Zombies have taken over the cultural zeitgeist in recent years. They are the go to horror movie monster, dominating media from video games to commercials to TV shows.
Even the government has jumped on the bandwagon, using the phenomena as a way to promote disaster preparedness. It has gotten to the point that there are some who seriously believe that an outbreak of zombies like the ones seen in movies could happen in reality.
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However, this is not to say that zombies are not real, in a sense. The modern zombie cultural phenomenon can trace its origins back to George Romero’s classic 1968 B-movie, Night of the Living Dead. The low-budget flick depicted a horde of “ghouls,” they were never once called zombies in the movie, attacking hapless victims trapped in a rural farm house.
While Night of the Living Dead was the first modern zombie movie, it was not the first zombie movie. That honor goes to the 1932 Universal pictures film, White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi as a sorcerer with a stable full of voodoo zombies to do his bidding.
This movie was the Hollywood interpretation of a longstanding Haitian folk tradition, where bokors or witch doctors use foul magic to enslave the souls of victims. Far from mere superstition, the voodoo zombie phenomenon was and may still be a very real reality in Haiti, where the dead are said to walk among the living.
Clairvius Narcisse, a Modern Zombie?
On April 30th, 1962, a man by the name of Clairvius Narcisse checked himself into the Albert Scheitzer Hospital in Deschapelle, Haiti. Narcisse had been suffering fevers and body aches leading up to his visit to the hospital, but the tipping point was when he began to cough up blood. Upon being admitted to the hospital, Narcisse’s condition went downhill rapidly.
He began to suffer from a variety of symptoms: pulmonary edema, hypothermia, trouble breathing, hypotension, and digestive problems. At one point, his lips turned blue, and he reported that his entire body was tingling.
By May 2nd, Narcisse was pronounced dead by an American doctor and an American-trained doctor, both who were baffled by the man’s sudden rapid deterioration. His oldest sister identified his body, and Clairvius Narcisse was laid to rest the next day, or so the Narcisse family thought.
Eighteen years later, Narcisse was discovered by his sister Angelina in a village market place, when he approached her claiming to be her long dead brother. He identified himself with a childhood nickname unknown outside of close family circles, and a subsequent investigation with help from the Narcisse family proved that the man claiming to be Clairvius Narcisse knew other things about the family not known by outsiders.
For all intents and purposes, the man claiming to be Claivius Narcisse was indeed who he said he was. His story was a strange and shocking one: he claimed to have been turned into a zombie.
A Wild Story
According to Narcisse, he was conscious but unable to move through the whole ordeal of being declared dead, being zipped into a body bag, and even during his burial. Sometime later, Narcisse claimed he was dug out of his grave by a bokor and his helpers, who beat him senseless and transported him to a sugar plantation.
Once on the plantation, the hapless Narcisse and other zombies would labor from sunup to sundown, only stopping for one small meal a day. This time was passed in a dream-like state, and his memories of the two years he spent on the plantation were fuzzy. His imprisonment came to an end one day when a fellow zombie rebelled and killed the bokor with a hoe. Free from the thrall of the witchdoctor, the zombies then escaped.
Narcisse wandered the Haitian countryside for the next 16 years, attempting unsuccessfully to contact his family. He only returned home after his brother’s death, believing his brother was responsible for the ordeal.
The Magic of the Bokors
It is easy to dismiss Clairvius Narcisse’s wild story as a fraud, but to do so would be to show a grave misunderstanding of both human psychology in general and the Haitian culture in particular. The belief in zombies dates back something like five hundred years in Haiti, and stems from much older African spiritual beliefs .
The word zombie comes from the word Nzambi, meaning “spirit of a dead person.” This complex folkloric tradition was transported to Haiti with slaves, mixing with Catholic beliefs and other fragments of spiritual traditions to become voodoo.
Haitian slaves brought up in this milieu in the 1600’s believed that upon death their spirits would return to an idealized Africa, but those who committed suicide to escape the horrors of slavery would become zombies, trapped in undeath and bound to an even more horrific form of slavery than that they endured in life.
After the Haitian Revolution of 1804, the French were driven from the country, and slavery as it had been practiced for over 200 years came to an end. The practice cast a long shadow though, manifesting in the renewed zombie folklore, where the voodoo bokor took a prominent role, becoming the ones who reanimated corpses with their magic and used them as slave labor. In a sense, slavery under the French left an indelible imprint on the soul of Haiti, a lingering fear that found its expression in the pervasive belief in zombies.
This is the cultural environment that Clairvius Narcisse grew up in. He would have known what zombies were, and what it meant to be branded as a zombie; namely, to be labeled a social pariah and outcast. He would have had no reason to lie about his experiences. With the possibility of fraud discounted, the unsettling explanation for the strange story is that there might well be something to the stories of zombies.
When Dr. Nathan Kline, a psychopharmacologist heard of the case, he sought to verify that Narcisse was who he claimed, and proving that, went on to attempt to figure out what happened. He dispatched Harvard graduate student Wade Davis to Haiti to find what substance the bokors used to create their undead servants.
