Plymouth University Festival of Research
Faculty of Arts and Humanities
School of Humanities, Music, and Performing Arts (HuMPA) Lecture

I walked with a zombie: what the living dead can teach us about performance
Collaborative lecture by Lee Miller, Roberta Mock, Kayla Parker and Phil Smith
Tuesday 19 March 2013 7.00pm > 8.30pm

Lecture running order
Introduction by Professor David Coslett, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Plymouth University

Part 1: Roberta Mock
Part 2: Lee Miller
Part 3: Kayla Parker
Part 4: Phil Smith

Lee: final sentence:
“In order to do so, we will focus on some of the most currently significant thematic paradigms in performance research, focusing in particular on the body, identity, space, culture and memory.”

Spirited performance: zombie at the intersection of the divine and the human
Kayla Parker

SLIDE 01 title: Spirited performance

START Kayla Parker
Spirited performance:
Zombie at the intersection of the divine and the human

The problem with zombies is that they’re evolving. They’re already in a transitional state, in between dead and alive. But the very livingness of zombies seems to be growing.

Inert matter partly animated, or re-animated. Puppets whose jerky movements are controlled by a ravenous desire for… what? The flesh of something warm and living, flowing blood… and brains! They want to devour us, consume our bodies and minds, to drain our electrical impulses, our thoughts and memories… to make us like them.

No, not to like them, as in I love you (although maybe some do want to be friends). To become them, to join them, to be one with them, the zombie masses.

Zombies are matter that moves, stuff of the body that has just enough sparky aliveness to keep moving in the between or is hyper-energised into frenzied activity.
But zombies are right down there at the bottom of American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1954).

SLIDE 02 Maslow’s hierarchy: a human being’s needs in order of priority
Maslow’s theory originally proposed a model of five stages of needs, which a human being must satisfy before being able to progress to higher needs. These are, first and foremost:

1. Biological and physiological needs
air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep
2. Safety needs
protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability.
3. Belongingness and love needs
work group, family, affection, relationships
4. Esteem needs
self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility
5. Self-actualization needs
realizing personal potential, self-fulfilment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences

Most of the zombies I know today only have one thing on their mindless minds: food - in other words, their need is to feed… on us. Ok, maybe some have evolved to almost have feelings, and others appear to be showing independent traits and seeking personal fulfilment.

But, what would it be like to be a zombie? Could we become living dead, lose our ‘mindbody’, but return to our senses, ourselves and our ordinary everyday lives?

SLIDE extra Maya Deren portrait - still from Meshes, iconic
The ethnographic research by film-maker Maya Deren into Haitian voodoo belief systems suggests that the phenomenon of trance states, in which the voudouisant loses consciousness of self, is a temporary process of energized enlightenment rather than irreversible.
Voodoo is a belief system that mingles the ancient Vodun religion of West Africa with Catholicism, and was created by the slaves of the African diaspora on Haiti. In voodoo, the zombie exists in a state of union with the divine achieved through dance, song and drumming - in possession, life and death become one and the same.

In contrast to the early cinema depictions of zombie trance as a kind of sleepwalking enslavement - in films such as White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) - Deren’s research suggests that, if we allow the spirit to enter and possess us, through the transcendent re-animation of entrancement we can become divine…

SLIDE 03 White Zombie poster
Maybe we can understand this evolutionary process by looking at the proto-zombie in black and white film? Firstly through the early fiction films of mainstream cinema and then through the personal cinema of avant-garde film-maker and Jewish émigrée Maya Deren.

Zombies were brought to cinematic life-in-living-death by the evil plantation master Murder Legendre, aka Béla Lugosi, in the 1932 film White Zombie.
Madeleine, a young beautiful white woman visiting the island of Haiti, is entranced by a voodoo magic potion, which causes her apparent death. Post-mortem, Madeleine appears to have evolved to a higher state of being. An angelic figure under the mind control of Legendre, she walks in a re-animated trance, emptied of self - “but the soul is gone!” - and appears a living doll with no needs of her own.

SLIDE 04 Madeleine with 2 maidservants
White Zombie and the 1940s classic I Walked With a Zombie are both set in the Catholic West Indies, where the slaves brought to the New World by the trans-Atlantic slave trade evolved the Vodou reglion from their 6000 year old West African religion Vodun.

Slaves in San Dominique (now Haiti) experienced a particularly harsh and industrialized régime of colonial subjugation, characterized by "the brutality and dehumanization of a highly systematized and regimented agriculture ... geared toward the complete commodification and alienation of its workforce in order to maximize productivity” (Murphy, 2011: 47 - 48).

SLIDE 05 Madeleine as a virginal fairy in glowing white
The "first official record of the process of zombification" occurs in the Criminal Code for the new Black Republic of Haiti, in 1835, which condemned acts of witchcraft or sorcery “leading to undead corporeal slavery” (Murphy, 2011: 51).

