[Blackstudies-l] From the Archives: The Secrets of Haiti’s Living Dead
lima at geneseo.edu
Thu Nov 2 00:41:45 EDT 2017
lisaparavisini posted: " A report by Gino del Guercio for the Harvard
Magazine. More than 30 years ago, anthropologist and ethnobotanistWade
Davis ’75, Ph.D. ’86, then a graduate student, went to Haiti at the
recommendation of his mentor, Jeffrey professor of biology Richard E"
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<http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/> From the Archives: The
Secrets of Haiti’s Living Dead
A report by Gino del Guercio for the *Harvard Magazine*.
*More than 30 years ago, anthropologist and ethnobotanistWade Davis
<http://www.daviswade.com/> ’75, Ph.D. ’86, then a graduate student, went
to Haiti at the recommendation of his mentor, Jeffrey professor of
biology Richard Evans Schultes
to investigate a possible scientific explanation for the alleged existence
of zombies. The January-February 1986 cover story about Davis’s findings,
by Gino Del Guercio, prompted Yalie Garry Trudeau to create a zombie
storyline for *Doonesbury*character “Uncle” Duke
thereafter, and remains one of the magazine’s most frequently requested
FIVE YEARS AGO, a man walked into l’Estere, a village in central Haiti,
approached a peasant woman named Angelina Narcisse, and identified himself
as her brother Clairvius. If he had not introduced himself using a boyhood
nickname and mentioned facts only intimate family members knew, she would
not have believed him. Because, eighteen years earlier, Angelina had stood
in a small cemetery north of her village and watched as her brother
Clairvius was buried.
The man told Angelina he remembered that night well. He knew when he was
lowered into his grave, because he was fully conscious, although he could
not speak or move. As the earth was thrown over his coffin, he felt as if
he were floating over the grave. The scar on his right cheek. he said, was
caused by a nail driven through his casket.
The night he was buried, he told Angelina, a voodoo priest raised him from
the grave. He was beaten with a sisal whip and carried off to a sugar
plantation in northern Haiti where, with other zombies, he was forced to
work as a slave. Only with the death of the zombie master were they able to
escape, and Narcisse eventually returned home.
Legend has it that zombies are the living dead, raised from their graves
and animated by malevolent voodoo sorcerers, usually for some evil purpose.
Most Haitians believe in zombies, and Narcisse’s claim is not unique.
At about the time he reappeared, in 1980, two women turned up in other
villages saying they were zombies. In the same year, in northern Haiti, the
local peasants claimed to have found a group of zombies wandering aimlessly
in the fields.
But Narcisse’s case was different in one crucial respect; it was
documented. His death had been recorded by doctors at the American-directed
Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles. On April 30, 1962, hospital records
show, Narcisse walked into the hospital’s emergency room spitting up blood.
He was feverish and full of aches. His doctors could not diagnose his
illness, and his symptoms grew steadily worse. Three days after he entered
the hospital, according to the records, he died. The attending physicians,
an American among them, signed his death certificate. His body was placed
in cold storage for twenty hours, and then he was buried. He said he
remembered hearing his doctors pronounce him dead while his sister wept at
AT THE Centre de Psychiatric et Neurologie in Port au-Prince, Dr. Lamarque
Douyon, a Haitian-born, Canadian-trained psychiatrist, has been
systematically investigating all reports of zombies since 1961. Though
convinced zombies were real, he had been unable to find a scientific
explanation for the phenomenon. He did not believe zombies were people
raised from the dead, but that did not make them any less interesting. He
speculated that victims were only made to *look* dead, probably by means of
a drug that dramatically slowed metabolism. The victim was buried, dug up
within a few hours, and somehow reawakened.
The Narcisse case provided Douyon with evidence strong enough to warrant a
request for assistance from colleagues in New York. Douyon wanted to find
an ethnobotanist, a traditional-medicines expert, who could track down the
zombie potion he was sure existed. Aware of the medical potential of a drug
that could dramatically lower metabolism, a group organized by the late Dr.
Nathan Kline—a New York psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of
psychopharmacology—raised the funds necessary to send someone to
The search for that someone led to the Harvard Botanical Museum, one of the
world’s foremost institutes of ethnobiology. Its director, Richard Evans
Schultes, Jeffrey professor of biology, had spent thirteen years in the
tropics studying native medicines. Some of his best known work is the
investigation of curare, the substance used by the nomadic people of the
Amazon to poison their darts. Refined into a powerful muscle relaxant
called D-tubocurarine, it is now an essential component of the anesthesia
used during almost all surgery.
