Bloodthirsty fictional zombies have become very popular in recent times, inhabiting everything from books, to TV shows, to movies, delighting and scaring many horror aficionados. Yet many people may not realize that in some cultures, zombies are considered to be very real. In these societies, zombies are not the stuff of imagination or fiction, but rather real flesh and blood creations that shamble through the shadows and our nightmares. However, how much truth is there behind these traditions of actual real-life zombies? Do real zombies actually exist somewhere out there in the dark corners of the world?
To find answers to this question, perhaps a good place to look is the island nation of Haiti, located in the Caribbean Sea on half of the island of Hispaniola, which has a long tradition of real zombies, also spelled as zombi. The zombies of Haiti were said to be corpses that were reanimated through black magic by powerful voodoo priests or shamans, known as bokor, for various purposes but most commonly for manual labor. It was said that zombies were routinely employed to do slave labor on farms and sugarcane plantations.
In the voodoo religion, which is said to be practiced or believed by 80 to 90 percent of Haitians, it is said that there are two ways a person can die, either by natural means such as sickness, or by unnatural means such as murder. Those who died unnatural deaths were said to have souls that were particularly vulnerable to the witchcraft of voodoo sorcerers, who would entrap the souls in bottles or earthenware jars called zombi astral and use them to control the undead body, which was referred to as the zombi cadavre. The bokor could use these reanimated corpses to do their bidding, either for benevolent purposes or for more nefarious things such as toiling mindlessly in slave labor, attacking enemies, or carrying out dark magic and curses. Sometimes a person was turned into a zombie merely as punishment or as retribution for crossing a bokor. On occasion, bokors would sell their zombie creations to other priests.
Zombies can also allegedly be made from those who are still living if the bokor is powerful enough to wrest the victim’s soul from their body. The process of turning a living person into a zombie is said to follow certain steps. First, the bokor will place a hex on the target of the ritual, who will subsequently suddenly fall mysteriously ill and die soon after. The family of the victim will pronounce them dead and have them buried in an above ground or semi-buried family tomb, which is a common method of burial in Haiti. The responsible bokor will then steal the body from its grave a few days later and set about reanimating it through dark sorcery.
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.
Far from Western depictions of zombies as evil and destructive monsters, the zombies of Haiti were traditionally seen as victims rather than villains. Haitians historically were not afraid of zombies themselves so much as they were terrified of being turned into one against their will. This fear of being turned into a mindless, undead automaton upon death for the purpose of eternal enslavement was so great that some took preventative measures such as holding vigils outside of tombs for trespassers, decapitation of the corpse, or placing protective charms within the burial chamber. The ever present fear of being zombified was long used as a tool for political and social control in Haiti. During the oppressive Duvalier regime from 1957 to 1984, for instance, the cruel and brutal secret police known as the Tonton Macoute were said to employ powerful bokor sorcerers, and used the threat of zombification to quell resistance among the superstitious populace.
The phenomenon of zombification first began to come into the consciousness of the Western world during the USA’s occupation of Haiti between the years of 1915 to 1934, when soldiers began to bring back stories of black magic and magically animated corpses. These reports were not taken very seriously at the time, and were mostly treated as exotic urban legends and spooky folklore. It was from these dark tales that pulp comics of the time depicting the bloodthirsty, flesh eating zombies we are now familiar with sprung. Zombies captured the public’s imagination, and the creatures slowly gained a reputation as horror icons. However, there were those who took notice of the zombie reports originating from the backwaters of Haiti and wondered if there was somehow any truth to the tales.
One of the first expeditions undertaken to investigate real zombies in Haiti was launched in 1937 by an American folklorist and anthropologist by the name of Zora Neale Hurston. During Hurston’s travels around Haiti in a search for evidence, the researcher came across a woman by the name of Felicia Felix-Mentor, who was claimed to be a zombie by villagers. The locals explained that the woman had died in 1907 and then returned as a zombie 20 years later. The woman exhibited limited mental facilities, was unresponsive, physically uncoordinated, and generally largely consistent with what a traditional zombie was said to be like. Hurston investigated further and gathered evidence and rumors that brought her to the conclusion that the cause of zombification was not black magic, but rather had a pharmacological basis. In other words, Hurston believed that some sort of poison or drug was used to induce a death-like state in the victim.
Perhaps the most well-known expedition to Haiti in search of zombies was that of the ethnobotanist, anthropologist, and explorer Wade Davis, who travelled to Haiti in 1982 to investigate the curious case of an alleged zombie by the name of Clairvius Narcisse. Narcisse had reportedly been turned into a zombie by his own brothers as punishment for refusing to sell his land, and was forced to do slave labor along with other zombies on a sugar plantation by a bokor in 1962. He then mindlessly toiled away on the plantation until the death of his bokor released him from servitude, after which he spent the following 16 years wandering the wilderness in the perpetual daze of a zombie.
