Zombies, the Middle Passage, and the future of Detroit

Scott Beale (aka Flickr user “laughingsquid”)

For the teen crowd, nothing is hotter than vampires.  We all know that.  But for a slightly hipper crowd, zombies seem all the rage.  You have, of course, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  You have AMC’s TV show the Walking Dead, in addition to movies like 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, etc. etc. all of which seem to be aimed at a more hip or highbrow audience than Twilight or the Vampire Diaries.  Zombies have even gone academic: Daniel Drezner, professor of international relations at Tufts’s Fletcher School and one of the most popular poli sci bloggers, has a book called Theories of International Politics and Zombies which looks at how the major schools of international relations (realist, liberal, constructivist, neoconservative) would deal with a contagious, flesh-eating zombie outbreak.  In fact, his blog post that inspired the book paired with his summary of the book in Foreign Policy might be a decent “international relations for dummies”.  If you don’t know, for example, what exactly a neoconservative believes or a realist is, check those out, and if you do know, they’ll be even funnier.  The essays are full of great lines likes, “Neoconservatives would argue, zombies hate us for our freedom not to eat other humans’ brains.”

What I didn’t expect from zombies, however, is economic development:

About six months ago, Mark Siwak decided to save Detroit.

He didn’t have millions of dollars to pump into the crumbling metropolis; what he had was a unique idea. “I thought, What do we have around here? A lot of abandoned buildings, blight, neighborhoods that are completely devastated,” says the 40-year-old financial manager, who works in Detroit and lives in Royal Oak, Michigan. “I have a little interest in the zombie genre…. I thought, What can you do creatively with this land that doesn’t require a massive capital investment?What can you do that embraces what we have here?

The answer: Z World Detroit, a project to transform the city’s blight through the curative power of flesh-eating zombies.

Siwak and his friends want to build a theme park in an abandoned neighborhood and throw open the doors to international zombie-survivalist fans. Siwak thinks people will pay good money to get chased around in the dead of night by a pack of undead droolers.

What’s all this got to do with religion?  Well not everything I write here will be connected with religion, but many historic monsters are deeply intertwined with religious symbols and meanings.  Vampires hate crosses and holy water.  Werewolves were originally conceived as shape-shifting satanic witches.  Mummies, of course, are the product of elaborate Egyptian funerary rituals.   As far as I can tell, the vast majority of Turkish people believe in malicious djinns, and I imagine that holds true for much of the Muslim world.  Zombies are one of the most fascinating though.  The word “zombie”, though we associate it with Haitian Voodoo (at least, we did before Night of the Living Dead transformed zombies in the popular imagination), actually originates in either West Africa, where it was something along the lines of nzumbe or nzambi.  But this makes sense, because even the word Voodoo is derived from Vodun, the name for the animistic religions indigenous to  parts of coastal West Africa along the Blight of Benin.

A cute little girl in traditional Candomblé clothing taking part in a ritual//Flickr user galeria_miradas/miradas.com.br

If you stop and think about it, it’s pretty unbelievable: these traditions survived the Middle Passage between Africa and the New World and then survived through generations of slavery.  That anything could be handed down secretly for generations is pretty incredible.  Though I tend to avoid the term “syncretic“, Haiti Vodou wasn’t the only melding of Africa religious traditions and the slave owners’ Christianity: Umbanda, Quimbanda, and Candomblé in Brazil, Kumina in Jamaica, Obeah in the West Indies, Voodoo in Louisiana (distinct from the Haitian form), Winti in Suriname, Hoodoo and Rootwork in the American South, and Santería in Cuba.  These are varied practices, and range from things which are often dismissed as “mere superstition” (like Hoodoo), to esoteric cultic practice (like Vodun is in some places), to religious specialists who are consulted in addition to Christian priests and ministers (as Santería is in places), to independent religions with major followings (as the three separate Brazilian traditions are).  Pious  Christians in some places still, of course, will go see these non-Christian specialists for a “little help on the side”, and in other places these traditional practices have deeply influenced local Christian practices.  For reasons which I now forget, St. Barbara is commonly associated with various g-ds (Shango in Santeria, Iansa in Candomblé), and there are many self-identified Christian Churches that use some “syncretic” Afro-Carribean symbols, rituals, and practices (of course, the Christmas tree and the Easter bunny are both equally “syncretic”; they’re just not ever called that because they’ve been fully acculturated into American Christianity).  On a side note, Islam, too, survived Middle Passage, but interestingly, apparently, only as an individual practice and not, to my knowledge, ever as a communal one.  This is likely largely a matter of geography: most of the Muslims were from around Senegambia and most slaves were from further south.  But there are several fascinating cases of Muslim slaves who remained Muslims (the Biali Document is probably the most famous case, though there are several others worth looking at; by some counts, maybe half a dozen Muslims fought in the American War of Independence).

But back to the zombies (I know this long and meandering.  I’m going to get the hang of this blogging thing, I swear).  Before they wanted to eat brains (that is, before Hollywood), zombies preformed useful tasks at the behest of masters.  And they were real.  The most famous case is Clairvius Narcisse.  The Wikipedia is a little disappointing and I can’t find a better version of his story ungated online.  This one is okay, but not the most reliable source.  But let me just play you the hits.  In 1962, Narcisse dies at a hospital.  He is buried in the graveyard.  In 1980, he bumps into his sister in a marketplace.  As best people can figure out, here’s what happened.  Narcisse was poisoned in a way that made him completely unresponsive (according to ethnobotanist Wade Davis, probably with a powdered that contained various nerotoxins including puffer fish and a poisonous toad).  In the tropics, where things rot quickly, bodies are traditionally buried without much delay.  Narcisse said he remembered being in the hospital, remembered hearing people talk but was unable to respond.  He said he remember the nail going into his coffin and that’s what gave him the scar on his forehead.  He was dug up, set to work on a bokor‘s (sorceror’s) farm, where he was given a paste made from datura (Jimson Weed) that had both hallucinogenic and amnesic effects and leads to serious suggestibility (datura is actually what causes “zombification”; the puffer fish only fakes death).  After two years of work, the bokor died and Narcisse simply walked away.  Clairvius Narcisse isn’t the only documented survivor of “zombification” (though there aren’t that many) but he’s the best documented.  Apparently, long term exposure to datura can lead to changes in the brain, and even when freed, apparently many of the former-zombies are seriously brain damaged.  For more on real zombies, probably the best place to start is Wade Davis, his book The Serpent and the Rainbow, and his critics (his work has received a lot of criticism).  Most of the discussion of Davis’s work unfortunately focuses on the biological aspects of this issue, rather than on the striking fact: holy crap, you mean (non-flesh eating) zombies are real?

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  1. […] apparently existing in the same intellectual, zombie-tinged ether as I do, Jeremey Freese at scatterplot noted that the American Sociological Association’s logo for […]



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