Schultes would have been a natural for the Haitian investigation, but he
was too busy. He recommended another Harvard ethnobotanist for the
assignment, Wade Davis, a 28-year-old Canadian pursuing a doctorate in
Davis grew up in the tall pine forests of British Columbia and entered
Harvard in 1971, influenced by a Life magazine story on the student strike
of 1969. Before Harvard, the only Americans he had known were draft
dodgers, who seemed very exotic. “I used to fight forest fires with them,”
Davis says. “Like everybody else, I thought America was where it was at.
And I wanted to go to Harvard because of that Life article. When I got
there, I realized it wasn’t quite what I had in mind.”
Davis took a course from Schultes, and when he decided to go to South
America to study plants, he approached his professor for guidance. “He was
an extraordinary figure,” Davis remembers. “He was a man who had done it
all. He had lived alone for years in the Amazon.” Schultes sent Davis to
the rain forest with two letters of introduction and two pieces of advice:
wear a pith helmet and try ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogenic vine.
During that expedition and others. Davis proved himself an “outstanding
field man,’’ says his mentor. Now, in early 1982, Schultes called him into
his office and asked if he had plans for spring break.
“I always took to Schultes’s assignments like a plant takes to water,” says
Davis, tall and blond, with inquisitive blue eyes. “Whatever Schultes told
me to do, I did. His letters of introduction opened up a whole world.” This
time the world was Haiti.
Davis knew nothing about the Caribbean island—and nothing about African
traditions, which serve as Haiti’s cultural basis. He certainly did not
believe in zombies. “I thought it was a lark,” he says now.
Davis landed in Haiti a week after his conversation with Schultes, armed
with a hypothesis about how the zombie drug—if it existed—might be made.
Setting out to explore, he discovered a country materially impoverished,
but rich in culture and mystery. He was impressed by the cohesion of
Haitian society: he found none of the crime, social disorder, and rampant
drug and alcohol abuse so common in many of the other Caribbean islands.
The cultural wealth and cohesion, he believes, spring from the country’s
During the French occupation of the late eighteenth century, 370,000
African-born slaves were imported to Haiti between 1780 and 1790. In 1791,
the black population launched one of the few successful slave revolts in
history, forming secret societies and overcoming first the French
plantation owners and then a detachment of troops from Napoleon’s army,
sent to quell the revolt. For the next hundred years Haiti was the only
independent black republic in the Caribbean, populated by people who did
not forget their African heritage. “You can almost argue that Haiti is more
African than Africa,” Davis says. “When the west coast of Africa was being
disrupted by colonialism and the slave trade, Haiti was essentially left
alone. The amalgam of beliefs in Haiti is unique, but it’s very, very
Davis discovered that the vast majority of Haitian peasants practice
voodoo. a sophisticated religion with African roots. Says Davis, “It was
immediately obvious that the stereotypes of voodoo weren’t true. Going
around the countryside, I found clues to a whole complex social world.”
Vodounists believe they communicate directly with, indeed are often
possessed by, the many spirits who populate the everyday world. Vodoun
society is a system of education, law, and medicine: it embodies a code of
ethics that regulates social behavior.
In rural areas, secret vodoun societies, much like those found on the west
coast of Africa, are as much or more in control of everyday life as the
ALTHOUGH MOST OUTSIDERS dismissed the zombie phenomenon as folklore, some
early investigators, convinced of its reality, tried to find a scientific
explanation. The few who sought a zombie drug failed. Nathan Kline, who
helped finance Davis’s expedition, had searched unsuccessfully, as had
Lamarque Douyon, the Haitian psychiatrist. Zora Neale Hurston, an American
black woman, may have come closest. An anthropological pioneer, she went to
Haiti in the Thirties, studied vodoun society, and wrote a book on the
subject,* Tell My Horse*, first published in 1938. She knew about the
secret societies and was convinced zombies were real, but if a powder
existed, she too failed to obtain it.
Davis obtained a sample in a few weeks.
He arrived in Haiti with the names of several contacts. A BBC reporter
familiar with the Narcisse case had suggested he talk with Marcel Pierre.
Pierre owned the Eagle Bar, a bordello in the city of Saint Marc. He was
also a voodoo sorcerer and had supplied the BBC with a physiologically
active powder of unknown ingredients. Davis found him willing to negotiate.
He told Pierre he was a representative of “powerful but anonymous interests
in New York,” willing to pay generously for the priest’s services, provided
no questions were asked. Pierre agreed to be helpful for what Davis will
only say was a “sizable sum.” Davis spent a day watching Pierre gather the
ingredients—including human bones—and grind them together with mortar and
pestle. However, from his knowledge of poison, Davis knew immediately that
nothing in the formula could produce the powerful effects of zombification.
