The Zombies of Haiti

"Zombie". A Zombie, at twilight, in a field of cane sugar of haïti.

An interesting history of zombie-ism in Haiti.

via Mysterious Universe:

Bloodthirsty fictional zombies have become very popular in recent times, inhabiting everything from books, to TV shows, to movies, delighting and scaring many horror aficionados. Yet many people may not realize that in some cultures, zombies are considered to be very real. In these societies, zombies are not the stuff of imagination or fiction, but rather real flesh and blood creations that shamble through the shadows and our nightmares. However, how much truth is there behind these traditions of actual real-life zombies? Do real zombies actually exist somewhere out there in the dark corners of the world?

"Zombie". A Zombie, at twilight, in a field of cane sugar of haïti.

“Zombie”. A Zombie, at twilight, in a field of cane sugar of haïti.

To find answers to this question, perhaps a good place to look is the island nation of Haiti, located in the Caribbean Sea on half of the island of Hispaniola, which has a long tradition of real zombies, also spelled as zombi. The zombies of Haiti were said to be corpses that were reanimated through black magic by powerful voodoo priests or shamans, known as bokor, for various purposes but most commonly for manual labor. It was said that zombies were routinely employed to do slave labor on farms and sugarcane plantations.

In the voodoo religion, which is said to be practiced or believed by 80 to 90 percent of Haitians, it is said that there are two ways a person could die, either by natural means such as sickness, or by unnatural means such as murder. Those who died unnatural deaths were said to have souls that were particularly vulnerable to the witchcraft of voodoo sorcerers, who would entrap the souls in bottles or earthenware jars called zombi astral and use them to control the undead body, which was referred to as the zombi cadavre. The bokor could use these reanimated corpses to do their bidding, either for benevolent purposes or for more nefarious things such as toiling mindlessly in slave labor, attacking enemies, or carrying out dark magic and curses. Sometimes a person was turned into a zombie merely as punishment or as retribution for crossing a bokor. On occasion, bokors would sell their zombie creations to other priests.

Zombies can also allegedly be made from those who are still living if the bokor is powerful enough to wrest the victim’s soul from their body. The process of turning a living person into a zombie is said to follow certain steps. First, the bokor will place a hex on the target of the ritual, who will subsequently suddenly fall mysteriously ill and die soon after. The family of the victim will pronounce them dead and have them buried in an above ground or semi-buried family tomb, which is a common method of burial in Haiti. The responsible bokor will then steal the body from its grave a few days later and set about reanimating it through dark sorcery.

Those who are turned into zombies are described as having gaunt features and skin with a greyish pallor that is pulled tight against their bones. They have fixed, staring expressions and their movements and actions are characterized as being repetitive, clumsy, and purposeless. They are slow, uncoordinated, and walk with an unsteady, shambling gait. Zombies are able to speak, but only very basic phrases, and their speech is slurred, with a nasal quality. Zombies can also hear and understand basic commands, but their comprehension is limited and they lack free will, mostly being considered to be mindless automatons. Zombies are sometimes said to exhibit enhanced physical strength, making them ideal for hard manual labor, and they display little to no responsiveness to physical stimuli, seeming to be impervious to pain or tiredness. It is said that the victim remains in a sort of dream-like trance, with little or no awareness of their condition. Unlike the rampaging, bloodthirsty zombies of Western horror films, the real zombies of Haiti are submissive and not known to be aggressive or to attack people unless commanded to do so by their master.

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4 Comments on "The Zombies of Haiti"

  1. Westphal Ricardo | Aug 11, 2014 at 6:01 pm |

    There’s no sorcery or black magic involved in turning a living person into a voodoo zombie (as said in the text). The bokor poisons his target with toxin extracted from pufferfish, and after retrieving the body, an antidote is given. If the bokor is lucky enough to get the body in time, it will work, but in most of the cases the victim has already died of pufferfish poisoning.

    After that, slavery is made through traditional ways. As the victim’s family think he/she is dead and buried, and may even have and death certificate for him/her, the only way to lose the slave is letting he/she escape.

    • You should read the entire article, not only the pull quote I used (which is only the first few paragraphs of the piece).

      “Davis postulated that these “zombie powders” contained a powerful neurotoxin such as that derived from puffer fish called tetrodotoxin. He theorized that the resulting toxic powder could then be delivered to the target in a variety of ways such as in their food, applied as a paste to skin, or even inhaled as an airborne dust. In non-lethal doses, tetrodotoxin produces paralysis and can induce a death-like state characterized by a low body temperature, extremely reduced rate of breathing, and a very slow and faint, almost imperceptible heartbeat. In such a state, the victim would appear to witnesses as dead and would then be buried. The victim would later awaken when the poison wore off and then be administered a drug made from the plant Datura stramonium, commonly called Jimsons Weed, or the “zombie cucumber,” which has potent psychotropic properties and would keep them in a delirious, trance-like state vulnerable to mind control. Davis speculated that the zombie’s master would keep the victim in this suggestible, trance-like state through regular infusions of the poison. In the case of Narcisse, Davis speculated that the man had slowly regained his mental faculties and lucidity only after the bokor’s death prevented his regular doses of the poison.”

      • misinformation | Aug 11, 2014 at 10:50 pm |

        Huge (as in, I enjoy his work, not that I’m a large person) Wade Davis fan…for whatever that’s worth.

      • HalfTonSon | Aug 12, 2014 at 7:04 pm |

        I read Serpent and the Rainbow probably 20 years ago (though I never read the follow up) but what stuck with me, more than the pufferfish stuff, was how powerful a factor belief turned out to be. A good part of the book is spent trying to put “rational” first world western readers inside the minds of rural Haitians, explaining that all the drugs and toxins in the world couldn’t create a zombie unless there was already a foundation to accept their existence.

        Another part that stuck with me talked about a mother who’d lost her son tragically, only to have him come back years later as a zombie. A little digging by Davis strongly suggested that the zombie wasn’t actually her son, but a mentally challenged, unrelated man. But they each needed one another and had formed a strange but kind of beautiful mother-zombie connection.

        Anyway, it’s a great book but a lousy movie. I recommend the former but stay away from the latter lest it possess your brain.

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