In 2007, Adeline pictured above was declared dead in Port au Prince, Haiti. The picture above is from 2009, when she was found in a dissociative state by her family. Because , only two years had elapsed, her official death certificate exists and her grave was still there.
It is said in Haiti, the fear isn’t of Zombis, but of becoming one.
As an anthropology student in the early 1990′s I took upon myself to continue Harvard’s Wade Davis, author of “The Serpent and the Rainbow”, work on Zombis, the Bizango society and tetrodotoxin. The result, while ultimately modest in comparison, resulted in two papers and two Independent studies for the University of Illinois-Chicago. I never made it to Haiti, due to the usual lack of funds, but the goal remains the same, today as it did then, to document, to film the process of zombification first hand, which is something that has never been done. In the meantime here is what I’ve found.
CLAIRVIUS NARCISSE AND THE BIZANGO SOCIETY
The Albert Schweitzer Hospital In Deschapelles is an American institution in the Artibonite Valley of West Central Haiti founded in 1956. On the 30th of April 1962 at precisely 9:45 PM a man walked in spitting blood. For the next two days he would suffer hypothermia, paresthesia, cyanosis, hypertension, loss of weight and a difficulty in breathing, all from an unknown source. At 1:15 PM on May 2, Clairvius Narcisse would be declared dead, and in the morning of May 3 Narcisse was buried in his native village of L’Estere. Angelina Narcisse was the last person to see her brother alive, as she was present at the hospital when he died. Angelina Narcisse would also be the first person to see Clairvius alive eighteen years later.
A regular at the L’ester marketplace Angelina was shopping when a man approached her and introducing himself by a nickname they had used as children, this man was Clairvius. He would later tell her his full story, claiming that he had been made a Zombi because of a land dispute with his brother where Clairvius had refused to share inherited land.
It is said in Haiti that the country is one hundred percent catholic and one hundred and ten percent voodoo. Haiti is land of dichotomy and contradictions. That one hundred and ten percent follows certain protocols set by the Bizango society, the real power in rural Haiti. A secret society that quite honestly isn’t particularly that secret.
Voodoo and the society are not inherently evil, that’s a misconception. Voodoo is a powerful force, but a force in itself is directionless. It is only when applied to a goal that it may become good or evil.
Narcisse’s brother sold him to a Bokor who made him into a Zombi. A Bokor is a sorcerer in Haiti, and the only one who knows the secret of Zombification. At this point it would be wise to forget all that you know about Zombis from television and the movies, in rural Haiti, Zombification serves as a punishment, a death penalty if you will, courtesy of the Bizango Society.
Obviously, not all transgressions lead to Zombification. There are various punishments set by the Bizango society, but the more serious offenses can lead to Zombification. These are, material advancement at the expense of others, lack of respect towards fellow Haitians, taking another man’s woman, causing harm to one’s family, defaming the Bizango society and cheating in regard to land issues. All of these considered serious offenses and within the jurisdiction of the Bizango society.
Clairvius Narcisse had at one time or another committed many of these crimes. He had a reputation for being greedy, had refused to share his land with his brother, and had refused to help his family out financially on several occasions. To add to his growing shaky reputation, he had fathered children with a number of women and had refused to take responsibility, financial or otherwise. On the Bizango’s ten most wanted for Zombification list, Clairvius Narcisse was at the top of the list.
As I alluded briefly, the official religion of Haiti is Catholicism. This is what the outside world sees of Haiti. On the inside, it is a country run by much older traditions. Voodoo is a religion, and like all religions it serves a dual purpose, a religious one and a political purpose. Zombification and thus the Bizango society expresses this model quite well. The act of becoming a Zombi is equivalent to the death penalty, and the fear of such a fate is a form of social control.
Narcisse, was aware of being declared dead; completely paralyzed and unable to do anything about it. He was also aware of being buried and the nail that pierced his skin as it went through the cheap wood of the coffin. The scar still visible 18 years later. He remained in that coffin, buried for 72 hours, and then he was taken out, taken away to work at a plantation. This is standard protocol apparently. Zombis are used as slave labor as a way to repay society with the production of goods. In Narcisse’s case he escaped when the plantation’s owner died.
The case was investigated by the family, the BBC and head of the Centre de Psychiatrie et Neurologie in Port-au-Prince, lamarque Douyon. It was declared a legitimate case of Zombification by all involved. Narcisse wasn’t the first or last individual case of Zombification; but before Narcisse, it wasn’t taken seriously outside of Haiti. I was told personally of a case that took place in the 1960’s where an american while in the military found himself in Haiti visiting a plantation. The plantation owner had a number of individuals working for him that seemed to be in a strange stupor like state. He called them Zombis.
In fact it wasn’t until Harvard ethnobiologist Wade Davis came back from Haiti with samples of the Zombi powder, that scientists were even aware of the concept of Zombification. Davis wrote a book entitled “The Serpent and the Rainbow” and in detail explained that Zombis were not the living dead, but rather under the influence of a drug. What remains a mystery is how the inflected remain in that Zombi state for years, and what occurs from a physiological standpoint when they “snap out “ of it. What triggers the later?
