Join me as I continue my exploration of all things odd…
I think we’re probably all familiar with the shambling, cannibalistic zombies made famous by Hollywood. Just in case you’re not, here’s a clip showing them in action:
If that’s the kind of zombie you’re interested in, however, don’t bother reading any further. This post isn’t about the gory Hollywood creation. It is, instead, about the original zombie legend, which is stranger and sadder, and far more interesting, than anything Hollywood has ever devised.
To find out about the origins of the zombie, you have to travel – imaginatively, at least – to one of the strangest places on earth, Haiti. According to an old joke, the Haitian people are 90% Catholic, 10% Protestant, and 100% Voodoo. Voodoo – or Vodou, as its Haitian practitioners prefer to call it – is a curious hybrid religion, a mixture of traditional beliefs brought to Haiti by African slaves and the Catholicism of their former colonial masters, the French. Vodou has long played a vital role in Haitian life – in fact, it provided a focus for the 1791 Haitian rebellion, in which the African slaves threw off their colonial shackles and (eventually) established Haiti as an independent black republic. Vodou, according to its practitioners, is largely a benign religious faith, far removed from Western stereotypes of voodoo dolls and dark curses. Here is a short documentary about Vodou’s African origins, for those who are interested:
What does this have to do with zombies, then?
Vodou, like many a religion or spiritual practice, has both a light and a dark side. In addition to the official priests of vodou – the houngans and mambos – are a substratum of sorcerers, or bokors. The Haitian zombie (or zombi), is believed to be a reanimated corpse, brought back to a semblance of life through the black magic of the bokor. Those who have died unnatural deaths are said to be particularly vulnerable to this particular form of sorcery; it is believed that bokors are able to trap the soul of the departed in earthenware jars called zombi astral, which can then be used to control the undead body, the zombi cadavre. Zombies might be created as a punishment, or to carry out the bokor’s purposes; to this day, dark stories abound in Haiti about teams of zombies made to labour mindlessly in the country’s sugar plantations.
The Haitian zombie is really nothing like its Hollywood counterpart. It is pitiful rather than terrible, meek rather than aggressive. Zombies stare at the world through blank, uncomprehending eyes and shuffle around on unsteady feet. They have no knowledge of themselves, and no memories to anchor them to their past lives. Impaired intelligence and general timidity notwithstanding, they are said to be tremendously strong, which is why they are frequently used for hard physical labour.
Interestingly, Haitians are not particularly afraid of zombies, which rarely attack people unless commanded to do so by their masters. Instead, they dread being turned into zombies themselves, or having such a thing happen to a loved one. Indeed, Haitians will sometimes take preventative measures against this, such as holding vigils at tombs, decapitating the corpse, or placing charms around the grave.
When did the West first get its hands on the zombie myth, then? From 1915 to 1934, Haiti was occupied by US forces, and gradually stories of voodoo and zombies began to filter back to America. Zombies were gradually transformed into the rampaging, ravenous creatures of terror that we’re familiar with today. Add some Hollywood stardust, and – voilà! – a new horror legend was born.
Others, however, found themselves more interested in the original legend than in its new cinematic incarnation, and began to investigate the true nature of the zombie. Was the zombie just a colourful local legend, or did it have a foundation of fact?
Incredibly, it seems that there might be a degree of truth there after all.
In 1982, ethnobotanist and anthropologist Wade Davis travelled to Haiti to investigate an alleged zombie, one Clairvius Narcisse. Narcisse had reportedly been transformed into a zombie as a punishment after he refused to sell some of his land. He had been “killed”, declared dead by doctors, and buried. Thereafter, he had – apparently – risen from the grave and been set to work on a sugar plantation. The death of the bokor who had transformed him into a zombie set him free, and he thereafter wandered around in a daze, unsure of his own identity. Eventually he made it back to his home village, startling the villagers who had believed him dead for the past eighteen years.
Davis, investigating Narcisse’s case, suspected that the explanation for this bizarre story lay not with black magic, but with a powerful drug, as yet unknown to Western science, whose pharmacological effects might include inducing a deep state of unresponsive unconsciousness, almost indistinguishable from death. The victim, he speculated, following their “death” and burial, would then be revived by means of another drug, which would also keep them docile and compliant, in a trance-like state that prevented them exercising independent thought or free will. Davis subsequently wrote a book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, about his research, which later formed the basis for a (very loose) film adaptation.
Magic vs medicine, the supernatural vs the all-too-natural. Regardless of their origins, do zombies actually exist? Many Haitians seem to think so. Indeed, the Haitian penal code includes this rather chilling passage, which appears to allude to zombification:
Also shall be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made by any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the administering of such substances, the person has been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.
Until next time, beware of bokors…