Zombie planet: a Vodou vision of the environmental apocalypse ahead

With candles to light the way between two worlds, Glassman leads a Day of the Dead rite in her Bywater peristyle or temple.

Alexei Kazantsev

With candles to light the way between two worlds, Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman, center, leads a Day of the Dead rite in her Bywater peristyle.

No aspect of Voodoo — or Vodou, to use the Haitian Kreyol spelling — has led to more confusion and dread than the rather minor part of it associated with “zombies.”

Indeed, zombies seem to eat the very brains of moviegoers and the TV-viewing public.  Which is too bad because, though a footnote within a broad and wonderful religious cosmology, zombies have their uses when it comes to conceptualizing the world in which we live.

In the popular imagination, the zombie is usually understood to be a soulless body, created, controlled, and owned by a zombie master or sorcerer. Fair enough and not inaccurate. But there is much more to Vodou, a bona fide religion that incorporates beautiful music, dance and art and brings solace and power to its practitioners. The ignorant error — and it’s widespread — is to equate the two: zombies and Vodou; Vodou and zombies.

However misleading, the equation has deep historical roots. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, did not limit its genocidal impulses to an attack on Jews and Moors. It saw fit to characterize African slaves as Satan-worshipping, baby-devouring heathens and to excoriate their religion — Vodou — in those same terms.

That kind of hostility did not persuade Afro-Caribbeans to abandon their faith and its rituals. Instead, they drew strength from Vodou, which posits an invisible spiritual realm more powerful, more beautiful, and much vaster than the visible world, which it ensouls.

Inevitably, a faith that empowered slaves came to terrify their owners. Not to mention that herbal knowledge from their homeland had taught the imported Africans a thing or two about poison.

Next to fall prey to ignorance about Vodou were European and British adventurers and journalists who visited Haiti and the slave states of the Confederacy in the 18th and 19th centuries. The dancing, the rhythms, and the trances induced through Vodou ceremonies stirred the repressed imaginations of these onlookers, driving them to flights of fancy as extravagant as they were absurd.

Slaves wore what few rags their master’s afforded them, but their near nudity was mistaken for sexual license, and startled foreigners declared the Africans depraved.

By any name, Vodou had certifiable and sometimes terrifying power, even power of the political sort. It is not widely known that the Haitian revolution — the uprising that caught fire in 1791 and led to creation of the world’s first black republic, a republic of self-liberated slaves — began with a high priest’s signal during a Vodou ritual at Bois Caiman. For 13 years, those rituals and the support of secret Vodou societies sustained the rebel slaves in a war that ended with the defeat of Napoleonic France.

The Haitian take on that extraordinary victory: Of course Napoleon had to lose. He didn’t realize he was fighting Spirits, not men!

The American slave owners received the news from Haiti with fear and trembling. Terrified that the revolution, supercharged by Vodou, would spread, they did their best to snuff out the slave faith as practiced in places like Congo Square. When the U.S. bought the vast Louisiana territory from France in 1803, the Americans ridiculed Vodou and demonized practitioners through lurid portrayals in the journals and newspapers of the day.

In the following century, Hollywood took over the task of sensationalizing Vodou, with the usual goal in mind: big boxoffice.

For a classic example of Tinseltown’s exploitative disregard for the truth, look no further than what was done with ethno-botanist Wade Davis’ exploration of Vodou in his best-selling 1985 book, The Serpent and the Rainbow.

Davis’ research led him to speak with Haitian bokors – sorcerers – and members of secret societies, who on rare occasions passed judgment on sosciopaths within their communities. The verdict in extreme cases: zombification. The means: a botanical powder, used in secret rituals to quiet the person’s vital signs to a point verging on paralysis. The ritual includes burial and disinterment, whereupon the subject believes himself or herself a zombie.

In director Wes Craven’s hands, an admittedly disturbing practice was made the centerpiece of an FX-laden horror flick. Indeed the film was so over-the-top that its one legitimate claim on anthropological interest, footage of entranced practitioners eating glass, goes almost unnoticed.

It’s ironic, also intellectually obscene — this tendency of ours to objectify our fears in the form of monsters that we then accuse of eating our brains. Whatever their nutritional needs, there’s no doubt these monsters of our own creating can destroy common sense and our ability to reason clearly about the meaning of life.

New World slavery and the police state required for its perpetuation energized the “old time religion” from Africa that the slave masters tried to stamp out. Vodou, like water, became a universal solvent, a substance able to absorb and synthesize other spiritual influences the slaves came in contact with: Catholicism, Native American practices and Masonic mysteries, along with African root traditions and magic.

