Shape without Form: on Halloween, Zombies, Slavery and Freedom

By Angelo Martins Junior

Versão em Português, aqui


As soon as October arrives, the shelves of supermarkets and shops in many countries across the globe start to fill with Halloween artefacts, candies and costumes to meet the high demand from those organising events and parties on the 31st of the month. Hallowing traditions have pagan roots, which shaped ancient Celtic harvest festivals that were later ‘Christianised’ by the early Church as the evening (‘All Hallows’ eve’) before the ‘All Saints’ day’. It is a celebration to remember the dead, those who are no longer among us. On a mythic level, it is a moment to remind us that the borders between the living and the dead (the past and the present) are blurred. It is when the presence of the dead (past) is reasserted in the present moment, highlighting the fact that life is a continuum, made of connections, ambivalences and paradoxes, and not of dichotomies such as present/past, living/dead, material/immaterial, object/subject. These connections and ambivalences are also central to historical narratives of one of Halloween’s main contemporary subjects: the Zombie.

In popular fiction, a Zombie is represented as a corpse reanimated and transformed into a creature capable of movement but not of rational thought, which feeds on human flesh. As such, it is a staple Hollywood character and popular costume figure amongst Halloween revellers in Europe. Although, the word ‘Zombi’ is West African in origin, having its roots in the Kimbundu words nzambi (god) and nzumbi, which makes an allusion to spiritual entities (soul, ghost, spectrums, sprites). According to Professor of English Amy Wilentz, the modern concept of Zombie has its roots in traditions brought to Haiti by enslaved Africans, and their subsequent experiences in the New World. In old African religious beliefs, Zombies are dead people physically revived by witchcraft, and they remain under the control, as a personal slave, of those who revived them and stole their souls. This idea takes particular features when mixed with the pain of Haitian slavery.

Under the brutal and coldblooded French slave regime in Haiti, death was for many enslaved people the only way to ‘escape’ the hunger, extreme overwork and cruel discipline of the plantation. Death was also regarded as a way to return to Africa, or lan guinée (Guinea, or West Africa), which also means “heaven” in Hatian Creole. In this sense, suicide was, paradoxically, one of the ways that enslaved people could reclaim control over his or her own body and ‘free themselves’.

Being then a fairly frequent path taken by slaves, who were handy with poisons and powders, suicide was an economic problem for the slave masters. It deprived the master not only of a slave’s service, but also of his or her living person, which was the master’s property. In order to control the enslaved, traditional Voodoo beliefs and the fear of becoming a Zombie were worked as way to try to prevent suicide. Slave drivers on the plantations, who were usually slaves themselves and sometimes Voodoo priests, used the fear of zombification to discourage slaves from committing suicide. In traditional Voodoo belief, in order to get back to lan guinée, one must be transported there by Baron Samedi, the lord (god) of the cemetery. If a person dissatisfied or offended the Baron in some way, including by committing suicide, the god would not allow that person, upon their death, to reach guineé. The person then became a zombie, a slave forever, someone who forced to do the bidding of their master for all eternity.

Yet, despite functioning as a form of ‘control’ through fear, spirituality was also a way for the enslaved to try to protect and practise freedom within the extreme constraints of slavery. In Brazil, Zombie (‘Zumbi’) means spirit that wanders the earth tormenting the living. Yet, the Zombie belief in Brazil played a role in the story of one of the most popular historical figures in the fight against colonial slavery, Zumbi dos Palmares. Zumbi is considered a great symbol of resistance and struggle against slavery in Brazilian history. As a leader of Quilombo dos Palmares, he fought for freedom of worship, religion and practice of African culture in Colonial Brazil. “Quilombo” was a community organised by fugitive slaves in Colonial Brazil. Such communities were located in inaccessible areas in order to hide and protect their populations. Palmares was founded in early 1600’s by enslaved Africans escaping from the Portuguese sugar plantations. Being the greatest leader of Quilombo dos Palmares in the late 17th century, Zumbi (who had previously being baptised as Francisco) adopted the name of Zumbi (the immortal spirit/warrior that wanders around late in the night) after planning a series of successful guerrilla strategies, which included sudden assaults on plantations to free slaves and secure arms, ammunition and supplies for further attacks. The name was connected to the belief that he had been granted immortality by his gods, who supposedly ‘shielded his body’, giving him great power over his enemies. Such spiritual beliefs turned him into a mythic hero, inspiring his followers with the courage to practise freedom and battle against slavery.

Several Portuguese and Dutch slave-hunting expeditions attempted to destroy Quilombo dos Palmares, since it threatened the functionality and productivity of the plantation system. Zumbi resisted the attacks for years, which further strengthened the myth of his immortality. The belief that Zumbi enjoyed spiritual protection was extremely important in marshalling on-going resistance against slave-hunters. When the colonial administration finally succeeded in invading Palmares and killing their leader in 1694, they chopped off his head and publically displayed it on the streets in order to prove to everyone that he was dead, and was not immortal. One of the administrators of that region, Caetano Melo de Castro, wrote to the Portuguese King, on the occasion:

“I ordered that they put his head on a pole in the most public place of this square, to satisfy those who felt offended by him and to frighten the blacks who superstitiously thought Zumbi was immortal, so that they understood that this company had finished all with the Palmares.”

Thus, these two different examples of Zombie beliefs, in colonial Haiti and Brazil, have some historical connections with our colonial past and might help us to think of how contemporary cultural/religious celebrations and festivals might also carry historical narratives in which spirituality mattered, albeit in ambivalent ways; it was crucial to how slavery was organized, negotiated and ‘resisted’. Spirituality played an important role as a controlling mechanism, through fear, on those who might otherwise think of ‘acting against the rules’ (the enslaved Haitian), and as mechanism that helped people move closer to ‘freedom’ by giving them hope and a sense of protection (Zumbi dos Palmares). The connections, ambivalences and paradoxes embedded in both Halloween traditions and Zombie spiritual beliefs may be manifested in different contexts, but can perhaps provide interesting insights into the history of transatlantic slavery and the formation of the contemporary world. In terms of history, they allow us to grasp something of the contradictory and paradoxical qualities that co-constituted bondspeople’s lives beyond dichotomies such as ‘properties/subjects’, ‘accommodation/resistance’, ‘personal/political’, ‘material/symbolic’. Meanwhile, Halloween traditions could enable us to reflect on our contemporary social, economic, cultural and political life as a historical continuum, full of contradictions and ambivalences, which are continuously produced in connection with the past.

In this sense, Halloween (along with other cultural and religious celebrations) could work as a lens to analyse how our global mobile present is shaped and constructed in connection to the global legacies of the colonial past. It is important, for instance, to understand the contradictory qualities of transatlantic slaves’ efforts to move closer to freedom, and the techniques employed by slave owners and by the state to prevent it. By doing so, we can reflect on the techniques used by contemporary states to control and prevent (i.e passports, patrols, fences, walls, checkpoints, carrier sanctions) the unwanted movement of particular populations; and how ‘unwanted groups’ devise moves and tactics to circumnavigate these heavy constraints on their freedom. Like those who escaped slavery historically, many refugees and migrants today risk their lives taking difficult journeys, often seeking the assistance and protection of smugglers. In this context, spirituality might also be a way in which some migrants find the courage and the hope to move through borders and everyday obstacles to get closer to the possibility of one day achieving the ‘heaven’ of a visa application granted.


3 thoughts on “Shape without Form: on Halloween, Zombies, Slavery and Freedom

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