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In Haiti, belief in the black magic voodoo has led to cases of people apparently becoming zombies. In ...
2020-04-02 09:00:00

A Holiday Attraction
Zombification in Haiti

Illustration by Igor Kubik
A Holiday Attraction
A Holiday Attraction

In Haiti, not only is it possible to meet a living corpse; you can become one yourself. Adam Węgłowski checked it out for himself. Luckily enough, he survived to write it up in a special report for “Przekrój”.

Read in 15 minutes

It was 22nd November 2015. I was slowly preparing to return from Haiti. Happy with my brief vacation in the warm Caribbean region, with my head full of pleasant memories. I was safe, despite the obvious problems of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and the many uncomplimentary opinions circulating about it.

But that day, for some reason, I fainted. In the evening, on a sandy beach, right after dinner, just before I went to bed. My legs crumpled beneath me on the covered hotel patio, somewhere between the table with seafood and the sideboard with cutlery. When I regained consciousness and the waiters were helping me to stand up, I felt a wave of nausea, and I sailed right back into oblivion. When I came to the next time, I was in the embrace of a group of Haitians who were carrying me to a car. They took me to a hospital near Cap-Haïtien.

I was maundering on about how I had insurance, but that didn’t matter. They knew I had to see a doctor. But first we had to get to him – 10 or 20 kilometres by car down forest tracks, in almost primordial darkness, illuminated only by the car’s headlights. Despite these difficulties, we made it to the hospital unscathed. There the nurses immediately took charge of me. They were nice, but the conditions of the facility were far from those found in Europe. Dark spaces with dilapidated equipment and paint flaking off the walls, spotted with mould, flies, and God knows what else.

The doctor asked a few questions. She doesn’t know English, I don’t know Creole, so I stammer something in French, and the hotel driver helps. Alcohol? Haven’t had a drop. Drugs? No way. Allergies? None. Diseases? None. Then what happened? There was a lot of sun, the beach…

Wait! There was also a visit to the cemetery.

The useful dead

It was in the locality of Milot, not far from the ruins of the Sans-Souci palace, on the UNESCO World Heritage List. I mean, just a typical Haitian mausoleum. Surrounded by a solid wall, with an iron gate. To get into the grounds, I had to find the gravediggers hanging out across the street. For a small, voluntary fee in the amount of $5, they agreed to open the gates.

The kingdom beyond the gate really was from another world. The first thing that struck me was the graves, in fairy-tale colours; in fact kitschy. Or rather, tombs: heavy, massive, covered in tiles, with bars and bunker-thick walls. Why these armoured resting places? Was there a grain of truth in the stories floating around the world about thefts of bodies in Haiti? A few steps and another question emerges. Why are there skulls placed on some of the graves? Actually, why can we see these ruined, burnt-out areas between the graves, filled with human bones? Here a shinbone, there a pelvis, over there a skull. Grotesque and disturbing.

Without batting an eye, the gravediggers talk about how those are the remainders of demolished or damaged graves. There was no place to bury them, so they were just left there. Right, but why can we see, among the burnt bones, bits of flowers, colourful ribbons and empty bottles of Barbancourt rum? I know that’s the alcohol used by followers of the Afro-Caribbean religion of vodou during their ceremonies. They usually perform their rituals in shrines, but sometimes in cemeteries too. This makes sense, all the more so because not so long ago it was All Saints’ Day. But still, something bothers me. Normal vodou practitioners don’t stick bottles in skulls dug up from graves; they don’t burn human remains under crosses at night. That’s what people do who practice the superstitions and magical procedures that blossomed around vodou, and have been encoded in mass culture under the deceptively similar name voodoo.

What a gloomy sight. I look at the remains for a while – but so as not to desecrate them myself. I walk around a metal cross, covered in ashes and some light powder. I breathe deeply…

Maybe too deeply, I wonder later in the hospital. Who knows what was floating in the air there? I mean, I knew well that voodoo witch doctors, known as bokors, are accused of using poisons – preparations made from the nastiest creatures in the world: frogs, snakes, spiders, millipedes. They even experiment with potions to zombify people – to bring their victims into a state close to death, and then maintain them in dementia. It would be easiest to laugh it off, but Article 246 of the Haitian Criminal Code, introduced as early as 1864, states that: “The use against any person of a substance which, while not leading to actual death, causes a more or less long-lasting state of coma, shall be treated as attempted murder. If after dosing with such a substance the person subjected to its effects is buried, this act shall be treated as murder, regardless of the result of these actions.” Would they penalize turning people into zombies if it weren’t a real threat?

