Real Zombies, Haitian Voodoo, and a Man Named Clairvius
Zombie: The Strange Case of Clairvius Narcisse
Clairvius Narcisse remembers his own funeral. He remembers the sheet being drawn across his face, the nails driven into his coffin, and the sound of his sister’s sobs as she wept in grief.
A few days earlier, Clairvius had checked himself into a hospital. He had not been feeling well for a few days, and had a fever and body aches. When he started coughing up blood, he sought medical advice: upon admission to the hospital, physicians noted that he had fluid accumulating in his lungs and difficulty breathing. His body temperature and blood pressure began dropping, his lips turned blue, and his limbs began to tingle and turn numb. He was declared dead the next day, by two physicians.
His body was exhumed a short while later by a voodoo priest. Clairvius was beaten, gagged, and hauled away to a sugar plantation to work as a slave for the next two years. Clairvius was a zombie.
The Making of a Zombie: Haitian Witch Doctors and Voodoo
American servicemen returning from Haiti in the 1920’s and 1930’s brought tales of black magic, mindless zombies, and voodoo masters back home with them. Haitian intellectuals and other researchers refuted the outlandish claims, calling them exaggerated legends.
Ethnobiologist Wade Davis heard of Clairvius Narcisse when the man, declared dead by two physicians at the Albert Schweitzer hospital in Deschapelle, Haiti, returned to his family.
Davis traveled to Haiti and gained the trust of the Voodoo Bokors (witch doctors), who gave him samples of their zombie powders for analysis. The closely guarded voodoo secret of zombification was unraveled.
The Mysterious Zombie Powder
The powders given to Davis varied in composition, but all contained powerful toxins which caused a deep coma simulating death. The three main ingredients common to all zombie powders are:
1) Charred human bones and other human remains
2) Toxic or irritating plants (with spines) or calcium oxalate crystals
3) The poison known as fou-fou from the porcupine puffer fish
The powder would be given to an unsuspecting person, who would then fall into a very deep coma. The Voodoo Bokor would dig the “body” up shortly after burial, as the victim could die of asphyxiation if not exhumed in a timely manner.
Zombie Powder Recipe
Various recipes may be used for making zombie powder. The ingredient list may include the following:
- Bouga Toads
- Sea Snake
- Cosigne seeds
- Cashew leaves
- Desmember plants
- Bwa pine leaves
- White tree frogs
- Puffer fish
- Dead, human flesh
Place a bouga toad and a sea snake in a jar and bury the jar. Once the animals are dead, dig up the jar and extract the venom. Add millipedes and tarantulas to the mixture (crush into a fine powder). Add the consigne seeds, cashew leaves, nettles, and bwa pine leaves. Crush into a powder. Add two species of tarantula and the skins of white tree frogs. Add another bouga toad and crush into powder. Add the puffer fish (including the porcupine puffer fish) and grind into a powder. Finally, add real, dead human flesh or bones and grind.
Zombification should only be performed by a licensed witch doctor.
Datura, the Zombie Plant
Jimson Weed: The Real Zombie Powder
The puffer fish zombie powder only causes a coma simulating death: it cannot keep the victim in an altered mental state. In fact, people who survive puffer fish poisoning in Japan after eating the infamous gourmet fugu fish recover completely. To truly make a zombie, a plant by the name of Datura stramonium is required.
Also known as the Zombie cucumber, Datura contains scopolamine (impairs memory and works as a mild sedative), atropine (causes dilated pupils and confusion), and hyoscyamine (causes memory loss and temporary aggression).
Many of the traits shown in Hollywood’s version of the zombie are created in the real-life Haitian zombies with Jimson Weed. The weed causes amnesia, delirium, dilated pupils, painful reaction to sunlight (photophobia), increased heart rate, and bizarre behavior.
Why Clairvius Was Turned Into a Zombie
Clairvius had angered his brothers, who sold him to a Voodoo Bokor. Essentially, his brothers sold him into slavery on a sugar plantation: the Bokors would perform the zombification, then use a powerful drug made from Jimson Weed (Datsura stramonium) to render the individual delirious. Clairvius did not return to his family until his older brother had died – he had no desire to go through the zombification process again.
Indeed, nearly all Haitian zombies are created as acts of revenge. Family members, friends, and enemies may approach a Bokor when a person has vexed them in some way. The Bokors agree to create the Zombie, who is then drugged with Datura and made to work as slave labor.
