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American Zombielore: Voodoo, Cinema, and the Undeath of Race


This dissertation undertakes a close examination of zombielore in the United States from the early nineteenth century through the 1940s. While many other scholars have engaged with the history and material of zombielore, relatively few have deeply considered the issues of race, rebellion, and revolution at work in such folklore. Born during the Haitian Revolution and brought to Southern plantations by French refugees, early zombielore reflected a fear that "Black magic" could and would be used against white Americans in the struggle for Black liberation. Ethnographic explorations of Haiti, beginning after the U.S. Civil War and continuing through the U.S. military occupation of Haiti (1915-1934), exacerbated popular fascination with the idea of an "authentic monster" and affirmed racist ideology about the dangers of racial integration. Upon their translation to film, Voodoo-zombie narratives often served to reconcile white-guilt over slavery with ongoing racism against African Americans. Exploring the social contingencies and historical vicissitudes that have shaped zombielore, my research is premised on archival studies of folklore and film, and includes close-text analysis of primary materials to argue that the zombie figure in American culture is not only historically racialized, but operates as a symbol of postcolonial memory. Divided into sections on Authenticity and Memory, the dissertation explores the historical development of the zombie figure through the lenses of folkloric and anthropological discourse, postcolonial Gothic literary theory, film analysis, and theories of memory. The history of zombielore illustrates how the zombie gets reanimated and rearticulated at moments of significant social upheaval and racial conflict associated with the end of slavery; with each successive transformation, the zombie accumulates additional connotations that layer upon previous ones. I argue that the American zombie has always been a palimpsest of postcolonial memory, so the idea that there's any one 'authentic monster' -- in Haiti, in Africa, or the U.S. -- ignores how the figure has been constructed not in any one of these places, but between them. Rather than taking a single disciplinary approach, my research brings together theories from Folklore and Film Studies to demonstrate what each disciplinary perspective reveals in light of the other. Unlike other zombie scholarship, this interdisciplinary approach illuminates how the figure has been employed by both dominant and oppressed groups, leading to a theorization of "undeath" as a mnemonic that works in the service of postcolonial imagination. I argue that as our society moves into an increasingly multicultural age, the zombie comes to symbolize a past that refuses to die, or to stay dead.

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