Sunday, August 7, 2011

Buried Alive as a Voodoo Zombie

Defunct the strings of cemetery things.
With one flat foot on the Devil’s wing.
--Living Dead Girl, Rob Zombie
It’s Sunday Myth Busting time again, and this week takes me to another horror movie icon--the zombie.
Probably the first literary nod to the zombie was in 1929 with William Seabrook’s The Magic Island.  This sensational account of Seabrook’s experiences in Haiti is felt to be one of the first places the word “zombi” appeared in print.  But it wouldn’t be until the Night of the Living Dead’s debut in 1968 before the classic zombie movie changed the undead forever.  
Currently, zombie love is everywhere.  Even the CDC got into the craze.  Modern zombies are created by things like radiation exposure, parasitic diseases, and viruses.  The lurching, brain-eating zombie of George Romero’s time has been replaced with cunning creatures that can outrun you, like in 28 Days Later.  But did you ever wonder if zombies could be real?
It’s time to take a trip into Voodoo lore.  Voodoo grew from roots in the West African religion Vodun.  The slave trade brought Vodun overseas and it is still heavily present in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as well as in America in the deep South.  Vodun values a supreme being, but has no single religious text.  It centers around spirituality and sacrifice, as well as beliefs in dark and light magic.  If a person commits a moral violation according to Vodun, they may be targeted by a Vodun sorcerer called a Bokor.  A Bokor can capture the soul and control the physical form as punishment.  
                     Tah-dah, you’ve created a zombie.
There have been many accounts of zombies existing, especially in Haiti, which seems to be zombie central.  Up to a thousand new cases of zombification are reported each year there.  However, actual case studies have revealed many of these “zombies” to be people suffering from neurologic or psychiatric disease, such as catatonic schizophrenia, anoxic brain injury, and fetal alcohol syndrome. 
The most controversial case of a “real zombie” was a Haitian man named Clairvius Narcisse.  Narcisse walked into Haiti’s Albert Schweitzer Hospital in 1962 spitting up blood and suffering from kidney failure and high fevers.  He was proclaimed dead by two U.S. trained physicians two days after his admission and buried by friends and family.  Eighteen years later, a man claiming to be Narcisse appeared with a story that he was resurrected from the dead three days after his burial in 1962 by a Bokor who kept him as a zombie slave.  Unfortunately, the resurrected Narcisse was never proven to be related to the original, although he gave detailed descriptions of childhood memories that supposedly only Clairvius would know.  Narcisse claimed his brother called for his zombification after a dispute over family land, but by that time, his brother was dead and that story could not be validated.  Without DNA evidence, many believe this is a case of mistaken identity or a fraud perpetrated to swindle the family of the real (and dead) Clairvius Narcisse.
When Harvard anthropologist Wade Davis heard of the story, he went to Haiti looking for answers.  He published his accounts in the book The Serpent and The Rainbow in 1985, asserting that the myth of the Haitian zombie could be explained by pharmacology and the use of certain psychoactive plants.
In Davis’s book, he described a substance made by Bokors--coupe poudre or “zombie powder”.  The victim of zombification was exposed to the powder, which upon analysis was found to contain toxins, human remains, and other noxious items like ground glass.  One of the toxins that was consistently present was something called tetrodotoxin, a paralytic neurotoxin that several marine animals (like puffer fish and harlequin toads) use to subdue their prey.  Initial symptoms include numbness of the lips followed by dizziness, incoordination, tremor, difficulty breathing, respiratory failure and seizures.  Coma and death can occur in as little as 18 minutes.  At sub-lethal doses, the body is essentially paralyzed--including the muscles that control breathing and heartbeat.  The victim may appear dead, but is lucid and aware of their surroundings, unable to communicate.
        There’s no antidote.  That’s some bad, bad sushi.
If the victim is not examined thoroughly, it could be possible to believe they were dead.  Of course in the modern era, people who die are generally embalmed.  Exsanguination and organ removal pretty much guarantees the dead are dead.  But we’re talking Haiti in the 1960s, and bodies were not always embalmed before burial.  So it’s possible that after a pseudo-death, a victim could be buried alive.  Now on to Davis’s zombie resurrection.
The victim is retrieved from the grave by the Bokor and given another concoction made from the “devil’s cucumber”--a species of plant that contains atropine and scopalamine--chemicals known as anticholinergics.  These substances cause the heart to race, the blood pressure to rise and may produce such marked dilation of the pupils that the victim has painful photophobia.  Other neurologic effects include a lurching gait, delirium, psychosis, and amnesia that can last for several days.  Interestingly, “devil’s cucumber” is also known as jimson weed or locoweed here in Nebraska, and occasionally people will ingest it for its hallucinogenic effects.  Unfortunately, too much may be deadly, causing seizures or kidney failure.  To keep a zombie docile, they would have to be redosed frequently.
So on to myth busting.  The effects of tetrodotoxins occur within six hours and by twenty hours at the latest.  If the person survives 24 hours, they should recover.  Paralysis generally affects the diaphragm, the big muscle that makes you breath.  Slowing the respiratory rate to such a speed where medical personnel could not detect it would also mean marked decrease of oxygen to the brain.  Most people would die if this condition persisted for any significant length of time.  But for sake of argument, say the “deceased” was raised within a couple hours.  Even then, such oxygen deprivation would most certainly result in marked brain damage.  Which, depending on whether you feel zombies are a physical or psychological being, could give some validity to the myth.
Davis was immediately called out by the scientific community because he could not validate the effect of his zombie powder on rat models.  Most of his samples of zombie powder had little if any tetrodotoxin in them, which he attributed to different mixtures and potential loss of the toxin during analysis.  In addition, his methods of investigation (which included exhuming the body of a child to make a zombie powder) were considered less than ethical.  Davis responded that the pharmacology was only part of the mystique of the zombie; there had to be a strong cultural belief that would make a person believe in the possibility of becoming undead, and that belief alone could be enough to produce a zombie state.
In Narcisse’s story there was also a flaw--he claimed to have been fed a salt-free diet for his zombie years.  In folklore, if a zombie is fed salt, they will awake.  Unfortunately, humans need salt, and without it will die a very real death.  This was actually a method of torture and execution in the middle ages.
So to sum up, there are pharmacologic agents that could be used to debilitate someone to the point where they may be confused with the dead by a layperson.  And in societies where there are not official rules for handling a corpse, being buried alive could happen.  But the human body is unlikely to withstand several hours of oxygen deprivation that would occur with the use of these agents.  The use of the devil’s cucumber over time would also lead to significant morbidity and likely mortality, making resurrection as one of the movie-style zombies that George Romero made famous impossible.  
It seems this myth is dead wrong.


