They noted “People with a chronic schizophrenic illness, brain damage, or learning disability are not uncommonly met with wandering in Haiti, and they would be particularly likely to be identified as lacking volition and memory which are characteristics of a zombie.” More than 30 years ago, anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis ’75, Ph.D. ’86, then a graduate student, went to Haiti at the recommendation of his mentor, Jeffrey professor of biology Richard Evans Schultz, 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 Puerto, prompted Yale Garry Trudeau to create a zombie storyline for Doonesbury character “Uncle” Duke shortly thereafter, and remains one of the magazine’s most frequently requested articles. Five years ago, a man walked into l’Ester, a village in central Haiti, approached a peasant woman named Angelina Narcissa, and identified himself as her brother Clearview.
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 Clearview was buried.
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. Legend has it that zombies are the living dead, raised from their graves and animated by malevolent voodoo sorcerers, usually for some evil purpose.
In the same year, in northern Haiti, the local peasants claimed to have found a group of zombies wandering aimlessly in the fields. At the Center DE Psychiatric ET Neurologic in Port Prince, Dr. La marque Coupon, a Haitian -born, Canadian-trained psychiatrist, has been systematically investigating all reports of zombies since 1961.
He speculated that victims were only made to look dead, probably by means of a drug that dramatically slowed metabolism. The Narcissa case provided Coupon with evidence strong enough to warrant a request for assistance from colleagues in New York.
The search for that someone led to the Harvard Botanical Museum, one of the world’s foremost institutes of ethnology. Its director, Richard Evans Schultz, 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.
He recommended another Harvard ethnobotanist for the assignment, Wade Davis, a 28-year-old Canadian pursuing a doctorate in biology. 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.
Davis took a course from Schultz, and when he decided to go to South America to study plants, he approached his professor for guidance. He had lived alone for years in the Amazon.” Schultz sent Davis to the rain forest with two letters of introduction and two pieces of advice: wear a pith helmet and try Athabasca, a powerful hallucinogenic vine.
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. 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. “When the west coast of Africa was being disrupted by colonialism and the slave trade, Haiti was essentially left alone.
Going around the countryside, I found clues to a whole complex social world.” Colonists believe they communicate directly with, indeed are often possessed by, the many spirits who populate the everyday world. Codon society is a system of education, law, and medicine: it embodies a code of ethics that regulates social behavior.
In rural areas, secret codon societies, much like those found on the west coast of Africa, are as much or more in control of everyday life as the Haitian government. Although most outsiders dismissed the zombie phenomenon as folklore, some early investigators, convinced of its reality, tried to find a scientific explanation.
Nathan Kline, who helped finance Davis’s expedition, had searched unsuccessfully, as had La marque Coupon, the Haitian psychiatrist. An anthropological pioneer, she went to Haiti in the Thirties, studied codon 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. A BBC reporter familiar with the Narcissa case had suggested he talk with Marcel Pierre.
He was also a voodoo sorcerer and had supplied the BBC with a physiologically active powder of unknown ingredients. 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.
However, from his knowledge of poison, Davis knew immediately that nothing in the formula could produce the powerful effects of modification. Three weeks later, Davis went back to the Eagle Bar, where he found Pierre sitting with three associates.
(To obtain the last ingredient, he and Pierre unearthed a child’s grave on a nocturnal trip to the cemetery.) Data could create a stupor in huge doses, but it just wouldn’t produce the kind of immobility that was key.
One of the ingredients Pierre included in the second formula was a dried fish, a species of puffer or blow fish, 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.
One of the most powerful nonprotein poisons known to man, tetrodotoxin turned up in every sample of zombie powder that Davis acquired. But the most famous accounts come from the Orient, where fugue fish, a species of puffer, is considered a delicacy.
Several summers ago, another Japanese poisoned by fugue revived after he was nailed into his coffin. He sought a cultural answer, an explanation rooted in the structure and beliefs of Haitian society.
Gathering poisons from various parts of the country, Davis had come into direct contact with the codon 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 were created.
These groups trace their origins to the bands of escaped slaves that organized the revolt against the French in the late eighteenth century. 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.
Zombification is an even more severe punishment than death, because it deprives the subject of his most valued possessions: his free will and independence. But zombies remain without will, in a trancelike state, a condition colonists attribute to the power of the priest.
Still, he puts the material basis of modification in perspective: “Tetrodotoxin and Data are only templates on which cultural forces and beliefs may be amplified a thousand times.” 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.