Reconceiving and Redeeming the Self: Passing, the Harlem Renaissance, and Zombies

by Amanda Gradisek and Ron Scott

<1> The borders that are built for us, and that we often cross seeking to establish our identities, come in many forms, and the mere act of passing through them entails risks of many sorts—physical, psychological, and cultural. The struggle to maintain these borders often plays itself out in popular culture. Consider one example, incorporated in the classic zombie film Night of the Living Dead (1968). Its iconography has become a well-known component of many American cultural narratives: an isolated farmhouse, barricaded against the shambling forms of the living dead, with the forces of martial walking armed through the countryside, blasting away at any moving creature they see. As long-term observers of these films know, the barricades that serve as a seemingly stout barrier will fail because the house cannot keep out the mindless hordes that are attacking it. In fact, those inside who have relied on this fragile boundary will soon be thrown on their own against the hordes outside. The border that seemed strong and reliable—invoking images of American pastoral perfection, or consumer paradise, or scientific achievement—disappears as the fingers of the living dead claw apart the walls of the house and begin their feast.

<2> Imagine another scene that features an equally familiar cultural narrative, one obsessed with the ability to determine racial identity definitively. This space is perhaps less fantastic or surreal than the barricades present in zombie films—and it has a longer cultural resonance, as a border like this one has been constructed in 1920, or 1820, and it will likely be constructed again in 2020—and this time the wall is perhaps more personal. In it, a character notices her difference from the others around her, and she embarks on a mission to overcome that difference. In this version, seemingly more realistic but perhaps less easily noticed, the character configures herself as a member of a more privileged social stratum, one in which bodily markers of body, dress, and income begin to appear natural. The social borders these markers reinforce might seem as firm as the barricade of the farmhouse, and yet this character passes fluidly through them, acquiring privilege and using it to escape the oppression of her former life. As she passes through these borders, the system is shaken, and those who abide by its rules feel the tremors of the ground beneath their feet. They sense the pursuit of those who seek to claim privilege for their own. The stakes are high: attempts to pass through these borders involve enormous risk, and the narratives describing these transgressions prove that characters who take this risk will often pay dearly.

<3> Not so far away from the imagined farmhouse as might be imagined, canonical and non-canonical texts  are often equally concerned with cultural borders. In this article, we make a seemingly unlikely pairing of Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen’s novel Passing (1929) and a recent zombie film, Warm Bodies (2013). The former was largely forgotten for decades, only to be reclaimed by academics driven by new modes of literary and cultural analysis; the latter is a popular film, filled with irony, humor, and teen movie tropes. But both texts are about passing, as both feature characters who attempt to move between inferior identity positions (black, zombie) to positions of power (white, human). The borders that the characters in both texts cross put them at risk, and the desire to cross them creates compelling scenarios in which to consider the construction of these of identities. These texts–radically different at first glance–allow for the imagination of an intertexual conversation that challenges definitions of genre and categories of cultural production while highlighting themes that bridge experiential gaps. As characters and authors imagine the possibilities for challenging boundaries and pushing through borders, they reveal concerns and desires that have deep roots in human cultures.

<4> The nature of these borders and the categories of identity they maintain often quietly serve as an integral description of positions of power, status, and hierarchy. Hidden behind the horror of the popular genre of the zombie film, only recently a source of scholarly attention, lies a pervasive anxiety about the trauma and consequences of passing.  Transgressing borders becomes both a statement of defiance and a longing in and of itself; individuals crave and fear this movement yet it inspires horror and incites curiosity. This impulse is literary and theoretical, appearing in texts as auspicious as Julia Kristeva’s famous essay “Powers of Horror,” in which she writes that the abject “shows up in order to compensate for the collapse of the border between inside and outside” (53). What she describes is the body’s insides, the blood and other viscera that keep the faint of heart far from the horror film and its mental barricades. A permeable border, she writes, is the scene of horror. Indeed, ours is a “universe of borders, seesaws, fragile and mingled identities, wanderings of the subject and its objects, fears and struggles, abjections and lyricisms” (135). As identities “mingle,” the world becomes less certain and unreadable.

<5> While Kristeva locates this anxiety about blurred identity—highlighting the desire to pass through, to usurp privilege, to leave old lives behind—the questions that she invokes invariably lead to questions of power. Psychiatrist and critic of colonialism Franz Fanon analyzes the concept of mingled identities and the desire to cross borders in terms of race: “the black man wants to be white,” he writes, simply: “The white man slaves to reach a human level” (Black Skin, White Masks, 10). Here, Fanon astutely captures the essence of the desire to remake oneself, as each of us strives to be something other than what we are. Color is always a metaphor for understanding race, but in this case, it serves as metaphor for understanding socially constructed categories of privilege. The black man, in Fanon’s example, desires the white man’s power; the white man, defining himself against that black man cast as Other, fears the collapse of the border that maintains privilege and the abjection of Kristeva’s “mingled identities.”[1] Considering the issue from a sociological perspective, German philosopher Georg Simmel argues that individuals are torn between their “competing desires” for “imitation” and “differentiation” (543) or “union” and “segregation” (542). This is the logic guiding everything from late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century conduct manuals and realist novels to the twenty-first century adolescent poring over fashion magazines, hoping to find the secrets to normative social and sexual acceptance. In all of these examples, an individual hopes to unify herself with the dominant culture, to assimilate into a group that grants more privilege.

