The “Wind Tunnel” is what we called it, that area where you turn the corner and the Arctic seems to welcome you with the caress of its cold Chicago wind. It wasn’t particularly a long walk, but in Chicago in the middle of winter, anywhere is a long walk.
I was on my way to meet my Anthropology professor to discuss the topic for an Independent Study I was just approved for. Little did I know that it would turn into two studies, lasting two semesters and a couple of papers that were surprisingly very well received by the Anthopology department at the University of Illinois/Chicago.
My professor, Walter Hartwig who would later be known as the man who discovered the giant monkey Protopithecus , had approached me a week earlier and offered me this study. The deal was I could do any subject I wanted within an Anthropological paradigm and he would approve it, and I was free to go off work on my own and submit a paper ten weeks in.
I said, Bigfoot. He looked at me quixotically and said “anything but that”. I countered with Zombis in Haiti? He said, done, go do it.
The Albert Schweitzer Hospital In Deschapelles is an American institution in the Artibonite Valley of West Central Haiti. Founded in 1956, it’s still open today catering to many underprivileged Haitian, but on the 30th of April 1962 at precisely 9:45 PM a man walked in spitting blood. For the next two days he would suffer hypothermia, paresthesia, cyanosis, hypertension, loss of weight and a difficulty in breathing, all from an unknown source.
At 1:15 PM on May 2, Clairvius Narcisse was declared dead, and in the morning on the third day in May, Clairvius Narcisse was buried in his native village of L’Estere. Angelina Narcisse was the last person to see her brother alive at the hospital. Angelina Narcisse would also be the first person to see Clairvius alive eighteen years later.
A regular at the Lester marketplace Angelina was shopping when a man approached her and introducing himself by a nickname they had used as children. The man appeared to be Clairvius Narcisse.
Later, after the shock of his return had somewhat been overtaken by curiosity, this man preceded to tell his full story, claiming that he had been made a Zombi because of a land dispute with his brother, when Clairvius had refused to share inherited land.
TRANSGRESSIONS AND ZOMBIFICATION
It is said in Haiti, that the country is one hundred percent catholic and one hundred and ten percent voodoo. Haiti is the land of dichotomy and contradictions and Vodou, the more correct term for this religion, are based on protocols set by the Bizango society, the real power in rural Haiti.
A secret society that isn’t particularly that secret. Vodou and the Bizango society are not inherently evil, that’s a misconception. Vodou is a powerful force, but a force in itself is directionless. It is only when applied to a goal that it may become good or evil.
Narcisse’s brother sold him to a Bokor who in turn made him into a Zombi. A Bokor is a sorcerer in Haiti, and the only one who knows the secret of Zombification. At this point it would be wise to forget all that you know about Zombis from television and the movies. The reality is that the fear is not of Zombis, but the fear is of becoming one. In rural Haiti, Zombification serves as a punishment, a death penalty if you will, courtesy of the Bizango Society.
Obviously, not all transgressions lead to Zombification. There are various punishments set by the Bizango society, but the more serious offenses can lead to Zombification. Needless to say, Zombification is very rare, and as Haiti leaned further towards the virtues of a more modern world, the Bizango society has perhaps lost part of its luster, but not all of it. And has Haiti suffered through an devastating earthquake and recent social economic hardship combined with the harsh realization that countries I the “modern world” cared little for Haiti and its people, I would assume that many indigenous modalities have returned.
Transgression including material advancement at the expense of others, lack of respect towards fellow Haitians, taking another man’s woman, causing harm to one’s family, defaming the Bizango society and cheating in regard to land issues are all considered serious offenses that can lead to Zombification. (Davis, 1985).
Clairvius Narcisse had at one time or another committed many of these crimes he had a reputation for being greedy. He had refused to share his land with his brother, and had refused to help his family out financially on several occasions. To add to his growing shaky reputation, he had fathered children with a number of women and had refused to take responsibility, financial or otherwise. On the Bizango’s ten most wanted for Zombification list, Clairvius Narcisse was at the top of the list.
As I alluded to briefly, the official religion of Haiti is Catholicism This is what the outside world sees of Haiti. On the inside, it is a country run by much older traditions. Vodou is a religion, and like all religions it serves a dual purpose, a religious one and a political purpose. Zombification and thus the Bizango society, expresses this model quite well. The act of becoming a Zombi is equivalent to the death penalty, and the fear of such a fate is a form of social control.
Narcisse, was aware of being declared dead completely paralyzed and unable to do anything about it. He was also aware of being buried and the nail that pierced his skin as it went through the cheap wood of the coffin. The scar still visible 18 years later. He remained in that coffin, buried for 72 hours; and then he was taken out, taken away to work at a plantation.
This is standard protocol, apparently Zombis are used as slave labor as a way to repay society with the production of goods. In Narcisse’s case, he escaped when the plantation’s owner died. The case was investigated by his immediate family, the BBC and head of the Centre de Psychiatrie et Neurologie in Port-au-Prince, lamarque Douyon It was declared a legitimate case of Zombification by all involved. Narcisse wasn’t the first or last case of Zombification, but before Narcisse, it wasn’t taken seriously outside of Haiti.