Narcisse gradually gained enough lucidity to journey back to his village where he happened across his sister. The sister did not recognize him at first but was convinced of Narcisse’s identity when he shared childhood memories that only they knew. Villagers were in shock because at this point Narcisse had been presumed dead for 18 years. Narcisse explained to the bewildered villagers that he had died, been buried, and had risen from the grave to work the plantation after a bokor had stolen his soul. The case was made even more baffling by the fact that doctors had examined the corpse of Narcisse upon his death and had officially declared him dead. Indeed, Narcisse’s death was officially documented, and so the case was seen as a way to finally gather scientific evidence for zombies.
Wade Davis himself was a Harvard educated ethnobotanist and anthropologist who was mostly interested in traditional beliefs of various tribes concerning psychoactive properties of certain plants, as well as their effects. Davis made the journey to Haiti at the request of a Dr. Nathan S. Kline, who had heard of Narcisse’s case and believed it to be the result of some as yet unknown and powerful drug perhaps derived from some local plant that could induce a zombie state. Kline wanted to gather samples of such drugs and analyze them for their potential medical applications. It was hoped that Davis would be able to find the source of the drug and bring it back to the States so it could be studied.
Davis agreed that there was most likely a pharmacological basis for the creation of zombies, and traveled to Haiti in 1982 to begin his investigation. Upon speaking to the locals, Davis at first heard only of zombies changed through black magic and sorcery by a bokor. There was no mention of any sort of drug used, and Davis, who eschewed such paranormal and mystical explanations, became discouraged. However, after further investigation Davis made the observation that bokors would routinely use special powders made from a complex mixture of ground up plant and animal parts in their rituals. Davis became convinced that these concoctions had some kind of pharmacological effects that were integral for the actual zombification of a victim.
Davis postulated that these “zombie powders” contained a powerful neurotoxin such as that derived from puffer fish called tetrodotoxin. He theorized that the resulting toxic powder could then be delivered to the target in a variety of ways such as in their food, applied as a paste to skin, or even inhaled as an airborne dust. In non-lethal doses, tetrodotoxin produces paralysis and can induce a death-like state characterized by a low body temperature, extremely reduced rate of breathing, and a very slow and faint, almost imperceptible heartbeat. In such a state, the victim would appear to witnesses as dead and would then be buried. The victim would later awaken when the poison wore off and then be administered a drug made from the plant Datura stramonium, commonly called Jimsons Weed, or the “zombie cucumber,” which has potent psychotropic properties and would keep them in a delirious, trance-like state vulnerable to mind control. Davis speculated that the zombie’s master would keep the victim in this suggestible, brainwashed state through regular infusions of a drug made from the the mind altering plant. In the case of Narcisse, Davis speculated that the man had slowly regained his mental faculties and lucidity only after the bokor’s death prevented his regular doses of the powerful drug.
Davis scoured the voodoo underworld of Haiti and eventually collected 8 samples of these powders from several regions for analysis. When the powders were chemically analyzed, it was shown that among other bizarre ingredients such as dried toad, pieces of skull, and ground lizards and spiders, they indeed contained tetrodotoxin just as Davis had predicted. Furthermore the powders induced states of lethargy and immobility when administered to laboratory monkeys that they were later able to recover from. Davis was widely touted at the time for being the man to finally offer up a rational, scientific explanation for the zombie mystery, and he later wrote a book about his travels and research called The Serpent and the Rainbow which was subsequently made into a horror film of the same name which is very loosely based on the events depicted in the book.
In the ensuing years, Davis’ research came under fire by skeptics who questioned the scientific veracity of his claims and the validity of his methodology. It was pointed out that while the zombie powders did contain tetrodotoxin, the measurements were wildly inconsistent and there were only trace amounts of the toxin that were unlikely to cause the reported effects of zombification in full grown adults. It was additionally asserted that this sort of toxin would have had to have been very specifically measured for each victim into a dose that would only work on a certain individual. Too much toxin and the victim would die, too little and there would be no effect. Skeptics doubted that bokor voodoo priests would be able to reliably account for this. There were also doubts that the story of Narcisse and other zombies were even genuine, with some calling the stories exaggerated or even complete fabrications. The complete lack of any evidence of the alleged zombie plantations didn't help the case for the existence of zombies either.