<6> As a phenomenon–cultural, historical, literary, and theoretical–the practice of passing has a rich history. For the purposes of this paper, the many scholars who have addressed its implication in the context of American history provide a useful account of the assumptions, norms, and implications of the practice, most often through the lens of Harlem Renaissance literature. In one view, passing–generally from a position of subordination to one of relative privilege–is a method of improving one’s status in spite of the racist social structures in which she or he lives. At the same time, it illuminates the nature of socially constructed identities. Elaine K. Ginsburg considers the “genealogy” of passing as one grounded in the belief that most who “pass” are adopting a “fraudulent” identity, usually, white, and in which an “an individual crossed or passed through a racial line or boundary—indeed trespassed—to assume a new identity, escaping the subordination and oppression accompanying one identity and accessing the privileges and status of the other” (3). In this formulation, Ginsburg notes that the stigma surrounding black identity leads to the understanding that whiteness can only ever be illegitimate for those who pass through the social color line, no matter their physical appearance. As Sanchez and Schlossberg suggest, the assumption that identity can be visibly known makes passing an epistemological crisis, as subjects are constituted by visions of themselves and of others. (Sanchez and Schlossberg 1). “For racially marked subjects,” they write, “passing can save them from the serious consequences of being assigned outsider status, or “the difference between life and death, community and isolation, status as property and status as subjects”(4). While the individual who passes may often seek some sort of “true identity,” Martha Cutter argues that the search leads only to the realization that  “no such thing exists, only a variety of social roles” (76). Destabilizing any usable concept of true or fixed identity, passing makes real the complex web of signs that structure lived and imagined experiences.

<7> From another view, despite its potential to liberate the individual subject, passing, as a practice, can endanger the the passer and reinforce hierarchichal ordering of racialized bodies. As Julie Cary Nerad argues, many passive narratives have the tendency to presume a kind of essentialism, as “the rhetoric of biological difference” persists, “failing to disrupt the idea that pre-passing identity is true and passing identity is assumed” (Nerad 816). And while narratives chronicling whites who pass as black exist, as Gayle Wald explains, they usually glorify the white passer as “tearing down racial prejudice and establishing events of ‘cross-racial’ understanding.” Conversely, what Wald calls “‘black’ passing narratives cast doubt on passing as a form of racial ‘liberation,’ drawing on metaphors of concealment and disguise to highlight the compromised agency of the subject who ‘crosses over’ (16). Her analysis highlights the ways in which the history of passing narratives indicates a tendency make certain assumptions based on whether the subject passes to or from a position of power.

<8> It becomes clear that passing highlights simultaneous, contradictory desires in humans as social animals. This desire to “pass”marks a hopeful tendency on the part of the individual and it is these particular competing desires that inspire the work of this piece, which considers the somewhat pervasive human fascination with passing—passing into privilege, passing through borders, and passing as someone or something else. The twenty-first century has yet to eliminate a phenomenon that transcends historical period, cultural constructs, and generic conventions. Instead, the borders that humans desire to cross are reconfigured and redefined. Some of their key components remain constant: race appears consistently, even in zombie texts, and gender and class still defines lines of power and prestige. Other components, submerged before, reemerge in different forms: anxieties about control and hierarchies and how human relationships are formed in late capitalist societies look very different as these cultural narratives are redone.

<9> This project focuses on the unusual combination of Passing and Warm Bodies because both texts feature characters feature characters who pass, but specifically, those who pass in usual ways. Much of the historical and literary criticism around the phenomenon leaves one seemingly obvious yet rarely considered facet of passing unconsidered. If, as Fanon sees it, the fundamental reality of difference is the inferior’s desire to move to the superior position, what, then, do we make of the individual who refuses the hierarchy and deliberately passes into the subordinate position? The more unexpected, common thread between these texts is about passing, but it is not the passing that manifests Fanon’s desire. Instead, both texts feature characters who willingly pass out of privilege into identities generally considered to be undesirable. Both Warm Bodies and Passing, nearly a century apart, show characters who move freely up and down the hierarchy, who redeem and reconceive of their original, subordinate identities through their desire to maintain that part of their selves.

<10> In both of these texts, an individual is confronted with a scene of potential horror, as borders become fluid and bodies are no longer grounded in a system of order. In both of these texts, characters face the abject, the realization of the otherness to which they were once bound, and act on the competing desires for redemption and reconception. These characters reconceive of themselves by passing, crossing through physical and cultural borders to take on roles that according to prevailing hierarchies they should not be able to assume.  Nearly simultaneously, they also seek redemption by passing back into their original social strata, looking for seemingly fundamental aspects of their identities that they feel passing has caused them to lose. As texts that are seemingly quintessentially American in unique ways, both Passing and Warm Bodies allow their audience to consider the way in which passing fluidly through borders, from the position of powerlessness and abjection to privilege and, perhaps, back again, allows for a reimagination of the self that manifests a distinctly American story. If, as Colson Whitehead suggests, a “society manufactures the heroes it requires,” it is the work of this piece to consider what makes these passing figures the necessary creation of the American imagination.


