In this episode, we explore the true stories of Zombies of Haitian Voodoo culture, from French colonial rule to an exhaustive search for the source of a compound which could scientifically prove the creation of zombies by Ethnobotanist, Wade Davis.
Amazon – The Serpent & the Rainbow – A really pacey read that keeps the pages turning. Fascinating and well written, this book focuses on the story rather than the cold hard facts, but that’s not to say its not useful. Probably your best starting point.
Amazon – Passage of Darkness – Same author, but a more academic approach to the facts of the case and more detailed concerning the analysis of the ‘poisons’ obtained by Wade Davis. If you go for “The serpent and the Rainbow” and enjoy it, this is the natural next step.
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In 1980, A man walked into the marketplace of the Haitian town of L’Estere. He approached a woman and greeted her warmly, introducing himself by his boyhood nickname. The man and women were in fact family, but the woman simply stared back at him in shock. As word spread throughout the marketplace of the man’s arrival, panic and commotion began to stir the humid, Haitian air. The man’s name was Clairvius Narcisse and he was well known in L’Estere. To his dismay, he found that his warm greeting was not returned. This should not have struck him as such a surprise, as Clairvius Narcisse had died and been buried in L’Estere cemetery 18 years prior. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
In 1982, Wade Davis, now a professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, was studying for a PhD in Ethnobotany at Harvard. He had travelled to far-flung reaches several times in support of his studies and had taken a particular interest in studying psychoactive plants used among the tribes people of the Americas.
In the Spring of 1982, he received a call from Professor Richard Evans Schultes, his professor at Harvard and a man who had travelled extensively himself to many of the remotest places on earth in the search of obscure plant knowledge. He had once lived in the Rain forest for 8 years, after taking a single semester leave. He had also been instrumental in fostering Davis’ own exploratory urges, when in 1974, whilst studying at Harvard, Shultes had advised Davis on his first expedition into the South American rain forests. This time, he had something for Davis that would prove to be a little stranger. They arranged a meeting and when Davis arrived in Shultes’ office, he asked Davis if he would be able to leave for the Caribbean country of Haiti within two weeks.
Shultes had set Davis up with Dr Nathan Kline, a psychiatrist who had done exhaustive work in the field of psychopharmacology. Davis agreed to meet Kline, and two days later, in a Manhattan apartment, over drinks in thick, crystal glasses, Kline handed Davis the death certificate, dated the 2nd of March, 1962 of one Clairvius Narcisse.
Clairvius Narcisse lived in the village of L’Estere, Haiti where he was born in 1922. He had little responsibilities and had never settled to marry. He had nevertheless, taken to several women around L’Estere, fathering children with multiple women, whilst stepping aside of the responsibilities, both financial and parental. He owned several small plots of land, which he had inherited from his parents with which he farmed for profit and had made a secure living for himself. His sister told of how he had been able to afford a Tin Roof for his house before anyone else in the neighbourhood. Despite this, Narcisse had never been of much help to his family, preferring instead to keep his wealth to himself which had led to several disputes with his brothers in the past, both over his land, which by Napoleonic code, should have been divided amongst offspring after the parents death, but which Clairvius had kept to himself, and his money. His wealth was, in no small part afforded to him due to his lack of familial and parental responsibilities. So the picture of Narcisse builds that he was a man of many enemies within the small market community of L’Estere.
On the night of 30th April, 1962. Clairvius Narcisse, then 40 years old admitted himself to the hospital in Deschapelles at 9:45pm. Complaining of fevers, an aching body and spitting blood. Once in the hospital, his condition deteriorated rapidly. On the 2nd May, he was pronounced Dead by both a Haitian and American physician. Two of his sisters, Angelina and Marie Clare Narcisse witnessed the body, after which he was held in cold storage for 20 hours buried in the cemetery on May 3rd at 10am.
