A person believed to be dead who has been “returned” to life, albeit in a very diminished state, through black Magic. Usually associated with Haitian Vodoun, the zombie blindly serves the sorcerer, or bokor, who made him or her. Zombies are physically identical to humans but have no conscious experience.
Fact or Fiction?
Folk tales about the “undead” or revenants—Vampires, zombies, and other creatures of the night—have circulated for centuries. But the idea of bringing a human being back from the other side as an unthinking servant inspired particular fascination and dread among the black slaves of Haiti, who told stories of similar victims in their African homelands. The word itself most likely comes from the Congo word nzambi, which means “the spirit of a dead person.” Several claimed to have seen one or to know of one, but no proof existed other than the likelihood that the secret societies—outlaws descended from bands of former slaves that hid in the mountains and intimidated the citizenry through the trappings of Vodoun and outright crime—were capable of anything.
Academics endlessly debated the possibility of the existence of what they called “philosophical zombies.” In 1937 author Zora Neale Hurston was traveling in Haiti, collecting material for a book, when she heard about Felicia Felix-Mentor, who had died at age 29 in 1907. Yet 30 years later, villagers swore to Hurston that they had seen her walking the streets with a dazed expression. Hurston heard rumors that powerful drugs were involved but was unsuccessful in learning any hard facts. She speculated that if science ever were to unravel the mystery of zombie creation, that drugs would indeed be more influential than darkly dramatic ceremonies.
In 1982 a young Canadian ethnobotanist from Harvard named Wade Davis went to Haiti to try to prove his theory about the “zombi,” as he preferred to spell it: that the creature only seemed dead, probably through the administration of powerful drugs, and was technically buried alive and then later disinterred. He interviewed two people, a man named Clairvius Narcisse and a woman who called herself Ti Femme, who claimed that they had died, witnessed their own burials, and then watched as the Vodoun bokor brought them back to life. Davis spent months in Haiti, undertaking a dangerous study of the houngans and mambos (priests and priestesses), observing ceremonies and talking to villagers, doctors, and government officials before confirming his suspicions—and Hurston’s.
What Davis discovered was that zombies are made by the ingestion of highly toxic drugs either in the victim’s food or through an open cut or wound. Chief among these poisons is toxin tetrodotoxin (TTX), or puffer fish poison. Puffer fish, of the species Sphoeroides testudineus, is considered a delicacy in Japan called fugu, but only certain parts are edible. Preparers must be certified by the government to serve fugu, and consumers tend to be reckless young men trying to prove their infallibility.
A tiny drop of tetrodotoxin kills instantly, but the poison exhibits two unusual characteristics: If the victim receives a less than fatal dose, his or her condition mimics death so closely that a doctor cannot tell the difference; yet full recovery is possible. The body becomes completely paralyzed, the eyes glaze over, and there is no organ response. Eerily, those few who survive report that they were aware inside their heads what was happening but could not communicate their state in any way. If a Japanese dinner guest appears poisoned from fugu, he or she remains hospitalized for three days to see if he or she will recover.
Making a Zombie
Convinced that he had proved making a zombie was not only possible but a reality, Davis analyzed the ingredients of the concoction:
First, the bokor buries a poisonous bouga toad (Bufo marinus) and a sea snake in a jar until they “die from rage”—in other words, the toad secretes venom in desperation. Next the sorcerer mixes ground millipedes and tarantulas with various plants and seeds, including tchatcha seeds from the Albizzia lebbeck tree to cause pulmonary swelling; consigne seeds from a type of mahogany tree with no known poisonous attributes; leaves from the cashew nut tree (Anacardium occidentale); and leaves from the bresillet (Comocladia glabra). The bresillet and cashew both come from the family of poison ivy and cause severe dermatitis. The bokor grinds these plant and animal products into a powder, places them in a jar, and then buries the jar for two days.
Next the preparer adds ground tremblador and desmembre (plants Davis could not identify) and four plants that also cause dermatitis: maman guepes (Urera baccifera) and mashasha (Dalechampia scandens), both members of the stinging nettle family, and Dieffenbachia seguine (dumbcane) and bwa pine (Zanthoxylum matinicense). The hollow hairs on the surface of maman and mashasha act as syringes, injecting formic acid into the skin. Eating the dumbcane’s leaves is like swallowing ground glass, making breathing difficult and speaking nearly impossible. During the 18th and 19th centuries, masters forced their slaves to eat dumbcane to keep them mute. Bwa pine has sharp spines. Putting these agents into the victim’s food assures that the poisons will enter the bloodstream.
To complete the recipe, the bokor now adds the skins of white tree frogs that have been ground with two species of tarantulas and then combined with a second bouga toad. Ground human skulls give the powder a dramatic touch. Finally the puffer fish, from four species (Spheoroides testudineus, Sphoeroides spengleri, Diodon hystrix, and Diodon holacanthus) complete the diabolical mixture.
After the bokor raises the victim from the tomb, he feeds the zombie a concoction of cane sugar, sweet potato, and Datura stramonium (“zombie’s cucumber”) which causes hallucinations and disorientation. The bokor announces the victim’s new zombie name, and the victim, drugged and confused, follows the bokor to do his bidding.