Or maybe it’s just that I thought too much about voodoo poisons in that feral cemetery. The husband of a certain scholar of religion, a Haitian, pointed out that once when returning home with a group of schoolmates by a country road, he saw nothing less than a living corpse. To be precise: a man who had recently been buried. But he was completely alive! And walking down the road, herded along by two ruffians. After this unexpected meeting, the children contracted a high fever and became seriously ill. They survived, but the fear remained. They thought the other two men were bokors, who zombify people and then pull the half-living people (de facto considered dead) out of their tombs. The boys were afraid that they were spreading some kind of poison that could harm random people. Sometimes it’s enough to have the strong suggestion that that’s what happened. Like in the case of Aborigines, when a shaman curses somebody and points to them with a bone, under stress and the power of suggestion, the person actually falls ill. This is the deadly faith in curses, a self-fulfilling prophecy, which scientists describe as “death by voodoo”.

My fear wasn’t so great. But my rampant imagination could have been working. I had time to start thinking clearly in the hospital, once the nurse hooked me up to an IV.

A question of the soul

Today zombies are associated mainly with horror movies. With American films and series, such as The Walking Dead, World War Z and Night of the Living Dead, where there’s a global apocalypse. The dead rise from their graves in the form of blood-drinking, almost indestructible cannibals, and by biting the living, they transmit the killer virus. But zombies have walked a long road to get to this stage; at first the word meant something totally different.

The concept of the zombie arrived in the US from Haiti. There it appeared along with the African slaves transported to the island en masse by the French. In these Africans’ native languages, there were several phrases in which researchers see the origin of the term ‘zombie’. For example, the Mitsogho people of Gabon use the word ndzumbi to refer to a ‘corpse’. In Angola, nvumbi is a ‘body without a soul’. And in turn, in Congo nsumbi means a ‘demon’, zumbi a ‘fetish’, and mvumbi a ‘soul’ or an ‘invisible person’. In Benin, the Fon people use the term zanbibi, meaning a ‘nocturnal monster’. This is a particularly interesting trail, for it’s from there, from ancient Dahomey, that ships filled with slaves were sent to the Caribbean. And from the mythology there come the gods who inhabit the pantheon of Haitian vodou devotees. Under pictures of Christian saints, after being converted to this faith by the power of the whites, they simultaneously worshipped their earlier gods. Jesus is also Oxala, the lord of mercy. The Virgin Mary is Erzulie, goddess of love and luxury. John the Baptist, meanwhile, is Xango, lord of storms. These gods and spirits of ancestors known as loas haunt the vodou devotees during their religious ceremonies. They ‘ride’ them, as the locals say, which for an outsider causes quite a ghostly impression, as if they were witnessing a possession.

Alongside the religion of vodou, exotic in itself, there arose the related, distinctive black magic: voodoo. This is the faith that’s connected to Haitians’ belief in zombies. The vodouists believe every person has a two-part soul. The first is the divine part, which gives life. The second is our consciousness. It can leave a person when they’re ‘ridden’ by the loa. It can also be the target for an attack by a witch doctor: they can imprison it, and take over the empty, living body for their own purposes. This is a typical zombie. “The dread zombie, the major figure of terror, is precisely this: the body without a soul, matter without morality,” wrote director and anthropologist Maya Deren, who decades ago was one of the first to research Haitians’ beliefs.

Why would a witch doctor need a corpse like that? There’s a whole range of applications, which is reflected in the stories that circulate around the island. First of all, a zombie can be free labour in a port or on a farm. A story about sugarcane plantations cultivated by the living dead was spread in the US by the scandal-monger W.B. Seabrook in his controversial book The Magic Island (1929). Three years later, this served as the canvas for the cult horror film White Zombie, with Bela Lugosi himself. Second, you can zombify an attractive woman who catches the eye of a witch-doctor or a rich man, who pays the bokor for her (this trope also appeared in White Zombie). Third, zombies are a deterrent example for everyone who violates social norms. Because zombification is often seen as a punishment imposed at the hands of the bokor – sometimes also a vodou priest, and thus a person of public trust – in the name of the people who were harmed.

For Haitians, this punishment has a shocking deeper significance. Zombification carries the threat of enslavement. Thus it recalls the trauma that lies at the dawn of the country’s history, and which is taught in every school there. Since Haiti was created as a ‘black republic’ – after a rebellion against the French colonial authorities by slaves who lived in nightmarish conditions – zombification looks like a reversal of this historical chain of events. A free person is reduced to the role of a living machine, and suffers like his ancestors did. Such a cruel lesson would be designed to discipline an individual acting against the common good, the family, the neighbourhood, the village. Even if it looks like a punishment that’s disproportionate to the crime. More like revenge.

