Do you actually believe in zombies? Do you believe that any one of us could be turned in the blink of an eye? Do you accept that, if it happened, chances are you wouldn’t know anything about it? Is it sending a chill down your spine? I do hope so, for becoming a zombie is a distinct possibility.
Out of all the folkloric, mythological and fictional monsters/ creatures/ beings that have been conjured over time, the zombie is the one that could very well take over the earth, in a fictional sense. But, in reality, it is the zombie found in Haitian and African culture that is to be feared, for it is all too real.
You already know, dear reader, that zombies aren’t really my favourite creature, but, I have to say, I am starting to change my mind. There is a lot more to zombies than meets the eye and they are real, if the Haitian religion is anything to go by.
By definition, a zombie is an animated corpse which is resurrected by mystical means – usually witchcraft – with no consciousness or self-awareness, the ability to walk and enough sensory perception to respond to stimuli.
Zombies have grown in popularity since the late nineteenth century, especially in American and European folklore, and it is the un-dead beings of George A Romero’s 1968 film, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, that have formed the basis for the zombie we know and hide behind the cushion from today.
But it is the traditional zombie, as I like to refer to it, that I am most drawn to; the zombie of Haitian and African folklore and religion; the zombie that is all too real; the zombie that can be ‘made’ all too easily; the zombie that sends chills down my spine.
In Africa, zombie beliefs differ in the south and west. In the west, the Vodou (note the different spelling) religion believe that a dead person can be revived by a boker – a sorcerer – and that the zombi (note the different spelling) then remains under the control of the boker, as it has no will of its own.
The word ‘zombi’ is also another name for the Vodou snake ‘Iwa Damballah Wedo’ and is similar to the Kikongo word ‘nzambi’ which means ‘god’.
West African tradition talks of a zombi astral, which is part of the human soul captured by the boker and used to enhance his power. The boker keeps the soul inside a bottle and sells it to clients as a good luck charm, for healing or even to bring them success in business. It is believed that, after a time, God takes the soul back and so, in this sense, the zombi is only a temporary state of being.
In Vodou legend they believe that if you feed a zombi salt, it will return to the grave.
In South Africa, the beliefs about zombies are completely different. They believe that a dead person can be turned into a zombie by a small child and that the spell can only be broken by a powerful sangoma – traditional healer.
In some areas they believe that a witch can turn a person into a zombie by killing them and possessing their body to force them into slave labour.
This link to slavery resonates, if you think about it. Slaves had a way about them that predated the zombie. They often had dead expressions, were sluggish in movement and definitely had no will of their own; because they weren’t allowed to. Could it be that the zombie has grown from here?
For me, though, it is in Haiti, where the most real zombie beliefs exist and thrive.
In 1937, Zora Neale Hurston (whilst researching folklore) came across the case of a woman, Felicia Felix-Mentor, who, apparently, re-appeared in her village 30 years after she had died. It was only when she was x-rayed and a leg fracture that she was known to have had didn’t appear, were the family’s claims disputed.
Ms Hurston continued in her research and pursued claims that people were being given a powerful psychoactive drug, but she couldn’t get anyone to speak out about it. She concluded: ‘What is more, if science ever gets to the bottom of Voodoo in Haiti and Africa, it will be found that some important medical secrets, still unknown to medical science, give it its power, rather than the gestures of ceremony.’
This pharmacological view was supported by Wade Davis in his books, ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ (1985) and ‘Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie’ (1988). In 1982 Davis travelled to Haiti and he claimed that a living person could be turned into a zombie if two special powders were introduced into the bloodstream, usually via a cut. Is this where the transmission of the zombie plague via a bite originates from?
The first powder was known as coup de poudre (powder strike) and it included tetrodotoxin (TTX), which is a powerful and often fatal neurotoxin found in the flesh of the puffer fish. The second was a powder consisting of dissociative drugs such as datura. The effect of these powders was to induce a death like state, thus rendering the will of the victim completely at the hands of the boker.
The process of zombification involves a person being placed into an initial state of suspended animation, through the administration of the two powders. The person will then re-awaken – usually after being buried – into a state of psychosis.
This drug induced psychosis, together with the psychological trauma of, effectively, being buried alive, was said by Davis to reinforce culturally learned beliefs and to cause the individual to reconstruct their identity as a zombie. His view was that they ‘knew’ they were dead and had no other place to play in Haitian society. These individuals, to add to the stereotype, were known to hang out in graveyards.
As would be expected, this hypothesis was criticised, especially the belief that a witchdoctor could keep someone in such a state for many years. Also, the actual effects of TTX poisoning range from numbness and nausea to paralysis (especially muscles of the diaphragm), unconsciousness and death, but do NOT include a stiffened gait and death like trance – features common with all zombies, even today. As such, the scientific community dismissed TTX as the cause of this state.
Scottish psychiatrist, R D Lang, suggested a link between social and cultural expectations and compulsion, in the context of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. He suggested that schizophrenia may account for some of the psychological aspects of zombification……interesting thought.
One final point with regards to traditional zombie beliefs – it is said that slaves brought to Haiti in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries believed that, when they died, Baron Samedi would gather them from their graves and take them to heaven. If they had offended him somehow – by committing suicide – then they would remain a slave after death….a zombie for all intents and purposes.
So, dear reader, that is the reality of zombies. They are real; they do exist; they can be created; they are to be feared…….or are they?
For, you will note that, nowhere does it mention that these zombies crave human flesh; and nowhere does it mention that these zombies have the ability to bring an end to civilisation. No, these zombies are slaves to a master, completely under his spell; incapable of any will of their own. In effect, they are puppets.
So, how did zombies become the flesh eating, brain craving, apocalyptic phenomena that they are today? You’ll have to wait until next week.
May fear protect you when the darkness comes.
Til next time.