The skeptics fail to realize that the problem of exact amounts needed for the toxins to work are already represented in zombie lore. The victim was usually well known to the bokor before the process began, giving them time to brew the right dose of toxin into their powder. Even with that done, the creation of a zombie was said to be far from an exact science and bokor were known to fail just about as often as they succeeded, which could be an explained by the doses being wrong. Failure could mean death to the victim or no effect at all. Davis himself allegedly ingested some zombie powder on purpose, using himself as a guinea pig to see what would happen, but no effects were evident possibly simply because the dosage was all wrong.
Davis for his part defended himself from many of the accusations hurled his way. He explained that while the powders may have shown only trace amounts of tetrodotoxin, they could have somehow worked in conjunction with the other myriad ingredients to produce the desired effects. Namely, Davis pointed to the inclusion of toad in the powders, and pointed out that the poison from some toads can act as an extremely powerful painkiller. Furthermore, Davis complained that the process of putting the powder in a solution for testing could have possibly nullified some of the potency of the active ingredient. It must also be remembered that there is the very real possibility that voodoo shamans might not be so willing to share ancient secrets with an outsider such as Davis, and consequently may have given him watered down versions of their powders cut with various superfluous and inert ingredients.
Davis also explained that the tetrodotoxin was only part of the process and was only meant to make the victim appear dead, not actually make the zombie. It was only later after arising and being subjected to mind altering drugs that the victim could truly be considered a zombie. Davis described this by saying that the process involved first making the victim “dead,” for which tetrodotoxin is utilized, and then making them “mad,” through the use of psychotropic drugs such as Datura stramonium.
In a second book called Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie, Davis continued to maintain that tetrodotoxin in zombie powders could conceivably cause the initial death-like state from which a victim could later be revived. To support this opinion, he points to research from Japan, where puffer fish is a popular delicacy, on the effects of the fish’s tetrodotoxin which concurs with the death-like states that Davis describes. It was reported that in Japan there were rare cases of people falling into a death-like coma after consuming puffer fish, only to regain consciousness and completely recover after being declared dead. Davis also added that the process of zombification went deeper than the mere use of powders and poisons. He explained that toxic powders were only part of the equation, and that the process also relied on the deep rooted belief of the Haitian people that black magic and voodoo are real. Davis argued that this deep seated, ingrained belief would make potential victims more suggestible and vulnerable to the effects of zombification.
Although the debate may rage on with regards to the validity of Davis’ research, there have been other, more modern studies conducted on alleged real zombies. The English medical journal The Lancett published a remarkable article in its October 11, 1997 edition, volume 350, examining three clinical cases of actual purported zombification in southern Haiti from the years 1996 to 1997.
In the article, the first case examined is that of a subject known only as FI, who was said to have died of a febrile illness at the age of 30. She was later buried by her family and proceeded to mysteriously reappear 3 years later wandering in the wilderness near the village. Her family all recognized her, as did her husband and a local priest, so there was no doubt as to her identity. Upon being found, FI was delirious, mute, and would later prove to be unable to feed herself. After her grave was opened and proved to be empty, the family immediately suspected the woman was a zombie and actually accused her husband of carrying out the zombification out of jealousy over an affair she had allegedly had. The woman’s family did not know what to do with the shambling, semi-comatose woman who had once been their daughter, so they admitted her to a psychiatric hospital.
FI was examined by doctors at the hospital who discovered that she looked younger and thinner than she did in an earlier photograph. In addition, the subject walked slowly and stiffly, without moving her arms and with her head constantly lowered. Examination of her musculature showed that she had lost muscle tone. When questioned, the woman refused to speak and would only mumble incomprehensibly. She would not cooperate with a psychological assessment and resisted all attempts at rehabilitation. Doctors did a full examination of the woman’s central nervous system, but found nothing out of the ordinary and certainly nothing to explain her bizarre behavior. In the end, FI was officially diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia.
The second case revolves around the 26 year-old subject known as WD, who was the son of a secret policeman under Duvalier’s regime. WD became sick with a mysterious and inexplicable illness at the age of 18 and died 3 days later. It was alleged that 19 months later, WD showed up at a cock fight of all places, where he recognized his father. Villagers accused him of being a zombie and the father accused his brother of zombifying him, upon which the uncle was arrested. WD was kept at his father’s house and was reportedly chained to a log in order to keep him from wandering off. Many years later, after escaping from prison in 1991, the uncle would deny having anything to do with WD’s zombification.
When WD was examined by doctors, it was noted that he was very skinny, constantly scowling, and looked younger than his age. He was described as spending much of his time in an odd position with his lower limbs to the left and his upper limbs to the right. He spoke only rarely and only in single word sentence fragments when he did. He avoided eye contact and his hands were described as restlessly picking at his nails or the ground. There were apparently scars circling the subject’s wrists that were consistent with those that could be caused by chains or wire. On WD’s sternum was a bizarre circular hole oozing pus that seemed somewhat scarred over, and the father claimed that this was where the zombie poison had been administered.