Haitians are convinced that zombification doesn’t just happen in their heads, but is the effect of a poison: zombie powder. The question is whether there’s any hard evidence.

A fish called puffer

It’s worth looking at the examples of ‘real zombies’ who have reached the pages of the world’s newspapers. In 1980, in the town of L’Estère, there appeared a mysterious man. He was unexpectedly recognized as Clairvius Narcisse, who had died and been buried in 1962. It was remembered that he had suddenly fallen ill and died. After his return, he began to recount how he had been poisoned and put into a near-death state (doctors pronounced him dead!), then buried, and a few hours later dug up by the bokor and taken to a plantation far away. He escaped, wandering for years until he finally returned to the village. Why did he wander for so long? For the same reason he was turned into a zombie. He had argued with his siblings about an inheritance. His relatives felt that he had harmed them, and he, aware he had been punished, knew that if he returned he might still face danger.

When in the end he decided to go back, many people still treated him as dead! “If you were a woman, would you ask him to dance?” one priest replied with a laugh when a Western researcher asked about the mixture of contempt and indulgence that Narcisse was treated with after his return. But he managed to do just fine. He gave interviews to journalists, posed for pictures by his own grave, even found a young wife and became a father. But for the rest of his life, many people didn’t believe his story. Maybe he thought it all up? But would somebody want to voluntarily reduce themselves to the position of pariah?

Another example: at the same time as Narcisse, a certain Francina Illeus from the village of Savanne Carrée returned ‘from beyond’. She must not have been lying, because after her grave was exhumed, there really was no body in the coffin. But the family didn’t want to take her back. Why? Once again, the answer to this question also explains why the woman was zombified. She was thought to be a swindler, she was betraying her husband with a lover, she didn’t listen to reprimands. Her relatives and neighbours had had enough of her.

Such cases drew the attention of scientists, including the Canadian ethnobotanist Wade Davis. In the 1980s, he flew to Haiti to establish what substances the bokors used to zombify people. A certain pharmaceutical concern stated that they would be useful to modern medicine as anaesthetics. Davis got onto their trail, and wrote up the effects of his work in the books The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985, a literary work – later adapted for the screen, with several changes, as a full-blooded horror film), and the more scientific Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988). The Canadian met with both admiration and criticism for the non-scientific style of his work.

A few years ago, the French anatomical pathologist Philippe Charlier – dubbed “the Indiana Jones of the graveyards” after he became famous for examinations of the supposed remains of historical figures, including Joan of Arc and Adolf Hitler – also carried out his own investigation. He reached similar conclusions as Davis. “Yes, zombies really do exist!” he argued on the pages of Le Point. Charlier explained that in Haiti there are several types of zombie. One comprises people who have been punished for offences. Others are those perceived as living corpses because they were suffering from schizophrenia, or who, overwhelmed by religious mania, say they’ve returned from the grave. And there are also ‘social’ zombies: strangers taken by Haitian families as replacements for their own relatives, who they have lost in disasters such as earthquakes.

Both Davis and Charlier say the key to pharmacological zombification is the use of tetrodotoxin (C11H17N3O8). This poison is extracted from a puffer fish – similar to the fugu, the dangerous delicacy of Japanese cuisine, which has carried more than one gourmet into the world beyond. Haitian bokors make a powdered extract from the Caribbean puffer fish, which when delivered in a suitably microscopic dose (established after years of deadly experiments by witch doctors) brings the victim into a death-like state. The person is paralysed, their breathing becomes shallow, they retain consciousness, but can’t give any sign of life. So everybody thinks they’re dead! If medical tests aren’t conducted that can discover the error, the unfortunate ends up in the cemetery before they manage to overcome the operation of the poison. They realize that they’ve met their worst nightmare, and that makes their mental state even worse. The ‘death by voodoo’ effect begins to operate. The victim can almost die of fear when the cover of the coffin shuts over them and the dirt starts to fall on top, but they’re not able to scream! Just at the right moment (hopefully) they’re dug out by the bokor, who gives the half-dead unfortunate another substance – this one numbing. It’s made on the basis of a hallucinogenic plant known as jimsonweed, called “zombie cucumber” in Haiti. At that moment the victim loses their memory and orientation, becoming a puppet in the hands of the bokor.

Monstrous uncertainty

What do the doctors have to say? Neurologists say there’s no evidence that tetrodotoxin – even in a dose measured in a laboratory, not with a witch doctor’s spoon – could produce an effect of zombification. They believe Davis and his acolytes are too credulous. They say the zombie state is rather a culturally-conditioned psychological disorder, similar to amok (a violent lust to murder) or koro (fear that one’s genitals are progressively disappearing) in Asia. In Haiti, after all, the existence has been confirmed of complex psychoses with a cultural and somatic basis that lead to hallucinations, psycho-motor disorders and acts of aggression.

