The principal fault of zombies is that they don’t scare me. Alright? They are not compelling monsters, being slow, dumb, and posing no larger threat than does the garden variety cannibal, who has the added advantage of being faster, smarter, and less predictable. If I meet a popular culture zombie, I pretty much know it’s going to try to eat me. I don’t know if my middle-aged neighbor with the jovial smile secretly feasts on the belly fat of little boys at night. Horror scares generally fall into two categories: either they are existentially pants-wetting-inducing in their inherent scariness, or they make up for their less frightening exterior by being pervasive, insidious and unpredictable. Small horrors that might happen to you are scarier than large horrors that happen far, far away. Zombies fail in both categories.
Also, they’re lazy, generic, stupid and lack originality. Those are important flaws, too. I’m afraid I don’t agree that there is any depth to be found in man’s fear of assault on his physical body. That is the absolute oldest trick in the book. Evolution invented it literally half a billion years ago. But worse than being unscary, lazy, generic, stupid and lacking in originality, the pop cultural zombie betrays the infinite depth in its source material. The Haitian zombi is existentially terrifying in all the ways that the Walking Dead are not.
You may recall Wade Davis, the ethnobotanist who investigated the Haitian zombi in the 1980s. He wrote a popular book about it. In their original conception, zombies were not both victims and victimizers: they were purely victims. Davis’s hypothesis about real life zombis was this: sorcerers from actual secret societies poison hapless victims, making them appear as if they’re dead. The victims are buried alive, then dug up a few days later by the sorcerer, who uses another kind of poison to keep the zombi in a perpetual stupor, easily suggestible and exploitable for slave labor. Already we have a scenario which is prima facie terrifying.
The poison which Davis theorized was used to create the impression of death is called tetrodotoxin (TTX). Small amounts of this substance were found in several putative zombification powders which Davis collected from local bokor (sorcerers). TTX is one of the most poisonous substances known to man. It works by blocking the sodium channels in cell membranes. The “firing” of a neuron consists of an electrical impulse travelling down the cell, and this impulse is nothing more than a difference in electrical charge created by pushing sodium and potassium ions in and out through the cell wall. By blocking the channels through which sodium travels, neurons cannot fire and muscles can’t contract: you can’t breathe, and you die. But in sublethal doses, you don’t quite die, you simply descend into a state that, to outside observers, appears to be death. But the scariest thing about nonlethal TTX poisoning is this: TTX doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier. You can be fully conscious while appearing, to everyone else, to be dead. You can be fully conscious when they bury you.
TTX poisoning is known because TTX is found in the pufferfish, known as fugu in Japan, where it is considered a delicacy. Cooks need several years of training and government certification in order to serve fugu in restaurants. And yet, people still insist on preparing and eating the liver, the most poisonous part of the fish, for themselves. That’s how you get poisoned and die. And that’s how you get reports of people spontaneously reviving in the morgue.
Even before we’ve gotten to the zombis, we have hit upon a thread that’s already scarier than run-of-the-mill living dead. What’s with this human tendency to court death? Why does food taste better on the edge of oblivion? It reminds me of how, as a kid, we would apply the good old hyperventilate-until-you-faint tactic to obtain a cheap high. I have heard in some places the gaze of the abyss is sold by the bottle.
It is perhaps the same impulse that drives people to willingly take that other poison, Davis’s candidate for the actual zombification drug. It is Datura, and it is quite possibly the most terrifying drug in existence. This is a drug so bad that no one dares to use it often enough to get addicted. Seriously, the common thread through all the reports I’ve found, from drug enthusiast forums to the medical literature, is that it’s absolutely horrible. This is not the kind of drug that actually feels awesome but the government tells you it’s dangerous; it is the kind that is almost guaranteed to leave you in a living nightmare, and it can last for days. If you don’t overdose and die, which is easy enough, a potent mixture of alkaloids will instill in you a delirious state in which you become completely unable to distinguish between reality and dream. Datura is possibly the most reliable way we have of inducing psychosis in healthy individuals.
One sixteen-year-old user reported being attacked by “hostile cherries”; another “
anxiously informed [policemen] about motorbikes running through the garden without drivers.” Sounds funny, except the victims were both found in extreme states of confusion, paranoia and fear. It’s hard to imagine the terror of a hostile cherry attack unless you’ve experienced it, I guess. Oh, and unlike most other drugs, the users generally have no inkling, even subconsciously, that they have taken a drug after the effects start.
As seen in the motorbike example, datura delusions are likely to be shaped by culture. This is not your grandfather’s LSD; you won’t find any universal geometric patterns in this high.
Now, says Davis, consider Haiti. In Haiti, zombis are real. Everyone knows it. Everyone believes it. Furthermore, sorcerers and secret societies are real. (And their existence can be verified, although of course their use of magic cannot.) Accusations of sorcery and zombification are commonplace; it appears everyone who goes to Haiti looking can find someone engaged in the practice. It sounds superstitious, perhaps; perhaps too superstitious to be true. But we live in a crazy world. People have been murdered by mobs for penis thievery or homosexuality; anything is possible.
Now picture you grew up in this culture. You know all about zombis, you may even have an uncle who hired a sorcerer to zombify his cheating ex-wife. Then, one day, you begin to experience shortness of breath. You can’t breathe. You fall to the ground. Your family surrounds you. You cannot move. You’re still awake. You hear your family pronounce you dead. You are aware during your own burial. You have died. You know it. Then things go dark. When you wake up, you are in hell. Grotesque distortions grab at you. Someone shoves you along, and you start to move. You know that you are dead. You felt yourself stop breathing, you heard your family say you were dead and bury you in the family tomb. And you know you have come back, as a zombi. You are not bitten by some half-rotten corpse and biologically transformed into a brain-hungry apparition: you choose to submit to your captors, because there is nothing left to do. After all, you are dead. There is no place for you in society except as a zombi. The crushing weight of societal conditioning and the rupture of the tenuous bond between perception and reality have created a zombie. Not some crazy disease, not magic, but dark voodoo conditioning and dark voodoo drugs.