<11> From its title to the substance of its story, Nella Larsen’s Passing is a story about the desire to be something other than one is. This novel, well known in Harlem in 1929 when it was published, but largely forgotten for decades, engages many tenets of the contemporary theoretical discourse about race—the tragic mulatta figure, the veil of DuBois’s “double consciousness,” and the political and cultural ambitions of some members of the Renaissance. As its main characters navigate the complex racial and social landscape of early twentieth-century urban life, their experiences make it clear that the boundaries organizing their lives along nebulous racial lines are anything but absolute.

<12> In Passing, the two protagonists are both light-skinned black women, but one, Irene, lives her life as a black woman committed to uplifting the race while another, Clare, lives in white society, married to a white man who not only does not know her background but also shocks Irene with his overt racism. When the two women reconnect after many years, each feels the tempting allure of a life other than the one she has chosen; perhaps surprisingly, it is Clare who is gripped with the “wild desire” to leave her “pale life” behind and pass into the vibrant Harlem society life (Larsen 145). Far from welcoming Clare back into the fold, Irene resents the return of her old friend. She attacks Clare’s loyalty, claiming that she “cared nothing for the race. She only belonged to it” (183). Irene’s anger is easy to understand; Clare seems a traitor, devoid of loyalty to the race, while Irene is committed to uplifting her own people. She seems to resist that human desire to pass into the privilege of whiteness that Clare was unable to resist.

<13> Clare’s transgression is charged by more than just her breakdown of traditional categories of binary, hierarchal racial identity. On some level, what truly disconcerts Irene is her old friend’s lack of concern about the laying bare of the long-established but usually concealed practice of passing, that means by which the lucky few, those with skin light enough to pass into the position of privilege, were able to shirk the burdens of race. While the desire to pass is common, its incarnation in the novel is particularly American in nature; in the aftermath of slavery, the Great Migration, and the development of Harlem, in the midst of the legal segregation that many did not dare to challenge for decades, and because of interracial breeding that blurred the color line even further, the intricacies of laws and racial definition made it easy to pass into the white community. In her rejection of her own race, Clare offends, but she also causes Irene to consider possibilities she has previously denied herself. Clare breaks down established borders and boundaries throughout the novel. She disconcerts Irene, who claims to be afraid her husband is having an affair with Clare. Critics have suggested that Clare tempts Irene to reject other norms, such as marriage, and by inspiring illicit sexual desire.

<14> Clare’s return also inspires an unwelcome ambivalence about passing in Irene. She finds herself curious about it, wanting to ask Clare how she deals with the practicalities of family history. Clare comments that explaining herself is “easier” with white people, “perhaps because there are so many more of them” (158). Perhaps it is the certainty of privilege that allows a member of the dominant culture to assume they can read status on an individual’s body or behaviors. But, as Irene points out, the African American community also enables this practice: “It’s funny about ‘passing,’” she remarks. “We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it” (Larsen 186). Here, Larsen eloquently captures the doubling of desire embodied by passing as a phenomenon. There’s no doubt that many feel the same, even today. We simultaneously root for the interloper to undermine the structure, racist and sexist as it is, just as we wait, breathless with anticipation, for her to be caught and exposed for what she is: a fraud, an imitation, a forgery.

<15> The stakes in Larsen’s novel are undoubtedly high; unlike passing for fun or in less rigidly segregated societies, those who are caught passing become criminals in the early twentieth-century. In its extreme hierarchy and its insistence on blackness as extreme other and inferior, the racist, segregated, and stratified social system of the early twentieth century calls to mind the anxiety and horror of Kristeva’s theorization of abjection. The self, Kristeva writes, draws close to “a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture” (2). Learned early, the realization of the abject protects individuals from transgressive desire. Even Irene, who lives her life as a black woman, seems incapable of unlearning the lesson that taught her to emulate the behaviors of white culture. As blackness came to serve as the abject to the white society’s sense of selfhood, even some of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance were unable to completely leave behind the learned aversion to this conception of self. The “primers of [their] culture” taught them early on to seek to pass out of the abject—the only problem is that in this set of definitions, self and abject are too close to the same.  Seen in this way, passing becomes the special privilege of those who have the ability and the learned desire to escape their own identity, who have learned to understand their own selves as the abject. Passing allows an individual to reconceive of herself and cast off the burdens of race.


