Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is best classified as a part of the horror genre. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the main characters are obligated to remove any skels that have survived. Whitehead uses terms to classify the fictional world he writes about while making it obvious enough to those of us that may not be familiar with the zombie genre.
Representation of the undead is often depicted in Westernized zombie-tropes, yet the genre is greatly influenced by Afro-Carribean literary traditions. The trope of zombies as representative of “undead” humans appear to have been the result of enslaved Africans expressing their fear of losing their native culture.
The history of “zombies” is far from the Western image of popular culture. According to the University of Michigan, the idea of zombies today from Haitian culture and religious practices. Religious diffusion resulted from the various belief systems brought from enslaved people via the slave trade. Vodou, commonly misnamed as voodoo, is one of the most popular religious traditions still widely celebrated on this island. The notion of a zombie comes from the belief that one’s soul can be subject to stay in this world, not being able to unite with ancestors until the gods grant permission. Becoming a Zonbi is metaphorical for a life that will be difficult and dangerous, so this figure becomes something that is feared. Given the extreme hardships and brutality that enslaved Africans faced, Vodou was a means of explaining the world.
Zombies have become symbolic of humans living in a society that fails to recognize them as humans, and enslaved people were arguably treated as less than human. Although Whitehead writes a novel that is set in a very different world from ours, there are a few times where he could be suggesting that zombies are metaphorical of enslaved African people. In the beginning of the novel he describes the post-apocalyptic society: “untold Americans still walked the great out there, beyond order’s embrace, like slaves who didn’t know they’d been emancipated.” (48) It is unclear who Colson’s subject is that he writes about here, but this sentiment reminds me of the expression the fear in Vodou that Haitians had towards becoming a zonbi. Becoming a zonbi meant a life of hardships, so perhaps becoming enslaved is practically becoming undead. One can only imagine the fear that Africans may have felt when stripped from their homeland and forced into a society that treated them less than human. Belief systems became one of the few stabilities of life, Vodou’s influence reaching beyond Haitian mythology. In Zone One, religion is described as, “a taboo subject in former times, but now impromptu proselytizing sessions broke out…” (49) Even if an individual’s life was limited by slavery, religious beliefs seem to have remained strong for many people through the toughest times. Religion was influential in the forming of Haitian culture and Vodou, as evidenced by its current presence in film and novels. Zonbi or zombies are fictional representation of fear, but their significance to people are very real.
Sources: n.a. “Haiti and the Truth About Zombies.” University of Michigan, www.umich.edu/~uncanny/zombies.html. Accessed 21 November 2019.