Jesse Lerner

Bodies Without Souls, Souls Without Bodies

Zora Neal Hurston, Mules and Men (1936) and Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1939). Respectively edited by Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., London, and J. P. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia. Photo: KADIST.

In her autobiography, the writer and ethnologist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) states that the “greatest thrill” of her very eventful life “was coming face to face with a zombie and photographing her,” the first such photograph ever made, or so Hurston claims.[1] In her popular ethnography, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1939), Hurston offers a more extensive discussion of zombies. There, she notes that several of the cases described involve zombies who allegedly were subjected to inhumane and exploitative labor practices; one was used “as a beast of burden,” another “set to toil ceaselessly in the banana fields, working like a beast, unclothed like a beast, and like a brute crouching in some foul den in the few hours allowed for rest and food.”[2] While it’s striking that she never proposes a connection between the abuse suffered by the living and the restlessness of the dead, she does make a point of underscoring the hardships these individuals experienced posthumously. Perhaps her conservative political inclinations pushed Hurston away from further explorations of the possible connections.

This portrait, claimed to be the first published photograph of a Haitian zombie, was given to LIFE Magazine by author Zora Neale Hurston and published in the December 13, 1937 issue. Source:

During the first US occupation of Haiti (1915–1934), a number of North Americans, both civilian and military, wrote English-language mass market accounts of the island and its popular beliefs, prior to Hurston’s. Not surprisingly, these chronicles were often sensationalized, patronizing, inaccurate, and racist. More than one addressed the issue of zombies.  “Werewolves, vampires, and demons were certainly no novelty,” writes the occult author William B. Seabrook (1884-1945) in The Magic Island (1929), “but I recall one creature I had been hearing about in Haiti, which sounded exclusively local—the zombie.” Like Hurston, he connects the zombie phenomena to exploitative labor practices, though he explores the links only superficially: he claims the dead body is frequently made into “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.”[3] While academic specialists and intellectuals of the era—from Jean Price-Mars to Melville Herskovits—were unanimously dismissive of Seabrook’s shock tactics and overall lack of rigor,[4] it inspired a fiction film, White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932) starring Béla Lugosi as the zombies’ master. As the film’s title suggests, the racial demographics of the island were misrepresented—today one would say whitewashed—in the adaptation, and what little anthropological content the charlatan Seabrook’s work might have contained was lost out to further sensationalism on the screen. A financial success in spite of these critiques, if not a critical one, the film was followed by a sequel, Revolt of the Zombies (Halperin, 1936), and launched a zombie genre that shows no sign of waning, nearly a century later.

While Hurston, Price-Mars, Herskovits, Katherine Dunham, and others, recognized the connection to several West African religious practices,[5] the cultural specificity of the zombie phenomenon is of less concern to us here as are its socio-political underpinnings—precisely what Hurston, Seabrook, and Halperin all elided. All around the world, and in many diverse cultural contexts, we see fables, films, novels, and folktales of the undead—or more specifically, those killed unjustly or who died under the most horrific of circumstances—reconfigured as vengeful phantoms or restless souls in limbo, often seeking the justice denied to them in life. 

At the end of Abel Gance’s marvelous silent film drama J’accuse [I Accuse] (1919) the dead of the Great War rise from the battlefields of Europe and haunt the living with righteous accusations of unethical behaviors. In the film Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978) a giant mall in Pennsylvania is swarmed, not by shoppers, but by zombies intent on inflicting punishment in the local temple of consumer capitalism. The audience is left to wonder whether they are extracting a brutal retribution (which they’re clearly not capable of articulating) for the damage this economic system has wrought on the world, as highlighted earlier in the film by the inequalities and racism visible in the scenes at the public housing project. When the living dead return, do they simply want to prey on human flesh, or do they come as crusaders for social justice?

At the end of Abel Gance’s marvelous silent film drama J’accuse [I Accuse] (1919) the dead of the Great War rise from the battlefields of Europe and haunt the living with righteous accusations of unethical behaviors. Source.

