An Introduction to Zombies

Zombies have existed in folklore for centuries. Tales of re-animated corpses held a special horror to those who have no way of preserving bodies. They may have begun with stories of those who fell into a coma – and revived after they were buried. There’s more to the tales of zombies than just people coming back from the dead, though. One of the important elements in zombie stories is the control exerted over zombies by the bokor, the sorcerer that reanimated them.


According to the stories, which are widespread throughout Haiti, and have been carried from Haiti to the U.S. through slaves imported from Haiti, zombies are created when a sorcerer or witch doctor casts a curse on the victim. The victim sickens and dies, then is revived by the witch doctor as a zombie – a soulless slave who is under the complete control of the bokor. Zombies can “live” for years, eating, sleeping, hearing and speaking, but, say those who have studied the legends, zombies have no insight into their condition, nor do they have any memories of this or their past lives.


While stories about zombies have existed for centuries, there has never been a completely substantiated case. In 1980, however, a man appeared in a small town in Haiti claiming to be one Clairvius Narcisse – a man who had died in a hospital in 1962. The hospital records were complete. He had indeed been declared dead by a doctor in a hospital in 1962, and buried. He was in a state of paralysis, he said, and recalls being declared dead. He even recalls the sheet being pulled over his face. He was revived by a voodoo doctor who kept him in a state of mindlessness, forcing him to work on a sugar plantation until the doctor died two years later. For the next 16 years, Clairvius wandered around the island, spending much of the time in a psychotic daze. A chance meeting with his sister in a marketplace apparently stirred his memories, and he was able to establish his identity to the satisfaction of family and officials.


The tale was reported in The Serpent and the Rainbow, a book by National Geographic reporter Wade Davis. Davis has gone on to write another book about the phenomenon of zombieism. While many scientists are openly critical of Davis, they agree that the author and investigator’s theory could be true. According to Davis, the method used to create zombies relies heavily on a number of supports:

the socio-cultural conditioning of the zombie victim
the use of naturally occurring drugs to induce a death-like sleep
the use of naturally occurring drugs to psychologically control the victim

The process begins when the bokor administers a drug to the intended victim. The drug may use a concoction of poisons distilled from the puffer fish and the skins of a common toad. Both of these animals are equipped with a poison containing a strong paralytic. In carefully regulated doses, the poison can disable a person and slow their respiration and heart beat until it is undetectable. The victim, mistaken for dead, is buried – often within eight hours of death. Later, the bokor or his agents secretly retrieve the body and revive the victim, who has often suffered irreparable brain damage from his interment.


The third element of zombie creation is the use of a powerful herbal concoction, possibly made from a combination of plants that naturally contain scopolamine and other mind altering chemicals. Scopolamine induces psychotic breaks with reality and the loss of short term memory. Any time the victim shows signs of recovering their will, another dose of the powerful psychotic agent is administered.


If the reports by Davis are true, they would go a long way toward explaining the phenomenon of zombies in the Haitian isles and elsewhere that vodun is practiced.


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