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A Strange History of Real Zombie Encounters

What do you think of when you envision the word “zombie?” Is it a snapping, ravenous flesh-hungry beast? An aimless, lost soul wandering about, yet still a ravenous beast? These are all images that Hollywood has implanted in your head, the end result of decades of spooky lore and fictionalization, yet you may not be aware that the modern zombie as we know it has its origins in something every bit as strange, and if you believe the locals, far more real. Here actual zombies have a long tradition, with many odd accounts of their existence encompassing many aspects of the bizarre, and remaining largely unsolved.

On the island nation of Haiti, the religion of Vodou, also commonly spelled “Voodoo” in the west is estimated to be practiced or at least believed by some 80 to 90 percent of the population. It is a unique faith in that it is comprised of an eclectic mix of various African folk beliefs brought over by slaves by the French, as well as a pinch of Catholicism thrown into the fray, which was largely the result of trying to camouflage Voodoo customs when efforts were made to stamp out the more traditional practices in a drive to convert these people. The Voodoo religion places great emphasis on the nature of spirits and their interaction with the world around them, with earthbound spirits supposedly being capable of bringing good fortune and luck, or conversely misfortune, madness, and misery, and it is in this particular belief where we can find the origins of the zombies.

It is believed that there are two basic types of death in Voodoo, and that each generates a different type of spirit. One is death by natural means, such as old age or illness, which is seen as the body coming full circle in the natural cycle of life and death. These spirits are not typically imprisoned on earth, and are free to move on. However, there are also those who have died abruptly from unnatural causes, which are considered to be things such as murder or accidents, in which case they have not yet reached the end of their predetermined cycle and their spirit becomes fettered to the earthly realm, doomed to wander without a body until their preordained date of death, the day they were supposed to die, arrives. It is these spirits that are the most vulnerable, and which are the main targets for the process of zombification.

Powerful Voodoo priests, called houngans, and more often dark sorcerers, known as bokors, are said to have the power to trap these earthbound spirits using an enchanted object, typically an earthenware container of some sort, called zombi astral. Considering that a dead body is seen as simply merely an empty vessel lacking a spirit to animate it, the priest or sorcerer can then place the enslaved spirit within the body of their choosing. If a bokor is powerful enough, it is even said that they can zombify a living person by casting out the victim’s spirit and supplanting it with another subservient one, or enslaving the original spirit through dark magic, usually by casting a hex on the target individual that will cause them to wither away and die and then stealing their corpse later. Regardless of the initial state of the body, once this zombification process is done the zombi, or in the West “zombie,” becomes a reanimated corpse that solely exists to do its master’s bidding, which can range from simple manual slave labor to attacking enemies, pretty much whatever its master tells it to do.

In some cases, the zombification of a person is ordered by an outside party, who will pay a bokor to carry out the sinister process, usually as a punishment or for revenge, and on other occasions the bokors will make zombies in order to sell them to the highest bidder. Although the reason for turning someone into a zombie may differ from case to case, they share certain common traits, as I described in my original article on Haitian Zombies thus:

Those who are turned into zombies are described as having gaunt features and skin with a greyish pallor that is pulled tight against their bones. They have fixed, staring expressions and their movements and actions are characterized as being repetitive, clumsy, and purposeless. They are slow, uncoordinated, and walk with an unsteady, shambling gait. Zombies are able to speak, but only very basic phrases, and their speech is slurred, with a nasal quality. Zombies can also hear and understand basic commands, but their comprehension is limited and they lack free will, mostly being considered to be mindless automatons. Zombies are sometimes said to exhibit enhanced physical strength, making them ideal for hard manual labor, and they display little to no responsiveness to physical stimuli, seeming to be impervious to pain or tiredness. It is said that the victim remains in a sort of dream-like trance, with little or no awareness of their condition. Unlike the rampaging, bloodthirsty zombies of Western horror films, the real zombies of Haiti are submissive and not known to be aggressive or to attack people unless commanded to do so by their master.