Three weeks later, Davis went back to the Eagle Bar, where he found Pierre
sitting with three associates. Davis challenged him. He called him a
charlatan. Enraged, the priest gave him a second vial, claiming that this
was the real poison. Davis pretended to pour the powder into his palm and
rub it into his skin. “You’re a dead man,” Pierre told him, and he might
have been, because this powder proved to be genuine. But, as the substance
had not actually touched him, Davis was able to maintain his bravado, and
Pierre was impressed. He agreed to make the poison and show Davis how it
The powder, which Davis keeps in a small vial, looks like dry black dirt.
It contains parts of toads, sea worms, lizards, tarantulas, and human
bones. (To obtain the last ingredient, he and Pierre unearthed a child’s
grave on a nocturnal trip to the cemetery.) The poison is rubbed into the
victim’s skin. Within hours he begins to feel nauseated and has difficulty
breathing. A pins-and-needles sensation afflicts his arms and legs, then
progresses to the whole body. The subject becomes paralyzed; his lips turn
blue for lack of oxygen. Quickly—sometimes within six hours—his metabolism
is lowered to a level almost indistinguishable from death.
As Davis discovered, making the poison is an inexact science. Ingredients
varied in the five samples he eventually acquired, although the active
agents were always the same. And the poison came with no guarantee. Davis
speculates that sometimes instead of merely paralyzing the victim, the
compound kills him. Sometimes the victim suffocates in the coffin before he
can be resurrected. But clearly the potion works well enough often enough
to make zombies more than a figment of Haitian imagination.
Analysis of the powder produced another surprise. “When I went down to
Haiti originally,” says Davis, “my hypothesis was that the formula would
contain *concombre zombi*, the ‘zombie’s cucumber,’ which is a *Datura* plant.
I thought somehow *Datura* was used in putting people down.” *Datura* is a
powerful psychoactive plant, found in West Africa as well as other tropical
areas and used there in ritual as well as criminal activities. Davis had
found *Datura* growing in Haiti. Its popular name suggested the plant was
used in creating zombies.
But, says Davis, “there were a lot of problems with the *Datura* hypothesis.
Partly it was a question of how the drug was administered. *Datura* could
create a stupor in huge doses, but it just wouldn’t produce the kind of
immobility that was key. These people had to appear dead, and there aren’t
many drugs that will do that.’’
One of the ingredients Pierre included in the second formula was a dried
fish, a species of puffer or blowfish, common to most parts of the world.
It gets its name from its ability to fill itself with water and swell to
several times its normal size when threatened by predators. Many of these
fish contain a powerful poison known as tetrodotoxin. One of the most
powerful nonprotein poisons known to man, tetrodotoxin turned up in every
sample of zombie powder that Davis acquired.
Numerous well-documented accounts of puffer fish poisoning exist. but the
most famous accounts come from the Orient, where *fugu* fish, a species of
puffer, is considered a delicacy. In Japan, special chefs are licensed to
prepare *fugu*. The chef removes enough poison to make the fish nonlethal,
yet enough remains to create exhilarating physiological effects—tingles up
and down the spine, mild prickling of the tongue and lips, euphoria.
Several dozen Japanese die each year having bitten off more than they
“When I got hold of the formula and saw it was the *fugu* fish, that
suddenly threw open the whole Japanese literature,” says Davis. Case
histories of *fugu* poisoning read like accounts of zombification. Victims
remain conscious but unable to speak or move. A man who had “died” after
eating *fugu* recovered seven days later in the morgue. Several summers
ago, another Japanese poisoned by *fugu* revived after he was nailed into
his coffin. “‘Almost all of Narcisse’s symptoms correlated. Even strange
things, such as the fact that he said he was conscious and could hear
himself pronounced dead. Stuff that I thought had to be magic, that seemed
crazy. But, in fact, that is what people who get *fugu*-fish poisoning
Davis was certain he had solved the mystery. But far from being the end of
his investigation, identifying the poison was, in fact, its starting point.
“The drug alone didn’t make zombies,” he explains. “Japanese victims of
puffer-fish poisoning don’t become zombies, they become poison victims. All
the drug could do was set someone up for a whole series of psychological
pressures that would be rooted in the culture. I wanted to know why
zombification was going on,” he says.
