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The Real Curse of the Zombies: Mystery Files

Updated on March 26, 2012
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Curse of the Zombies

We have all seen them - the late night horror flicks on the TV featuring crowds of the undead shambling through graveyards and deserted streets with bodily appendages falling off as they shuffle. They're slow, but persistent and, decomposing or not, when they catch you, they'll eat you alive. They are one of the most recognisable icons of the horror genre - The Zombie!

The popular cinematic image of Zombies
The popular cinematic image of Zombies | Source

But is that all there is to Zombies? Just gruesome thrill creators? figments of overwrought movie makers imagination?

Most of us know that Zombies are based on allegedly true tales of the walking dead - reanimated corpses brought back to a semblance of life by voodoo witch-doctors to serve as their earthly slaves.

But just how much of this is based on reality. Could such a thing be possible? - I mean REALLY possible? Surely, in the real world corpses cannot simply be dug up and brought back to life, so where and when did the legend originate? - What exactly is a Zombie?

The Power of Voodoo

Vodou (Voodoo) ceremony in Jacmel Haiti
Vodou (Voodoo) ceremony in Jacmel Haiti | Source

Voodoo is a belief system that was originally created by African slaves who had been shipped out to Haiti to work on the plantations there. Voodoo was a strange amalgam of the slave's own tribal beliefs, blended with elements of the Roman Catholic church, and characterised by frenzied dancing resulting in trance-like states in which the dancer eventually collapses as they make contact with their loa, or god

The religion has many elements of what we would consider magic, and the Voodoo priest or Houngan is the spiritual master who controls its power. It is the Houngans, according to traditional belief, who have the power to create Zombies by re-animating corpses, but they are not the only ones capable of this magical feat. Bokors (sorcerers) and Captalas (sorceresses) are particularly feared for their power to create and control Zombies.

It was said that the Houngan, Bokor or Captala could suck out a humans soul and keep it sealed up in a bottle. Once the unfortunate victim had died and been buried, they would dig up the corpse and re-instill the captured soul back into the lifeless body, by offering the bottle that contained the soul beneath the corpse's nostrils, in much the same way that one would administer smelling salts to someone who had fainted.

This photo is said to depict a genuine Haitian "Zombie"
This photo is said to depict a genuine Haitian "Zombie"

Eye witness accounts

In 1930, a French anthropologist, Georges De Roquet, whilst on a field trip to Haiti, was offered the opportunity to meet and observe (but not touch) four alleged Zombies. De Roquet, who was accompanied by an experienced Haitian guide, was also fluent in the local language of Creole. He recorded the fascinating story in his journal.

"Toward evening we encountered a group of four male figures coming in from the nearby cotton field where they had been toiling. I was struck by their peculiar shambling gait, most unlike the lithe walk of other natives. The overseer with them stopped their progress, enabling me to observe them closely for some minutes.

They were clothed in rags made from sacking Their arms hung down by their sides dangling in a curiously lifeless fashion. Their faces and hands appeared devoid of flesh, the skin adhering to the bones like wrinkled brown parchment. I also noticed that they did not sweat, although they had been working and the sun was still very hot. I was unable to judge their approximate ages. They may have been young men or quite elderly.

The most arresting feature about them was their gaze. They all stared straight ahead, their eyes dull and unfocused as if blind. They did not show a spark of awareness of my presence, even when I approached them closely. To test the reflexes of one, I made a stabbing gesture toward his eyes with my pointed fingers. He did not blink or shrink back. But when I attempted to touch his hand the overseer prevented me, saying that this was not permitted.

My immediate impression was that these creatures were imbeciles made to work for their keep. Baptiste, however assured me that they were indeed the Zombies; that is dead people resurrected by sorcery and employed as unpaid labourers".

The zombies were then led away and locked inside a small windowless shed. De Roquet suggested to his guide Baptiste that they should go down to this small prison to investigate. Baptiste, usually cool and collected, almost panicked at the suggestion. he became extremely frightened and insisted that they leave the place immediately. Although De Roquet was armed with a gun, Baptiste told him that it was a useless defence in Haiti.

Alfred Metraux - Author of "Voodoo in Haiti"
Alfred Metraux - Author of "Voodoo in Haiti" | Source

Zombies for sale!

Another incident is reported by Alfred Metraux in his book Voodoo in Haiti. He reports that tale of how a well-heeled society man named only as "Monsieur" was out driving in Haiti, when he had a flat tyre just outside a small village. He was approached by a small man with a white beard, who unbeknown to the Monsieur, was a Houngan. The Houngan offered to arrange assistance and invited the Monsieur back to his house for coffee.

Over coffee, The Houngan told the Monsieur that he had caused the flat tyre by casting a spell, and warned him that there was an evil charm (a wanga) hidden in his vehicle. The Monsieur, more or less, laughed at this suggestion which angered the Houngan. The Houngan then asked the Monsieur whether he knew another society man who had died some six months earlier - a Monsieur Celestin. The Monsieur said that they had been very good friends.

