On Tuesday, March 29th, Roger Luckhurst--professor at Birkbeck University and author of Zombies: A Cultural History--will be giving a talk for us entitled "The Strange Case of William Seabrook: Traveler, Pervert, Occultist, Drunk, and the man who brought the Zombie to America." Below is a guest post by Dr Luckhurst in which you will learn more about this fascinating man; you can find out more about the lecture--and buy tickets!--here. Hope very much to see you there!
Remembering Willie Seabrook
The extraordinary adventurer and travel writer William Seabrook managed to be a Greenwich Village bohemian in the 1910s, a Jazz Age primitivist who danced on the tables of Harlem and Paris clubs in the 1920s, and a wealthy Westchester celebrity by the late 1930s.
In between, Seabrook tramped through Europe as a bum for a year and was an early American volunteer in the Great War, invalided out as an ambulance driver by chlorine gas poisoning at Verdun. He travelled to exotic locales in Africa, Arabia and the Caribbean, and wrote famous books about each. He lived in Paris and on the French Rivera amongst Modernist exiles, next door to Thomas Mann and Aldous Huxley. Man Ray and Gertrude Stein talk about him in their autobiographies. He inspired the French Surrealists, Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille. He knew everyone.
And he has been largely forgotten by everyone since he died in 1945. He’s worth remembering, though, not just for his bizarre life, but for his enduring gift to American popular culture: the zombie.
Seabrook was notorious in his lifetime for his exotic features for the slick magazines, but also for his very public eccentricities. He was, for example, a sado-masochist with a habit for leading his hired ‘secretaries’ around in collar and chains at parties. In his autobiography, No Hiding Place (1942), he psychoanalysed his sexual ‘kinks’, his penchant for ‘putting chains on ladies’, without shame. To play out this fetishism, Seabrook even employed Man Ray to photograph Lee Miller in various masochistic positions. Seabrook’s perversities were examined by his exasperated second wife, the novelist Marjorie Worthington. Her funny memoir was called The Strange World of Willie Seabrook (1966).
He was a spectacular alcoholic who eventually locked himself away in a mental hospital to break the habit. His book about this experience, Asylum, was a best-seller, and has just been reissued by Dover Press.
Seabrook was also interested in the occult. In 1942, he published Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today, which detailed his life-long obsession with collecting experiences of occult practice from around the world. This included a brief friendship with the Golden Dawn magus and self-declared Antichrist, Aleister Crowley, during Crowley’s time in Greenwich Village. In 1919, Crowley visited Seabrook for a week of ritual experiment at his farm, in which they decided to communicate solely by various inflections of the magic word ‘Wow’ (events retold in Seabrook’s story, unsurprisingly called ‘Wow’). On hearing of his suicide by overdose in 1945, Crowley wrote poisonously ‘the swine-dog W. B. Seabrook has killed himself at last, after months of agonized slavery to his final wife.’
Seabrook’s book on witchcraft was cast in the rhetoric of the sceptical researcher, but intrigued by the extent of belief in the modern Western world. London and its suburbs, he said ‘house more strange cults, secret societies, devil’s altars, professional “Sorcerers” and charlatans than any other metropolitan area on Earth.’ He repeated whispered stories of sympathetic magic and voodoo dolls at dinners in Paris and on the Riviera, and spoke of attending Black Masses in New York and London (‘rather a bore’).
Seabrook remained fascinated by this sub-culture, which presumably crossed over with his sexual predilections. Weirdly enough, he featured in a photo-story in Life magazine at the start of the Second World War when he hosted a magical ceremony to issue a hex on Adolf Hitler. I suppose it worked. Sort of.
But Seabrook was cynical about magic in the West exactly in proportion to his conviction that witchcraft still exercised power in ‘primitive’ societies. Indeed, his bohemianism frequently refused the niceties of civilisation and embraced ‘savage’ energies. In New York, he loved the Harlem clubs and was in Paris when a cult built around the black dancer Josephine Baker.
A longing for release from his white identity explains Seabrook’s escapes into exotic worlds. In 1924, he travelled to the Middle East and wrote Adventures in Arabia, about joining a Bedouin tribe. In 1931, he was commissioned by Paul Morand to travel to the French colonies in West Africa with the explicit aim of joining a ‘cannibal’ cult. It turned out that the French colonial administration was so obsessed with stopping the natives from this enacting this ritual that it was impossible to eat human flesh in Africa.
Seabrook returned to Paris with some recipes and bribed the Paris morgue for a limb from a recent corpse that he then cooked and ate. It’s a lovely inversion: the most primitive act is found not in the ‘savage’ periphery but the ‘civilised’ metropolitan centre
But Seabrook will endure in the corners of cultural memory for his other exotic adventure, to Haiti. In 1929, he published The Magic Island, an account of his journey, to an island then occupied by American forces. He pursued his typical interests: seeking initiation into the native rituals of the vodou religion, and claiming to drink blood sacrifices and feel the authentic power of the vodou gods passing through him. Yet it is in a later chapter that Seabrook encounters another local aspect of witchery.
In the chapter ‘…Dead Men Working in Cane Fields’, Seabrook writes up local stories about zombies. The local Creole word zombi had appeared in some American writings since the 1880s, but Seabrook took the credit for Americanizing this term and popularizing it.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 – it is a dead body which is made to walk and move as if it were alive. People who have the power to do this go to a fresh grave, dig up the body before it has had time to rot, galvanize 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.The chapter is at first an accumulation of local accounts, but Seabrook is astounded when his informant tells him that there are zombies at work nearby in the plantations of the Haitian-American Sugar Corporation. Seabrook therefore comes face to face with actual zombies, and with exquisite hesitation, remarks: ‘I did see these “walking dead men”, and I did, in a sense, believe in them and pitied them, indeed, from the bottom of my heart.’
Finding three ‘dead’ Haitians at work, he experiences a moment of ‘mental panic’, only to decide that these are ‘nothing but poor ordinary demented human beings, idiots, forced to toil in the fields.’
The context of slavery provides the framework for the ‘undead’ shuffling slave, declared ‘dead’ by the social contract, and forced to work. In the eighteenth century, the French colony of Saint Domingue, before it became independent Haiti in 1804, had the highest death rates but the largest profits amongst slaves taken from West Africa.
When Seabrook travelled to Haiti, the American occupiers were in the process of reinstating large-scale plantations and trying to stamp out native superstitions in the name of progress. No wonder the workers were locally called zombis.
Seabrook’s book was a direct influence on White Zombie, the 1932 film that smuggled the zombie into the major horror cycle that began that year. The focus is on Lugosi’s menacing figure of the witch-doctor rather than the zombies he commands, but it was the beginning of the cinematic career of a category of the undead that has since come to dominate contemporary horror film. The memory of Seabrook is now returning often very sketchily in pre-histories of zombie culture, but his focus on the Haitian zombie is best understood in the matrix of his obsession with witchcraft, the occult and the vital energies of so-called primitive societies around the world.
Image: Voodoo performers captured by Seabrook in The Magic Island, via Literary007