A walking, talking, real-life zombie from Haiti
Twenty years after his death, Clairvius Narcisse, a zombie from Haiti, stood staring down at his own tombstone.
The inscription was faded and barely legible. Narcisse was showing his grave to Harvard-trained Canadian anthropologist and ethno-botanist, Wade Davis, whose key interest is the relationship between psychoactive plants and humans.
On April 30, 1962, Narcisse, then aged about 40, had presented at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, Haiti. He was spitting blood and was running a fever. Three days later, he died. The day after that, he was buried under a heavy concrete slab.
Eighteen years later, Narcisse approached his sister, Angelina, in a market. She was none too pleased to see him. Narcisse’s brother had put a voodoo contract on him over a land dispute. He’d had him zombified.
Narcisse had been pulled from his grave, probably on the night of his burial.
According to his account, he’d been sent to work as a plantation slave with other zombies but after two years there had been a mass zombie break-out. For more than a decade he had wandered Haiti, afraid to return to his family’s village until he got news that his dangerous brother had died.
Because he had been declared dead by an American-backed hospital, he became - at least as far as western medicine was concerned - the world’s first credible zombie. Haitians, of course, did not need western investigators to tell them that zombies were real.
I reported a story for the yesterday’s papers on the zombie mania that is infesting popular culture, with shows like huge-rating The Walking Dead, which will be seen in Australia early next year, and on the concurrent theme of how zombies have become a political statement on victimhood, frustration and angst.
Beneath this I was drawn to the story of Narcisse and Davis, who went to Haiti in the early 1980s to investigate zombies. His task was to find the ingredients of the preparation used to make zombies. It suggested there was some sort of powerful drug at work that could have applications in anaesthesia.
Davis also wanted to know why it was being done, and by whom.
The Narcisse story had already been vigorously tested by the BBC before Davis’s arrival. They declared Narcisse was no fraud, and was indeed the same man who had been buried all those years before.
They reached this conclusion without digging up his grave, because it was reasoned (in these pre-DNA times) that even if there was a body in the coffin, too many years had passed for the remains to be identifiable.
Eventually it was Narcisse’s own answers to questions about his childhood that satisfied investigators. His own family was never in any doubt that Narcisse was back from the dead.
But if Narcisse had been dug up from the grave, say, 12 hours after he was buried, how had he survived with so little oxygen in the coffin? And how had he convinced doctors that he was dead?
The answer had to be that he had been given a powerful drug that masked his vital signs. And, in this ultra—low metabolic state, he barely needed to breathe.
Wade Davis would be variously praised and ridiculed for his work. The main complaint was not his PhD thesis, in which he identified the toxins that created zombies, and the culture behind it. Nor was it the hugely entertaining book that came from his research, “The Serpent and the Rainbow”.
It wasn’t even that Wade had been present at the late-night exhumation of a freshly buried child, whose parts were needed for zombie powder.
But Hollywood read the book and wanted to make a movie. Davis, 58, speaking on the phone from Canada, says he was a young man who couldn’t help himself. His eyes spun with cartoon dollars.
He was told the film would be serious, and would be made by Australian director Peter Weir, whom he regarded as the real deal. And the story - of an anthropologist investigating zombies in Haiti - would likely star Mel Gibson.
Instead, they gave the film to horror director Wes Craven. It starred Bill Pullman. It got passable reviews but some of Davis’s colleagues regarded him as some a tryhard Indiana Jones who’d belittled his craft. Davis remains embarrassed by the film to this day.
On his first night in Haiti, Davis witnessed a voodoo ceremony in which he saw women putting red hot embers in their mouths while experiencing intense dancing trances. There were no tricks. It convinced him there was, at the very least, a powerful belief system at work.
Wade eventually found the secret powder formula, which had the key ingredient tetrodotoxin, which appears naturally in puffer fish and certain toads, including bufo marinus, otherwise known as our own hated Haitian import, the cane toad. But to Davis, this was less important than Haitian zombie culture.
“In the popular culture,” he says, “the fear is of zombies coming and attacking you. But in Haiti, the fear is not of zombies, but of becoming a zombie.”
When Clairvius Narcisse turned up at his village, all those years later, Davis says his family members didn’t doubt that it was the long lost brother. “But they also told him to get lost. He had to seek shelter in the police station. Obviously, there was something going on there.”
It was the same story when he investigated the case of a woman who had been zombified. In their local communities, both these people had been regarded as greedy, argumentative or thieving before they “died”.
They had been punished by a secret society, which had judged them and found them wanting. These star chambers were not unlike the secret leopard cults of western Africa, from where Haitians trace their ancestry.
One of the myths about zombies, says Davis, is that they were created to work as slaves in the cane fields. For Haitians, who came from slavery, and later suffered under the shackles of the French, and briefly the Americans, there is nothing so terrible as losing your identity to slavery.
Damaged by drugs, losing the sense of self, wandering mindlessly, Davis says that to Haitians - who became the world’s first independent black country - it is this concept of mental slavery that makes being a zombie such a fearful proposition.
And the belief in zombies must first come from the victim himself.
“What we know about the tetrodotoxin is that causes a crisis within six hours and that you either survive or you don’t survive,” Davis says.
“My sense is that the toxin brings on the state of apparent death, and if you survive that, you survive it well. But then you’re given a dose of what they call ‘zombie’s cucumbers’, which are datura, these powerful psychoactive plants that bring on visions of hellfire, burning thirst, psychotic delirium.
“That is a drug that literally can induce schizophrenia. If he’s given datura, I can see a person being taken to the point of madness where he believes he is a zombie.”
After being given the tetrodotoxin, Clairvius Narcisse saw sheets being pulled over his eyes and vaguely felt himself going into the ground. After awaking, he said he was taken through a ceremony lasting many days, of which he had only vague recollection.
But Davis said Narcisse had no doubt he was moving between the realm of the living and the dead. “For people raised in the tradition, they don’t have any doubt.”
And why would the people of Haiti doubt it if western doctors were so certain Narcisse was dead they placed him in the morgue chamber for 20 hours?
Narcisse’s mistake was to come back to his village, where he lived and died an outcast.
“I once asked people if a zombie could ever be made whole again,” says Davis. “On one level, the answer was yes. All you needed to do was get his spirit and give it back to him through ritual means.”
But Haitians didn’t understand the question. “It’s a form of social and spiritual death, and so someone who’s been made a zombie is marked for all time. No one wants them.”
Davis sees how zombies are now being used as a statement of public defiance. Occupy Wall Street protestors wore zombie faces; and a recent 10,000-strong Mexican zombie walk had a strong political message.
A zombie, by folk definition, is someone who has been denied the cycle of life, death and rebirth and is cast into a living purgatory.
“The zombie concept is constantly being reinvented and these days it seems to be almost as if young people feel the hopelessness of the economic realities, that the concept of zombies applies to their place as being caught in a kind of limbo,” says Davis.
“In an odd sense, it’s as if this whole generation feels cast into an economic purgatory.”
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