The Real Zombies of Haiti
Folk Myth... or Reality?
According to Haitian folk myth, there are two types of death: natural and unnatural. It is the latter kind which can cause problems. The souls of those taken before their time, most commonly a result of murder or suicide, linger at their graves, unable to rejoin their ancestors. These restless spirits are the ones which can be harvested for zombie voodoo.
Powerful Haitian sorcerers called bokors are believed to have the power to reanimate such corpses. This is achieved through powerful black magic, whereby the bokor can snatch vulnerable souls and imprison them in bottles or earthenware jars called zombi astral. From this point onwards, the soul and corpse of the unnatural dead belong to the bokor.
Under the sorcerer’s control, the un-dead body can be used for various purposes, both benevolent and malicious. However, it is most commonly said that zombies are used by bokors for manual labour, forced into endless, mindless toil on farms or plantations.
Zombification can also be a form of punishment. Many Haitians believe that bokors sometimes turn a person into a zombie as vengeance for crossing them. It is even believed that a black market in zombie slaves exists, where bokors can sell their zombie creations to fellow sorcerers.
Haitian people do not fear zombies: they are victims rather than the villains. Instead, they fear becoming zombies at the hands of a malevolent dealer in black magic.
Appearance and Characterisitics
Those thought to have been turned into a zombie look much like those on a traditional Hollywood film set. Grey haggard faces; gaunt features with skin pulled tight against their bones; fixed, staring expression; lessen mental capacity and actions characterised by clumsiness and lethargy.
In addition to physical qualities, Haitian zombies tend to exhibit enhanced physical strength and resistance to both pain and exhaustion – making them ideal for indentured servitude.
A Belief Based on Fear
Scholars have traced the origin of the word “zombie” back to the Kongo word for "soul", nzambi. It is believed that as a result of the slave trade, the voodoo religion was established in Haiti, inspired by both old African traditions and the severe conditions of slavery. As such, the idea of the zombie was born. Today, it is estimated that 80 – 90% of Haitians believe or practice the voodoo religion.
Old superstitions and the fear of zombification have been used as a tool for political and social control in Haiti. From 1957 to 1984, under the oppressive Duvalier regime, the threat of zombification was exploited to quell resistance. Rumours existed that the secret police employed powerful bokor sorcerers to zombify anyone who stepped out of line.
To this day, Article 246 of the Haitian Criminal Code makes mysterious allusions to considering an
“attempt on life […] without giving death, [which] will cause a more-or-less prolonged state of lethargy”.
It also states that the victims may end up being buried as a result of this attempt on their life, sinisterly reminiscent of bokor voodoo and zombification. According to the law, such a crime is akin to murder.
The zombie phenomenon has never left Haiti, with sightings of haggard creatures fairly common in many rural areas. In fact, reports are so commonplace that there have been sensational estimates claiming that there are as many as one thousand new zombies every year.
The Curious Case of Clairvius Narcisse
One well-known case of supposed Haitian zombification is that of Clairvius Narcisse. After suffering from a high fever, respiratory problems and aches throughout his body, Narcisse was taken to hospital before slipping into a coma. Two days later, on the 2nd May, 1962, he was officially pronounced dead by physicians.
In spite of his death being authenticated by his two sisters, 18 years later his sister, Angelina, found her brother at the village marketplace. Angelina did not recognise him at first, so certain that her brother was dead, but was eventually convinced of Narcisse’s identity when he shared childhood memories that only the two of them knew. His family, friends and many villagers also recognised him, believing him to be one of the living dead – a zombie. He exhibited the qualities traditionally associated with zombification in Haitian folk myth: a vacant-eyed stare, emaciated facial features, and a shuffling gait.
In the years after his return, Narcisse detailed the fantastical tale of being dug up from his grave by a bokor, and taken to work as a slave on a remote sugar plantation. After years of mindless toil, he was finally released from zombie servitude after the death of his bokor. After that, once he regained enough lucidity he was able to make his way back to his village and find his sister.
Some academics have tried to explain Haitian zombification through pharmacology. Certain plants have been identified as producing psychoactive effects not dissimilar to a zombie-like state. One leading researcher, Wade Davis, theorised in the 1980s that a death-like state is achieved by the bokor by using a powerful neurotoxin such as that derived from the internal organs of puffer fish called tetrodotoxin – a substance which is 1000 times more toxic than cyanide. Once administer, the victim is buried – believed to be dead by their family. After this, the bokor can revive them and enslave them through the use of psychoactive drugs, such as Jimsons Weed, or the “zombie cucumber,” which can keep someone in a delirious, trance-like state vulnerable to mind control. Other substances thought to trigger frightening psychic dislocation are believed to be involved in the creation of zombies.
Haitian bokors admit the use of powders in the zombification process. However, those researchers who have delved into the spiritual world of the Haitian zombie have found it increasingly difficult to get hold of definitive samples. The powder and its recipe are monopolised by the secret Bizango society, who began as small groups of slaves who escaped from plantations during colonial times. The only samples ever recovered and tested in laboratories have been proven inactive.
Are Haitian zombies a social or scientific phenomenon?
The Cultural Matrix
Could it be that Haitian zombies are a social, and not a scientific, phenomenon? The cultural fabric of the country is ripe for belief in spiritual. From the time of birth, Haitians know that zombies are real: it is not a matter of questioning if. The application of powders to induce a zombie-like state could therefore be the result of a placebo effect. As Wade Davis concluded: “no drug can make a social phenomenon.”