While detailed knowledge and proficiency with poison is paramount to the success of zombification, the bokor also relies on the belief in zombies by the people for the spell to work. Just as frightening—and effective—is a “zombie astral,” or a soul captured by the bokor and enslaved to serve him. Haitians believe that the soul—the ti bon ange, or “little good angel”—hovers over the body for seven days after death and is vulnerable to the bokor’s magic. How the sorcerer takes the soul is unclear.
No antidote exists for zombie poison, but Vodoun practitioners claim that a cocktail made of various plants, the liquor clairin, ammonia, and lemon juice will work. Others swear by a combination of mothballs, seawater, perfume, rock salt, and a mysterious Vodoun potion called black magic. SALT, in particular, should be kept away from zombies if they are to remain in their subhuman state: Long considered a purifying agent, salt could cause the zombie to regain the ability to speak and could even function as a homing device that could lead the zombie back to eternal rest.
In his books The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) and The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988), Davis not only gives his readers the components of zombification but also outlines his theories on why such a horrifying act exists: Making a zombie is a very effective method of capital punishment. Just as the slaves suspected more than 200 years ago, the members of the secret Maroon societies used zombification—or the threat of it—to control first the slaves then the superstitious Haitian citizens. Davis’s conclusions have been clouded by allegations of fraud and questions about his sensational, rather than scientific, approach. The Serpent and the Rainbow movie, starring Bill Pullman and directed by Wes Craven, opened in 1988. Nevertheless, stories of people who rise from the dead to work for the bokor until eternity would give any lawbreaker pause.
In Vodoun, zombie corpses are “raised” from graves in magical rituals in which appeals are made to Baron Samedi, the scarecrowlike god of graveyards and zombies. In Haiti, the rites take place in a graveyard at midnight. They are performed by the person who is the local incarnation of Papa Nebo, father of death, and a group of followers. A grave is selected and white candles are implanted at its foot and lit. A frock coat and a silk top hat, the symbols of Baron Samedi, are draped on the grave’s cross (if the grave has no cross, one is made). A ritual is performed to awaken Baron Samedi from sleep. While the god makes no visible manifestation, he signals his presence and approval by moving or flapping the frock coat or hat.
The necromancers pay homage to the Baron and promise him offerings of food, drink, and money; then they send him back to sleep by tossing roots and herbs. The corpse is unearthed, and the incarnation of Papa Nebo asks it questions. The answers usually are “heard” only by the Papa Nebo representative.
The chilling idea of a robotic human raised from the dead to serve an evil master never ceases to entertain the public, and authors and moviemakers have created countless books and films. Perhaps the greatest classic zombie movie was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), with the sequel Dawn of the Dead in 1978 followed by Day of the Dead in 1985. Each spawned related spinoffs, such as John Russo’s novelization of Night released in 1981, full of such scary prose as, “They are coming, rising rotten from their graves, filling the night with a furious howl, and staining the earth bloody red. . . .” Other items include novelizations of Dawn and Return of the Living Dead, a complete filmbook of Night, press kits and advertising materials from the original 1968 release of Night, board and video games, and even Night of the Living Dead barbecue sauce and accompanying T-shirt.
In 2005, Romero released George Romero’s Land of the Dead after a 20-year hiatus. The zombies, who move in slow motion and feast on human flesh (“They kill for one reason. They kill for food.”), have left the cemetery near the farm in Night and traveled into an urban setting ruled by actor Dennis Hopper, a nightmare scenario evoking the ninth round of Dante’s Inferno. Little remains of humankind or the humanity they once possessed.
The first zombie film was White Zombie in 1932, in which the undead are portrayed as mindless henchman completely in thrall to an evil sorcerer. The 1943 movie I Walked with a Zombie gives the creatures limited control over their movements. But Romero’s movies define most of the accepted zombie characteristics: cannibalism; zombification as the result of touching another zombie or through some terrible, toxic, ecological mistake or radiation emission; abundant gore; and the return of a zombie to his dead state only by a bullet to the head. Other favorite depictions or causes of a zombie infestation include pandemic infections, Demons, and evil spirits, the influence of aliens, implantation of computer chips, technology gone awry, completion of some event or unfinished business from the living days, or even a simple Curse, as in Jerry Bruckheimer’s Disney film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). Predictably, any phenomenon as popular as zombies invites parody, as in Shaun of the Dead (2004).
Zombies also have proved popular in toys and games.
Further Reading :
- Dargis, Manohla. “Not Just Roaming, Zombies Rise Up.” The New York Times, June 24, 2005.
- Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, 2d ed. New York: Facts On File Inc., 1999.
- Labaton, Stephen. “An Army of Soulless 1’s and 0’s.” The New York Times, June 24, 2005.
- “What Is a Zombie?” Available online at www.zombiejuice. com/whatisit.html. Downloaded June 12, 2005.
- “Zombie Books.” Available online at www.zombiejuice.com/ zbooks/index.html. Downloaded June 12, 2005.
- “Zombie Stuff.” Available online at www.zombiejuice.com/ zstuff/index.html. Downloaded June 12, 2005.
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