18 years later, he stumbled into L’Estere marketplace and approached his sister, Angelina. He used a boyhood nickname for himself, that which only his family had known and had not been used for decades. He claimed that one of his brothers had contracted a zombie ritual upon him in retaliation for one of the land disputes and that he had been resurrected from his grave shortly after his death, beaten, bound and taken away to work as a slave in the Northern region of Haiti with a group of other Zombies. There he worked the land, emotionless and cold for two years until the death of the master broke his spell. He stayed away from L’Estere for the next 16 years in fear of his brother, but upon hearing of his death, chose to return. Angelina was not the picture of joy he may have hoped for. She recoiled from Clairvius, her eyes catching a scar on his cheek from where 18 years prior, a misplaced nail had caught his skin as his coffin lid had been hammered shut. She offered him money and told him to leave. For he was a dead man walking, his life departed and his flesh pulled from the gorund by Haitian Voodoo.
In 1789, Haiti was under colonial rule by the French Empire and named Saint-Domingue. It produced 40% of the sugar and 60% of the coffee that was consumed throughout all of Europe at the time. Known as “The pearl of the Antilles”, it was one of the richest colonies in the world. Needless to say, it was built and supported on the back of black slavery and its estimated that the French bought in around 790,000 African slaves between the years of 1783-1791. This accounted for one third of the entire Atlantic slave trade. These people, torn from their homes, bought the traditions of their homeland with them, one of which, despite French efforts to force Catholicism upon the slaves, was the religion of African Voodoo. It was in fact, a voodoo ceremony that would eventually lead to a revolution in 1791, when the spirit Ezili Dantor possessed a priestess and received a black pig as an offering. All those present pledged to fight for their freedom. In 1804, the slaves liberated themselves from French rule, fighting back Napoleons armies to take Saint Domingue and declaring Independence. The Island was renamed Haiti, however in 1835, Voodoo became punishable by law, forcing it underground. As we have seen however, traditions die hard, and secret Voodoo societies would hold night-time rituals in secret Hounfour, away from the eyes of the ruling elite, priestesses thrashing wildly to rhythmical drums as they took in the spirits of the voodoo gods. They used voodoo to both protect and punish the people of the local communities, offering aid, or cautioning sickness, amongst the blood of animals and the heat of hot coals.
One of the first mentions of Zombies in western writing is in a book written by William Seabrook and published in 1929 titled “The magic Island”. The section pertaining to zombies is short, but the story he tells goes as such:
In the spring of 1918, an American Sugar factory in Port-au-Prince ran by Hasco was having a busy season and needed to hire extra workers for the harvest. Whole families would register at the Hasco fields and at the end of the week, each member would be paid for their work. One morning a man named Ti Joseph and his wife Croyance showed up at Hasco with a pack of workers, all walking and standing as if in a daze. The registrar apparently likened them to cattle, with a vacant stare, but Ti Joseph explained that they were ignorant people from the mountains, unable to speak the local language. At the end of the week, he would collect the wages of each member, naturally keeping it for himself. Each night Ti and his wife would prepare meals for themselves and the workers, keeping the workers food separate and taking care to make sure that no meat or seasoning be mixed into the workers food.
At weekends, a nearby market town held a fete and the husband and wife would take turns to attend whilst the other stayed with the workers. ti Josephs wife Croyance however, felt sorry for the workers and wanting to see the procession for herself, decided one weekend to take them to the fete. She led the workers to the village and they sat, staring vacantly under the shade of a tree as the parade walked past. A peddler selling Tablettes, a sugar-based cookie with peanuts, passed Croyance, who bought some of the sweets for herself and also for the zombies. She did not realise, however, that the peanuts in the cookies had been salted prior to baking and upon tasting the salt, the dazed workers sprung up, panicked by their situation. They marched ceaselessly back to their home village, with Croyance unable to stop them, turned into the cemetery and each found a grave site that belonged to them, climbed down into the pits of the freshly ripped up soil and died again. For these workers were Zombies, under a voodoo spell of Ti Joseph. The locals of the village proceded to take revenge on Ti Joseph and promptly cut off his head.