<16> Or so it might seem, but Passing resists so simple a reading.  If this were so, Clare would happily leave behind her old life, one of the lucky few able to claim a position of privilege. But despite its many benefits, Clare’s passing into the privilege of white culture and seeming redefinition of herself leaves her unsettled—she has not sated all of her desires. Early on, Clare tells Irene that she cannot know “how in this pale life” of hers she is “all the time seeing the bright pictures of that other that [she] once thought [she] was glad to be free of”; now she finds she has a “wild desire” to see Irene (Larsen 145). She writes to Irene, visits her home in Harlem when her husband is out of town, and attends a Negro Welfare League dance. This is not enough to reveal her passing, as whites commonly visited Harlem for entertainment and certain kinds of events.[9] She does, however, become particularly disconcerting in these actions in that she is freed from her husband’s anchoring presence in the white world. As a woman traveling between two social worlds with no husband present, Clare disrupts traditional sexist and racist social organization that suggests that women must remain contained—whether it is in the home, in the presence of some sort of chaperone, or in terms of their sexuality. In this case, Clare refuses to allow her racial identity to be so neatly defined, and in her presence, Irene finds her understanding of her own marriage no longer clear, her sexual desire, possibly, spiraling out of accepted norms, and her curiosity about passing piqued; in other words, Clare’s very presence breaks down boundaries and creates disorder.

<17> The border confusion depicted in Irene’s relationship with Clare highlights the identity questions that the phenomenon of passing embodies, and the continued struggle over just who we are clearly resonates. Clare’s passing—and not just her passing from black to white, but her passing back from white to black (and sometimes back again and again)—reveals an anxiety that is as prevalent in 2014 as it was in 1929. Passing, as an often invisible transgressive practice, usually reinforces the privilege of the established order, and Larsen’s characters know this. As a result, the cultural assumption is that people want to pass “up,” a practice enabled by the cultural prominence of the privileged group. For this reason, Irene notes that it would not be easy for a white person to pass as black, as she assumes that their interest in black culture would most likely be limited at best. Similarly, today the middle and lower classes are inundated with images of the upper classes, and might therefore be more capable of emulating the ways they have admired from afar for so long, if given the chance; as such, privileged identity have more currency in popular culture, and are thus more easily reproduced and imagined.

<18> While most people understand the desire to move one’s way up the proverbial social ladder, fewer understand the desire to leave the sanctuary of privilege and descend into a group that is, as Irene puts it, unable “to disregard the burden of race” (Larsen 225). And yet, Larsen rejects this assumption: take, for example, Irene’s vehement defense of a man’s conversion to Judaism in the face of her friends’ amused confusion; while her friends find it laughable, she objects to their failure to take seriously his deliberate move to a religious and cultural identity plagued by bigotry. Irene takes Clare’s consideration of moving back to black society permanently seriously, too, rejecting the logic that sees such a gesture of passing to be laughable or a passing fancy on the part of the privileged who are “slumming.” The idea that Clare would consider reclaiming the identity of a black woman is one that tempts readers to reconsider not just the barriers but the definitions themselves. The fact that she might pass both ways—into privilege and, willingly, out of it—hints at the redemption that she feels she might find in investigating her “wild desire” to return to the racial designation of her youth.

<19> When Clare passes back into black culture, her actions, and, at times, her ambiguous physical presence itself, refute insistence on social binaries and deny any theorization of blackness as the abject. Her body is rarely described as white or black—instead, she is “golden, fragrant,” and “flaunting” and even  Irene is described as “beige-colored” and “dark-white” with “dark olive” skin.” Clare’s body itself, no readable color, undermines the authority of the flawed black-white binary. And yet, despite her ability to pass as white, she is tempted by a redemptive desire to reclaim her black identity. This is the brilliance of the novel; instead of just being a story of passing, Passing is story of a woman who embodies a new desire, who refuses the “repugnance” of abjection that protects her from dangerous desire for the unclear, the categorically undesirable (Kristeva 3). While Clare is no moral heroine, guided as she is by selfishness and desire, and devoid of loyalty to the race, hers is a brazen refusal to accept the established system’s hierarchical category of identities. It also refuses the rhetoric that values white over black and, we might guess, man over woman, destabilizing racist and sexist hierarchies even as she challenges Irene’s safe and unquestioning life.

<20> The reader might feel inclined to be optimistic, until in the end, Clare, of course, has to die. After her husband sees Irene with a decidedly black woman on the street, he likely pieces together the significance of Clare’s presence in the Redfield household. Clare falls to her death, but whether it is an accident, she jumps, her husband pushes her, or Irene pushes her, readers do not know for certain. And if Irene does push her, readers wonder, is it because she suspects Clare of having an affair with her husband, because she herself wants to have an affair with Clare, or because she tempts her to break free of the mold and pass herself? Frustratingly, readers are left without an answer. But it seems fitting that that the novel ends in ambivalence and uncertainty, an unreadable death devoid of any clear explanation. And yet, we find ourselves thinking, it just might be that Clare rejects the system that categorically defines her as the horrific other by leaving that identity behind. Simultaneously, she reconceives of herself as a different woman but redeems her original identity by effectively dying a black woman.


