The Man Who Brought Zombies to America

Roger Luckhurst

Dover Press has reissued William Seabrook’s 1934 memoir Asylum, an account of his self-committal to a mental hospital in an attempt to cure his chronic alcoholism. Seabrook, who committed suicide in 1945, is probably most famous now for introducing the zombie to American popular culture in 1929, but he was also a bestselling journalist, travel writer, pulp anthropologist, Great War veteran, primitivist, sadomasochist, occultist, and fellow traveller among the Modernists in New York, London and Paris.

He published photographs in the Surrealist journal Documents, edited by Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris, and a short story or two, but was mainly known for his self-mythologising travel books and disarming memoirs. In No Hiding Place (1942) he psychoanalysed his penchant for ‘putting chains on ladies’. He paid Man Ray to photograph Lee Miller in masochistic poses. Seabrook’s second wife, the novelist Marjorie Worthington, later discussed his kinks in The Strange World of Willie Seabrook.

Intimately connected with his sadomasochism was a lifelong interest in the occult. Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today (1942) included an account of his friendship with Aleister Crowley. In 1919, Crowley visited Seabrook for a week of ritual experiment at his farm in upstate New York. They communicated solely by various inflections of the magic word ‘Wow’.

Seabrook’s book on witchcraft was cast in the rhetoric of the sceptical researcher, looking for proof in an open spirit of inquiry but bewildered at the extent of credulity. London, he said, ‘houses more strange cults, secret societies, devil’s altars, professional “Sorcerers” and charlatans than any other metropolitan area on Earth.’ He repeated stories of sympathetic magic and spoke of attending black masses in London (‘rather a bore unless one gets a kick out of blasphemy’). At the start of the Second World War, Seabrook was the subject of a photo-story in Life magazine when he hosted a magical ceremony to issue a hex on Hitler.

In 1924, Seabrook travelled to the Middle East and wrote Adventures in Arabia. In 1931, he went to the French colonies in West Africa to join a ‘cannibal’ cult. (He may have disdained magic in the West, but he was convinced that witchcraft exercised power in ‘savage’ societies.) He failed, blaming the French colonial administration for policing the natives too obsessively. Back in Paris, he bribed the morgue to give him a limb from a recent corpse, which he cooked and ate: not bad, he reported, a bit like veal.

In 1929, he published The Magic Island, an account of a trip to Haiti in which he pursued his usual interests: initiation into ‘native’ rituals, drinking blood, feeling the authentic power of the savage gods. Chapter 13 was entitled ‘Dead Men Working in Cane Fields’. The Creole word zombi had appeared in US writing since the 1880s, but Seabrook took the credit for Americanising the term:

The zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life. People who have the power to do this go to a fresh grave, dig up the body before it has had time to rot, galvanise it into movement, and then make of it a servant or slave, occasionally for the commission of some crime, more often simply as a drudge around the habitation or the farm, setting it dull heavy tasks, and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens.

Seabrook was astounded when his informant told him that there were zombies at work in the plantations of the Haitian-American Sugar Corporation. ‘I did see these “walking dead men”,’ Seabrook writes, ‘and I did, in a sense, believe in them and pitied them.’ Finding three ‘dead’ Haitians at work, he experiences ‘mental panic’, only to decide that they are ‘nothing but poor ordinary demented human beings, idiots, forced to toil in the fields’. The American occupiers were reinstating plantations and forcing peasants back to work in them in the name of modernity.

The Magic Island was a direct influence on White Zombie, the 1932 film that began the career of the category of the undead that now dominates contemporary horror.