Zombie Special: The Tormented Mind of William Seabrook

This is the second part of exploration of the culture, science and mythology of zombies. Find part 1 here.

In the 1920’s William Seabrook became fascinated with Haiti and its Vodou. What started as a keen hobby would go on on to inspire a hundred years of entertainment in the zombie genre.

By Katerina Flynn: @katerinaflynn1: Photos by Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964)

Think of all those amazing zombie games, like The Last Of Us (2013), Resident Evil (2003) and even The Walking Dead: Telltale games (2012). Or those endless hours spent watching films like Dead Rising: Watchtower (2015) and 28 Days Later (2002). And of course the many of us who love to read zombie comics. The zombie genre is perhaps the most enduring in horror media, and is more popular now than ever before.

The Father of the Western Zombie Obsession

Most film buffs think that we have George A. Romero to thank for our love of the “undead” or “infected”, as they are more commonly known in modern day media. In actual fact, while George A. Romero created the modern ‘’infected’’ type of zombie, the original flesh eating, raised-from-the-dead zombie was only brought to the media in the 1920’s by author, occultist, journalist and cannibal – yes, cannibal – William Seabrook.

Born on the 22nd February 1884 in Westminster, Maryland, United States, William Seabrook’s life, like so many of that generation was traumatic. Aged 31, he found himself on the battlefields of the Great War, joining the American Field Service in the French army, where he served as an ambulance driver. While that experience would have been distressing enough, Seabrook also fought in the battle of Verdun. With it’s duration of nine months, it was the longest as well as the largest battle of WWI. All of his prolonged exposure to the horror’s of war were already beginning to cripple him mentally, but sadly this was not the end of the excruciating journey. In 1916 he was gassed at the battle of Verdun. Knowing the horrific impact the gas has on survivors it is easy to speculate that it would have had a severe impact on his mental health. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre shortly after the war.

‘’ He remained in Haiti for twelve months, partaking in as many of their traditions as he possibly could.’’

Upon his return to the US, he became a reporter for The New York Times. Besides his eleven books, Seabrook published articles in popular magazines including Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, and Vanity Fair. With a burgeoning journalistic career, it looked as though he had such a bright future ahead of him. Despite the terrible things he saw during the war, it seemed that William Seabrook had escaped the horrors of his past. But appearances can be deceptive.

Mental Decline

It was noted that since his return from the war, his drinking habits had become a concern to those around him. For years, Seabrook was in denial of his alcoholism, partly due to the culture of the time. “So long as any man drinks when he wants to and stops when he wants to, he isn’t a drunkard, no matter how much he drinks or how often he falls under the table.”, he wrote. “The British upper classes were constantly and consistently mildly stewed, from father to son, in Parliament and Pall Mall for nearly the whole of the eighteenth century.” — William Seabrook, Asylum

His first wife, Katherine Pauline Edmondson, became so dissatisfied with his drinking that despite Seabrook admitting himself into a mental institute for his alcoholism, it was too little too late. Even in the 1930’s it was still considered shameful to have a divorce but Edmonson decided that enough was enough, divorcing her husband in 1934.

It’s a wonder that with all of Seabrook’s unusual tastes, Edmonson had held on for as long as she did. From his return in 1916 to their divorce in 1934, Seabrook had engaged in cannibalism, become obsessed with the occult (Aleister Crowley even visited him for a week in the autumn of 1919), and begun to find a strange comfort in twisted sexual fantasies. It has been said by many that his sexual fantasies were supposedly a way to punish his mother, though it’s never specified what she actually did.

After his divorce, Seabrook married Marjorie Worthington barely a year later. They met in 1926 and until their divorce in 1941 they travelled throughout Europe and Africa together. As a novelist herself, they seemed to have much in common and even before their marriage they had become great friends. Spending so much time exploring the magnificent parts of the world should have been a unique and unforgettable experience, but sadly as time went on Seabrook became more deranged.

“I’m the 7th William Seabrook, there’s too many of us” he said.

