Response to “I Walked with a Zombie”

A response to “I Walked with a Zombie,” by Hamilton Morris, in Harper’s Magazine, November 2011)
(a shorter version of this letter appeared in Harper’s December 2011 issue)

Dear Editors:

I was amused to read Hamilton Morris’ picaresque version of the apparently eternal and endlessly fascinating white-man-among-black-zombies story. What fascinates me is how many quite funny words (in this case) a writer can string together about a subject he knows nothing about, and can find nothing and no one to inform him about. Morris’s two main sources who might be considered to have any credibility are voodoo priest Max Beauvoir and “the world-renowned ethnobotanist” Wade Davis, as Morris describes him, who once looked for the so-called zombie powder in Haiti, where the idea of the zombie is most powerful, and found a few interesting scientific things about somniferous medicines.

Davis in the Morris piece is treated like the eminence grise of zombie science, which he may well be, but that’s not saying much. As Morris writes of Davis’ work: “He was denounced for drawing sensationalistic attention to an unflattering and improbable phenomenon in a country plagued by misfortune.” Yah. Of course Morris himself happens to be Vice magazine’s pharmacopeia correspondent – how the late Hunter Thompson would have relished that title – and is at work on a book about mushrooms, so we must take his words with a grain of salt, about which grain of salt, more later.

Like Morris in this article, Davis operated in Haiti under the guidance of Max Beauvoir, a well-known Port-au-Prince area voodoo priest, or houngan, who’s been fooling the white man for decades. Beauvoir – I am not saying this for the first time – is also a notorious Duvalierist snake-oil salesman and houngan to tourists and dignitaries like Bill Clinton. The first time I met Beauvoir he told me with a straight face that he could cure AIDS (the cure cost a lot, payable to Beauvoir). Unlike other voodoo that’s practiced in Haiti and among Haitians in the diaspora, Beauvoir’s ceremonies (as described; I would never go to one) are luxurious affairs with high costumes and lots of animal sacrifice. In a normal voodoo ceremony that does not take place during the most important days of the celebratory calendar, the fixings are poor — coffee and raw rum, sometimes sweets, corn meal soup. It’s a lucky congregation that has a chicken to spare, much less a pig or a goat, as food for the gods.

At the time he told me he could cure AIDS, Beauvoir also made the explicit point that there were many things the white man’s medicine could not do, including curing AIDS and making zombies. So true, so true. Yet this does not stop Hamilton Morris from becoming one in a long line of white men to try to make a zombie – admittedly, he only gets to the point of trying to zombify himself and a dying goat kid, but why quibble. By the way, if countryside Haitians seem exotic to Morris, imagine how Morris seems to them: a skinny little long-haired pale white guy in funny clothes.

Now I cannot argue with the undoubted humor quotient in Morris’s article. I found it hilarious in many ways, especially the writer’s unfathomable innocence and willingness to taken for a ride, and I believe all the humor was intentional. Morris is another white man who can be happily suckered out of his money over and over by smart and cynical Haitians playing on the white man’s willful incomprehension of Haiti and on the white man’s incredible naiveté and his misunderstanding of what money is worth. Five hundred dollars is the equivalent, in the Haitian country circles where Morris pursues his zombies, to, say, $250,000 in Manhattan – that is to say, it’s more than a year’s income. So when Morris pays that for an obviously bogus powder, the voodoo priest is laughing and ecstatic. And by the way, Hamilton, your guide is in on the whole farcical show, and he’s taking a cut of your money from the priest.

On to more serious things. Haiti is the birthplace of the true zombie, the walking dead – as opposed to the pure African version of the stolen (and bottled) soul. But this is not something Morris thinks about. Morris says that “if I’m going to approach this investigation as an anthropologist, I must embrace departures from the written history, unfetter my mind from the Procrustean bed of Americo-normative zombism.” I believe by this he means he has to get free of the usual ideas we have here about zombies. But he never does. Morris shows no sign of having read the serious people (many of them anthropologists) who have written about Haitian voodoo, and he seems to know nothing about the historical and psychological background of what he calls “zombism.”

I myself am something of a zombist, and speaking as your zombist (to paraphrase the drug connoisseur Thompson), I can safely say that, while there may be powders or syrups or fugu-fish bladders that have been used to induce a dead-seeming state in some people, the reason the figure of the zombie is so powerful in Haiti is Haitian history, and more specifically the concentration-camp culture of the slave plantation. The sugar industry as run by the French planters during the time of the Haitian colony was the most lucrative slave operation in the world, and Haiti, France’s most valuable territorial holding. Not surprisingly, this came at the expense of the slaves, many of them African-born.

One of the first things the Haitian slaves learned in circumstances of total dependence on the slavemaster was how to use poison for suicide. If you died, in Haitian belief, you returned to lan guinee, the voodoo name for Africa, and to freedom. (You also stole a valuable piece of property (yourself), from your master, so that suicide was an act of defiant thievery.) Death was better than slavery for many – the suicide rate among Haitian slaves was very high. It was bad to be a slave. Worse would be to die and discover that, rather than returning to Africa, you continued to be enslaved as a dead person, run by a master, doing his bidding – and this is the fear that created the “Americo-normative” zombie, as we know him.

After Haitians cast off the French empire in their singular and successful slave revolution in 1804, fear of re-enslavement continued throughout the former colony. Indeed, for economic reasons, several post-revolutionary Haitian leaders came within centimeters of reimposing the system – at the time the world did not yet have many efficient alternatives to the slave-powered economy. Thus the fear of zombification, which is in its historical context the fear of re-enslavement, persisted. No one wanted to be dead, consciousness-less, and working for free for a master.

The only escape for the zombie, according to the legend, was to consume salt – a zombie’s master had to make sure the creature’s food was absolutely bland and dull. If a zombie tasted salt, the scales of death would fall from his eyes and he would return to life, and to freedom. Haitians who don’t get enough to eat naturally equate tasty food with freedom. The liberation theologians’ literacy campaign in Haiti, back in the 1980s, was called Goute Sel, or A Taste of Salt. The idea being that reading and writing would help Haitians escape from political and economic impotence and servitude.

In everyday life in Haiti today, the zombie is a marginal figure, more current in provincial life than in the cities. Many, many people who are said or thought to be zombies are actually people with unrecognized, untreated, and often severe mental illnesses, including psychosis. There are also may be immature and psychologically labile individuals whom a clever and manipulative priest within the darker side of the voodoo community might be able to persuade that they’ve become zombies. In a recent Haitian movie, a comedy called Les Amours d’un Zombie (The Loves of a Zombie), a charming zombie becomes famous in Haiti and runs for president. Haitians of the kind who make movies find the zombie to be, still, a powerful figure, as well as a cultural anomaly that helps them understand Haiti’s peculiar place in the world, a place where there are still masters (before and especially since the earthquake, many of them white), and still a huge black population suffering in misery.

Hamilton Morris, secure in his whiteness, is probably the only person in the world who has ever really wanted to become a zombie. But he failed, because someone who is free, politically, individually, economically, can never be a zombie. Even if, like Morris, he pays good money and is willing to eat the powders, willing to dine on fried fugu fish.