This installment covers haunting as a contagion and begins my discussion of Bing Bailey’s 2012 film Portrait of a Zombie.

Returning to the notion of haunting and identity construction in The Drowning Girl, Imp describes hauntings as follows: “hauntings are contagious. Hauntings are memes, especially pernicious thought contagions, social contagions that need no viral or bacterial host and are transmitted in a thousand different ways.”[1] This notion of a haunting as a “social contagion” is not so different from Arvin’s articulation of possession or haunting through knowledge of a colonizing force. As Arvin explains in her introduction,

This project understands knowledge as an important agent of possession—a word with which I purposefully invoke its haunting, supernatural connotation—under colonial conditions. Demons and spirits, rather than (and anathema to) the logic of science— that hallmark of Western modernity— are often identified as the agents of bodily possession. Yet, many have noted that modernity and science is in fact haunted; obsessed with the eradication of the pre-modern, with the exorcism of ghosts.[2]

Following from Arvin’s explanation of haunting, Imp’s haunting in The Drowning Girl is not just its narrative explanation, Imp is haunted by Eva Canning (in all of her forms), but an additional political, historical, and logical dimension as well. Imp is haunted by medical science in that, while her medication does improve her quality of life to some degree, she is also forced to parse and censor her experiences, thoughts, and actions in her disclosures to her psychiatrist for fear that some word or gesture may be perceived as yet another ghost to be exorcised with antipsychotics. Imp’s eventual suicide attempt, then, functions similarly to Antoinette’s in Wide Sargasso Sea, bringing about the questions Arvin raises: “what is the ‘right’ way to resist or respond to being possessed, when colonialism makes you ‘a different person’?”[3] She continues, “Exorcism, perhaps. But what is the best method of exorcism? How can you know when you’re truly possessed of yourself again? Is it possible to exorcise one’s self without total self-destruction? For Antoinette, it is not.”[4] For Imp, exorcism comes in the form of a failed suicide attempt, in which she tries to drown herself in a bathtub full of ice-cold water. The reference here to baptism and other cleansing water rituals is not coincidental. While it may never be possible to assess whether a person is possessed of themselves fully after having been possessed by the knowledge of oppression, the novel’s resolution seems to suggest that in embracing, rather than rejecting the flaws, slippages, and slipperiness of humanity and allowing for complication and intricacy in personhood, exorcism of some form may be successful.

Hauntings constitute social contagions, and following from this logic, Portrait of a Zombie addresses the question of possession, personhood, and neocolonialism through the lens of the zombie apocalypse. The outbreak originates with a young, working-class man in Dublin, Ireland whose job at the local meat packing plant may be responsible for his contraction of the zombie virus. The film is faux documentary about a documentary crew composed of an opportunistic American director and local crew shooting a human-interest piece about the Murphy family, of whom the oldest son, Billy (Patrick Murphy) is the zombie virus’ patient zero. At the time of his infection, Billy had just gotten engaged to his girlfriend Aoife McCarthy (Diane Jennings) who has recently become pregnant. Aoife explains that she was primarily attracted to Billy because he, unlike many other young men in their community, had a good job. She goes on to explain that, “the future is meat” and that “meat was going to make our dream come true.”[5] Despite her use of the past-tense in the second part of this statement, her first statement is not entirely incorrect. Meat is the future in the film. The meat-packing plant, a symbolic representation of capitalist industrial growth, is on its surface, a blessing to the community. Unemployment is a significant problem in Ireland, so building industry in areas that are otherwise impoverished is the logical method of salvation for these places. The problem, however, is systemic and institutional, so that the influence of capitalism and colonialism historically and in the 21st century on local industry and agriculture in Ireland created the conditions for high unemployment. The choice of the zombie apocalypse as the central conflict in the film, then, in is apt, because of the link between zombies and capitalist consumption. As Andrea Subissati explains, “Western imperial practices continue in the 20th and 21st century in a changed context; the figure of the cannibal re-emerges in the industrial revolution, not as the racialized ‘other’, but as an allegory for the exploitative nature of capitalism”[6] she continues, “Reduced to commodities, human beings become objects to be used for the benefit of another; or, to put it another way, people become fuel, or food.”[7] Considering Subissati’s reading of zombies and cannibalism in conjunction with Arvin’s conceptualization of possession and haunting, Billy’s infection represents the same dynamic as Imp’s haunting. Billy is infected, haunted, by his deep, existential knowledge of neocolonialism, which causes him to infect his community in turn, and eventually to kill and eat his fiancé and unborn child.

[1] ibid 12

[2] Arvin 2

[3] ibid 4

[4] ibid 4

[5] Portrait of a Zombie. Dir. Bing Bailey. Perf. Patrick Murphy, Geraldine McAlinden, Rory Mullen. Organ Hill Films, 2012.

[6] Subissati, Andrea. When There’s No More Room in Hell: The Sociology of the Living Dead. Saarbrücken, Germany: LAP Lambert Academic, 2010. Print. 39

[7] ibid 40

Image Credit: Organ Hill Films © 2012



Author: Geneveive Newman