But an article by Roland Littlewood and Chavannes Douyon, published in the late 1990s in the journal Lancet, catches the eye. The authors indicate that brain damage was confirmed in several supposed zombies. It’s possible that this was an effect of severe oxygen deprivation that happened when for many hours they were buried alive after being mistakenly declared dead. Someone will say that such stories can’t happen anymore, not with today’s medical care. But in Haiti, healthcare is still at a low level.

So, most likely, the zombie phenomenon is a mystery of many overlapping cultural, psychological and purely medical elements. According to Charlier, there are at least 10,000 zombies living in Haiti today. “Every week or so the newspaper Le Nouvelliste reports new cases in its pages,” the French scientist says.

Regardless of where the truth lies, some of them believe they were sentenced to the fate of being zombies for their misdeeds. Haitians who want to talk about the subject at all tell people from the West that at bottom, zombification is quite a humanitarian penalty. The offenders are still alive, but they can’t harm anybody anymore. “That’s better than prison or the death penalty, right?”

There’s yet another important issue: it seems people still have a need for zombification. In a situation where a failing state doesn’t operate as it should, and the residents don’t have any faith in it, somebody else takes the initiative for them. Secret societies have functioned in the country since colonial times. The best-known one is Bizango. In its time, it supported the dictatorship of François Duvalier (1907–1971), the one-time ‘President’ of Haiti. Then it helped his son Jean-Claude (1951–2014) take power; he ruled until 1986, when he lost the support of the US and was overthrown by a popular Haitian uprising. So faith in zombies is somehow faith in the power of secret societies.

Fortunately, I didn’t mess with Bizango, so I have nothing to fear. I was just an ordinary tourist! I didn’t cross anyone badly enough that they’d want to scare me to death, or poison me. When I watched as the friendly, corpulent doctor connected me to the IV, I was worrying about something else: the needle had been lying around for quite some time on a dented tray, which probably dated from the Duvaliers’ time. Is everything in the hospital sterile? Haiti is a hotbed of cholera and other maladies; there have been many cases of hepatitis C and HIV infections. I pray that it will pass me by, and just to be sure I’ll have to do some tests in Poland.

But first I have to get back there.

The IV helps. I pay the bill and keep it as a sentimental souvenir of my trip to the other side of the rainbow (in vodou, that’s a symbol of Damballah, the heavenly father, the snake god, creator of the world). At the end, I thank the guys from the hotel who made sure I made it to a doctor. And a few hours later, as planned, I’m at the airport.

The men in uniforms look me over suspiciously. One asks a lot of questions, checking my documents. Why did I visit Cap-Haïtien? Where did I stay? In Cormier? Why there? But he doesn’t find anything suspicious, so I go through the standard inspection and board the plane. The trip to Florida goes smoothly.

An hour and a half later, at the Miami airport (so different from Haiti), my wife lays her hand on my forehead to check my temperature. I push her hand away nervously: “Do you want them to put me in quarantine?” But the American customs officer is only interested in the stamps in my passport. “Why were you in Haiti?” he asks. “On vacation,” I reply briefly. “Vacation? In Haiti?” He falls apart laughing, and then looks through our passports.

Before our next flight, we walk around Miami for a bit. I choose a hotel near the site of a macabre event from 2012. A 31-year-old man of Haitian origin, Rudy Eugene, suddenly attacked a homeless man. “The guy was like tearing him to pieces with his mouth and I told him to get off,” a witness later recounted. “But the guy just kept eating the other guy away, like ripping his skin.” When the police arrived, Eugene started to growl, and wouldn’t stop torturing the homeless man. The officers had no option but to shoot.

This bloody incident set off a lively discussion online. Had the attacker transformed into a zombie out of a horror film? Was he under the influence of an unknown drug? Had he consumed some unknown substance from Haiti? Or maybe he was the victim of an experiment with an unknown virus? Developed by the US government, of course, because who would be more interested than the politicians in controlling our thoughts and behaviour?

As I returned from New York to Poland on a shuddering Dreamliner, I couldn’t stop wondering whether I was also carrying some kind of virus. Nobody would even know. And that could be the gateway to a real horror. Not only for me.

Illustration by Igor Kubik
Illustration by Igor Kubik

P.S.: The trip had a happy ending. But two days after landing in Warsaw, I started to be bothered by a buzzing in my left ear, which still plagues me today. Coincidence?


Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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