I was told personally in recent years of a case that took place in the 1960’s where an American while in the military found himself in Haiti visiting a plantation. The plantation owner had a number of individuals working for him that seemed to be in a strange stupor like state. He called them Zombis. Unfortunately, the primary witness died some years ago, so I was able to interview him directly. The story was told to me by a relative, Steve Murillo.
In the United States it wasn’t until Harvard anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis came back from Haiti with samples of the Zombi powder, that scientists were even aware of the concept of Zombification. Davis wrote a book entitled “The Serpent and the Rainbow” and in detail explained that Zombis were not the living dead, but rather under the influence of a drug. What remains a mystery is how the inflicted remained in that Zombi state for years, and what occurs from a physiological standpoint when they “snap out “ of it. What triggers their release? And much can be explained through standard science, and how much still remains in the nebulous world of Vodou forces?
Paresthesia (tingling sensation of the skin), cyanosis (oxygen deficiency in the blood leading to a bluish tint to the skin), respiratory failure, uremia (toxins in the blood), vomiting, general weakness, complete paralysis while remaining conscious are all symptoms associated with Zombification.
All these symptoms were experienced by Clairvius Narcisse and others before their deaths. Narcisse also complained that his skin felt like it was on fire. Studies on the Zombi powder indicated that the ingredient responsible for the majority of the conditions listed above is tetrodotoxin, or TTX for short.
The drug tetrodotoxin comes from the following marine species; Crapaud du mer ( Sphoeroides testudineus), the poisson fufu ( Diodon hystrix) , and Diodon holacanthus. All three of these are species are puffer-fish. Tetrodotoxin is found in the intestines, ovaries, testicles, liver, and in the skin of these animals. Pure tetrodotoxin is 160,000 times more effective in axonal blockage than cocaine. It is also 1000 times more potent than sodium cyanide. Half a milligram is all that is needed to kill a grown man. Used in proper dosage the drug causes complete neuromuscular paralysis.
Axons relay nerve impulses between the central nervous system and neuromuscular junctions. The relay or inhibition of these impulses depends on the concentration of sodium and potassium ions inside and outside the axon. Most drugs make an axon equally permeable to both, resulting in the inhibition of nerve impulses Tetrodotoxin doesn’t affect the flow of both sodium and potassium, instead it inhibits the flow of sodium alone. The result is complete neuromuscular paralysis.
Case studies of Tetrodotoxin poisoning reveal very similar symptoms to the effect of the Zombi powder. These symptoms include nausea, vomiting, paresthesia, hyper-salivation, extreme sweating, weakness, headache, pulmonary edema, cyanosis, dilation of the pupils and hypothermia. Individuals affected by the Zombi powder claim that they remain conscious through out the entire episode. Again, case studies in tetrodotoxin poisoning supports this fact. The victims retains awareness but otherwise show no signs of life. Tetrodotoxin is topically active meaning that just handling the toxin can induce some of these symptoms.
Most other compounds in the Zombi powder are inert, and will even differ from region to region, and from Bokor to Bokor. Some additional toxins with various hallucinogenic properties, especially using Cane Toads are almost always present in the Zombi powder as well. The skin of Cane Toads contained Bufotoxins that also effects the mechanism of the sodium potassium pump.
It was assumed by Davis that another drug was administered to the Zombi upon “resurrection”. I’ve thought about this at length and discussed it with my professor back in school, and I have to agree. Yet the drug has never been identified. There are several reason for this. For one, there has been a serious lack of interest, and thus funding in regards to the Zombi phenomena, and even with the successful acquisition of the Zombi powder by Davis; academia still retains a very skeptical view of the phenomena. It’s association with Voodoo, certainly does not help matters. The only investigations on location that I’m aware off within the last twenty years have been from free-lance writers and various film crews. Those were much more interested in Voodoo and the sensational, rather then the pharmacological aspect of Zombification. Furthermore, none of these later investigations have produced a Zombi, the drug or any tangible proof of the phenomenon.
Tetrodotoxin, as the primary ingredient in the Zombi powder, is without doubt responsible for the onset of zombification, but in theory the afflicted should come out of its spell once he or she is unburied, or shortly thereafter. Yet Zombis remain in their state for an undetermined amount of time, which can be years or decades. Lore has it that the death of a Zombis master, usually the plantation owner, results in the Zombi regaining. It’s human faculties More than superstition, this may point to the existence of another drug, a maintenance drug. Once a Zombi’s owner dies, and no one continues to administer the maintenance drug, the afflicted simply snaps out of it.
The most likely culprit is Datura Stramonium, also known as Jimson Weed. It’s common in Haiti and a potent a hallucinogen that contain propane alkaloids. But, I think it goes beyond that. Cultural expectations via a belief system is a potent thing, and sociological placebo effects are very real.
Combined that with drugs, fear, possible brain damage from having been buried, psychological conditions such as dissociation, and perhaps just perhaps a slight dose of the supernatural and all the condition are right for Zombification.