Horror films are, probably, what crosses your mind when hearing the word ‘zombie’; an imaginary creature coming back from death popularised by the American cinema industry with films such as Night of the Living Dead or videogame franchises like Resident Evil.
Yet, the idea of monsters existing amidst life and death has managed to frighten and dazzle for decades. Zombies have served as the archetype of terror, blending darkness and the mundane. Thankfully, they only exist in our nightmares… but, what if I told you that zombies are not a tale, that they are real?
You might think superstition and sorcery are irrational anachronistic beliefs. However, there are regions where magic, spirits and witchcraft are deeply rooted in culture, shaping society and even the system. Haiti is one of those places where magic and reality alloy and thrive, creating the perfect ecosystem for one of the oldest beliefs: voodoo. There, under a veil of mystery, is where the real story of zombies befalls.
A legend that turned out to be true
In the last decades of the 19th century, the legend of zombies was word on the street; popular stories talked about dreadful creatures returning from death on a tiny island in the middle of the Caribbean. A small nation surrounded by a halo of mystery and tragedy was the heart of the myth: Haiti.
Those stories, used to demean the population of the Antillean country, attracted many. William Seabrook was one of those struck by the obscure fascination those monsters brought, but, unlike others, he could not miss the chance to verify what was true about all these rumours.
To his surprise, the legend was real: he could certify the walking dead existed. There was a place on earth where magic was able to turn a human into a monster lacking consciousness.
The astonishing discovery needed to see the light. Hence, Seabrook thoroughly described his learnings on voodoo and zombies in the book The Magic Island (1929), spreading the occult history of the country and its mysterious creatures. This book set the foundations to create the modern zombie that lures today’s entire world.
From humans to zombies
Pop culture avers only the bite of a zombie is enough to turn people into one of them. Nonetheless, the actual zombification process takes a bit more than that. Withal, it remains incredibly terrifying and dark.
According to tradition, magic can turn the human body into something supernatural, transforming people into slaves of a body without awareness.
Given the nature of the human spirit, a bokor —a dark conjurer— can steal someone’s soul to control their existence. This is because, in voodoo, humans are composed of a physical and a spiritual realm. However, we do not have one soul, but two: the gros bon ange and the ti bon ange. The ‘big soul’, is that of our biological functions, whereas the ‘small soul’ holds our personality and emotions.
With the help of a magical ritual, the bokor can fool the ti bon age, robbing the person’s essence. Once the ‘small soul’ abandons the body, it leaves the person without its vital energy, without its identity. The body becomes an empty box, capable of functioning but without desires or will. That person is now a zombie.
Only if the bokor sets free the soul can the victims return to what they were.
The secret behind zombies
The tradition and the secrecy surely drew in thousands of outlanders. However, for those living out of the Haitian bubble, the fables, magic and voodoo itself were not enough to explain the phenomenon that perplexed them. That need for real answers led Wade Davis, a Canadian explorer, into an investigation that took four years of his life.
Eventually, Davis deciphered the critical element to turn humans into zombies, a tangible key capable of depriving humans of their ‘souls’. The secret? A magical substance named poudre (powder).
During his research, the explorer rapidly identified a powder that had a significant part in those voodoo rituals turning people into living dead. Thereupon, he could determine the poudre was composed of more than 100 elements, including poisonous plants, venomous animal remains, and even human bones. However, what holds the real power of the blend is tetrodotoxin, a toxin found in puffer fish capable of inducing a death-like state in the victim.
Making of a zombie, step by step
The real zombification process still has some magic to it, as rituals and superstition soak it. Yet, it is incredibly physical and way more disturbing than the traditional tales.
It all begins with a victim, someone the bokor has to punish by ripping their life apart. Then, with a chosen prey, the liturgical process takes place: music, dances, prayers, and the creation of the magical ingredient occur during that ceremony.