After more than a decade of exile, the celebrated Chilean intellectual Ariel Dorfman (born 1942) returned home for his first visit since the coup d’état of September 11, 1973. Reflecting on his transformed homeland in a brief essay, he is reminded of the local folk legends of the Imbunche, a child kidnapped and enslaved by witches, who to ensure their captive’s eternal servitude, break his bones, decapitate him, dismember him, and reassemble him, among other tortures. The dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), Dorfman reports, has turned every Chilean into an imbunche, one who does not and cannot know “if tomorrow their bodies will be fractured.”[6] So, at the risk of collapsing immense historical and cultural differences, can we take this figure—not of the generic “undead,” and not exclusively of the Haitian zombie, but of the living dead victims of colonial genocides, murderous Latin American dictatorships, and the contemporary violence of the so-called “war on drugs,”—as a productive point of departure for a discussion of the legacies of these histories of violence? Or as the anthropologist Michael Taussig asks in the context of the horrific history of violence during and after the rubber boom in southern Colombia[7] “Is it possible that, as with the image so firmly impressed on the memory of an individual struck down by violence … so the ghost or the evil winds of a whole society, struck down by the Spanish conquest, could exist as unquiet spiteful souls roaming the earth forever?”[8] What might we gain by thinking of the zombie not as the stuff of horror films, campy late night television, and pulp fiction, but as an allegory for the unsettled afterlife of the victims of centuries of colonial and neo-colonial oppression? And if so, which artists and writers, beyond Gance, Rivera, Taussig, and Dunham, have created works that offer us insights into these questions? 

If these zombies, these undead bodies deprived of their souls or spirits, are read allegorical as the restless victims of centuries of injustices—beginning with, but not limited to the conquest, the colonization of the Americas and the concurrent genocides, imperialism, the development of extractive industries (mining, petroleum production, cotton in the southeast of the USA, rubber in southern Colombia, sisal in the Yucatán, etc.), the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the authoritarianism of countless post-Independence regimes—we can also identify the inverse: lingering spirits without bodies. 

Atacama Desert, Chile, 2019. Photo: KADIST.

In Patricio Guzmán’s masterful documentary essay Nostalgia por la luz [Nostalgia for the Light] (2010), we spend time with the haunted relatives of the “disappeared,” searching in the Atacama Desert for the remains of loved ones presumably tortured and murdered by the police or military during the Pinochet dictatorship. For the families of the disappeared, there is never the closure afforded by a funeral, a corpse, or a burial—their relatives remain an absent presence indefinitely. These spirits without bodies are a haunting motif in so much of the art from South America of the last half century: the Siluetazo (conceived by Rodolfo Aguerreberry, Julio Flores and Guillermo Kexel, 1983), painted silhouettes of the disappeared on the walls of public spaces in Buenos Aires; the bloody bundles or “situations” of Artur Barrio’s Situação T/T 1 (1970) and DEFL…Situação…+S+ …Ruas… (1970), distributed anonymously in public spaces during the nadir of Brazil’s dictatorship (1964–1985); the Chilean flag made of human femurs (Arturo Duclos, Untitled, 1995). In Mexico, Maya Goded’s photographic essay (2004) and video installation (2015) on the disappeared women of Ciudad Juárez; Mayra Martell’s documentation of missing person posters (2005) in that same city; much of Noé Martínez’s work (on view in this exhibition); Ilán Lieberman’s meticulous, miniature drawings of the Niños perdidos [Lost Boys] (2005–2009); and Annalisa D. Quagliata’s short film Se busca (un mar de ausencia) [Missing (A Sea of Absence)] (2016); they all balance the painful absence with the lingering presence of the disappeared. These missing persons, victims of femicide, dictatorships, organized crime, and human trafficking, share qualities with Hurston’s zombies, or what she calls the “bodies without souls.”[9] All are part of the legacies of violence, of episodes of such extreme cruelty that they transcend the specifics of particular instances and circumstances. Though their bodies are missing, their souls still haunt the living, their next of kin, and their loved ones.

