September 16, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Could zombies originate from voodoo and is there scientific evidence of real zombies? ...


In 1980, a dead man came to life. In a rural Haitan village, Clairvius Narcisse stood pointing out a tombstone to Canadian ethno-botanist and anthropologist Wade Davis. The inscription was faded and barely legible, but closer examination showed it was his grave.

Eighteen years earlier, Narcisse had been brought to the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschappelles, Haiti, spitting blood and running a high fever. He was declared clinically dead three days later. Almost two decades later, he approached his sister in a crowded market. She admitted that their elder brother had put out a voodoo contract on Clairvius following a land-dispute. A bokor had then turned him into a zombie. In voodoo, this is to create one of the lowest social order, it is an act of enslavement and humiliation.

Narcisse recounted that the fate of many zombies is to be put to work as a plantation slave, as a mark of being of the lowest social order. His fate was no different. However, he was involved in a mass zombie breakout after only two years of enslavement. He was forced to wander Haiti for fear of his brother’s wroth, and could only return home after hearing of his death.

With inside knowledge of the zombification contract, Narcisse’s family was never in any doubt that this man was who he claimed to be, even after so many years of being dead. The BBC vigorously tested this account in a documentary into the ritual of the zombie. Without digging up the grave to check for remains, they were forced to conclude that this was no fraud. The evidence was very strong. With an intimate and detailed knowledge of his childhood, and accounts of his travels corroberated by witnesses around Haiti, it seemed that Clairvius Narcisse really had come back from the grave.

However improbable Narcisse, the man who ‘died’ eighteen years before, must have been induced to a near death-like state, intered in his grave, and then exumed before he suffocated. These factors could potentially be explainable by the bokor zombie powders, which are used in ritual acts of supposed sorcery. In many pharmacological investigations, several ingredients are common. An irritant is used to induce breakages in the skin, human remains are used to capture the spirit, and a special toxin is introduced into the bloodstream. Isolated from puffer fish, this toxin – tetrodotoxin – has been shown to capable of inducing the death- like state associated with the zombification ritual. Even in tiny doses, the toxin lowers the metabolism to the point at which the victim appears dead; while they remain fully conscious until the final moment, they are completely paralysed.

On recovery, the exhumed individual is supposedly convinced of their passage between life and death. In voodoo, the belief in the separation of the soul and the physical body permeates much of their belief about the nature of death, so to convince the victim of this ocurrence is more acceptable. To induce the state of childlike apathy, Davis suggested that the bokor may use datura, or ‘zombie cucumbers’. Containing powerful psychotropic agents, these plants induce visions of hell, delirium and can cause schizophrenia. Under this level of psychological stress, zombie-like compliance could be more easily achieved.

Narcisse himself believed he was drugged by a voodoo bokor. He recounted how even as he was being treated, and finally declared dead, he was aware of all that was happening. He remembered the sheets being pulled over his eyes, and even has vague recollections of his funeral, and of being lowered into the ground. He was buried under a large concrete slab, which shows no signs of ever having moved once placed. Narcisse however claims that he was dug up by a bokor, and a ceremony lasting several days was inflicted on him to convince him that he was passing between the realms of the living and the dead.

Many believe that most stories about the zombification of relatives can be put down to mistaken identity. In 1997, British anthropologist Roland Littlewood and Haitian doctor Chavannes Douyon investigated the cases of three individuals who had returned home following their supposed deaths some years before. Zombies are identified by a fixed, mournful expression and odd quirks of repetitive behaviour and speech that are thought to be by-products of the zombification process. Others, however, have linked these behavourial oddities to psychological problems; it is not uncommon for the mentally ill to wander the island of Haiti. It would be easy for a bereaved and grieving relative to find one such person and impose the identity of the dead onto them.

This was indeed found to be the case in the 1997 study published in the Lancet. Three individuals who we shall call FI, WD and MM had all died at least ten years before, and subsequently returned to their relatives by happenstance. Following medical and psychological examination, it was found that all three exhibited characteristics of learning disabilities, brain damage or catatonic schizophrenia. DNA testing revealed that none of them were who they or their ‘relatives’ claimed they were.

If Clairvius Narcisse really was the man he claimed to be, a zombie returned to life, then his only mistake was to return to his home, only to shunned by all who ever knew him. While he himself fully recovered from his alleged ordeal, he was from then on a social pariah. According to Wade Davis, zombification to Hatians is a form of “social and spiritual death, and so someone who’s been made a zombie is marked for all time. No one wants them.” In our culture, we have a vague fear of being attacked by a zombie. In Haiti, they fear becoming one.

With a plausible scientific explanation in place, and confirmed legal cases of zombification, the mystery of this legend has extremely deep roots. Perhaps, the true nature of the zombie will never be fully disclosed, although the speculation undoubtedly makes for fascinating bed- time reading. Sleep well.