As my children were growing up, I chased them around the house with music. Some of it was serious, some of it was awful, and some of it was seriously awful. One of those songs, definitely not in the awful category, is by the band Radiohead.
The song is called Where I End And You Begin, and it ends with an intriguing line: “I will eat you alive”, followed by a pretty sweet guitar riff. This part of the song goes on for a while, and when I chased my kids, I would use it as prelude to eating their brains.
Figuratively. Don’t call law enforcement, the kids are alright.
Though I did enjoy munching on their fragile skulls.
When I started humming the riff, the kids knew what was about to happen.
Zombies are a crucial part of our household mythology.
It’s a strange mythos to have, but it’s one we all share: we dig the undead.
When I started graduate school, I intended to pursue the study of Voodoo, in its African, mid-passage, and American forms. While it’s not the road I eventually wandered down, it still fascinates me; it has a heritage that deserves and often doesn’t receive its due respect. Unfortunately, the story of Voodoo is many times reduced to one word:
So, what is a zombie, and why has it become a part of our cultural milieu? Are they just part of our fictive imagination, or is there something real to be learned here?
Enter our first candidate: Clairvius Narcisse (1922-1962 +32 more years(?), Haiti)
Now, let’s set the record straight: the story of Narcisse has been questioned by many scientists.
Not Harvard trained ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who documented Narcisse’s story in his book, The Serpent and the Rainbow (which director Wes Craven turned into a watchable-if-campy horror movie). Still, there are many in the scientific community who remain skeptical. Good on them; all tales should be open to scrutiny.
Especially if the story in question relates to zombification.
But let’s consider the narrative from a different perspective: that of his sister, Angelina.
Imagine watching your brother going to the hospital, forty years old. Imagine him leaving the hospital dead, certified by two American trained physicians. Imagine burying him.
Only, he really wasn’t dead. He had been poisoned by a Bokor, a Voodoo magician.
After being poisoned, he was put in a coffin, very much alive, but unable to move, to talk, to scream. Dead to the world, but completely aware.
Now imagine Angelina’s shock, when 18 years later, he casually walked up to her in an open market.
If we are to believe his story, their older brother had Clairvius zombified over a land dispute. He spent two years on a plantation, essentially as slave labor. For those two years he was given a daily ration of a sedating substance, as were the other prisoners. After a revolt left the landowner dead, he ran.
He ran for 16 years, afraid of his brother, waiting to come home, begging on the streets.
And when his brother finally died, he came home. And that’s when he approached his sister, Angelina.
Reports like this go far back. Author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston went to Haiti in the 1930s, and her book Tell My Horse recounts a similar tale; in that case, it was a woman zombified for nearly three decades. These reports continue to this day.
If Wade Davis is right, the active ingredient of the zombie drug is Bufotoxin, a toad extract, along with many other organic and botanical substances – including the flesh and bones of dead humans. Another ingredient may be the compound scopolamine, known for its ability to induce suggestibility in its victims.
And even if Wade Davis is wrong, one thing is certain:
A man who believed himself to be Clairvius Narcisse found his sister, and she believed that he was her brother.
And sometimes, belief is better than the truth.