Those who are turned into such abominations are mostly considered to be doomed to forever serve their masters, but there are said to be ways to break a bokor’s control over them. It is said that if the zombie astral vessel that holds the victim’s soul is somehow broken, or if the offending bokor dies, then they will regain some free will and be free to rejoin their families. It is also said that feeding a zombie salt can sometimes reverse the effects of the curse, especially if the bokor himself is the one to do it. Additionally, if a zombie sees the ocean it is said that they can shake loose the bokor’s control over them, and a zombie can be set free through divine intervention as well. Zombies freed in such ways unfortunately remain physically the same and their mental state is still diminished and vulnerable to recapture. The only known way to fully revert a person back to the health and vigor they had enjoyed before their “death” is said to be through the mercy and divine intervention of a voodoo god called Le Grand Maitre.

Another interesting belief is that although if the priest or bokor who has reanimated them dies and the zombie freed, they are not always totally brought back to life, and while some are completely returned to normal and have their own soul back, others remain a roving zombie yet are aimless and bound by no master. There has long been great terror among the Haitians of being turned into a zombie, or of having a family member resurrected as such, to the point that there are great efforts made to make sure that the dead stay dead, such as performing protection rituals, burying them with heavy stone or concrete lids too heavy to lift, keeping a constant vigil on the grave until the corpse rots and becomes useless to the bokor, or even decapitating, strangling, shooting, or otherwise maiming the corpse so that it is unable to be reanimated at all.

Although this may all sound like pure myth, legend, and mumbo jumbo, there have been numerous accounts of encountering supposedly real zombies in Haiti since at least the latter part of the 19th century. One of the first widely publicized accounts, and indeed one of the works that first brought the idea of zombies to the Western world, comes from a bestselling 1929 book called The Magic Island, by an explorer and adventurer named William Seabrook. The book itself was sort of a travel journal containing the musings and various encounters of Seabrook during his travels around Haiti, but much of it revolves around the folk beliefs and magical practices of the natives, including Voodoo and its creation of zombies.

One account retold by Seabrook is a story he heard from a Haitian friend of his named Polynice, and which allegedly happened in 1918. In spring of that year, the Haitian-American Sugar Company, also simply known as Hasco, was enjoying a record crop of sugar cane, and so were making great efforts to hire extra sugar plantation workers. Since the company was offering attractive pay bonuses to bring in new workers, droves of people were pouring in looking for work, and one of these was a mysterious man known as Ti Joseph, who arrived with his wife, Croyance, and a procession of workers he claimed worked for him.

A line of Haitian zombies

These workers displayed very odd behavior indeed, in that they did not seem to react to their surroundings, but rather stood there in a sort of a aimless trance, and only shuffled forward awkwardly when they were told to. When officials asked him what was wrong with them, Joseph was quick to explain that they were all just ignorant rural mountain folk who had never been so far away from home and were merely tired from their journey and afraid of all of these new sights. He explained that for this reason these particular workers would be best suited for a location somewhat removed from the churning factory and its noise.

This seemed to be good enough for the plantation, and the workers were put to work far from the factory in a remote sugar cane field, where they toiled away in the oppressive heat as Joseph collected their pay. It was noticed that the enigmatic, dazed workers were constantly overseen by either Joseph or his wife, and were never left to their own devices, which was rather odd to say the least. It was also noticed that the workers’ once-a-day meals never contained salt, and it was believed that they were in fact mindless zombies under the control of Joseph.

When the Mardis Gras festival arrived, Croyance is said to have decided to take the workers to Port-au-Prince to see the festivities. As they were there, the mysterious workers merely sat and stared at nothing as usual, showing no emotion at all. A food vendor allegedly passed by selling cookies made with peanuts, which Croyance bought and passed around her zombie entourage, but she would soon learn that the peanuts had been salted when the zombies suddenly became uncommonly alert, and began screaming and rushing off towards the mountains. If there had been any doubt that they were the reanimated dead before, all doubts had now been cast aside. Croyance called out for help, but no one had the courage to get in the way of the fleeing group of zombies and they melted away into the wilderness to find their way back to their home of the village of Morne-au-Diable. Once there, they were apparently immediately recognized by bereaved family members who had thought they were long dead, but the zombies totally ignored all attempts to communicate with them, instead making their way to the graveyard, where they dropped to the ground as lifeless husks that seemed to have suddenly rotted to some degree. Vengeful village elders then apparently sought out Joseph, killed him, and chopped off his head in retribution.