Clairvius worked as a slave on a sugar plantation for two years. The zombies worked from the time the sun rose until the sun set, and were fed only once per day. The Bokors were known to beat and abuse their zombified slaves, though this occasionally backfired. One day, a Bokor was beating a zombie, and the zombie fought back: he killed the witch doctor cum slave master with a hoe in a fit of rage. Clairvius took this opportunity to escape his life of slavery: an amazing feat for someone kept on high levels of Datura (Jimson Weed, or Zombie Cucumber). Clairvius wandered for sixteen years before returning home, to the great delight of his sisters.
Skepticism on Davis’s Research and Haitian Zombies
When Davis wrote his first book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, his work was widely criticized by other scientists. His work seemed like an egotistical version of an Indiana Jones narrative: the famed tetrodotoxin breaks down in alkaline environments and on exposure to water. The ability to store this toxin in a stable, powder form is doubted by many scientists. At the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, a researcher named Dr. John Hartung took samples of Davis’s purchased “Zombie powder” and fed it to rats: the rats showed absolutely no effect from having eaten the powder (as an aside, Hartung also injected the rats with the powder and rubbed it on their skin – all to no effect). As it turns out, Davis had run a similar experiment with his own powder, and found that the powder had no biological effect. He failed to report these findings when he wrote his books about Haitian zombies.
Davis was also criticized for paying for the zombie powders he acquired, and for his presence during the illegal exhumation of a dead Haitian infant.
Another point of contention is the question of Clairvius’s true identity. The majority of Haitians are poor, and medical care is costly. Local citizens pay less for hospital care than those living outside of the municipality, so it is possible for a person to check into the hospital under an assumed (local) name, to receive medical care for a much lower cost. The man who checked into the hospital under the name of Clairvius was recognized by family members after death, which makes this scenario less likely. However, the official cause of death on Clairvius’s medical records was “kidney failure,” and not heart and lung failure. Once the kidneys have failed and the person has been declared dead, it would be highly unlikely for that person to regain kidney function and revive.
The length of time that Clairvius’s body was kept in the hospital morgue is another cause for questioning Davis’s presumptions: the body was kept in a refrigerated room for 24 hours following his death. A total of 48 hours passed before his body was buried, and three more days passed from when he was buried to the day he was supposedly exhumed by the Bokor. That leads to a total of 5 days where his brain received little or no oxygen, which makes survival unlikely. After his five days spent in a “dead” state due to kidney failure, Clairvius was supposedly revived, where he was able to spend many years working on a sugar plantation performing hard labor.
Of course, if the man claiming to be Clairvius was not the actual man, then why would the real Clairvius have disappeared? As it turns out, the real Clairvius had a shady past. He was the black sheep of his family, with a number of debts and an even greater number of children he fathered: the mothers of the children were clamoring for financial support from the man. One theory postulates that when a man checked into the hospital under Clairvius’s name and died, it may have given the real Clairvius a chance to disappear from his overwhelming responsibilities and debts. When Clairvius “disappeared,” the family assumed the Voodoo Bokors had come for him to punish him for his sins.
In a time before DNA fingerprinting, the only way to determine if the returned “Clairvius” was the original Clairvius was through questioning of his family history. Dr. Lamarque Douyon (the director of Haiti’s psychiatric hospital) questioned Clairvius’s family members, Clairvius, and neighbors. Douyon was convinced that the returned Clairvius was the same Clairvius that had been declared dead sixteen years prior. No empirical evidence proves that the returned Clairvius is the same man that died in the hospital.
But why would the family recognize the “revived” Clairvius as their own family member, sixteen years after his disappearance? One explanation is quite likely: bereived family members may prefer to have a semblance of the brother who had gone, than to have no brother at all.
At the University College of London, Roland Littlewood examined three individuals who claimed to be Haitian zombies. Family members had brought these “zombies” forward, claiming they had died and returned years later to rejoin their families.
Working with Chavannes Douyon from the Polyclinique Medica of Port-Au-Prince, the researchers discovered various causes for the three “zombies” brought to their attention. One had fetal alcohol syndrome, and another had brain damage from an incident involving lack of oxygen to the brain. Most interestingly, the researchers had access to modern DNA fingerprinting technology. Through the use of genetic testing, the men found that none of the supposed zombies were actually related to the “family members” who had taken them in and claimed them as their own.
It is highly likely that Voodoo priests use Datura (Jimson weed) to perform zombie rituals in drug induced trances, though the existence of actual Haitian zombies has never been proven through objective, scientific methods.