  1. Did you read about the zombie ants in Brazil? I was doing research on what are called 'zombie agents' in the brain and had all of these lovely images of ants' bodies that had been taken over by a fungus pop up on the search. Bit hideous.

    This post freaked me out just a bit. I have always been irrationally disturbed by zombies. I couldn't even watch freaking 'Plan 9 From Outer Space,' for pity's sake. *hangs head.*

  2. Fascinating! I still plan to double-tap and ask questions later.
    I remember the movie version of Serpent and the Rainbow. Any man who has ever watched remembers one scene in particular that has nothing to do with zombies...

  3. You couldn't pay me enough to eat something called "the devil's cucumber."

    I'm just sayin'.

    There have been a bunch of reports lately of people who awaken at their own funerals, but it turns out to be a bad mistake on the part of the doc who pronounced them dead in the first place. Doctor induced zombification!

  4. I'm becoming a big fan of your myth-busting segment. I loved both of your posts. Lots of interesting information in this one. It makes me want to go write a zombie novel!

  5. Loved Lydia's comments....Too Funny! I'd love to invite both of you over sometime for dinner. It would be a blast!

  6. I am loving Myth Busting Sundays! And I just snorted water out through my nose... I too, would never put something called Devil's Cucumber in my mouth. Ewwww.

    Fascinating stuff, learning about the science behind zombies!

  7. I'm not a big zombie fan, although I did write a short story meant for a magazine, which I've been stalling in submitting. I did watch something on Discovery one day where a man died and a guy did some voodoo to raise him. Well, as it turns out the man returned home to his wife. Now, he's not the same man...won't sleep...won't shower...won't talk. His wife insists the voodoo priest turned him into a zombie.

  8. Loving your myth busting! For me the zombie is the least interesting being of all. They don't even have any special powers. Easy to kill, can't fly, can be seen in mirrors, just ugly rotting flesh blobs! Their only advantage is their sheer numbers! Nuke 'em I say!
    Di :-)

  9. Suze--I loved the zombie ants! I have a anthropologist friend who researches prion disease (like kuru) and he believes many of the zombies of tribal cultures are people with similar afflictions. So, a zombie epidemic may not be too farfetched. No Plan 9? But it's Ed Wood! And Bela Lugosi! And cringingly bad dialog! Actually, that's probably reason enough to avoid it.

    Alex--"I want to hear you scream". And I'm pretty sure that method would work.

    Lydia--I cannot respond to your comment without breaking into peels of adolescent laughter or maligning other innocent vegetables. Some people call it the angel's trumpet--is that more palatable?

    Curtis--I love the zombie novel--just finished "My Life as a White Trash Zombie". Campy.

    Becky-just don't serve cucumbers, Lydia has an aversion ;)

    Jennifer--Can a devil's cucumber get a little love here?

    Laila--That's no zombie, that's marriage.

    YONKS--Don't forget the whole "I want to eat your brains" thing, too. Not very sexy.

  10. People say the "zombies are the new vampires" but it's not something I was as interested in until your blog post. Interesting stuff here!

  11. I had no clue that movie was actually based on something. It scared the livin' #@$@# outta me.

  12. Awesome. I listened to a zombie course on itunes U a few months ago too. The lore is really interesting. The Serpent and the Rainbow movie scared me half to death when I first saw it, which was way back when the world was young, or maybe in the late 80's.

    Terrific stuff.


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