Friday, October 1, 2010
How to Make a Zombie, Haiti-Style
How to Make a Zombie, Haiti-Style
AOL News (Sept. 21) -- The undead are all around us, and have been for decades.
Zombies are in our mass consciousness, invading art, literature, entertainment and even education. But at the heart of this fear-mongering revolution is a single question: Is it all pure fiction, or are there in fact real zombies?
That depends on your definition of the word "zombie."
For filmmakers in Hollywood, zombies are half-dead figures that lumber toward you with arms outstretched, stinking of rotting flesh. But in Haiti, could zombies be unfortunate victims who have been forced into slavery while under the influence of highly potent drugs?
While movies depict zombies as flesh eaters who spread their affliction like an illness, the voodoo culture and religion of Haiti has its own recipes for making a zombie -- a term derived from the word "Nzambi," meaning "spirit of a dead person" to the Bacongo people of Angola.
A leading theory holds that a voodoo priest, or bokor, is able to concoct a poison that can render a victim weak and appear dead.
"It's not what we see in Hollywood, of course. Strictly speaking, a zombie is a reanimated corpse that's been brought back to life to serve as a slave for a voodoo priest or priestess," said Brad Steiger, one of the most prolific authors of books dealing with unexplained phenomena.
In his recent book, "Real Zombies, the Living Dead and Creatures of the Apocalypse" (Visible Ink Press), Steiger explores the history of reported zombies in the real world.
"I have an account of a man from Miami who went to Haiti and was dancing with a very lovely Haitian lady, and he felt a little prick on his arm and didn't think anything of it. Next thing he knew, he woke up, was still in his suit and tie, but he was soiled and dirty and was holding a hoe in somebody's field.
"But he regained consciousness and managed to make it back to Miami. But this sort of thing still goes on with unscrupulous priests and priestesses. Generally, we're talking about a religion that is followed by 80 million people worldwide."
One man who took a "hands on" approach to the zombie culture is anthropologist Wade Davis. In 1982, Davis infiltrated the secret societies of Haitian voodoo, resulting in his 1985 eye-opening, international best-selling book (and subsequent movie) "The Serpent and the Rainbow" (Random House).
Davis investigated the most famous documented case of a reported real-world zombie, Clairvius Narcisse, who, in 1962, was pronounced dead in a Haitian hospital and later buried.
After 18 years, Narcisse showed up alive and told his story of having been drugged, buried, removed from a grave and put into slavery on a plantation with other men who allegedly shared the same fate.
"We have this case of Narcisse. From all scientific evidence, he was dead, and he came back into the realm of the living," Davis told AOL News. "Precisely because the scientists involved didn't believe in magic, there had to be a material explanation."
Davis explains that the Narcisse incident drew the attention of researchers back to "a series of reports found throughout the popular and academic literature of the reputed existence of a folk poison said to bring on a state of apparent death so profound that it could fool a physician."
Haitian bokors eventually gave Davis samples of the "zombie poison," which led him to zero in on a drug called tetrodotoxin -- the often deadly poison of a puffer fish.
"Tetrodotoxin turns out to be a very big molecule that blocks sodium channels in the nerves, bringing on peripheral paralysis, dramatically low metabolic rates and yet consciousness is retained until the moment of death," said Davis.
After a bokor has placed the tetrodotoxin into someone's body, and that person is pronounced dead and subsequently buried, the bokor reportedly unearths the body and applies a chemical paste to keep the unfortunate victim in a zombified, trancelike state.
Presumably, this "undead" person is then used as the bokor's slave labor.
Davis suggests it makes sense that some unscrupulous priests in Haiti would take advantage of such a poison.
"They identified in their environment a natural product -- in this case, a fish -- that had the capability of bringing on a state of apparent death.
"When I collected samples of the poison at several locations and found that these fish were the one consistent ingredient, it struck me that there was really something going on here."
That said, Davis doesn't believe there's an assembly line creating zombies in Haiti.
"What I always suggested in my work was that zombies, as an idea, by definition, exist in Haiti.
"All religion is defined by how people deal with the finality of death and the mystery of what lies beyond," said Davis. "Any phenomenon that walks that line and dances along that edge between life and death is fascinating to us."
Kim Paffenroth, a professor of religious studies at Iona College in Rochester, N.Y., has a slightly different perspective on the religious significance of zombies.
"I was 12 years old when the first 'Dawn of the Dead' film came out, so I had that adolescent male fascination with these things," said Paffenroth, the author of several books on the Bible and theology, including "Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth" (Baylor University Press).
"And when, as an adult, I became interested in religious studies, I started looking at how the darker Christian themes of sin and evil are expressed in literature, art, film and television, and then the zombie stuff sort of made sense to me in a new way."
Paffenroth has an interesting take on why many people believe that zombies (among other ghouls, like vampires) signal a coming Armageddon to our world.
"It's a pretty perennial fear of the fragile nature of civilization. Every time there's an oil spill or a stock market crash, people get anxious, and, if anything, I think these more supernatural ways of dealing with it are a little safer outlet."
Paffenroth sees zombie films as a kind of heavy-handed critique of American society.
"I now realize, as I look at some of the fans out there, they look at zombie movies and they see the message as: 'Well, I need to own more guns, because then I'll be safe.' I can see where, on the surface, that's what the movies are saying, but it's kind of a really literal way to read it."
In his investigations, Steiger has come up with a theory about why zombies are generally depicted in end-of-the-world scenarios.
"A lot of people think the Apocalypse is just around the corner and many of us have been brought up to believe that the dead will raise from their graves on Judgment Day, which is why I think the zombie has reached this incredible surge."
Agree or disagree, it's undeniable that zombies are in the midst of a resurgence, the likes of which hasn't been seen since they emerged from the ground in George Romero's classic 1968 black-and-white thriller "Night of the Living Dead."
Whether they're starring in the popular 3-D "Resident Evil: Afterlife" film, playing the lead roles in AMC's upcoming series "The Walking Dead" or even fighting for the right of free speech, zombies are definitely in vogue.
And while there are some who speculate that a real zombie outbreak on Earth would be doomed to failure, there's at least marginal evidence that some form of zombie-ism exists and is taken seriously in Haiti (not to mention the creative minds of filmmakers).
So, the next time you find yourself alone in a field or a dark alley, it would probably be prudent to look over your shoulder -- you never know when you'll be menaced by something that's fairly easy to outrun.