The Magic Island

Worthington accompanied Seabrook to Haiti in the mid 1920s, and it was here that his obsession with the occult was fed. He remained in Haiti for twelve months, partaking in as many of their traditions as he possibly could. There was, however, one thing the chief of the tribe would not let him join in with: the consumption of human flesh. Seabrook was outwardly disappointed but he did not let the chiefs refusal stop him from tasting the forbidden fruit. Upon his return to the US, Seabrook convinced one of his friends who worked at the hospital to provide him with some human flesh. He cooked and ate it, claiming that it ‘’tasted like veal’’ which is vastly different to what serial killers and tribesman say, who claim it tastes more like pork.  

It was through his many experiences in Haiti that he published his third book, The Magic Island, which chronicled his journey through Haiti. This was the first book published for a Western audience which gave detailed accounts of Vodou’s “zombie” rituals, and many scholars were credited with introducing the zombie phenomenon to popular culture. Without it there would be no classic films such as Night Of The Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978).

At the end of Seabrook’s stay in a mental institution in 1933, he was given the all clear for his alcoholism – or so it seemed. He used this opportunity to write another book about his experiences in the mental institution. Asylum hit the shelves in 1935. Worthington also wrote a book about their relationship, entitled The Strange World Of Willie Seabrook, which is not only a memoir of their lives together but also a memorial to a bygone artistic age. It was originally published in 1966, twenty-one years after his death.

The spark that carried Worthington through many years of loving Seabrook had began to fade, and despite being a novelist herself, she was often excluded from group talks he would have with other writers. Instead she was to be entertained with the other novelists wives.

Sadly his second marriage would only last five years, it is worth noting that Worthington kept this marriage a secret for seven months. This was partly down to the fact that her ex-husband had gone on to marry Katherine Edmonson, Seabrook’s first wife.

While his recurring alcoholism and sadistic sexual fantasies were both frustrating and disturbing for Worthington, it was neither of these things that drove her away. It was his decision to ask Constance Kurh, his new girlfriend whom he met in the Woodstock art colony, to move in with them.

On the second of June 1942, Seabrook married his third and final wife Constance. She would go on to bear him his only child, William Seabrook the 8th. It is noted that William was unhappy with having a son – ‘’I’m the 7th William Seabrook, there’s too many of us”, he said.

It would seem that until their divorce later that year, she was not afraid of his sexual fantasies, actively encouraging and participating in them. Despite this being his shortest marriage, they were able to remain close friends.

On the 20th September 1945, he overdosed on sleeping pills in his home in Rhinebeck, New York, unaware of the power of his legacy, which wouldn’t become apparent for several decades. Neither would he ever be credited for his contribution to popular culture –  typically, the zombie genre is seen as originating with George A. Romero. Romero himself acknowledges that he found his inspiration in the 1932 movie White Zombie, which wouldn’t have existed without William Seabrook’s book The Magic Island.  

It’s sad that not everyone mourned his death, even the renown Aleister Crowley couldn’t bring himself to say any nice words about him, .”The swine-dog W. B. Seabrook has killed himself at last, after months of agonized slavery to his final wife.” — Aleister Crowley said upon his death.

All of the media we are so familiar with can be traced back to the tormented mind of one man. Whatever his shortcomings – the alcoholism, the experimentation with cannibalism, even the unusual sexual fantasies – these can be forgiven, for deep down all these things were born from the trauma he endured from WWI. It was his need to escape those memories, to become lost in other worlds that led to the portrayal of zombies in the Western world. Without the trauma that he endured, we would not have been able to spend countless hours being entertained by the films, TV shows, games and comics in the zombie genre.

The next time you sit down to watch your favourite zombie flick or turn on your console to play a zombie game, think about the man responsible. Through his trials and tribulations, we are not only entertained but we are also able to become lost in our own horror filled fictional worlds and escape our own trauma. All thanks to William Seabrook, author, occultist and of course, one-time cannibal.


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