I walked with a zombie: what the living dead can teach us about performance
School of Humanities, Music and Performing Arts (HuMPA) Research Showcase Lecture by Lee Miller, Roberta Mock, Kayla Parker, and Phil Smith for the Plymouth University Festival of Research
Tuesday 19 March 2013, Theatre 2, Roland Levinksy Building, University of Plymouth
7.00pm to 8.30pm, followed by drinks reception in Crosspoint
This collaborative lecture will explore and celebrate zombies as a cultural phenomenon through contemporary understandings of performance. It will also suggest ways that zombies might act as models to help us to understand theories of performance that centre on participation, presence, space, representation, mediation and embodiment.

Lee Miller is Associate Professor in Theatre and Performance; he is interested in landscape, collaboration, the ability of the body to endure. Roberta Mock is Professor of Performance Studies; her research focuses on gender, sexuality, culture, place and the performing body. Kayla Parker is Lecturer in Media Arts; her research centres on subjectivity and place, embodiment and technological mediation, from feminist perspectives. Phil Smith is Research Fellow in Performance and the Everyday; he researches and practices in the fields of walking, performance and counter-tourism.

Abstract for my presentation:
Spirited performance: zombie at the intersection of the divine and the human
What would it be like to be a zombie? Could we become living dead, but return to our bodies and our ordinary everyday lives? The ethnographic research by film-maker Maya Deren into Haitian voodoo belief systems proposes that the phenomenon of trance states, in which the voudouisant loses consciousness of self, is a temporary process of energized enlightenment rather than an irreversible process.

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. My talk explores the zombie through the ethnographic research and experience of film-maker Maya Deren, who visited Haiti three times 1947 and 1952, spending a total of eighteen months on the island.

I refer in particular to the film Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, the cinematic resurrection of Deren’s study of the voodoo mythology of the island, the world’s first Black republic. In order to document the voodoo ceremonies, she 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 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.

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 re-animation of entrancement we can become divine.

Read the script for Kayla’s talk