Haitian zombie

As spooky and dramatic as this tale was, Seabrook was not particularly convinced, remaining quite skeptical of the whole fabulous yarn. Polynice went about trying to prove to his friend that the story was true, and so invited Seabrook to come with him to witness actual zombies for himself. The two made their way to to a remote area near Picmy, Haiti, where Polynice showed Seabrook three men tirelessly working the fields with machetes who he was pretty sure were zombies. After getting permission from the plantation master, Seabrook was allowed to examine the men, and he immediately noticed that they indeed did move in a robotic, unnatural way. When one of the men was made to stand, Seabrook could see that his face was gaunt and expressionless, with eyes that seemed to be in a trance of some kind, completely devoid of emotion or recognition of its surroundings, and the others turned out to be the same, which caused the explorer to feel an unsettling pang of panic and fear.

Unfortunately, he was not allowed to get any closer to the alleged zombies, and he would later convince himself that they had to have been deranged or mentally stunted in some way, possibly having even gone a form of lobotomy to make them mindless slaves. Polynice disagreed, and insisted that they had seen zombies first hand. He explained that these peoples’ relatives would often think their loved ones were dead, only to come across them working in fields such as this with their lifeless gazes and dead eyes. The skeptical Seabrook was nevertheless still not totally convinced, and thought there had to be some other rational explanation. Interestingly, when he finally left Haiti he had a discussion with a Haitian doctor named Antoine Villiers, who believed that the zombies were the result the use of a chemical, poison, or some other rude alteration to the brain, which served to cause a sort of chemical lobotomy that would keep them in tranced out state and make them into automatons. This would be a sentiment shared in later years by other explorers looking for answers into the mysteries of Haiti’s zombies.

A perhaps more well-known report of a supposed zombie comes from 1936, and was written of by another author, folklorist and explorer to Haiti by the name of Zora Neale Hurston. During her travels, Hurston was presented with a woman named Felicia Felix-Mentor, who was claimed to have died in 1907 but had then shambled into her village on October 24, 1936 looking filthy, disheveled, run down, and with a ragged cloth wrapped around her face, as well as a lame left leg. The woman’s family immediately recognized her as Felix-Mentor, but the woman was totally unresponsive and blank-faced, and they were convinced that she had been turned into a zombie. When the woman was brought to a medical facility for examination, one of the doctors who looked at and questioned her explained:

All her answers were unintelligible and irrelevant. Her occasional outbursts of laughter were devoid of emotion, and very frequently she spoke of herself in either the first or the third person without any sense of discrimination. She had lost all sense of time and was quite indifferent to the world of things around her.

The allegedly zombie of Felicia Felix-Mentor

Hurston talked with doctors who had supposedly examined Felix-Mentor, and began to think, similarly to Seabrook before her, that the process of zombification entailed the use of powerful drugs or chemicals rather than black magic. She would write about the Felix-Mentor case in her 1938 book Tell My Horse. The “zombie” Felix-Mentor’s true identity or whether she was really ever a zombie or not remain unknown.

In 1938 there was also the case of a girl who allegedly died after going to a musical festival in Gonaïves, Haiti. Apparently shortly after the festival the girl fell violently ill, vomiting and developing a severe fever before passing away in the night. The girl’s father became convinced that his daughter had been the target of a bokor, and tracked down and killed the daughter of the one he felt had been responsible. A full five months later, there was a funeral that turned out to be odd as it was purportedly for the girl who had died after the musical festival months before, even though she had already had one funeral and had been buried. When asked why the girl had died a second time, witnesses explained that she had been struck down by a white light from the sky, which authorities took to mean a lightning strike, but which more superstitious locals attributed to a “death spirit” finally taking the wayward soul. It is uncertain just what had happened to the girl in the 5 months since her original funeral.