Clearly, Vodou was not the great evil; slavery was. And zombification? It is best understood as a metaphor, indeed the perfect metaphor for slavery itself. The soul is stolen and only the body remains: mute, doomed to work forever under the lash of the zombie master, the slave owner. Even death offers no escape.

Perversely, the master/owners are the actual “living dead” — one sure sign of their moribund condition being their obliviousness to it. They are unaware that they are spiritually defunct.

I have traveled and served in Vodou ceremonies many times in Haiti, but I have never met a Haitian zombie. Back here at home, I have, however, met a great many examples of what I call “comfort zombies” – people who trade their souls for the empty pleasures and conveniences of modern life. We want our air-conditioning and our automobiles, so we simply disregard the sure knowledge that we are enslaving the earth’s resources to our greed. And just as the slaves rose up in revolt, so the Earth is rising up to rebalance herself and remind us where the real power lies.

Vodou teaches that every part of the universe is ensouled with spirit. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the earth we tread are all visible expressions of the life force. Vodou looks into the material surface of the world and recognizes its ensouling depths. It is the opposite of zombification.

As we stumble along blindly, disregarding the vanishing wetlands, the rising tides, the extremely costly and destructive global weather changes, the increasingly apocalyptic natural disasters, the grossly inequitable distortions of the world economy, we must surely start to wonder whether the soulless zombies who are eating our brains are ourselves.

Like the slave owners of yore, we are oblivious to the disorder over which we still think we preside.


Errol Laborde


Initiated in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1995, Sallie Ann Glassman is high priestess of the New Orleans based Vodou society, La Source Ancienne Ounfo. She is an artist and the owner of the Island of Salvation Botanica and founding co-chairman of The New Orleans Healing Center, at 2372 St. Claude. 

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  • Janet Hays

    I wonder if the Mayor would go for a zombie Afro-Caribbean Paris lakeside shopping mall downtown?

  • Hoodoonola

    We are not stumbling “along blindly, disregarding the vanishing wetlands, the rising tides,
    the extremely costly and destructive global weather changes, the
    increasingly apocalyptic natural disasters, the grossly inequitable
    distortions of the world economy” – There are many, many of us who are very active on a daily basis promoting, advocating and making change on economic, environmental and social levels locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. This is so didactic and makes so many inaccurate assumptions about our community and is just so much fluff as to be insulting to those of us truly committed, engaged and active in solution-oriented movements. Geez Louise!

  • Hoodoonola

    For more on the influence of Haitians in New Orleans ….”The
    1809 migration brought 2,731 whites, 3,102 free persons of African
    descent, and 3,226 enslaved refugees to the city, doubling its
    population.” The primary influence was that of strengthening the resistance to Americanization. This resistance has prevailed for more than 200 years, as a spirit of unity and resistance, that is now being increasingly stifled in the wake of the intense migration of the new entrepreneurial gentrifying class following Katrina that has raised the city’s poverty rate 8 points to 29% far above the national average, in just a few years. Perhaps we need a new Vodou that harkens back to the true spirit of the old to ward off this new evil.

    See: http://www.inmotionaame.org/print.cfm;jsessionid=f830320331385722562820?migration=5&bhcp=1

  • Janet Hays

    Well said Sally Stevens. Of course Vodou is a beautiful spiritual tradition that should be honored by those that do not practice as any spiritual practice should. Glassman mentions New World Slavery – I hope she realizes that that hasn’t gone away. It has morphed into corporations enslaving us through indentured servitude by those with money and power.

    Worse, those with power are nothing more than recipients of corporate welfare. We need top stop thinking of slavery in the past. It is very much a part of our every day lives and often times with very negative impacts.

    Many of us are not wrapping ourselves up in our spiritual beliefs to do nothing but rather, as you ms Steven pointed out, to engage in activities to protect our environment, culture and right to live where where choose despite enormous challenges of gentrification and trickle down economics that has unleashed the corporate abuse that is eating everything alive.