The subject’s nervous system seemed normal upon examination, and there was no evidence of retardation or catatonia, but there was obvious diminished cognitive function, as WD had difficulty identifying familiar objects when they were placed in his hand unseen. He was also reported as having regular violent fits as he slept and throwing childish tantrums when teased even slightly. The final diagnosis was organic brain syndrome and epilepsy consistent with a period of anoxia. It was later determined through fingerprints and DNA analysis that WD was not even the family’s real son, and that the whole case was one of mistaken identity.
The third and final case report of the article focuses on the subject called MM, a 31 year old woman. At the age of 18, the girl had joined in prayers for a neighbor that was thought to have been turned into a zombie. Shortly after, MM became ill with diarrhea and a fever and died within a few days. After being buried, the woman reappeared 13 years later in the market of her village. The dazed and confused woman went on to describe how she had been zombified and forced to work in a village 100 miles to the north, where she claimed to have given birth to the child of another zombie. She was eventually released after her bokor master had died and had gradually made her way back home.
MM was considered atypical for a zombie due to the fact that she largely retained most of her cognitive abilities and responsiveness, although she was described by her family as being duller and less intelligent than before the incident. She also exhibited certain problems in social situations, such as the tendency to giggle at inappropriate times and a generally short attention span. Physically, the woman demonstrated no abnormalities except a circular scar with no apparent cause on her sternum reminiscent of the one found on the subject WD. At this point, the woman was tentatively diagnosed as having a learning disability and possibly fetal alcohol syndrome.
The story gets even weirder when MM was brought to the village she claimed to have been imprisoned in. In the market of the village, she was recognized by a woman who claimed that MM was a local woman known to be slightly retarded who had disappeared 9 months previously. The family of that girl also recognized her and insisted that she was their lost daughter. Now both families not only claimed that MM was their daughter, but each accused the other of zombifying her. MM’s brother and daughter in the village bore remarkably similarities to her in both appearance and mannerisms. MM admitted that the girl was her daughter, but insisted that she was the result of the union with another zombie that she had described previously. In the end, researchers of the case deemed it to be one of mistaken identity. It was surmised that the woman had been abducted or had run away to another village where she was mistakenly identified as another family’s dead daughter.
The report’s conclusion was that the most likely explanation for the majority of zombie reports was that of schizophrenia or other mental illnesses, learning disabilities, or brain damage, that were misidentified by superstitious locals as the effects of zombification. The superficial signs of mental illness or brain damage were thought to have not been perhaps readily recognized by uneducated and superstitious locals for what they were, and so were interpreted through the lens of folklore, in this case zombies.
Interestingly, the report admits that the incidence of bokors breaking into tombs is widespread, either for the purpose of attempting to zombify the bodies or for stealing body parts for use as macabre ingredients in a wide range of black magic spells. The report also stops short of discounting the use of toxins or drugs to create zombies in some cases. It does not rule out the possibility of bokors utilizing regular doses of the mind altering Datura stramonium to revive and enslave victims through the state of extreme passivity, nor does it deny the theoretical possibility of using neurotoxins to create zombies. The report states in its conclusion:
“We cannot exclude the use of a neuromuscular toxin, topically administered together with a local irritant by a bokor, to induce catalepsy followed by secret retrieval of the poisoned individual. Japanese evidence of tetrodotoxin poisoning indicates that a full and rapid recovery can occur spontaneously. This would presumably be consistent with the history of FI, who could have suffered anoxic brain damage in the tomb.”
In the end, the report doesn't claim to have all of the answers, and recommends a fuller investigation into the zombie phenomenon, not only with regards to possibly pharmacological connections, but also the sociopolitical connections unique to Haiti and its culture.
So do zombies exist? The people of Haiti certainly think so. Here they are considered to be more than spooky stories, but rather very real entities. Stories of zombies persist in Haiti right up to the modern day, with sightings of the poor, haggard creatures fairly common in many rural areas. Cases are so prevalent that there have been wild estimates claiming that there are as many as up to one thousand new cases of zombies a year, and zombification is even a crime under the Haitian Penal Code (Article 246), in which it is considered to be on par with murder despite the fact that the zombified individual is technically still alive.
There seems reason to believe from work and research done in the past that there may possibly be a concrete, scientific basis for stories of zombies, so perhaps time will tell. For now these mysterious creatures lurk along the fringes of Haitian villages and our imaginations. Whether drug addled slaves or corpses reanimated through dark sorcery, the enigma of the real zombies of Haiti beckons us. Perhaps one day we will bring them out into the light and have the answers we seek.