The Real Haitian Zombies You’ve Likely Never Heard Of… But Should Definitely Know About

Zombies are best described as mythical reanimated corpses or the “walking dead.” Throughout the years, the world has become familiar with these creatures through various myths, legends, books, and horror films. In fact, they’ve taken over our entertainment world by storm recently. While the first recorded use of the term was in 1819, the myths about zombies are older than you think. To be specific, this creature was thought to have first appeared in the 17th century in Haiti. In fact, zombies are pretty ingrained in the Haitian belief system. They were even proven to be real… to an extent. Here are some fascinating details about the real Haitian zombies you’ve likely never heard of but should definitely know about.

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History of the Haitian Zombies

First, it’s important to point out that the Haitian zombies are far from the flesh-eating creatures we often see in movies and TV shows. So, what exactly are Haitian zombies?

According to African scholars, the word zombie came from the Kongo word “nzambi,” which means “soul.” The idea of zombie or zonbi was born when the Vodou religion became a part of the old African traditions, and at the time, slavery was common in Haiti.

Back then, about 80 to 90% of Haitians practiced Vodou or the idea of “serving the spirits.” In this religion, they believe that people die either naturally or unnaturally. For them, those who have unnatural deaths will linger, and they can only join their ancestors upon the approval of the gods. Lingering souls are considered vulnerable because a boko (a powerful sorcerer) may snatch and lock them in a bottle. From there, the boko will be able to control their bodies.

Keep in mind that boko and zombies are only practiced in the Vodou religion, which is considered part of the secret societies throughout Haiti. It is believed that the ability of a boko to make zombies is only used as a threat so that social order can be maintained. Still, the idea of zombies remains a part of the philosophical discussions and rural folklore in Haiti today.

A lot of researchers have tried to unravel the mystery behind the Haitian zombies. The most well-known research was conducted by Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist. During his study, he proved the scientific reality of producing zonbi and claimed to find a “zonbi-creating medicine,” along with its antidote.

Narcisse’s Case

The research about the zonbi production in Haiti started when a man approached Angelina Narcisse, and he identified himself as Clairvius, her brother. During that time, Angelina has strong reasons to doubt the man. After all, 18 years prior to this her brother had died, and she had watched him get buried in a small cemetery. However, the man mentioned facts that only close family members knew, so she believed him.

According to Clairvius, he was fully conscious when they buried his body; however, he wasn’t able to move or speak. After he was buried, a voodoo priest came in the dead of night and raised his body from the grave. Afterward, he was brought to a sugar plantation, where he was forced to work with other zombies. He was only able to come back at this time because he explained that his zombie master had died.

Clairvius’ claim that he was a zombie was not as startling or unheard of to the Haitian people as it would be to most other cultures. The reason is that two women showed up in 1980 claiming that they were zombies, too. That year, local peasants also claimed that they saw zombies in the fields. Zombies are regular conversation topics in Haiti, as most people believe they are real. However, Clairvius’s case was different because it was documented. There was a record of his death which immediately made his case unique.

Starting in 1961, Dr. Lamarque Douyon, a psychiatrist, began investigating reports about zombies. He believed that this creature was real. How could it not be with all these cases? However, he couldn’t find any scientific explanation. He speculated that a zombie victim was only made to appear dead by dramatically slowing his or her metabolism (think about the potion that Juliet drank in Romeo and Juliet). After burying the victim, he believed that someone would dig up his grave and reawaken him.

Because of the Narcisse case, Dr. Douyon finally had strong enough evidence to request assistance from his colleagues. He wanted help from an ethnobotanist to track down the potion he was sure existed that was used to create a zombie. His search led to Richard Evans Schultes, the director of the Harvard Botanical Museum who recommended Wade Davis to him.

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The Discoveries of Wade Davis

When Davis started his quest to find scientific explanations for the zombies, he knew little about the African Vodou traditions. When exploring Haiti, he discovered that it was materially impoverished but rich in mystery and culture. Aside from that, he also found that the majority of the locals practice voodoo, a sophisticated religion having African roots.

Numerous researchers had tried to find a scientific explanation for the zombie phenomenon before Davis. Zora Neale Hurston made the closest discoveries, and she was convinced that a powder was used to create zombies. However, she failed to get her hands on the supposed powder.

After just a few weeks in Haiti, Davis obtained a sample from Marcel Pierre, a voodoo sorcerer. Davis watched Pierre as he gathered the ingredients needed for the potion; however, Davis already knew that nothing in the powder could produce the effects of zombification. So, after three weeks, Davis returned to Pierre’s bar, calling him out for being a con-artist. Enraged, the voodoo sorcerer gave him a second vial. After Davis pretended to apply the powder to his skin in front of Pierre, he impressed him enough so the voodoo sorcerer showed the researcher how the genuine poison was created.

The powder that Davis obtained resembled black dirt and contained sea worms, tarantulas, lizards, toads, and human bones. He surmised that when the powder was applied to the skin, the person would have a hard time breathing. From there, they would feel a pins-and-needles sensation in their legs and arms which would eventually overtake the whole body. Then, the person will be paralyzed. With their lips turning blue due to a lack of oxygen, they appear dead. And their metabolism would then decrease to a point practically indistinguishable from death.

After analyzing the powder, Davis discovered that the second formula contained dried pieces of a species of blowfish (or puffer fish). This fish has a potent poison called tetrodotoxin. From there, Davis was able to connect the zombie phenomenon with puffer or fugu fish poisoning. To be specific, he concluded that the symptoms of fugu fish poisoning correlated with Narcisse’s symptoms.

Because of his findings, Davis was certain that he had unraveled the mystery of the zombie phenomenon. However, identifying the poison was just the first step. Form there, he started to seek cultural answers.

During his investigations, Davis discovered the importance of secret societies within the Haitian culture. The origin of these groups can be traced back to the 18th century when escaped slaves revolted against the French. Davis believed that zombification is a way to maintain order in society because it is a punishment more severe than death. In other words, these secret societies use the threat of zombification to keep order.

In the end, Davis concluded that tetrodotoxin poisoning is just one part of the equation. Because zombies are in a trance-like state, he thinks that it is possible that psychological trauma and Datura can cause their disorientation.

In his book entitled The Serpent and the Rainbow, Wade Davis wrote about his adventures as he unraveled the mystery behind the Haitian zombies. It’s the true tales of a real mystery unraveling and most definitely worth the read!

Maria Dolores Garcia

Maria is a contributor who is passionate about health, fitness, and beauty. During her free time, she tries to discover the beauty hidden in the chaos of today's fast-paced way of life. With a background in health and medicine, she hopes to inspire you to start living a fun, active, and healthy lifestyle through her writing.

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