Haiti, Voodoo, and Zombies

It was perhaps inevitable that the Haitian earthquake would stoke interest in voodoo and zombies.  As Jeffrey MacDonald recently reported, this is indeed the case:

In the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, the country’s chief Voodoo priest reportedly warned that burying victims in mass graves “is not respecting the dignity of these people.”  Some news reports tried to put his remarks in context by referring to the Haitian Voodoo tradition of believing in zombies.

For additional context, MacDonald interviewed Claudine Michel, Professor of Black Studies at UC-Santa Barbara.  Michel is a Haitian native and voodoo practitioner.  She also edits the Journal of Haitian Studies.

Given this lively mix, one might have hoped that the interview would shed much needed light on the perennial problem of zombies, which just won’t go away.  Although MacDonald begins by asking “What is a zombie,” Michel’s edited answer does little to clarify a question that has been vexing filmmakers since 1978, when George Romero first treated the issue in “Dawn of the Dead.”

Because the interview didn’t really answer my questions about zombies, I dug a bit and discovered that Professor Michel has edited a volume,  Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers, which looks quite interesting.  One of the reviewers notes that “Les invisibles are the powers that have sustained Haitians through centuries of exploitation, impoverishment, and terror.  This collection of essays by leading scholars has the great merit of showing how Vodou works as a healing force that thoroughly penetrates Haitian culture and social life.”

Haiti has a fascinating history that goes far beyond the usual story of dislocation and dysfunction.  Because this history is largely a story of power and powerlessness, one might expect that Haitian religious practices (i.e., voodoo) are specifically tailored to address these issues.  Voodoo, in other words, may provide Haitians with some sense of control in an otherwise bewildering environment.  After I have had a chance to read some of the essays in this volume, I’ll report back on this topic.

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