It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled. The border has become an object. How can I be without border? (Kristeva 4, italics in the original)

Don’t be creepy. Don’t be creepy. Don’t be creepy. (R’s narrative voice-over, Warm Bodies)

<21> Kristeva’s location of the fear engendered by being the “’I’” that is “expelled” neatly characterizes Clare’s battle to pass through the border of race, but it also helps understand the prevalence of border concerns in American culture, thus portraying the constant reiteration of our obsession with pigeonholding who goes where in our social milieu. If an individual cannot reconceive or redeem herself, the anxiety caused by being subsumed into the undifferentiated masses looms for all those like her who dare transgress borders enacted to reinforce privilege and encode status. These fears that Larsen so beautifully captures reappear constantly, as the forceful expulsion of the I that is a critical part of American identity engenders resistance.

<22> This resistance might take place in unexpected places, as is evident from this argument’s connection of Passing with a modern zombie film.  But the zombie film has become a cypher since its reincarnation in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a film that as Romero recalled (in a 2010 interview in Time) was directly inspired by political upheaval: “It was 1968.  We were angry that peace and love hadn’t worked the way we had hoped” (Romero). The significance of the perceived failure of social movements resulted in Romero’s reinvigoration of a genre rife with both satirical and metaphorical purposes. As a result, the film reflects an anxiety about the inabiltity to remake oneself across the cultural borders that were the focus of the Civil Rights movement, and, essentially, the fading of the American Dream.  Warm Bodies celebrates its connection to this history—R’s voice-over narrative reads like a critical examination of the zombie film’s history—while invoking larger generic fears. Anxieties about the border that Warm Bodies addresses with its constant asking of characters to willingly (and not so willingly) pass through and then come back marks a limit to the American desire for a post-racial world, one harbinged by the election of its first African-American president in 2008.  As Kristeva argues, crossing the border between life and death (at least in the West) means that we risk becoming “an object” (4), and in the zombie film becoming an object implies that one becomes other that white. Her use of the verb of being here is particularly troubling, as the objectified corpse is to be completely rejected, “expelled,” and cast out, while remaining in a state of perpetual ontological crisis. This crisis makes that border seem ill-defined, one that might appear to be easy to recognize but that instead always appears on the horizon, vaguely threatening.  In fact, the fear that it provokes is epistemic, as Kristeva notes: “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (4). In one sense, then, the resonance of the zombie text lies in its attempts to reinstate this border, especially as the surviving humans not-so-gently return the corpses to a better-understood state. Recognizable categories of identity (living versus not) return, and the abject is successfully rejected and cast out; the I can no longer be expelled.


R:  [voice-over] Say something human. Say something human.

R: “How.  Are.  You.”

R:  [voice-over] Nailed it. (Warm Bodies)

<23> Our cultural obsession, then, with these borders resurfaces in zombie films, as once again identity is configured in terms of starkly drawn lines. Warm Bodies draws these lines in very specific ways, distinguishing between the human, the corpse, and a third category, bonies, undead creatures so “degraded” (in the language of the film) that they even look alien. The film carefully moves R back and forth between corpse and human, beginning with him narrating his day and trying to imagine his fellow corpses as humans; shortly thereafter, we see him and a pack of corpses attacking Julie and her boyfriend who are on a supply run before breaking ranks to protect Julie—even coaching her on how to appear as a corpse—from his fellow corpses. R has so fallen for whatever Julie has awakened him that he risks being shot to come to her, and at this point the desire to pass begins to direct the plot.

<24> R’s need to pass as human becomes full-borne after Julie has returned to the human city. She and her friend Nora decide that they must help R tell Julie’s father (the city commander) about R’s belief that the corpses are “changing”—what they are changing into is not exactly clear, but the humans note that this change “is big”—and as a result they decide to perform a makeover on him. In a very funny scene, the two women—experienced zombie killers—revert to gender norms by using up their dwindling make-up supplies to bring color to R’s skin. The film shows its awareness of generic conventions as we hear Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” start to play, only to have Julie chide Nora and ask her to put on a different song (“Midnight City” by M83, an appropriate move from 1950s horror to 2014 playful trance). As the makeover continues, the scene moves to the shower, with the camera moves betweenR’s perspective at first (looking up at the cascading water), and then pulling back to reveal R’s pale skin with bullet wounds and knife scars, some of which we have seen him get in the scene in which he kills and eats Julie’s boyfriend. R seems to shiver in the shower, as the changes that he is undergoing—and that are exaggerated by his makeover—take hold and he starts to have human feelings of temperature and sensation on his skin. He even attempts to express a masculine desire to not be made up, but he sits patiently (even ignoring the tempting treat offered by Julie’s bare arm lingering in front of his mouth as she applies foundation) while they make him look human. The women succeed; as Nora notes, he goes from corpse to “hot” by the time they are finished, and he passes as human during his walk through the camp.