Moving forward a century, the ingredients for proto-zombie cinema are a Caribbean setting, where the post-colonial legacy of brutal inequality seethes below the seemingly civilised surface of white society, a counterpoint to a Black underclass that is nominally ‘free’ yet still enslaved. The island location is a doom-filled place where supernatural forces are brought into play through a voodoo belief system activated by drumming, chanting, dancing, and repetition.

SLIDE 06 I Walked With a Zombie: opening titles from film VIDEO CLIP 01 min 14 sec
Opening to RKO titles with accompanying music. A wide shot of a curved sandy beach, with two shadowy figures waking along the tideline.
The disclaimer in the opening credits about the characters and events presented in the film denies any similarity to “actual persons, living, dead or possessed”.
Woman's voice-over "I walked with a zombie. [LAUGHS] It does seem an odd thing to say. Had anyone said that to me a year ago, I'm not at all sure I would have known what a zombie was. I might have had some notion that it/they were strange, frightening ... even a little funny!"

I Walked With a Zombie
Described as ‘Jane Eyre in the Caribbean’, the film features Jessica, a beautiful white woman caught in a catatonic trance on the fictional isle of San Sebastian where ‘everything good dies’ and there’s only ‘death and decay’. Jessica is a zombie caught in a voodoo spell who flutters moth-like in wispy clothes through the moonlit chiaroscuro of a West Indian night. Dis-possessed of her ‘soul’, her only need to follow the lure of the drumbeat to the houmfort, the sacred gathering place of the local voodoo worshippers.

SLIDE 07 I Walked With a Zombie: Jessica doll + Jessica walking VIDEO CLIP 41 sec
Jessica doll being pulled left > right (sound of drums), voodoo ceremony, Jessica walking, nurse follows and calls "Jessica!". Man calls her name. Nurse: "She won't obey me!"
Cut/fade to black after gate is shut and the approaching man says "It's the houmfort - they're trying to get her back!"

Meshes of the Afternoon
The film (1943) is a collaboration between Maya Deren and her then husband Alexander Hamid. A psychodrama, modeled on dream, lyric and dance, set in the white heat of the hills close to Los Angeles where they were both living at that time. Deren appears as the woman, Hamid as the man, in a poetic exploration of the threshold between life and death.

SLIDE 08 Meshes of the Afternoon: googles/knife walk, she wakes VIDEO CLIP 41sec
MD turns round wearing weird goggles and holding a large bread knife, she steps left > right, sleeping in a chair, she stabs, wakes in a bed, AH's face moving away (he's woken her with a kiss), MD hand covers her face (BCU), hand moves down to reveal her face which fills the frame.

Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti
In 1947 Deren received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship to conduct ethnographic research into Haitian culture, spending a total of eighteen months on the island between 1947 and 1952.

In order to document the voodoo ceremonies, Deren mingled amongst the dancers with her hand-held 16mm Bolex camera, capturing nine hours of film, along with many hours of audio recordings and extensive written notes. After Deren’s death in 1961, this ‘raw’ audio and visual material was unearthed from her drawers and cupboards and edited together by Teiji Ito, her third husband, and Cherel Ito (Teiji Ito’s second wife) to create the film Divine Horsemen, which features narration drawn from Deren’s written study of Haitian voodoo ceremonies and rituals, (published in 1953), and her own experience of voodoo trance, of becoming zombie.

For Deren was a rare étranger - an outsider, a stranger - who crossed the line and became initiated into the voodoo religion, embracing the glory and terror of what she called ‘the white darkness’. She describes her leg feeling rooted to the ground and becoming strangely numb as the spirit-god Erzulie, a voodoo Virgin Mary of love, mounted her - to use the erotic metaphor of horse riding for voodoo possession. In order to be ridden by the spirit-god, or loa, one must reach a sufficiently elevated state of consciousness and the self must leave.

SLIDE 09 Divine Horsemen: drums + dancers, the loa Erzulie VIDEO CLIP 01 min 05sec
Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti is the cinematic resurrection of Deren’s study of the voodoo mythology of the island, the world’s first Black republic.

For the slaves of the African diaspora, the ground underfoot was a vital, living link to the land from which they had been forcibly removed, now separated from them by an immense void of water. Kidnapped and transported in terror across thousands of miles by ship, “chained to the bottom of a boat”, the earth was their vital connection to homeland, culture, ancestry, belonging, self. It was through the agency of the left foot placed on the ground, caught mid-step and carrying the weight of the corporeal body, which provided the stem through which the spirit-god, or loa, could mount.

The proto-zombies of Haitian culture studied by Deren are hyper-energised. Made divine through possession, the human being transcends during the trance state to a temporary absence of ‘mindbody’, a becoming beyond need.

ENDS 13 minutes 40 seconds
Draft 19 March 2013