The Houngan then stunned the Monsieur by asking him if he would like to see his friend again. He then picked up a whip which he cracked six times. As though beckoned by the whip cracking, a man slowly backed into the room and upon the order of the Houngan, turned around. The Monsieur was shocked to see that the man was indeed his old friend Celestin.

Celestin however did not recognise his old friend. His face was completely expressionless with staring unseeing eyes, as he stood motionless with his head hanging. The Houngan told him that Celestin's death was the result of a spell cast by a Bokor (sorcerer), who had then revived him and turned him into a Zombie. The Houngan said that he had bought Celestin as a Zombie from the Bokor for $12.

Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie
Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie

An absolutely fascinating and authorative account of the Zombies of Haiti - exactly who the victims are, why they are chosen and how they are Zombified.

 

Other reports

It would be reasonable to believe that belief in Zombies was confined to the Voodoo community in Haiti. However, a local Catholic Priest reported in 1959 that an uncontrolled Zombie had shuffled into the courtyard of a private house in a small village in Haiti.

The local police were called who took the man to the police station. There he was given a glass of salt-water to drink (traditionally believed to combat the effects of Zombieism). After some time the man seemed to revive somewhat and was able to tell the police his name.

Following investigations, it was discovered that he had an aunt in the village. The aunt was brought in to the station where she appeared shocked as she positively identified the man as her nephew. He had, she said, died four years previously and she had attended his funeral.

The priest himself was allowed to question the man who told him that he had been just one of many Zombies controlled by a local Houngan. On hearing this, the local police appeared to panic, and suggested that it would be better to just return the man to the Houngan. However, some two days later, whilst the police were still deciding what to do, the man was found dead.

The police assumed that the man had been killed by the Houngan because he had spoken to the authorities. At this, the police decided that enough was enough and arrested the Houngan on suspicion of murder. All his other Zombies had apparently been spirited into the hills by the Houngans wife when she got wind of the arrest, and so they were never found.

An alternative explanation.

There is one school of thought which believes that the Zombie phenomenon is real enough, but not the product of sorcery. It is, they suggest, produced by the skilled application of natural drugs which can mimic the appearance of death in it's victims.

Once the unfortunate (apparent) corpse has been buried, the perpetrator digs them up again, revives them and by using more skillfully dosed drugs, keeps them in a permanent state of semi-consciousness, in which they are extremely suggestible, and will slavishly follow their masters orders.

Datura Stramonium - AKA "Zombie cucumber"
Datura Stramonium - AKA "Zombie cucumber" | Source

Scientists suggest that Bokors create their Zombies by administering a slow-acting poison containing tetrodotoxin (pufferfish venom) and bufotoxin (toad venom), which has the ability to slow down the body's metabolism to a point where the victim appears to be dead. This is easy to misjudge however, and many victims must actually die as a result.

Those who survive the initial poisoning however, could be revived by the Bokor forcing them to eat a paste concocted from a powerful psychoactive plant called Datura Stramonium which is also commonly known as Zombie Cucumber. The result of ingesting this substance is extreme disorientation and memory loss, which leaves the victim suggestible, submissive and vulnerable to cynical exploitation.

This theory seems to endorse the story of Clairvius Narcisse who hit the news in 1982. Narcisse, a native of Haiti, had always enjoyed exceptional heath, but then in 1962, for no apparent reason became seriously ill. He was taken by his sister, to the Albert Sweitzer Memorial Hospital in Deschapelle, where the doctors pronounced him dead and signed a death certificate.

Narcisse recalls: "I couldn't get enough air in my lungs. My heart was running out of strength. My stomach was burning" - He went on - "Then I felt myself freeze up. I heard the doctor tell my sister, "I'm sorry, he's dead"

Although apparently dead, Narcisse says he continued to see and hear everything that went on - the friends and relatives that came to pay their respects. Yet despite the tragedy of the situation, he never felt any emotion. At the cemetery, he heard the prayers and the mourners and the soil falling onto his coffin, then... silence.

Newspaper clipping of Clairvius Narcisse showing the grave from which he was taken to be made a "Zombie"
Newspaper clipping of Clairvius Narcisse showing the grave from which he was taken to be made a "Zombie"

The next thing he remembers is that he was standing next to his grave feeling as though he was in a trance. Two men were re-filling the grave. They then bound him with rope and took him to a farm where he was put to work as a slave along with about a hundred others.

Narcisse remained a slave for about two years but then one day, something happened. He assumes that the overseer must have accidentally omitted to give the stupefying drugs to some of the Zombies, because some of them seemed to regain their awareness. They realised what was happening and killed the overseer. With the overseer gone and the effects of the drug wearing off, Narcisse once again regained his faculties.

Assessing his situation, he felt that he could not return to his old village because he believed that his brother (who lived there) was the person who had conspired with a local sorcerer to have him made a Zombie. However, his self imposed exile ended when in January 1980 Narcisse was brought news that his brother had died, and he decided, eighteen years after he had been officially pronounced dead, to return to L'Estere and the life and family he had left there so long ago.

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