This story was told to William Seabrook by a Haitian man named Polynice. Seabrook didn’t really believe it and indeed it sounds more like an urban legend than any truth, but Polynice swore blind that it was true and further promised Seabrook that he could show him a real-life zombie. Polynice took Seabrook to see an old woman named Lamercie, whom he knew to have men work for her that she had risen from the grave. When Seabrook came face to face with the zombies he found men with glazed looks in their eyes, he likened them to a dog he had once seen in a Histological laboratory in Columbia which had had its entire front brain removed. The men, as the dog in the lab, were alive, but emotionless, staring blankly into nothingness. Seabrook took one of the men’s hands and greeted it “Bonjour compere”, but Lamercie quickly intervened and told him to leave, Seabrook translated her words as “Negroes affairs are not for the whites”. Seabrook felt that the men were probably mentally handicapped in some way, but Polynice continued to insist on his story of voodoo.
Seabrook spoke about his experience with a Dr Antoine Villiers before he left Haiti. He told of the men he had seen and hypothesised about their handicaps as being a rational cause for their condition. Villiers agreed that this could be possible, but was not so sure, telling Seabrook there may be more truth in Polynices stories than Seabrook would like to admit, he showed article 246 of the Haitian criminal code:
“It shall also be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the person had been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.”
The implication to Seabrook was a simple one. What he had seen was common enough to require it to become a legally recognised criminal practice. This had a profound effect on Seabrook, for this was Haiti, where they practised voodoo and these were the walking dead.
Wade Davis had spent time before travelling to Haiti hypothesising on a rational explanation for the apparent zombification of Clairvius Narcisse. he had concluded that an African plant, Datura Stramonium, could have been used as the basis of a poison and could have been introduced to Haiti along with the African traditions. Datura Stramonium could be used in a concoction that, when rubbed on the skin, would have a variety of effects, including hallucinations, delusions, confusion, disorientation and amnesia. In large doses, it could fell a human into a numb stupor or even result in death.
When Davis arrived in Haiti, he first met with Max Beauvoir. Beauvoir was a renowned authority on Haitian voodoo and he warned Davis that he would be looking for the zombie poison for some time, as it was not a poison which made a zombie, but a Bokor, a voodoo priest. He invited him to witness one of his commercial voodoo ceremonies later that night. Davis obliged and duly spent the night enthralled as he watched a mambo, a voodoo priestess, trace out symbols on the ground to invoke spirits amongst prayer and drums. An initiate of the temple, a Hounsis, thrashed about dancing wildly until the spirit arrived, possessing her, whereby she begun to careen around the floor of the temple, chewed glass, sacrificed a dove by breaking its wings and biting its throat out. She then lay on a fire and danced whilst holding a red-hot coal in her mouth. When the drums stopped, the spirits left and Davis had been given a vivid introduction to Haitian Voodoo.
Davis next met with Clarvius Narcisse. Narcisse vividly told Davis of his experience of death, of lying in hospital, aware of his family next to him whilst he was presumed dead. Of being buried and of how a nail, hammered into the lid of the coffin had pierced his cheek, and of being called out of the ground by a voodoo priest, beaten, bound and taken away to work as a slave. He was conscious the entire time, but not living. He assured Davis that throughout the ordeal he was very much a dead man. Narcisse knew what he had become, but was powerless to stop it. “The Bokor had my soul” he said.
Davis spent the next day exploring Haiti and trying to find any trace of Datura Stramonium. He found none.
Davis next stop was to meet with Marcel Pierre, a voodoo priest whom he was assured could create a zombie. He asked Pierre to create him a poison to turn a man into a zombie and after some haggling, Pierre agreed. Davis watched as Pierre ground various plants in a mortar, grated a human skull and added the shavings and finally added several sachets of coloured talc. He placed the green powder into a small glass bottle and Davis left, convinced that the powder in the bottle was worthless. He had not noticed any of the ingredients to contain anything that could have psychoactive, nor physiological effects. He returned after ten days and confronted Pierre. He told him that his backers in America could pay him thousands upon thousands of pounds if the poison were real, for they were interested in its possible pharmaceutical uses and after a bit of bravado between the men, Marcel Pierre finally capitulated and agreed to make a zombie poison, this time for real.