<25> For R, the transformation triggered by bathing and make-up marks his passage to being human with his body. The wounds remind us of what he once was, but the women’s comfort with him, and their almost giddy appraisal of him as attractive, returns them to a far different place than that in which the film started. The act of helping R reconceive of his identity has redeemed them from hard-bitten survivalists to young women looking for potential mates, and the film’s choice of music confirms that some sort of border has been passed. In a sense, of course, they have helped R transgress, and the transgression: he has moved from Other to a “normal” identity, a white teenage boy whose beauty is idealized and normalized as human. In the other genre that this film inhabits, we want R to transgress, to survive his passage through the camp, and to help the other corpses regain their humanity as well. The border that has prevented him from attaining the vision of himself and his fellow corpses that he saw in the beginning of the film has been crossed. One last trial has to be overcome, of course, in order to prove the success of all corpses passing: creating  a new alliance, humans and corpses band together to hunt down and kill the remaining bonies. The film clearly depicts this union with a scene in which humans with assault rifles and corpses with sticks and zombified fists advance on a much smaller number of bonies, with the formerly fearsome bonies now suffering the shot-to-the-head fate previously reserved for corpses.  We as filmgoers know that order will now be restored, as the new border maintains the idea of the abject on the other side and the protagonists on their own side, even if all of the horror figures, the bonies, have been killed. The film ends with scene after scene of zombies feeling emotions, enjoying sunshine, playing hide-and-go-seek, and making jokes about their inability to open umbrellas because they have “zombie hands” (M, Warm Bodies). The film ends with R and Julie watching the sunset just as detonations take down the wall that was built to protect humans from the two outside forces, a merge of romance and end-of-the-world zombie film that cements the longing that R has felt into a switch in identity, one in which he talks about how much he wants to keep his “new heart.”


    Grigio (Julie’s dad, the commander):  Are you still bleeding?

R:     Yes.

Grigio:     Good.

<26> The clearest border in Warm Bodies is the massive wall that is detonated at the end of the film, the type of barrier built to enforce the border with clean lines of sight and defensive structures. It is the restoration of order in this sense that most clearly shows that the consequences of continuing to exist as a corpse are far worse than those of trying to change and become human. As Michael Lee notes in his article on patriarchies and horror films, the ways in which such films end says much about the filmmaker’s ideological leanings: “the final phase, usually brief—sometimes as short as a single embrace as in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)—depicts order restored and a world free from the transgressive force. How filmmakers go about restoring order often speaks volumes about their own ideological relationship with the dominant order” (Lee 193). Warm Bodies describes how the ability to reconceive of oneself as human is as simple as having the ability to dream. The film’s final scene, one in which the detonations can barely be heard over the soundtrack, features warm sun playing over the pastoral scene of R and Julie talking on a stone bridge over a creek in what might be Central Park.  R says that “a lot of us had to learn how to live again,” and this narrative voice-over is visually reinforced with images of changed corpses  playing catch or standing on a beach. The film keeps its sense of humor, as the zombies just stand, and they are not very good playing catch, but the voice-over assures us that humans will help them learn how to do activities that are patently not work. He even keeps his corpse name—R—ensuring that he will not forget his time spent as a corpse even while he forges a new future in the best Hollywood tradition. As the wall falls, the camera pans out to show us that they are sitting far from the human city, and the National song “Runaway” comes up, with the vocals telling us that “I won’t be no runaway” and that “we got another thing coming undone” (The National). The border crossing redeems all who are redeemable. As Anna Powell notes in Deleuze and Horror, horror films should end with order restored, but the task taken on by the film only continues to reinforce the cultural narratives invoked: “despite formulaic attempts to restore order at the end of many films, we continue to become long after the film has ended. What is initially a cinematic assemblage transmutes into another form of experiential process” (63).  R and Julie have both crossed borders that have redeemed not only themselves but the world around them, and they are not at all afraid to be out from behind the walls as night approaches.

<27> The reason that they are not afraid points to the film’s desire to affirm the American desire to tear down the walls of racial identity as well anxieties that perhaps those walls are not coming down. As Elizabeth McAlister notes in her essay “Slavery, Cannibals, Infected Hyper-Whites:” zombie texts offer a “proliferation of monsters who are doing a fair amount of cultural work” (460), and that cultural work is characterized clearly in terms of race as McAlister and several others argue. McAlister notes the Haitian origin of zombies, arguing that they are the first non-European and modern (as she cites Deleuze and Guattari’s observation) monsters, ones that “represent, respond to, and mystify fear of slavery, collusion with it, and rebellion against it” (461). The genre, as she notes, is permeated with overtones of race and racial identity, and Warm Bodies invokes this generic history constantly.

<28> The film, however, seems to deliberately paper over issues of race.  For instance, none of the heroic figures are black (as in many previous zombie texts), pre-empting the narrative that McAlister identifies in which heroic black males combat hordes of “hyper-whites” (480), thereby providing a counter-narrative to a rarely seen portrayal of black male righteousness in determining who qualifies as human. Another deviation comes in the film’s color scheme, which is almost relentlessly blue, a marked departure from the grays of most zombie films. The film’s initial location – not an isolated farmhouse or shopping mall with its clear connections to consumer culture – is an airport lounge, a quintessential contemporary space with its implications of business and leisure travel and hyper-modern, hyper-corporate architecture, furniture, and fashion. R’s marker of the red hoodie places him carefully in the teen romance genre rather than as a zombie, with hints of James Dean as well as modern teen fashion. Even the most degraded form of Other in the film, the bonies, look less like the generic convention of the undead – rotting flesh hanging off cheeks, torn clothes hanging from almost-recognizable bodies – than like some sort of amalgamation of alien and human skeleton. These visual tropes continue until the film’s end, as the destruction of the wall suddenly lightens the film’s color palette, with images of grateful former zombies feeling sunshine, with tears streaming down their newly-humanized faces. The new world has come, and it carries a message that the only appropriate forms of social policing come from fathers protecting daughters, as survivors can now throw racial prejudice aside in order to rebuild the world along new, post-racial lines.

