Woken by fireworks in the middle of the night for the umpteenth time this year, I remembered The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis. Davis, who studied zombification in Haiti, believed that turning people into zombies served as a sort of release valve for communities. Is there some jerk in the neighborhood making everyone’s life miserable? Get some zombie poison! After being zombified, the troublemaker will find himself on the other side of the island, where he will labor away on a zombie farm. Translated into Manhattan terms, if I turned my fireworks-loving neighbor into a zombie, he might wake up on the Lower East side and find himself slinging lattés at Starbucks for a few years until I released him, hopefully having learned a lesson. It seemed like a good solution. Then I stopped to wonder: what ABOUT all that zombie stuff in the The Serpent and the Rainbow? Could any of it possibly be true?
Here is the back story. Wade Davis is an anthropologist interested in ethnobotany. At Harvard, he studied under Richard Evans Schultes, rain forest explorer and photographer extraordinaire. Davis has spent his career exploring the medicinal plant use of indigenous cultures. Back in the early 1980s, Davis stumbled onto the world’s best dissertation project: go to Haiti and bring back some zombie poison. There had been rumors for years that zombification might have a pharmacological basis, and he wanted to figure out if there was any truth to this claim.
Studying zombification is not easy, especially since it’s against the law in Haiti (Article 246 of the Penal Code). But Wade managed to collect zombie poison from four different voodoo sorcerers on the island, and found a few consistent ingredients. One of them was puffer fish, which contains tetrodotoxins, neurotoxins that can cause a temporary death-like state. So, potentially, an irate neighborhood or unhappy family member could dose someone with zombie poison, and everyone would think they were dead. After the funeral and the burial–in the dead of night–the zombie-maker would dig up the victim, before they woke from their tetrodotoxin-induced sleep. At that point, the poor slob would be drugged with still other concoctions, to keep them in a compliant, zombie-like state.
Of course a claim like this is bound to draw a lot of attention. Other scientists had many questions. Were the biochemical tests done in a way that could distinguish between active and inactive forms of the puffer fish poison? Were the levels of tetrodotoxin sufficient to actually poison someone? Wasn’t it wrong for Wade to help dig up the remains of a recently buried child in order to get the materials for the zombie poison? (That was part of the book.) Words were said. Critics C.Y. Kao and T. Yasumoto, who found only insignificant traces of tetrodotoxin in the samples Wade sent them, said: “We hold firmly that science done without a moral and ethical foundation can never be more than a mockery of science. And that, in our view, is what [Davis] and [his collaborators] really are.” And Davis accused them of “old-fashioned jealousy.”
In 1997, what has got to be the most interesting paper ever to grace the pages of the Lancet appeared: Clinical findings in three cases of zombification. First, the authors estimated that roughly 1,000 cases of zombification are reported in Haiti every year. I am not making this up. Then, they moved on to their findings. They had identified three Haitians whom family members said were zombies–that is, these people had fallen ill and been buried by their families, only to reappear months or years later, wandering around in a zombie-like state. The researchers listened to the families’ stories, interviewed the putative zombies, performed physical exams, and ended by performing DNA tests. The first woman they examined appeared to have catatonic schizophrenia, and her appearance was quite different than that evident in before-death photos. No DNA tests were performed in her case. The second zombie was a young man in his 20s, said to have been turned into a zombie by a jealous uncle (who was sentenced to life imprisonment for this crime). The researchers diagnosed him with cognitive impairment and epilepsy; DNA tests demonstrated that he was not related to the couple who was convinced he was their son. The last case involved a young woman who had died and then disappeared for over ten years before being found. After leading researchers to the area where she said she had been kept as a zombie for all that time, the villagers there recognized her as a local who had gone missing. And DNA tests showed she was not related to the family who had claimed her as their zombie daughter. Like the young man, this woman appeared to have some sort of cognitive impairment, possibly due to fetal alcohol syndrome.
Based on this case series, the authors concluded that what was probably going on was less mysterious and exciting than the widespread creation of zombies with voodoo poison. The zombies they studied appeared to be young people with psychiatric disorders who were adopted by bereaved families. Mistaken identity, rather than voodoo, seemed to be the culprit. These scientists also pointed out that it seems a little incredible that secret zombie farms could go undetected for long in a place as crowded as Haiti.
So, yes, science kind of ruined a great zombie story. But even if zombies aren’t being created using voodoo poison, something fascinating is going on here. The zombie myth persists in Haiti for a reason. The three people studied in the Lancet article (and others who have been identified over the years) acquiesced to living with strangers who considered them zombies. That’s pretty interesting in its own right! And their adopted families chose to overlook the many differences between their new zombie children and their deceased loved ones. The zombies were filling a need. It makes you wonder if something that began as a horror story could actually be a heartwarming (if bizarre) tale about people opening their homes and hearts to some of society’s most vulnerable individuals. It seems like the Lancet research supports a kinder, gentler take on zombies.