Zombie Powder and Datura: Ingredients for Zombification
Davis was able to secure samples of zombie powder from several bokors. Their recipes for the concoction varied, but three ingredients were constants: ground human bones, plants with irritating hairs, and dried pufferfish.
The bones and plant hairs were meant to irritate the skin of victims, causing them to scratch and open up small wounds that would force the active ingredient of the powder into their blood streams. The active ingredient is believed to be tetrodotoxin, a deadly poison found in the skin and organs of the pufferfish.
Five hundred times more powerful than cyanide, the poison blocks nerve transmissions, resulting in the same symptoms Clairvius Narcisse suffered in the hospital on the day he was declared dead. Depending on the dosage, it also causes a state of paralysis that is difficult to distinguish from actual death. However, the victim is fully lucid during the ordeal.
The zombie powder would be blown into the victims face, or applied to the skin on open wounds. Sometimes, due to the variance of the amount of tetrodotoxin between individual pufferfish, several applications were needed to generate the desired effects. In these cases, the powder could be surreptitiously put into the victim’s clothing.
Once the victim enters into the paralyzed state and is buried alive, the bokor then goes to the grave site and digs up the “corpse,” who has perhaps suffered some brain damage due to oxygen deprivation and most certainly has suffered psychological trauma during the entire ordeal.
These factors can make the newly unearthed zombie more pliable, but the sure-fire next step for a bokor is to feed his new undead servant a paste of sweet potatoes, cane syrup, and Datura, the zombie cucumber.
Datura contains atropine and scopolamine, hallucinogens that induce a variety of psychological effects such as confusion, psychosis, and amnesia. The hallucinogenic brew keeps the victim pliant to the will of the bokor. To further sap the strength and will of the zombie, they are fed a salt-free diet.
Zombification: the Ultimate Punishment?
Haitian folklore claims that the bokors used their zombies as slaves to perform free labor on their plantations. However, people who go through the ordeal of zombification are not likely to make the best manual laborers. Many would be more or less vegetables, depending how long they were underground, and those who weren’t would be suffering the effects of Datura and might well be out of their minds.
It is clear from Narcisse’s account that bokors would extract physical labor from their slaves, but given the high unemployment rate in Haiti both then (and now,) cheap labor not suffering under the effects of zombification was not in short supply. If this was the case, there was little economic incentive to turn someone into a zombie. If that were the case, zombies would be mass produced.
The motivation to create zombies, far from being for economic reasons, stems from the social norms of Haitian culture. Rooted in ancient memories of the horrors of slavery, to become a zombie is to become the ultimate slave.
It is to literally lose one’s self, and to become an automaton of flesh at the beck and call of another. Zombies are not made to create a labor force, but rather to punish those who break the social norms. It is the ultimate punishment for those who refuse to play by society’s rules.
A good example of this is Clairvius Narcisse himself. Due to his extraordinary story, it is natural to see him in a sympathetic light, but those who knew Narcisse before his untimely death likely would not have shared the sentiment. Narcisse was a difficult man to deal with, to say the least.
He regularly fought with family members. He fathered children out of wedlock and refused to be responsible for them. He became wealthy at the expense of others, and drew much jealousy in his village for being among the first to upgrade his house from a thatch roof to a tin roof.
None of this in itself warranted the punishment of zombification, but his most serious infraction came when he refused to give up his share of the family land to his brother, who was trying to support a family.
Haitians, living on an island nation that has historically relied primarily on agriculture to support itself, take matters involving land rights very seriously. They could quite literally be life or death for a family who cannot access land needed to support itself. So, when Narcisse refused to give his land to his brother who was in need, he crossed a line and his punishment was to be turned into a zombie.
Zombies: A Haitian Phenomenon
It is clear from the story of Clairvius Narcisse and others that the zombie phenomenon is very real in Haiti. However, this does not mean that zombie-phobes out there need to hole up in their zombie apocalypse bunker just yet.
Zombies in Haiti stem from a deeply rooted cultural system that grew out of the horrors of slavery and colonialism. It is an outgrowth of the Haitian psyche and the mish-mash of cultural, spiritual, and religious influences that came together in the tiny island nation.
Put short, zombies can only happen in Haiti. Certainly, dosing an American with tetrodotoxin and then dosing them with Datura would induce the medical effects noted earlier in the article, but without growing up in the cultural context of Haiti, the effects would be limited to their physical and psychological components.
They would lack the spiritual and social connotations they have for someone brought up in a culture who believes deeply and wholeheartedly in zombies. To Clairvius, and other poor souls who have fallen victim to zombification, the process is the culmination of their deepest cultural anxieties.
The horror they must have felt would have been increased to the nth degree compared to that of an outsider, because in their minds they would suffering the worst fate a person could suffer: losing their soul and becoming a mindless slave.
In the end, zombies can be seen as a product of a culture deeply influenced by slavery, rather than the product of magic or sorcery. While the pharmacological factors at work in the process cannot be ignored, in the end a person becomes a zombie in their own mind.
The rituals and medications given simply act as vehicles who bring the cultural belief embedded into the person’s mind into their reality. It is not clear whether the practice continues in modern Haiti.
As secret and taboo as the ritual was, it is very possible that zombies are still being created in remote parts of Haiti even today, unbeknownst to the outside world.
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