Figure 1

<29> These invocations, though, identify some of the limits that come from embracing this new world in which racial identity barriers need not exist. Warm Bodies does not show us the reconstruction work necessary, and it can ignore any historical need for understanding the phenomenon of passing.  The film skips around generic constraints from its beginnings, as it utilizes R’s inner monologue to provide the film’s humor. Generically, zombie texts do not allow readers access to zombie thoughts, but R’s narration depicts a world in which being human equates being a white teenager, one comfortable in the world created by what McAlister identifies as the “many strands of society” and that “unleash themselves on the world to release chaos from within the logic of society itself” (475). R’s ability to pass comes from a teenage boy’s desire to have a cute girl fall in love with him, hetero-norming and whitening a text whose generic expectations do not consider these kinds of possibilities to be available. The only necessary border to pass is our own internal failure to not judge others.

Figure 2


<30> Much as occurs in Passing, Warm Bodies is thoroughly bound up in a project that examines our urge to know who we are simply by looking at our physical appearances.  The redefining of the border—between living and undead, between African-American and white, of borders themselves—becomes a primary concern in both texts. The work of these texts, in our reading, looks specifically at how the borders—the wall that is exploded at the end of Warm Bodies and the rooftop from which Irene is pushed that concludes Passing—are reconfigured.

<31> It is this reconfiguring, reconceiving, and, perhaps, redeeming, that is the cultural work that we see being done in considering two texts that seem so different in the same breath. The racial passing that occurred in the dynamic Harlem Renaissance culture of the early twentieth century is a brand of passing that in some ways defined this historical period in America. And similarly, almost strangely, the zombie film’s popularity seems to be uniquely American. While other fantasy genres are more popular in other countries—vampires, aliens, other monsters, et cetera—the zombie genre remains particularly popular in the United States. Since both of these texts’ representation of passing involves this sort of doubling, this doubling of Simmel’s competing desires, this rejection of the abject that reinforces the system of order, we see this phenomenon as resonating particularly with the American ideology of self. If  passing narratives are resurfacing in contemporary or postmodern texts, it may because the trope serves as “a useful meta-fictional tool,” which foregrounds “the notion of textuality in relation to (il)legibility of ‘black’ subjects passing as white” (Moynihan 5). Or, it may be that due to its performative nature, passing “refers not to an assumption of a fraudulent identity but more broadly to the ‘condition of subjectivity in postmodernity,’” causing us to “focus not so much upon identity as a unitary, essentialized entity, but rather as a process-oriented performance drawing upon a seemingly infinite number of cultural texts, ‘ethnic’ or ‘otherwise’ (Belluscio 9). Moynihan and Belluscio’s work here highlights the relevance of passing in contemporary texts, and destabilizes any essentialist constructions of binary or correct identities.

<32> It is this obsession with the self, then, that provides the most compelling example as to why zombie films are simply the latest manifestation of American desires to pass.  After all, the undifferentiated masses that are zombified include a cross-slice of American society, and the desire to pass means that we desperately want out of that mass, especially since it includes others who are not like us. As the progenitor of zombie films, Night of the Living Dead even features an African American lead actor—whose character is named simply Ben—without an explicitly race-driven storyline, cast mostly by accident. However, even though he might be the protagonist of the film, even its hero, in the end, despite his humanness, his identity becomes mingled with the zombies, and he becomes simply “another one for the fire.”  Ben’s tragic death at the hands of a redneck posse is not surprising, either in 1968 or 2013—it reflects contemporary disillusionment, or at the very least, the director’s disillusionment with the Civil Rights Movement’s lack of success. What Night of the Living Dead does, though, is make clear how fluid the border between categories of humanness is in American culture. That border, permeated repeatedly by what Kristeva calls “the fragile texture of a desire for meaning” (1), is one almost seamlessly woven into the fabric of the American mythology.  In 1929, 1968, or 2013, these borders, fluid and surmountable as they may be, provide framework for the rhetoric of the faltering American Dream.

<33> The collapse of the mythic American Dream pervades these texts. Passing suggests it isn’t possible to move completely into privilege, at least not as a black woman in the early twentieth century. The attack on the American pastoral as embodied by the isolated farmhouse under siege by the living dead is a scene of horror more clearly articulated in the more metaphorical language of the zombie film. And yet, if these texts suggest that passing is a fundamentally human desire, underpinned by social behavior and understandings of race, they also suggest that boundaries are still fluid, that their rejection is still the stuff of the American dream, and, perhaps most importantly, that American texts have the possibility to reconceive of and redeem individuals, and, if we are lucky, the system itself.