    Two quotes come to mind –

    “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.” Pope Francis

    You must be the change you want to see in the world.
    – Mahatma Gandhi

  • Vanessa Skantze

    Yes many are active on a daily basis making change and Sallie Ann Glassman is indeed one such. She has contributed tirelessly to her neighborhood and community before Katrina and since. And if the terms “fluff” and “wrapping oneself in spiritual beliefs to do nothing” are being applied to her they could not be more erroneous. Sallie Ann is making a cultural commentary on the zombie obsession and the belittling by Hollywood and mainstream culture of a spiritual practice of such power that it created a bond between disparate tribes and indigenous and formed a way of devotion that fueled a revolution. This is not fluff. This is truly radical and continues to inspire. rather than defensively feeling attacked please consider honoring a true spiritual warrior.

  • Roger Steinbrink

    Very well stated. Ms. Glassman has a unique insight with her background.

    “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
    This ridiculous fascination with “zombies” in our so called “culture”, is an absurdity that needs to die a quick death.
    The question is; will it remain dead? Just kiddin’. If this is the best that our culture can come up with, I would like
    my pet rock back. It’s a little closer to my soul, and my beliefs.

  • Steve Myers


  • Nolaresident

    Well possibly, if it were built by certain developers.

  • chuck 2.0

    very insightful…. the historical aspect really helps to explain our Hollywood approach, it’s either got to be funny or frightening if it’s different.

  • belkissa

    Interested to hear more about how the “new entrepreneurial gentrifying class” has raised the city’s poverty rate by 8 points. How do you reach this conclusion, using facts?

  • Janet Hays

    I agree that absurdities should die quick deaths.

    I suppose Sally Ann sincerely means well and certainly sounds dignified and sophisticated with her Zombie-doomsday vision turned on “us” (whoever that “us” or “we” may be). Bravo, Sally Ann, if this is supposed to be a much-needed attempt to free the unfairly maligned Vodou religion from vilification and stereotypes! Unfortunately, her op ed seems to be a bit confused and–dare I say it–insensitive to both Haitians, whose state religion she claims to rescue, and a whole lot of Americans who don’t fit into her undefined but nevertheless somehow presumed to be privileged wealthy Americans “we” the people on this planet concept.

    From what I know of vodou, Sally Ann is right that zombiefication is rare is Haiti. Unfortunately, she doesn’t make clear is why that is. In Haiti, zombiefication is the ultimate punishment, worse than death. It is a form of vigilante justice, to punish a trouble-maker in the community. That said, I don’t quite understand what she means by ‘”comfort-zombies” because being a Zombie is by definition never a comfortable place to be. Then she looses me totally when she flips the meaning of zombiefication a couple of times, like the slave-owners and “we” (who dat???) being the real zombies . . ., strange analogy, really strange! What she seems to address is calling attention to mindless consumerism. (Don’t get me started on vision of lakeside shopping malls dancing in the heads of the powers that be) – But then she is really working with the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, a lifelong process of becoming more aware of the consequences of one’s actions, a great idea, which has however nothing to do with Haitian Vodou.

    A “comfort-zombie” in Sally Ann’s definition then is someone who lives in luxurious bliss unaware of the consequences for “the planet.” The metaphor of the Haitian Zombie is totally lost in this analogy. And what is worse, she blurs the boundaries of who is the victim and who is the victimizer in these bizarre analogies, “the slave owners of yore” and “we” the mindless comfort-greedy consumers being the real soul-less zombies… Yeah, right! Being soul-less and mind-less monsters is awfully close to the Hollywood caricatures of Voodoo that Sally Ann herself criticized …. Strange … In, Haiti, a zombie is not soul-less nor a monster, but a real person that has been severely traumatized, isolated, and victimized, who has to work like an enslaved plantation worker stripped of his or her identity for good.

    I don’t think the author does any Haitian a favor with this article nor any American, who lives in poverty or is struggling to make this a better world.

    That said, I have to ask myself as I look out on to the desolate streets of the City tonight, if Tom Benson is a zombie master. Just sayin….

  • ChefDeCool

    Lemme set something straight – entrepreneurs are like the engine of the local economy. They build businesses from the ground up, provide jobs, bring money into the community, fix up blighted properties, donate to community causes, pay taxes that fund things like roads and schools and hospitals, oh…and they often bring new ideas that improve life for many people in the local community and sometimes even the world at large. If you want to be mad at someone in business, don’t blame it on the newcomers who often are just getting by and doing their best to build something viable. Blame the establishment, the old money crowd, the corrupt grifters and greedy real estate agents. Don’t blame the dreamers and the hard workers. Life isn’t a zero-sum game, where if one person makes $, that means there’s less for someone else. This type of scarcity mentality perpetuates the city poverty that you cite above. Open your mind and you may find that a rising tide lifts all boats.