Davis joined Pierre in collecting several of the ingredients. This time the ingredients were far more gruesome, but to Davis, far more promising and included digging the body of a three-year-old child from her grave. They worked by night and after they had rubbed an oily substance on their skin, Pierre crushed the head of the decaying corpse open with his hands and added it to a mortar already containing plants and the carcasses of a toad and large sea worm that had previously been placed inside a jar and buried in the ground until the creatures had “died from rage”. Several fish that had been placed on a grill to burn were added and the whole thing was crushed into a powder, poured into glass jars, placed into the coffin with the corpse of the child and buried in the ground of Marcel Pierre’s temple for three days. Davis had his poison. Before his return to America and quite coincidentally, whilst out walking, Davis stumbled upon a field of plants that he recognised. It was an entire field of Datura Stramonium.
After Davis returned to Harvard, he immediately sent his poison to the laboratory, along with specimens of the ingredients for toxicological analysis. His results were fascinating. He found that the plants all had physiological effects, leading to rashes, sores and skin irritations. The toad contained a multitude of poisons, but importantly all symptoms matched with the symptoms Clairvius Narcisse showed before his death. The sea worm made logical sense, as the toad would secrete more of its toxins if it felt threatened, so by placing the creatures together in a jar and burying them, they were not simply dying of rage, but the toad was being coerced into creating a hazardous amount of toxin before its death simply by the presence of the worm in the jar.
The real breakthrough came with the fish, however. The species used in the poison was blowfish or puffer. The poison of the blowfish, tetrodotoxin, is one of the most poisonous toxins known. Its effects included reduction of temperature, a prickling sensation leading to numbness, often giving the feeling of floating, paralysis and glassy eyes, eventually leading to a comatose state, however, full consciousness is retained until either the victim of the poison dies or recovers, depending on the dosage. This Davis hypothesised would not only explain why, when upon speaking with Narcisse, he could remember everything about his “death” and his feeling of floating above the ground, but it could also perfectly explain how he could have, for all intents and purposes, appeared dead to the physicians in the hospital. He researched more into the puffers poison and found several cases in history, especially in Japan where it’s often eaten as a delicacy of people “dying” only to miraculously return to life on their way to the morgue.
The plants were used as an irritant, a way in which to create a sore and open wound which would allow the toxins to reach the bloodstream. It all fell into place so neatly.
So what of the Datura from his initial hypothesis? Although not in the main poison, Davis recalled his conversations with Narcisse and noted that upon being taken from his grave he was immediately beaten and bound by his voodoo graverobbers. Davis believes that Datura is used after the zombie poison, whilst the victim’s psychological state is still frail, as a way to create a constant state of disorientation, effectively zombifying a victim for as long as the poison was used, maintaining a constant psychological stupor. This would also explain why, after the death of Narcisse’s master, the zombies had been able to break free of their slavery as the effect of the drug, no longer being administered, wore off. But whilst all of this fieldwork provided a material basis for understanding zombification, voodoo has its own rules.
Now that Davis had a grasp on the practicalities of zombification, he was driven to understand the meaning and through his search discovered the Bizango, secret voodoo societies, that trace a lineage of rites and rituals descending from the hidden groups of escaped slaves during colonial French rule. These groups of men and women, enacting out their cultural traditions in the mountains, would eventually form a militia that played a forefront role in the fighting of the rebellion. Now, these traditions survived as secret religious sects, meeting in shadowy temples during the black of night, submitting offerings into coffins lit by firelight as drums rattle and priests sing. The Bizango both protect their communities and enact measures of judgement. As Davis was told directly during his time on Haiti, The Bizango can be sweet as honey and bitter as bile. Clairvius Narcisse himself told Davis vaguely of a tribunal and judgement prior to his death and being pulled from his grave.
Zombification is something of a form of capital punishment from the Bizango. Narcisse knew he had wronged the community and understood his punishment in the context of voodoo. He accepted his fate as a zombie and as voodoo dictates, he had become the walking dead.