In the United States, we like to think of ourselves as a nation of mavericks who forged our own path. Yet, as with everything in the so-called “New World”—there are precedents and roots in the so-called “Old World.” This is especially true when we come to literature. For all Noah Webster’s ideas surrounding an “American language” and an “American literature,” most of the American Gothic literature has origins in the “Old World” be it Europe, the Near East, or Africa.
If the best-selling status of Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is anything to go by, the colonial status of the Americas has provided its own wealth of material for Gothic stories. Thrills, chills, graveyards, and hidden histories are still present, but instead of finding roots in Medieval Europe, they find roots in colonial America be that North America, the Caribbean, Latin America, or South America. Yet, when the trappings are all stripped away—the ancestral home, the unexplored wilderness, the presence and subsequent conquest of a different culture and people, the Gothic stories which come from the Americas still echo fears from the Old World.
The zombie as we know it is almost entirely an American and Caribbean phenomenon, an amalgamation of African folklore and religion fused with Roman Catholicism in the places where catholic countries colonized.
Before you leap to overly simplified conclusions about the zombie being a representative of the slave state, ask yourself what specific fear the zombie represents. Is it of being enslaved? That is an argument which can and has been made, and undoubtedly for people who have experienced slavery in recent history it is one of the fears the zombie represents.
Europe, i.e. the “Old World”, however, —Western Europe at least—hadn’t seen overt slavery since the early days of Rome’s downfall. Eastern Europe had—the Vikings were well-known slave traders and traded with the Turks on a regular basis. The Baltic Peninsula had also seen slavery as the Sultans in Istanbul required tribute in sons to keep the army manned. But immigrants from these parts of the world were very rare and were not seen in larger numbers until much later in the nineteenth centuries.
No, I would argue that the fear the zombie represents is the fear of madness or insanity–the utter loss of self.
The Zombie, having no mind or will of its own, cannot be reasoned with, persuaded, or even sued for mercy. The person who becomes a zombie has, in essence, lost all sense of self. This, even in Europe, was a HUGE fear. Because, to know oneself was to know both the good and the evil. Self-knowledge, far from being a New Age mantra, was a common enough piece of advice in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Church theologians from Augustine to Aquinas urged the knowledge of self to better know how to improve and to become closer to the Divinity. Today, we may not read Augustine or Aquinas as widely, but Shakespeare expresses many of the same ideas. “To thy own self be true” and “know thyself” are flung around as pieces of great wisdom originating from the Bard but they had their first roots in catholic theology.
If you go a step further back into Shakespeare, the zombie can be taken as the extremis of madness itself. Consider, for instance how he uses the theme of madness. Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear especially utilize the fears accompanying madness and the division of the self. One could even make the same argument with Othello. It is the ultimate robbery—the robbery of the self which the zombie represents and the fear of losing yourself which that entails.
It is the robbery of selfhood which is at the heart of why slavery as an institution and practice is so very heinous to our modern sensibilities. If you cannot even lay claim to your self, then you basically are a zombie–mindlessly obeying the will of whoever (or whatever) is controlling you.
Considering the only way to kill a zombie is to cut off its head, the connection between self-knowledge/madness and the zombie adds a slightly more nuanced way of exploring the fears around slavery, madness, and selfhood.
2. The Devil
Whatever you call him; Old Scratch, The Devil, Satan, Mephistopheles, Satan, Lucifer, or Beelzebub the Devil is a literary figure who is perhaps larger than life in many ways, all religious considerations aside. While the fires of religious reformation burned away belief in the supernatural outside of the Protestant Bible in both the European and American landscapes, casting doubt on angels and saints, the Devil doesn’t ever quite leave the picture and he is especially present in the American landscape.
There’s no coincidence that the largest known witch-hunts, including the infamous Salem Witch Trials, and the resurgence of the physical present of devils both occur after the Protestant Reformation (fun fact). The Catholic and Medieval worlds had bell, book, and candle, so to speak taking the form of specific prayers, crucifixes, and holy water.
What did the Protestant sects have? When the most extreme sects objected to even symbolism in churches, how are you supposed to deal with the Devil? Well, if you use the Salem Witch Trials as a gauge, the answer would be to burn the Devil’s servants—the witches.
I don’t know about you, but I kind of prefer the Van Helsing method…
So, what is the fear being embodied by the Devil? Well, that is open to some interpretation.
The most common scapegoat is female sexuality. The Netflix series Penny Dreadful suggests the sexual element in Season 2 between the witches and the Devil very believably. Yet, to say the fear was only of female sexuality is a little misleading
Consider for a moment, the case of Faust (or Faustus, depending on whether you are reading Goethe or Marlow) where it’s not a woman who falls prey to the Devil but a man. No, there is no homoerotic love scene involved—although that would have been an excellent opportunity for one, admittedly. But there is a lot of jadedness—the stripping away of innocence.
In the more modern Stephen Spielberg movie Legend loss of innocence is also thematic. While Legend’s portrayal of Darkness as a devil-like figure seems to be a dead giveaway, it’s what he offers Lily to sway her mind that’s the true tell: riches, luxury, power, all represented in elaborate (and revealing) clothes, rich food, large goblets of wine, diamonds, and a place at his side. It’s all too eerily like Faust and Dorian Gray to be coincidental.
Personally, I think the fear of the devil is closer to the fear of lost innocence—the first loss if you go by Judeo-Christian tradition. When Adam and Eve lost their innocence in the Garden of Eden to the Devil disguised as a serpent (or rather the manifestation of Crawley if you go by Good Omens).
Ok, so this is admittedly a stretch, but it’s not addressed quite as frequently in the Gothic novel in Europe as is a feature in American Gothic, and most especially in all the manifestations it’s taken in the 20th century onward—primarily I think because of the constant wars which were ultimately the fallout from the First World War.
Invaders generally burned the crops (if they didn’t steal them first), raped the women, killed the men, and then proceeded to berate the cultural norms of the people they just invaded. That goes for most of the invaders post-Rome. Some, like the Normans, become part of the local landscape—eventually. Any glance at the histories of France and England will tell you just how slowly the Normans assimilated. Others, like the Hungarians in the Balkans, used and abused their conquests by propaganda, years of subjugation, and pitting them against each other.
In American Gothic, this fear plays out in different ways—demon possession, haunted houses, the memories of old wars, old Native American burial grounds, and alien invasions. The fear, however, is exactly the same—the disruption of normal life and loss of culture. Throw this into a democratic society, and someone’s way of life will ultimately win out over everyone else’s. Here, the “invasion” is both real and metaphoric.
For early writers such as Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, invasion is only in the background–something very dimly on the edge of memory. Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, for instance, involves the ghost of a man who fought during the American Revolution. The Tim Burton movie of the same name, features the invasion of sinister forces in Sleepy Hollow and invasion it is, albeit led by one specific ghost.
The 20th century saw invasions taken literally again–in the form of alien invasions. A British writer started the trend with the publication of The War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells) and American writers both in print in on screen from Dune to The Matrix contain some form of invasion. Here, it’s not just a way of life at stake–it’s an entire species’ survival.
All these points have their own further considerations. Zombies, for instance, have a much more extensive history than what I’ve alluded to and the Devil as a literary figure could constitute his own blog post alone, and the same goes for alien invasions. This is just to whet your appetite, so you go search for your own conclusions from what I’ve provided. American Gothic has much to recommend itself, and it’s especially an interesting form to explore in the 20thcentury when movies and television take it to even greater heights than it had known previously. As we head into the end of the month, I hope you’ll see all three of these elements play out in some way, shape or form.