In the same year was a decidedly odd account written of in Wade Davis’ 1988 book Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie, in which a man named Mammés lost a good amount of money after betting on cockfights and found himself paying off his debt in the company of a local Voodoo priest. Mammés then apparently disappeared, and when he was next seen he was an animalistic, feral version of his former self, crouching like a beast and cowering from the light. It turned out that the young man had temporarily sold his soul to the priest to be turned into a zombie for four years in order to repay his debt, a rarity in that he had not been killed first in order to achieve his zombified state, making him in effect a “living zombie.” Mammés found himself working on a farm, where he met and was forced to be with a toothless old hag, which he did not resist at first until one day he just sort of snapped out of it and found himself utterly repulsed. He made his way back to his village, where he eventually found out that the one who had made him a zombie had died, thereby freeing him and further bolstering the legend that the death of a bokor can release any zombies he has accrued.

The next case comes from 1959, and is an account written of in the book Voodoo in Haiti, by Alfred Metraux. Apparently there was a young aristocrat who had his car break down near a remote village, and as he wondered what to do an older man with a white beard approached and said that he would make arrangements to have the car fixed. In the meantime, the two went off to have coffee together and as they talked the old man admitted that he was actually a powerful Voodoo priest. Not only this, he also claimed that he had cast a spell to cause the car to break down to begin with. The priest then explained that the aristocrat had been harboring a powerful cursed object in his vehicle, which was what had drawn his attention to it in the first place, but none of this impressed the rich young man, who was skeptical to say the least.

In order to prove that he was who he said he was, the priest asked the aristocrat if he knew a man named Monsieur Célestin, and he indeed did, as the man in question had died 6 months earlier. The priest than cracked a whip and called forth a lumbering, dimwitted figure who stumbled into the room and turned out to be the thought-to-be-dead Célestin, who was described as be lethargic, slow-moving, and in a daze, and would apparently do whatever the priest requested of him. When asked how he had come into possession of the apparent zombie, the priest told him that a bokor had sold Célestin to him for a small fee.

The very same book tells of the bizarre story of a young woman who was engaged to be married to the man she loved. A powerful Voodoo priest also seemed to be enamored with her, and he tried to gain her hand as well but was rejected. Not long after this, the young woman became suspiciously ill, finally dying of her mysterious, undiagnosed sickness. Her body was given back to her family and she was buried in a coffin that was too small for her, causing her corpse to be put into the ground with the neck bent at an angle. To make matters worse, at the funeral a careless guest allegedly dropped a cigarette to burn the poor dead woman’s ankle before she was buried.

In the days after the funeral, the family purportedly learned that their dead daughter had been seen walking around with the priest she had spurned, but they refused to believed this was anything more than a morbid rumor. Years later, the priest in question had a change of heart and came forward to apologize for his various evil deeds, in the process promising to free all of his zombies. One of these was a young woman with her neck bent at an angle and a cigarette burn on her leg, who was recognized as the dead woman who had been buried years before. Although the family took her back, she was said to never be the same again, never really regaining full awareness of her surroundings or her mental faculties.

Moving on into the 1970s comes the curious account of Francina Illeus, a 30-year-old woman who was checked into a hospital after suffering from what were described as digestive problems in February of 1976. She was treated and sent on her way, but would turn up dead just a few days later, after which she was dutifully buried at a local cemetery. That would be the end of things until several years later, when in 1979 the woman’s mother was contacted by some women at a marketplace in a nearby town, who claimed that there was a thin, pale woman roving about who matched the description of her daughter. When the mother arrived, she was quick to positively identify the mystery woman as her own daughter, although she was a shadow of her former self, unresponsive, squatting about, and generally acting like an animal. The only thing she would somewhat respond to was her former nickname, “Ti-Femme” (“small woman”), which managed to at least get her attention, at least fleetingly.

Some nearby American missionaries came to investigate and found that the woman’s family had refused to take her in in her current state, and one of the missionaries would take it upon himself to look after her. The strange story came to the attention of Dr. Lemarque Douyon, at the Centre de Psychiatrie et Neurologie Mars-Kline in Port-au-Prince, who made the trip out to examine the strange young woman. He soon found that she showed classic signs of mental retardation, unable to really put two thoughts together, and against the constant claims that she was a zombie her grave was dug up and checked. Chillingly, it would be found to merely be full of rocks. The young woman was never able to really articulate where she had been since her supposed burial and never regained complete motor functions. It was thought at the time that she had been zombified by a man whose advances she had rejected, but there were others who suspected that her current state had been arranged by none other than her own mother, in order to be given to an arranged marriage. Illeus would apparently have three children to this man while in a zombie state, none of which survived.