Following the rituals comes the coup de poudre (powder strike), inducing the consumption of the toxins via inhalation, touch or ingestion. After contact with the potion, the victim begins to suffer intense fevers leading to catalepsy. The catatonic state is such that it even misleads doctors, so they declare the person defunct. Consequently, that person gets buried.
Hours after the burial, in the darkness of the night, the bokor shows up to unbury the ‘dead’ body. Then, a new ritual involving another potion happens. This time, the beverage contains two substances capable of subjugating anyone: atropine and scopolamine, also known as the devil’s breath.
Despite the brain damage caused by lack of oxygen and intoxication, the body recovers its essential functions. However, the person never returns. That new zombie will most likely become a slave labouring sugar cane plantations.
Even after all these explanations, the zombie stories might look like something odd and distant. Well, let me introduce two of the most famous proven cases of zombification.
On the second of May 1962, Clairvius Narcisse passed away. Eighteen years later, he came back from death.
Narcisse had had some disputes with his family, and because of it, he suffered a zombification. On April 1962, he fell sick and, unfortunately, ‘succumbed’. Two doctors certified his death. What no one knew back then is that Narcisse was, in fact, alive and consciously assisted his own death, witnessing the grief of his loved ones.
After ‘reviving’, he spent two years as an enslaved worker on a sugar cane plantation alongside dozen of ‘zombies’ like him. Even so, life gave him a second chance when the bokor keeping him captive died. Finally, 16 years later, he found his sister and officially returned from the underworld.
Rosemarie’s case is equally shocking.
When she was only 14, she suffered a zombification that caused her apparent death. Ostensibly, what led to this process was the rejection of a suitor.
A few months later, Rosemarie appeared, knocking on her house’s door. There was no doubt it was her; a candle fell on her coffin during her burial, burning her leg’s skin and leaving a distinctive permanent mark.
Shortly after returning to life, her family moved away and changed her name, yet she never recovered from the damage.
A culture of terror
Tragically, Clairvius and Rosemarie were not isolated cases. The second half of the 20th century was Haiti’s terror era. A period in history stained by blood and remarkably based on magical beliefs.
Haiti is a turbulent country where colonization, exploitation, black slavery, racism and corruption have mixed for centuries. Only a land like this, hit by human and natural disgrace, could create such a robust spirituality set on the syncretism of Caribean religions, Christianism and voodoo.
Voodoo was always part of the country, but the recent history of the nation assuredly instilled fear of it. Haiti’s independence from the USA began with a voodoo ritual and culminated with a coup placing François Duvalier as life president.
Papa Doc’s government
Duvalier, popularly nicknamed Papa Doc, based his government on the idea of him being a powerful warlock. He used voodoo as a weapon to spook the population and assert his power over a hopeless and illiterate country. From 1957 to 1973, Haiti was hell on earth.
But that’s not all; he not only claimed to be a bokor but displayed it with public rituals and sacrifices. During his ferocious government, he based the system on terror by creating a militia the tonton macut (the boogeymen), that killed and made disappear over 50000 people in the name of black magic and voodoo.
Consequently, zombies became a well-founded fear amongst the Haitian population, capable of affrighting young and old. Becoming a zombie was a real threat, and no one could be certain of being safe from the relentless rituals.
Duvalier’s actions terrified the country, yet what placed the image of him being a powerful bokor in people’s minds was a sheer coincidence: In 1963, after developing a solid animosity towards John F. Kennedy, he decided to celebrate a public voodoo ritual to take his soul. Call it luck or call it magic, only a couple of days after the American president was assassinated.
Haiti is a magical place on earth where tragedy allowed zombies to exist and to continue to do so under the secretive practices of voodoo. A place where fear is still rooted in a society with few resources.
In Haiti, rituals and traditions are still strong, attracting many to the ancient and stealthy codes. Forsooth, thousands of business people travel to Haiti each year to try their luck and conspire against their adversaries with voodoo.
The history of zombies proves that sometimes power relies on tools as simple yet complex as fear. And that’s the magic in voodoo; to believe in it. So be careful what you believe in, or you could become a ritual victim.