Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-Whites: The Race and Religion of Zombies

Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-Whites: The Race and Religion of Zombies

Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 85, Number 2, Spring 2012
pages 457-486
DOI: 10.1353/anq.2012.0021

Elizabeth McAlister, Associate Professor of Religion, African American Studies and American Studies
Wesleyan University

The first decade of the new millennium saw renewed interest in popular culture featuring zombies. This essay shows that a comparative analysis of nightmares can be a productive method for analyzing salient themes in the imaginative products and practices of cultures in close contact. It is argued that zombies, as the first modern monster, are embedded in a set of deeply symbolic structures that are a matter of religious thought. The author draws from her ethnographic work in Haiti to argue that the zonbi is at once part of the mystical arts that developed there since the colonial period, and comprises a form of mythmaking that represents, responds to, and mystifies the fear of slavery, collusion with it, and rebellion against it. In turn, some elements of the Haitian zonbi figure can be found in patterns that haunt recent American zombie films. Zombies in these films are read as figures in a parable about whiteness and death-dealing consumption. This essay suggests that the messianic mood surrounding the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama was consistent with a pattern in zombie films since the 1960s where many zombie-killing heroes are figured as black American males. Zombies are used in both ethno-graphic and film contexts to think through the conditions of embodiment, the boundaries between life and death, repression and freedom, and the racialized ways in which humans consume other humans.

Read or purchase the article here.

Tags: , , ,