Haitian zombie artwork

The grandaddy of all supposed zombie cases certainly has to be that of Clairvius Narcisse, who in April of 1962 found himself at a hospital complaining of a fever and various aches and pains all over, with the added bonus that he was reportedly spitting up blood. The very next day, Narcisse was pronounced dead and his body placed in cold storage at the facility, after which he was buried. The family was already suspicious of an attempt to zombify their loved one, and apparently had a very heavy concrete slab placed over his casket as a precaution. This would be the end of the story until a full 18 years later, when a stranger approached Angelina Narcisse and introduced himself by an obscure childhood nickname. It seemed that this was Clairvius Narcisse, back from the dead.

Narcisse would go on to tell of how he had been zombified by his own brother for refusing to sell a portion of family land, and that after turning he had been sent to work as slave labor on a plantation. When his master had died, he claimed that he and other zombies working there had been freed of the force controlling them and let loose to aimlessly wander the landscape. He had then managed to make his way to where his family had found him. After intense questioning he was found to indeed be the missing Narcisse, and he would go on to explain that during the whole process he had been aware of what was going on around him but unable to do anything about it. He even chillingly claimed that he had been aware and awake as he had been lowered into the ground during his burial, unable to cry out for help. He would say of the horrifying experience:

They call my name three times. … Even as they cast the dirt on my coffin, I was not there. My flesh was there, but I floated here, moving wherever. I could hear everything that happened. Then they came. They had my soul, they called me, casting it into the ground. Then the earth opens up and then you sit up. They slapped me three times. Then they made me smell something. I was taken to the house of the bocor and he cured my cheek where the nail of the coffin went through.

Clairvius Narcisse

During his whole enslavement on the plantation he claimed that he knew what had become of him but was held in a daze and rendered unable to interact with the world in any meaningful way, instead doomed to a strange, lackadaisical trance. Everything was like a dream, in which he could not make any focused decisions or feel much of anything. Eerily, he also claimed that no salt was ever put in the food, echoing the legends of salt being a cure to zombification. After being freed, he had remained somewhat in this state, although having a bit further usage of his mental faculties, and had wandered the wilderness for years looking for home. He would eventually gradually return to normal in the absence of the bokor’s powerful dark magic. Whether his story is true or not, Clairvius Narcisse remains one of the best documented cases of a supposed real life zombie there is.

One of the most earnest of the many expeditions launched to research the zombie phenomenon in Haiti was that of Harvard educated ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who suspected that the cause of these zombies was something pharmaceutical in nature and went to Haiti in 1982 to explore this possibility. After analyzing the evidence and witnessing actual zombie rituals, which often utilized a magical powder, Davis came to the conclusion that some sort of potent drug was being used, perhaps a powder crafted from some powerful neurotoxin that would be absorbed through the skin, emulate death and create the mind-altering effects that were reported for zombies. The victim could then be kept in a passive, compliant and brainwashed state to do the bidding of whoever was their master. Davis would go on to collect samples of this supposed “zombie powder” but none of them seemed to be the real deal, seemingly having none of the desired effect when analyzed and containing no such neurotoxin except in the smallest of quantities. These were surmised as perhaps being fake powders given out by bokors who did not want their dark secrets revealed to outsiders. For all of his various efforts, Davis was never able to fully get to the bottom of the mystery of the Haitian zombies.

Many of these accounts are perhaps unreliable and fail to provide concrete evidence for real zombification, but they nevertheless offer an intriguing, faint glimpse into the rather exotic world of black magic and strange beliefs of a faraway land which have served as the origins of the zombies we enjoy on film and on television today. Whatever truth can be attributed to these stories, they serve to provide a good look into a world beyond our own, where magic, myth, and monsters collide. Whether zombies really exist or not, there is no doubt that the people of Haiti truly think they do, and there seems to be more than enough room here for further investigations into this truly bizarre phenomenon.