That’s what it might be like to be dosed with TTX, buried, then dug-up and revived with Datura. Clairvius Narcisse, Davis’s live specimen of a zombi, claimed to remember the words spoken at his own burial. (Sidebar: Wikipedia has an actual template for biographies with a field called “known for” which is filled in an article about an actual person with the actual words, I shit you not, “being a zombie”. And there is an actual person who may or may not have been an actual zombie with the name Clairvius fucking Narcisse.)
Not everyone agrees with Wade Davis. His methods and his results have been widely criticized. There are plenty of points to critique. Take your pick: the TTX content in the zombi powder was too low; wherever could all these zombie slaves be hiding, on such a densely populated island, anyway; why are zombis only found after release, never in captivity; why do all the sorcerers who claim to practice zombification insist they’ve sold their zombis; TTX poisoning is not consistent with all cases of zombification; zombis may be a case of mistaken identity rather than return from the dead; how would they survive days before being dup up, anyway? But just imagine. Just think. Isn’t the Haitian zombi scary? Not because it might hurt you, but because you might become one; not because you might become one, but because of what it says about societies and about all of us, and about how fragile our grasp on reality is.
As it happens, there is a 1997 paper with the delightful title Clinical findings in three cases of zombification, published in the medical journal The Lancet. (On making this discovery, I promptly sent them my manuscripts called Toxicological Investigation of a Specimen of Sasquatch and Bispectral analysis of the electroencephalogram of a Poltergeist. Might have been a little overeager there.) The paper explains a lot. For instance, we are informed that Haitians don’t bury their dead, they inter them in above-ground concrete tombs, in rural areas found right next to houses. The dead are usually pronounced to be so without a doctor present to confirm, and buried the same day. Graves are frequently broken into. And it is a widespread belief that no sudden death of a young person is natural; sorcery is a common suspected culprit. Oh, and zombis are so real that there is a special law which says that zombification, or attempted zombification, is equivalent to murder or attempted murder.
In one case report, a son fell suddenly ill, died, and was quickly buried. Eighteen months later, he reappeared and accused his uncle of zombifying him. The uncle was imprisoned for life and confessed to the crime, jealous that his brother had used his literacy to register all the family land in his own name. He later escaped from prison during the political turmoil of 1991, and was traced and interviewed by the researchers, to whom he stated that the confession had been coerced, and that the whole zombi story was a plot by his brother to expropriate his land.
(There’s a whole subplot here about politicians abusing belief in zombification to cover up thousands of abductions, murders, and imprisonments without trial.)
In another case, a young woman fell ill and died. Thirteen years later, she reappeared and was taken in by her family, who recognized her as a zombi. The woman claimed she had been imprisoned by a sorcerer, and had born a child of a fellow zombi. She accompanied the researchers to the place she claimed to have been held captured, where her putative daughter was located, and the locals recognized her as a local, mentally disabled woman who had been lured away by a band of traveling musicians nine months earlier. The two families both claimed the woman belonged to them, accusing each other of zombification.
In the third case, a thirty-year-old woman returned after being dead for three years. She was recognized by a large number of people, including her daughter. She appeared catatonic and unable to fend for herself; when taken on an outing, the crowd immediately recognized her as a zombi. The woman was diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia.
DNA analysis confirmed that the two first cases did not belong to any of the families that claimed them. They were simply mentally ill people who had been wandering around and had been mistakenly identified as previously deceased people returned to life. In the third case, the woman appeared to be who her family thought she was; upon opening her tomb, it was found to be full of stones, and her injuries were consistent with a period of lacking oxygen, such as one might get from… being buried alive.
So the researchers could rule out zombification in two out of three cases, while one still remains up in the air. But what about the other two? Mistaken identification is one thing, but surely, even in their mental illness, the putative zombis knew they were not members of the family that claimed them? What is it that would make adults willingly give up agency? The authors note of one of the false zombis that “
her self-care was normal but her family reported that she enjoyed being cared for and cuddled.” Perhaps that’s it: the zombis, despite their stigma, are taken in and cared for as part of a family. In a poor country without the greatest mental health care system in the world, this might be the best they can get. Here is another element of subtlety in the Haitian zombi which the Hollywood version has forgotten: in Haiti, zombis aren’t feared. In a typical Hollywood zombie outbreak, people might try to care for their dead loved ones, but quickly learn better when said loved ones try to eat them. But in Haiti, they are regarded not with fear but with sadness:
They are regarded with commiseration; fear is reserved for the possibility of being zombified oneself. Concern that a deceased relative may be vulnerable to zombification justifies prevention through decapitation of the corpse before burial, or poisons and charms placed in the coffin.
But is this willingness to give up autonomy and agency in exchange for necessary care not analogous to what many psychiatric patients do in the West? I find myself thinking the impossible: maybe a Haitian zombi is actually freer than a patient in a closed psychiatric ward.
Picture someone chained to a bed, constantly in a semi-conscious stupor because of psychiatric drugs, cared for by nurses; now picture a semi-conscious simpleton walking freely within a family household, cared for by a family they are part of. Whom would you rather be?
Which one is the truer zombie?Oct 30, 2012