Less predictably, and with a much more conventional cinematic language than Quagliata or Gance, the Haitian zombie is explicitly linked to authoritarianism and state repression in The Serpent and the Rainbow (Wes Craven, 1988). At first glance, the movie might be taken as yet another heir to White Zombie: a horror film—from the director of box office triumphs including A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996)—loosely based on a best-selling non-fiction account of another white man’s visit to Haiti, though with scarier special effects and better make-up than the Halperin films. In The Serpent and the Rainbow, a Harvard student is lured from his graduate work in ethnobotany by a pharmaceutical company intent on commercializing on the psychoactive properties of the native plants which create zombies. Set during the dictatorship of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the protagonist’s research is interrupted, and the plot is often moved forward by the strong-arm tactics of the Tonton Macoute, the Duvalier family’s state terrorists. The Seabrook book and Halperin films say little about labor conditions, debt servitude, or other modern forms of slavery in the Caribbean, but Craven’s film stands out for at least hinting at some of the possible socio-political context. Freed from the clichés of the Hollywood B-movie, Lugar de consuelo [Place of Comfort] (Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, 2020) documents a performance premised on the antics of the no-muerto, the “un-dead”. With masks, absurdist costumes, exaggerated movements and resonant, yet nonsensical dialogues, the piece speaks to sexual violence, colonial legacies, the complicity of the Catholic Church, and a host of post-traumatic, post-colonial perfumed nightmares (a shout out to Kidlat Tahimik) in ways that are both ambiguous and greatly unsettling.

Jesse Lerner, El Egipto americano/The American Egypt, 2001, 16mm film, 25:39 mins. Courtesy and copyright the artist.

My 2001 documentary film El Egipto americano/The American Egypt, included in the exhibition, opens with an examination on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century henequen production in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, taken as a microcosm for exploring intertwined histories of neo-colonialism, racial politics, and the extractive workings of global capitalism in one of its more exploitative iterations. The second half of the film addresses the belated arrival of the Mexican Revolution to the peninsula, and the more radical forms —especially the fervently anti-clerical and feminist, in dialogue with their Soviet contemporaries—which it took there, quite distinct from the Revolution of the country’s central region. As prelude, the film’s first chapters contextualize this radical social and political experiment by sketching the highly exploitative labor conditions of the henequen boom, just prior to the Revolution. The documentary draws on primary sources, both cinematic and journalistic, as well as anachronistic elements, fragments of newsreels, didactic films, and original 35mm and 16mm footage. Together, these connect a regional history to a larger, hemispheric one. The narrative voices weave together excerpts from local newspapers, the muckraking journalist John Kenneth Turner’s book Barbarous Mexico (1910), anthropologist Fernando Benítez’s book Ki: el drama de un pueblo y una planta [Ki: The Story of a Village and a Plant] (1956), and English travel writers Channing Arnold and Frederick J. Tabor Frost’s eponymous pre-Revolutionary account, The American Egypt: A Record of Travel in Yucatán (1909). These elements present a world that initially appears far removed from that of Haitian slaves under the French rule, or of rural Haitian laborers struggling to eke out an existence long after the arrest, imprisonment, and death of Toussaint Louverture. In the Yucatán, the labor force for this immensely profitable industrial agriculture was a mixture of acasillados (resident workers whose accommodations were deducted from their wages, always on terms beneficial to their employers); prisoners of war from the genocidal campaign against the Yaqui in Sonora;[10] enganchados (contract laborers) from central Mexico, and other variations on debt peonage. Though ostensibly not enslaved, several eyewitnesses to the henequen plantations were struck by the parallels, if not the equivalence, between this work force and chattel slavery in the southern US prior to the Civil War. Turner writes, for example: “Slavery is the ownership of the body of a man, an ownership so absolute it can be transferred to another, an ownership that gives to the owner a right to take the products of that body, to starve it, to chastise it at will, to kill it with impunity. Such is slavery in the extreme sense. Such is slavery as I found it in Yucatán.”[11] And prior to the rise of the henequen industry, the Maya prisoners of war captured during the Yucatecan Caste War were sold to Cuban plantation owners as human chattel.[12]

Jesse Lerner, El Egipto americano/The American Egypt, 2001, 16mm film, 25:39 mins. Courtesy and copyright the artist.

