She's best known as the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God and one of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. But in her capacity as a folklorist, Zora Neale Hurston also recorded an encounter with a real-life zombie.
In Tell My Horse, her 1938 recounting of her fieldwork in Haiti, she talked about what she'd seen.
I had the rare opportunity to see and touch an authentic case. I listened to the broken noises in its throat.... If I had not experienced all of this in the strong sunlight of a hospital yard, I might have come away from Haiti interested but doubtful. But I saw this case of Felicia Felix-Mentor which was vouched for by the highest authority. So I know that there are Zombies in Haiti. People have been called back from the dead.
In this radio interview, Hurston relates the story:
She describes the woman she saw in disturbing detail in Tell My Horse:
The sight was dreadful. That blank face with the dead eyes. The eyelids were white all around the eyes as if they had been burned with acid.... There was nothing you could say to her or get from her except by looking at her, and the sight of this wreckage was too much to endure for long.
So how did one of the Harlem Renaissance's great talents wind up photographing a zombie? Folklore was very much in vogue in the 1920s and 30s. This was the period Margaret Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa, New Yorkers enthusiastically embraced Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and Mrs. Osgood Mason financially supported both Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston in their folk-influenced artistic endeavors.
Her patron paid the bills Hurston roamed the deep south, collecting Black American stories, spirituals, and beliefs. But she was especially fascinated by hoodoo, which she felt was misunderstood by white scholars. Valerie Boyd relates in the biography Wrapped in Rainbows, many treated it as a series of cheap tricks and foolish superstitions, whereas Hurston respected it as a fully developed folk religion. She wrote to her friend Langston Hughes, "My one consolation being that the never do it right and so there is still a chance for us."
And so she jumped in with both feet, undergoing intense initiation rites for the privilege of studying with hoodoo masters. (Perhaps the most extreme: Boyd reports she was required to catch a black cat, throw it into a pot of boiling water, and cook the poor thing until it fell apart.) She studied in Algiers, New Orleans, and the Bahamas before finally going to Haiti in 1936 — and that's where she saw the zombie.
Modern-day zombies are terrifying because they can infect you so quickly. It's a reflection of our worries about just how easily a vicious disease could spread in our globalized world. Hurston's zombies are much harder to create, and every single one has to be raised by a Bocor, a voodoo practitioner, himself. Often, they're pulled from the grave to work as slave labor. But the basic horror is the same: These are human beings made into unthinking creatures, and we're terrified we could turn out the same way.
Video discovered via Maud Newton's Twitter. Details about Hurston's life from Valerie Boyd's Wrapped in Rainbows and Carla Kaplan's Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters.
Image of Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten. Image of zombie by Zora Neale Hurston.