William Seabrook: Zombies, Cannibalism, Tormented Mind

December 20, 2017

Written by Capt McNeely

Georgia Division ZADF Twitter: @ZADF_ORG

While researching for a previous article, I came across an interesting fellow named William Seabrook. Seabrook’s occupation was as a Writer and Reporter but the rest of his credentials are Occultist, Explorer, Traveler, Cannibal, and Journalist. I understand if like me after reading that, you heard a record scratch and are currently looking back to make sure you read that right. Yes, casually tucked in among his other titles is Cannibal. What makes that more ironic or fascinating is that Seabrook is credited as one of the first authors to introduce zombies to western culture, not the kind we know today but the actual zombies of Haitian origins steeped deep in Voodoo lore.

original illustration by Alex King for Seabrook’s ‘The Magic Island’

I know, I know, “Get to the part where he’s a Cannibal!” alright But first some background. Seabrook was a traveler and explorer who made a name for himself by writing articles for magazines like Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, and Vanity Fair that detailed his adventures to parts of the world that not many Westerners have heard of or knew little about. He specifically seemed quite fond of cultural traditions to the point where he himself would partake in it, wanting to experience it for himself and write about it. Well, the actions that made him infamous took place while he was in French Sudan (now Ivory Coast) where he was researching for his book, Jungle Ways where he encountered the Guéré (Krahn) people.
Seabrook witnessed firsthand the tribe partaking in ritualistic cannibalism. Seabrook was excited that he was going to partake in this ritual but to his disappointment, he was not allowed to eat the human flesh that was provided because he was not a member of the tribe but instead he was offered Bush Meat (Gorilla to be exact).
This did not stop Seabrook; he really Really wanted to try eating human flesh! Seabrook with the help of a friend, who worked in a hospital, was able to obtain a human thigh for Seabrook. Seabrook took the meat and cooked it and legend suggests he actually threw a party for people to watch him eat it. Whether or not if that happened one thing was clear, he wrote in great detail how the meat looked and felt when it was raw to how it tasted. His conclusion (drum roll please) it tasted like “good, fully developed veal,” which is interesting as many cannibals (indigenous peoples and serial killers) often described the taste resembling pork, by the way, if anyone offers you Long Pork or Long Pig, just say no.

Seabrook in the Middle East,1926 Courtesy of William K. Seabrook

Seabrook is remembered in most circles and to the outsiders learning about him now as some sort of weirdo known not only for the infamous “Cannibal” incident but for his alcoholism, drug use, and sadism. From my research, I can’t tell you what Seabrook was like growing up but there are a couple things from his past that would explain his actions. First, in 1915 he volunteered for the American Field Service during the First World War. The AFS’s role during WWI was being Ambulance drivers for the French army, driving up to the front lines and bringing the wounded back to hospitals. Surely that experience alone would have been traumatic but it did not stop there for Seabrook, he was gassed during the battle of Verdun in 1916. The battle of Verdun was not only the largest battle in WWI but it was the longest one, nine months long!

Lee Miller and William Seabrook photographed by Man Ray

We all know now that many soldiers from that time have experienced so many horrific things that many of them were changed permanently due to “Shell Shock” or as we call it now PTSD. This could explain how years afterward Seabrook partook in strange interests thanks to the second thing that may have attributed to his psychological downfall, in 1919 he played host to the notorious Occultist, Aleister Crowley where he experimented with witchcraft. The following year was when the “Cannibal” incident took place. He kept adventuring and writing even going as far as to commit himself to an asylum for alcoholism treatment where afterward he wrote another bestseller based on his experience.
Alas, all adventures come to an end, in 1945 Seabrook took his own life by overdosing on sleeping pills. Personally, I felt that the adventures were in a way a form of escaping the horrors he encountered during the First World War. The drinking and drugging was no doubt another tactic to evade his past. The fascination with the occult, maybe he wanted answers to why we die and what else is there in this world which leads to his interest in Haitian Voodoo which resulted in us learning about zombies that would then lead to people being inspired to add on to those stories and resulting in the flesh-eating undead that we know and love (to shoot in video games) today, a cultural phenomenon born from the tormented mind of William Seabrook.

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