Paresthesia ( tingling sensation of the skin), cyanosis (oxygen deficiency in the blood leading to a bluish tint to the skin), respiratory failure, uremia (toxins in the blood),vomiting, general weakness, complete paralysis while remaining conscious are all symptoms associated with Zombification. All these symptoms were experienced by Clairvius Narcisse and others before their “deaths”. Narcisse also complained that his skin felt like it was on fire.
Studies on the Zombi powder indicated that the ingredient responsible for the majority of the conditions listed above is tetrodotoxin, or TTX for short.
The drug tetrodotoxin comes from the following marine species; Crapaud du mer ( Sphoeroides testudineus), the poisson fufu ( Diodon hystrix) , and the bilan ( Diodon holacanthus). All three of these are species are pufferfish. Tetrodotoxin is found in the intestines, ovaries, testicles, liver and in the skin of these animals. Pure tetrodotoxin is 160,000 times more effective in axonal blockage than cocaine. It is also 1000 times more potent than sodium cyanide. Half a milligram is all that is needed to kill a grown man. Used in proper dosage the drug causes complete neuro-muscular paralysis.
Axons relay nerve impulses between the central nervous system and neuromuscular junctions. The relay or inhibition of these impulses depend on the concentration of sodium and potassium ions inside and outside the axon. Most drugs make axons equally permeable to both, resulting in the inhibition of nerve impulses. Tetrodotoxin doesn’t affect the flow of both sodium and potassium, instead it inhibits the flow of sodium alone. The result is complete neuromuscular paralysis.
Case studies of Tetrodotoxin poisoning reveal identical symptoms to the effect of the Zombi powder. These symptoms include nausea, vomiting, paresthesia, hypersalivation, extreme sweating, weakness, headache, pulmonary edema, cyanosis, dilation of the pupils and hypothermia. Individuals affected by the Zombi powder claim that they remain conscious through out the entire episode. Again, case studies in tetrodotoxin poisoning confirms this fact. The victims retain complete awareness but otherwise show no signs of life. Tetrodotoxin is topically active meaning that just handling the toxin can induce some of these symptoms.
It was assumed by Davis that a another drug was administered to the Zombi upon “resurrection”. I’ve thought about this at length and discussed it with my professor back in school, and I have to agree. Yet the drug has never been identified. There are several reason for this. For one, there has been a serious lack of interest, and thus funding in regards to the Zombi phenomena. Even with the successful acquisition of the Zombi powder by Davis, academia still retains a very skeptical view of the phenomenon. It’s association with Voodoo, certainly does not help. The only on location investigations that I’m aware off within the last twenty years have been from freelance writers and various film crews. Those were much more interested in Voodoo and the sensational then the pharmacological aspect of Zombification. Furthermore, none of these later investigations have produced a Zombi.
One thing that is immeasurably important here is the close relationship between the science in regard to the powder and the Voodoo phenomenon.
To Haitians, the source of a Bokor’s power is both a knowledge of the ingredients necessary for the preparation of the powder, but also the supernatural. They are two sides of the same coin. You may split the coin in half, but then you don’t have a real coin anymore,it becomes worthless.
Tetradotoxin is without doubt responsible for the onset of zombification, but in theory the afflicted should come out of its spell once he or she is unburied, or shortly thereafter. Yet, Zombis remain in their state for an undetermined amount of time, which can be years or decades. Lore has it that the death of a Zombi master, usually the plantation owner, results in the Zombi regaining its”human” faculties More than superstition, this may point to the existence of another drug, a maintenance drug. Once a Zombi’s owner dies, and no one continues to administer the maintenance drug, the afflicted simply snaps out of it.
Last but not least is the phenomenon of voodoo death. Voodoo death is a term common in Anthropology and points to the power of cultural expectations. Contrary to popular belief the origin of the term has no relationship to actual Voodoo.
It originated in cultures where a witch doctor, or sorcerer, plays a very important social role. In these cultures it has been observed that in certain cases where the witch doctor points to an individual and declares him dead in an hour, that individual dies. This is of course is an extreme rare example, and the concept can be applied to less severe declarations by the witch doctor. The point is not the witch doctor’s supernatural power, but the social expectations and “knowledge” of what is about to occur. It’s self fulfilling prophecy in its purest form.
This may seem strange to us, but to cultures who believe in the powers of their witch doctor or sorcerer, the results are inevitable. Haitians believe in the power of the Zombi powder, they know what it’s like to become a Zombi, so perhaps what we have here, at least in part, is a sociological placebo effect.
in many ways Haitian voodoo is a beautiful religion that ignores the simplification of good and evil so present and judgmental in other religions. It clearly identifies forces has not inherently good of evil, but as directionless until acting upon by intent. There’s a real lesson there if we listen in terms of how the universe really works. But of course mankind being mankind has created a society to control voodoo protocols for political and power, resulting in among other phenomena zombification.