He sought a cultural answer, an explanation rooted in the structure and
beliefs of Haitian society. Was zombification simply a random criminal
activity? He thought not. He had discovered that Clairvius Narcisse and “Ti
Femme,” a second victim he interviewed, were village pariahs. Ti Femme was
regarded as a thief. Narcisse had abandoned his children and deprived his
brother of land that was rightfully his. Equally suggestive, Narcisse
claimed that his aggrieved brother had sold him to a bokor, a voodoo priest
who dealt in black magic; he made cryptic reference to having been tried
and found guilty by the “masters of the land.”
Gathering poisons from various parts of the country, Davis had come into
direct contact with the vodoun secret societies. Returning to the
anthropological literature on Haiti and pursuing his contacts with
informants, Davis came to understand the social matrix within which zombies
Davis’s investigations uncovered the importance of the secret societies.
These groups trace their origins to the bands of escaped slaves that
organized the revolt against the French in the late eighteenth century.
Open to both men and women, the societies control specific territories of
the country. Their meetings take place at night, and in many rural parts of
Haiti the drums and wild celebrations that characterize the gatherings can
be heard for miles.
Davis believes the secret societies are responsible for policing their
communities, and the threat of zombification is one way they maintain
order. Says Davis, “Zombification has a material basis. but it also has a
societal logic.” To the uninitiated, the practice may appear a random
criminal activity, but in rural vodoun society, it is exactly the
opposite—a sanction imposed by recognized authorities, a form of capital
punishment. For rural Haitians. zombification is an even more severe
punishment than death, because it deprives the subject of his most valued
possessions: his free will and independence.
The vodounists believe that when a person dies, his spirit splits into
several different parts. If a priest is powerful enough, the spiritual
aspect that controls a person ‘s character and individuality, known as *ti
bon ange*, the “good little angel,” can be captured and the corporeal
aspect, deprived of its will, held as a slave.
>From studying the medical literature on tetrodotoxin poisoning, Davis
discovered that if a victim survives the first few hours of the poisoning,
he is likely to recover fully from the ordeal. The subject simply revives
spontaneously. But zombies remain without will, in a trancelike state, a
condition vodounists attribute to the power of the priest. Davis thinks it
possible that the psychological trauma of zombification may be augmented by
Datura or some other drug; he thinks zombies may be fed a Datura paste that
accentuates their disorientation. Still, he puts the material basis of
zombification in perspective: “Tetrodotoxin and Datura are only templates
on which cultural forces and beliefs may be amplified a thousand times.”
Davis has not been able to discover how prevalent zombification is in
Haiti. “How many zombies there are is not the question,” he says. He
compares it to capital punishment in the United States: “It doesn’t really
matter how many people are electrocuted, as long as it’s a possibility.” As
a sanction in Haiti, the fear is not of zombies, it’s of becoming one.
DAVIS ATTRIBUTES his success in solving the zombie mystery to his approach.
He went to Haiti with an open mind and immersed himself in the culture. “My
intuition unhindered by biases served me well,” he says. “I didn’t make any
judgments.” He combined this attitude with what he had learned earlier from
his experiences in the Amazon. “Schultes’s lesson is to go and live with
the Indians as an Indian.” Davis was able to participate in the vodoun
society to a surprising degree, eventually even penetrating one of the
Bizango societies and dancing in their nocturnal rituals. His appreciation
of Haitian culture is apparent. “Everybody asks me how did a white person
get this information? To ask the question means you don’t understand
Haitians—they don’t judge you by the color of your skin.”
As a result of the exotic nature of his discoveries, Davis has gained a
certain notoriety. He plans to complete his dissertation soon, but he has
already finished writing a popular account of his adventures. To be
published in January by Simon and Schuster, it is called *The Serpent and
the Rainbow*, after the serpent that vodounists believe created the earth
and the rainbow spirit it married. Film rights have already been optioned;
in October Davis went back to Haiti with a screenwriter. But Davis takes
the notoriety in stride. “All this attention is funny,” he says. “For
years, not just me, but all Schultes’s students have had extraordinary
adventures in the line of work. The adventure is not the end point, it’s
just along the way of getting the data. At the Botanical Museum, Schultes
created a world unto itself. We didn’t think we were doing anything above
the ordinary. I still don’t think we do. And you know,” he adds, “the Haiti
episode does not begin to compare to what others have
accomplished—particularly Schultes himself.”
*lisaparavisini <http://repeatingislands.com/author/lisaparavisini/>* |
November 1, 2017 at 9:19 pm | Categories: News
<http://repeatingislands.com/category/news/> | URL: https://wp.me/psnTa-ysI
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