During the Enlightenment, philosophers sought to find out the truth about our world through the aid of reason. No longer was revelation the primary source of knowledge about the world. God may have spoken to the world, but if he did, his words would have to pass the muster of our reason. As such, the age of revelation passed on in favor of our own sense and perceptions of the world, leading to the modern conflict between faith and reason.
This conflict of ideas gets played out cleverly in the Val Lewton-produced psychological horror film, I Walked with a Zombie. Released in 1943 by RKO on a B-movie budget, the film nevertheless makes good use of its more limited cast and sets through the application of atmospheric lighting, thoughtful writing, and an inventive use of the camera.
The setup is simple: a young Canadian nurse is recruited to the Caribbean by a rich sugar cane farmer to care for his mysteriously ill wife. When she arrives, she finds a woman we might describe as blank—she will obey simple commands, but never speaks or shows any emotion whatsoever. Of course, as a medical professional, she consults with the doctor on possible treatments, and even gets him to administer an experimental treatment in the hopes of shocking her back to waking life.
However, not even the most advanced medical procedures make any difference in the patient’s health. The sick woman continues in her zombie-like state, while the nurse, feeling great compassion for the lonely husband, wracks her brain for any possible solution. Out of a sense of love and obligation to her employer, the nurse eventually decides it would be worth taking her to the local voodoo meeting, where the natives gather for mysterious nightly rituals. It’s her love and care for another human being that leads her to break out of her strictly rationalist mindset in treating the illness and look for another solution.
The key scene of the film is the walk these two ladies take on a winding path through the sugar cane fields on their way to the voodoo meeting. The women move through the tall cane on a narrow path in what becomes a journey from the natural to the supernatural. Initially, they are merely surrounded by the natural world, the sugar cane reaching high above their heads and severely limiting their view. Yet as they walk along, they encounter decidedly unnatural sights: a cow’s skull on a stick, a dog hanging from a tree, bones arranged in the dirt, and eventually, a disturbingly bug-eyed guardian to the voodoo meeting.
As the women take this journey, a journey where they eventually discover the true nature of the sick woman, they step into what looks like another world at the voodoo meeting. A man dances with a sword. A woman seems under a trance. A mysterious wise person offers advice through a strangely decorated wall. To find the answer to her problem, the nurse had to step into a world of perceptions beyond the senses, one which allowed for supernatural explanations. Reason alone was simply not enough.
I Walked with a Zombie illustrates beautifully through a horror-story narrative the fallacy of approaching life from a purely rationalist point of view. G. K. Chesterton once wrote on this topic that, “It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” Chesterton’s self-deprecating recognition of humanity’s limited viewpoint coalesces nicely with the overall narrative arc of Zombie.
An Enlightenment viewpoint has certainly resulted in exponential technological, medical, and scientific advances. These gains cannot be ignored. But neither can we ignore the reality of our limited viewpoint, and the need to receive trustworthy knowledge from outside ourselves. I Walked with a Zombie helpfully creates a space from which we might be able to consider such knowledge.