to the justification for the US’s occupation of Haiti in 1915, which saw a form of bonded labour reintroduced.
The “zombie” returned from older tales, and became associated with the shuffling labourer doing his master’s bidding — but also biting his master’s hand. Luckhurst recounts a story in US magazine Weird Tales of a slave ship captain who is bitten by a slave, and the unhealing wound drives him to kill himself.
A shift took place in the postwar (post-Hiroshima, post-Holocaust) period, when zombies became a mass threat to civilisation. Now the zombie has become medicalised and globalised — a result of pandemics that no longer shuffles but sprints.
Though drenched in the language of postcolonial theory (everything is “liminal”, “unstable” and “at the margins”), I got a lot from this study of how culture reflects and shapes traumatic social histories.
A quietly evocative film
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