William Seabrook goes searching for Haitian zombies

A Haitian zombie, as photographed by Seabrook

Before he decided to travel to Haiti to study zombies, journalist and occult writer William Buehler Seabrook was already well established within the literary circles of the Lost Generation-- the name given to those who came of age during the World War-- which included the likes of Hemingway, Steinbeck and Faulkner. After beginning his career as a reporter in Augusta, he became enamored with the occult after Aleister Crowley spent a week at his Georgia farm. It was Haitian voodoo that fascinated Seabrook the most and his book The Magic Island was largely responsible for introducing the zombie to American audiences.

If not for Seabrook, the "Godfather of the Zombies", we probably wouldn't know anything about these undead beings. In other words, if you watch The Walking Dead, you owe a debt of gratitude to William Buehler Seabrook.

In 1928 Seabrook wrote of his travels to Haiti, and of his friendship with Constant Polynice, a Haitian farmer who lived in the isolated mountains of La Gonave, across the bay from Port-au-Prince. It was Polynice who told the writer about zombies-- a creature few outside the West Indies had ever heard of before.
Seabrook described the zombie as a soulless human corpse, still dead but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life-- a dead body made to walk and move as it were alive. Seabrook, who had never heard of such a thing, was immediately obsessed.

Polynice explained that people who have the power to animate the dead go to a fresh grave, dig up the body before it has had a chance to decay, and make of it a servant, slave or beast of burden. Occasionally, the farmer said, a zombie is created in order to commit a crime. When Seabrook said he wanted to learn all there was to learn about this superstition, Polynice grew defensive.

"Superstition, Mr. Seabrook? But I assure you that this in not a matter of superstition. Alas, these things-- and other evil practices connected with the dead-- exist. They exist to an extent that you whites do not dream of!" retorted the farmer.

"At this moment, in the moonlight, there are zombies working on this island, less than two hours ride from my own habitation. If you will ride with me tomorrow night, I will show you the dead men working in the canefields."

True to his word, Polynice took Seabrook to the canefields, but it was not during the night at all, but broad daylight. As they passed across the Plaine Mapou, the farmer reined in his horse and pointed toward a terraced slope. Four laborers-- three men and a woman-- were chopping cotton stalks with machetes. Polynice instructed Seabrook to wait for him. "I think it is Lamercie with the zombies," he said, approaching the terrace alone. A short while later Polynice waved and Seabrook followed.

"My first impression of the three supposed zombies, who continued dumbly at work, was that there was an indefinable something unnatural and strange," Seabrook later wrote. "They were plodding like brutes, like automatons. Without stooping down I could not fully see their faces, which were bent, expressionless, over their work."

Polynice tapped one of the zombies on the shoulder and motioned for him to get up. Like a trained animal he obeyed. "And what I saw then," wrote Seabrook, "came as a rather sickening shock. The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were, in truth, like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocuses, unseeing."

According to Seabrook, the zombie he encountered reminded him of a dog he had once seen at a laboratory at Columbia University. Its entire front brain had been removed as an experiment, and Seabrook said that its eyes were the same as the zombie's. Seabrook reached out and grabbed the hand of the zombie; it was warm. He attempted to speak to the zombie but the man just stared vacantly. At this, Lamercie came over and shooed the writer away. Seabrook believed that Lamercie was merely trying to protect her "slave" from falling under Seabrook's influence-- a zombie, explained Constant Polynice, can only have one keeper.

On the horse ride home, Polynice said, "Mr. Seabrook, I respect your distrust of what you call superstition and your desire to find the truth, but if what you were saying now were the whole truth, how could it be that over and over again people have stood by and seen their own relatives buried, and have months or years afterward found their relatives working as zombies?"

Seabrook was at a loss for words-- there was, it seemed, no logical explanation.