What causes zombification? Some mixture of schizophrenia, mistaken identity, a poison powder called tetrodotoxin, and amnesia. Mind Hacks writes:
We hear a lot about zombies these days, but many are unaware that in 1997 The Lancet published a medical study of three genuine Haitian zombies. The cases were reported by British anthropologist Roland Littlewood and Haitian doctor Chavannes Douyon and concerned three individuals identified as zombies after they had apparently passed away.
The Haitian explanation for how zombies are created involves the distinction between different elements of the human being – including the body, the gwobon anj (the animating principle) and the ti-bon anj, which represents something akin to agency, awareness, and memory.
In line with these beliefs is the fact that awareness and agency can be split off from the human being – and can be captured and stored in a bottle by a bòkò, a type of magician and spirit worker who can be paid to send curses or help individuals achieve their aims. This purportedly leaves a passive easily-controlled animated body – the zombie – believed to be created to provide free labour on plantations.
Anthropologist Wade Davis claimed to have identified the ingredients of the bòkò’s zombification powder which supposedly included tetrodotoxin – a naturally occurring neurotoxin found in some animals, like the pufferfish, which can cause temporary coma-like states. On the cultural level, zombies are identified by specific characteristics – they cannot lift up their heads, have a nasal intonation, a fixed staring expression, they carry repeated purposeless actions and have limited and repetitive speech.
FI was a 30-year-old woman who had died after a short illness and was buried next to the house, only for her to be recognised in a zombified state three years later by her family, wandering near to her village.
WD died at the age of 18 shortly after his “eyes turned yellow” and his body “swelled up” and was buried in a family tomb. He was identified as a zombie at a cockfight eight years after he had been buried.
MM was a young woman who also died at 18 after a short illness, but who was identified 13 years later in the town market, walking around in the characteristic detached shambling way.
While the families put their fate down to sorcery, a full medical examination was carried out by the two doctors, including the use of EEG and CT brain scans.
FI showed no neurological damage but was diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia, a very withdrawn form of psychosis. WD was found to have brain damage, probably from lack of oxygen, and epilepsy, which could be treated with drugs. MM was found to a developmental learning disability, probably caused by her alcoholism when her mother was pregnant with her.