Without ignoring any of the historical and cultural specificities, the film suggests parallels between the conditions under which Yucatecan laborers toiled in the henequen industry over a century ago and the circumstances of other workers in extractive industries throughout the hemisphere. In a passage from Ki, Benítez explores the similarities between the social impacts of the peninsula’s henequen industry and those of rubber harvesting in Brazil, bananas in Guatemala (with an oblique reference to the 1954 coup), oil in Venezuela, copper and guano in Chile, and tin in Bolivia.[13] In all of these cases, the natural riches—mineral, vegetable, petroleum, or otherwise—produce neither wealth nor even a modest level of well-being and economic security for the vast majority of the nation, but instead varied forms of slavery, peonage, debt servitude, or, if one were to extrapolate forward to the present, lay the foundations for the gig economy, outsourcing, call centers, and other contemporary forms of exploitation.  Benítez’s thesis is particularly resonant in the context of the US, a country which so often played an interventionist, extractive, and imperial role in these histories, and one with its own history of slavery and extractive agriculture, environmentally disastrous mining, and the like. As the US begins to engage in a long-overdue reckoning with the legacies of racism and slavery, both the annals of these oppressive labor practices domestically and the nation’s role within these diverse Latin American histories, are topics for further study and reflection. The haunted spirits that populate this exhibition—zombies, bodies without souls, the restless spirits of the disappeared—are neither silent nor forgotten. In the artworks featured in this exhibition, they demand we embark on a wide-ranging examination of colonialism, the European conquest of the Americas, slavery, and other gruesome incidents in the history of the Americas.


[1] Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography (Philadelphia: J. J. Lippincott, 1971 [1942]), 205.

[2] Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (New York: Harper & Row, 1990 [1938]), 181–182.

[3] William B. Seabrook, The Magic Island (New York: Literary Guild, 1929), 93. Other popular accounts of Haiti from this period include Blair Niles’s Black Haiti (1926), Faustin Wirkus and Taney Dudley’s The White King of La Gonave (1931), John Houston Craige’s Black Bagdad: The Arabian Nights Adventures of a Marine Captain in Haiti (1933), and Richard A. Loederer’s Voodoo Fire in Haiti (1935).

[4] Melville Herskovits, “Lo, the Poor Haitian,” The Nation, 128, no. 3319 (1929), 198. Herskovits belittled William B. Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929) as “sensational exploitation” in his review in The Nation.

[5] Katherine Dunham writes: “Tales and reports of dead come alive may have been strongly influenced by or may be direct hand-me-downs from Africa,” referencing Herskovitz’s references to “soulless beings” among the Dahomey; Island Possessed (Garden City: Doubleday, 1969), 185.

[6] Ariel Dorfman, “A Rural Chilean Legend Come True,” New York Times (February 18, 1985), section A, 17.

[7] The rubber boom in southern Colombia was the setting of Colombian writer and poet José Eustasio Rivera’s (1888–1928) renown novel La vorágine [The Maelstrom] (1924)

[8] Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 372.

[9] Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, 179.

[10]  Evelyn Hu-DeHart, Yaqui Resistance and Survival: The Struggle for Land and Autonomy, 1821–1910 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), 183–196.

[11] John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1910), 16.

[12] Javier Rodríguez Piña, Guerra de castas: La venta de indios mayas a Cuba, 1848–1861 (Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1990). See also: Nelson Reed, The Caste War of Yucatán (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964), 128–129.

[13] Fernando Benítez, Ki: El drama de un pueblo y de una planta (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1956), 46.