[1] According to George Frederickson, “Negrophile” whites of 1920s such as VanVechten emphasized that blacks “were basically exotic primitives, out of place in white society because of their natural spontaneity, emotionalism, and sensuality.” The 1920s revolt against Puritanism made some believe they were paying blacks a compliment by characterizing them as free and passionate (327-8).

[2]  Georg Simmel’s seminal piece “Fashion” features the argument that these two competing desires are an essential part of humanity.

[3] In her discussion of Quicksand, Cherene Sherrard-Johnson writes that Larsen, “[u]nable to reconcile two seemingly oppositional aspects of mulatta identity, the Jezebel and the Madonna,” muses “on the tragic mulatta as a black artist end as Helga’s domestic responsibilities stifle her creativity. Her potential for artistic or intellectual production is subsumed beneath the reproductive duties of a wife” (35).

[4] Deborah E. McDowell’s introduction to the edited collection Quicksand and Passing explores the issue of illicit sexuality in Larsen’s work. Since both Clare and Irene have “sexless marriages,” allows Larsen “to flit, if only by suggestion, with the idea of a lesbian relationship between them” (xxiii).

[5] Even Irene, who generally follows the rules, laughs at this notion: “White people were so stupid about such things,” she thinks, “for all they usually asserted they were able to tell…They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro” (150).

[6] This also reflects Corrine E. Blackmer’s argument that the women have limited “moral agency in providing them the untenable choices between silent complicity and exposure” (62).

[7]  Sherrard-Johnson’s book includes a chapter which takes its name from the novel, “A Plea for Color.” She argues for a “painterly rather than writerly reading of Larsen’s work…the content of her fiction is anchored in a critique of the visual images of African American women that were circulating throughout the culture and limiting the mobility of the New Negro woman in the intellectual and artistic communities of the ‘talented tenth’” (22).

[8]  It was hardly rare, however, for whites to go to events in Harlem to liven up tedious lives.  One Chicago guidebook said white visit Harlem clubs to “partake of the happy-go-lucky and joyous spirit supposed to be inherent in the Negro soul.”  Men sought this sensuality in contrast to bureaucratic routines of white collar work (Heap 194-5).  So-called slumming narratives reveal “white male admiration, if not erotic attraction, for a particular black male sexual aesthetic.” (147), a phenomenon Larsen addresses in both Quicksand and Passing.

[9] “It’s easy for a Negro to ‘pass’ for white. But I don’t think ti would be so simple for a white person to ‘pass’ for coloured,” Irene says. When her white companion comments that he’d “Never thought of that,” she asks “Why should you?” (Larsen 207).

[10]  When Gertrude Jones, Clare and Irene’s friend, calls Claude Jones’s conversion to Judaism “a scream,” Irene responds hotly: “It evidently doesn’t occur to either you…that he might possibly be sincere in changing his religion. Surely everyone doesn’t do everything for gain” (169).

[11] See Chad Heap, Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

[12] Among pulp texts this border confusion is a common trope. A quick review of genres reveals a number of texts concerned with this theme.  The Battlestar Galactica series features cylons who are completely unaware that they are machines, the vampire film  Near Dark features vampires as outlaws whose lifestyle no longer becomes attractive to one member of the tribe, triggering her to seek reconversion back to humanity through a total blood transfusion, and even the much-maligned stalker porn of the Twilight series carefully (and perhaps obsessively) describes the border between human and non-human worlds as one that is perilous and fragile.

[13]  Nod to Jessica Hurley

[14]  The fact that Julie has to pass first but her passing in the logic of the film isn’t considered as important is another interesting trope. any transgression that Julie makes is quickly reined in by her father’s (played forcefully, as always, by John Malkovich) to-be-expected tough love in a time of chaos approach to running the world behind the walls.

[15]  Jones even refused the typical ending reserved for heroes in American film, as he notes in an interview for Night of the Living Dead”: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Film Ever. He describes how he argued Romero out of creating an alternative ending for the film, one in which Ben survives: “’I convinced George that the black community would rather see me dead than saved, after all that had gone on, in a corny and symbolically confusing way.’ Besides, said Jones, ‘The heroes never die in American movies. The jolt of that and the double jolt of the hero figure being black seemed like a double-barreled whammy.’”


Works Cited

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Cutter, Martha J. “Sliding Significations: Passing as a Narrative and Textual Strategy in Nella Larsen’s Fiction.” In Passing and the Fictions of Identity. Duke UP: Durham, NC, 1996. 75-100. Print.

Frederickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Ginsberg, Elaine K. Passing and the Fictions of Identity. Duke UP: Durham, NC, 1996. Print.

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Hutchinson, George.The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

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Sherrard-Johnson, Cherene. Portraits of the New Negro Woman. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2007.

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Wald, Gayle. Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture. Duke UP: Durham, NC, 2000. Print.

Warm Bodies.  Directed by Jonathon Levine. 2013.

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