There’s one little country that America can’t seem to stop obsessing over. Ever since the slaves rebelled in St. Domingue to end slavery and colonization in the territory now known as Haiti, America has consistently represented the location as the space of nightmares, even stressing a secretive, ritualistic ceremony as the start of the revolution. Thus America representations of Haitian culture reduce them to an island of aberrant sorcerers creating monsters to destroy the West. Even Disney joined the lineup, dropping quips about Haiti’s parasitical nature in films such as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010); likewise, President Trump could not resist alluding to it in his discussions of foreign policy, listing it as one of a number of ‘shithole countries.’
Yet a closer look at these representations and America’s concurrent sociopolitical behaviors reveals that such depictions actually say more about the US and its anxieties and missteps than it ever does about Haiti. Time and again, in various films and texts, Haiti disappears behind a mask of American making as the creators abject problematic political maneuvers and ideals onto the island. After all, as Seabrook notes in Magic Island (1929), Haiti may produce zombies, but it’s Americans they labor for.
This course therefore examines a series of horror films and select texts to consider how these fictions erase Haiti to reveal the monster of American politics. Given the philosophical discord created by the American Occupation of Haiti in light of America’s democratic ideals, we will especially consider the films which arise in the era after the Occupation, in addition to considering how these texts repeat discourses apparent from the late 18th and early nineteenth century and predict representations in later films.
Recommended texts and films:
White Zombie (1932)
The Emperor Jones (1933)
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985)
‘The Mulatto’ (Victor Sejour)
‘….Dead Men Working in Canefields’ (William Seabrook)
‘Benito Cereno’ (Herman Melville)
Maisha Wester is an Associate Professor in American Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, USA. She is currently a BA Global Professor visiting at University of Sheffield. She is author of African American Gothic: Screams from Shadowed Places (Palgrave, 2013) and Voodoo Queens and Zombie Lords (UWP, 2022) and co-author of Twenty-First Century Gothic (with Xavier Aldana Reyes, 2019). She is also the US Book Review Editor for the international journal Gothic Studies (EUP).
About the Miskatonic Institute:
Founded by Film writer/programmer Kier-La Janisse in 2010, The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies offers classes in horror history, theory and production, with branches in London, New York and Los Angeles, as well as hosting special events worldwide.