Welcome back to the Love Your Story podcast. Today is Halloween and so it’s appropriate I bring to you a story steeped in the bizarre and spooky. Today we speak of zombies. Not in theory, but it reality. Join me for a trip to Haiti and a dive into voodoo, magic, and the bizarre reality of real life (the word is used lightly) zombies.
In February of 1974, Wade Davis, the future Harvard Scientist who would journey into the secret societies of Haitian Voodoo, zombies and magic, had his first meeting with the man who would send him on this quest to discover the plants used in creating the drugs that turned people into Zombies.
Today’s podcast includes part of Wade’s story from his book The Serpent and the Rainbow and his astonishing journey into the secret societies of Haitian voodoo, as well as an interview with Lynne McNeill, Associate Folklore professor at Utah State University, who went to Haiti with a film crew to delve into the Zombie stories, and the experiences she had there is past year. Happy Halloween, you won’t want to miss this bizarre look into the realm of zombies, possession, and first-hand experiences and discussions Lynne had with priest and priestess of the Voodoo religion.
Let’s jump right into Wade Davis’s story that starts in 1974….At this point in his life, he was just a student, anxious and restless to explore. The Amazon was his first choice and so he approached the venerable professor Richard Evans Schultes in the Department of Anthropology for his advice. As he slipped onto the 4th floor of Harvard’s Botanical Museum and the office of Professor Schultes, he was met with herbarium cases and photos of professor Schultes in exotic locales. The advice Schultes gave was sparse, so without plans and just enough money to support himself for a year, Davis headed to Colombia. Schultes turned out to be a catalyst of adventure, but Davis was on his own to find his way. This student of anthropology embarked onto what would be only his first adventure in exotic places where his life was often at risk due to jungles and rainforests, foreign and wild cultures, lack of supplies and uncharted territory as he sought to collect plants. He had advised himself before embarking on this journey to “risk discomfort and solitude for understanding.” This first expedition became but an episode in an ethnobotanical apprenticeship that took him throughout much of western South American. He earned his degree in anthropology in 1977. Following a two-year hiatus from the tropics, Davis returned to Harvard as one of Professor Schultes’s graduate students. Ethnobotany meant searching for plants with medicinal properties, and collecting the plants was only part of the exploration. Learning from the Indians and natives of the areas they explored were key to understanding how the plants were used. Schultes had spent 13 years in the Amazon because he believed that the Indian knowledge of medicinal plants could offer vital new drugs for the entire world. He identified over 1800 plants of medical potential in the northwest Amazon alone and he knew that thousands more remained. These were the plants he sent his students out to find.
Late on a Monday afternoon early in 1982 Schultes’s secretary called Davis and asked him to come into the office. “I’ve got something for you,” Schultes said. “It could be intriguing.” He handed him the New York address of Dr. Nathan Kline, psychiatrist, and pioneer in the field of psychopharmacology – the study of the actions of drugs on the mind. Kline was not a small player in the field of mental disorders and chemical imbalances rectified by drugs. His research lowered the number of patients at American psychiatric institutions from over half a million in the 50’s to 120,000 in the 80’s. He was no small player and this was not a trip to be taken lightly.
It turned out that Davis was being sent to the Caribbean. Haiti. The “Frontier of Death” was the next mystery to be unraveled. As he met with Kline and Professor Lehman it was presented this way, “ We hear you are attracted to unusual places. If what we are about to tell you is true, as we believe it is, it means that there are men and women dwelling in the continuous present, where the past is dead and the future consists of fear and impossible desires.” He spoke of zombies.
“The first problem,” said Lehman, “is to know when the dead are truly dead.” After this topic was discussed at length Lehman concluded that there were only two means of ascertaining death and the first was not infallible – it involved a brain scan and cardiogram. The second was putrefaction, which required time. Kline pulled out a death certificate for Clairvius Narcisse, dated 1962. “Our problem,” Kline explained, “is that this Narcisse is now very much alive and resettled in his village in Artibonite Valley in central Haiti. He and his family claim he was the victim of a voodoo cult and that immediately following his burial he was taken from the grave as a zombie.”
“Yes,” he said, “the living dead.” Voodooists believe that their sorcerers have the power to raise innocent individuals from their graves to sell them as slaves. Some families will kill the dead a second time to prevent this fate from happening to family members. The Narcisse case was not the first to come to light, but one that was most public.
The two explained that since 1961 they had been systematically investigating all accounts of zombification. The latest was a woman, Natagette Joseph, aged about sixty, who was supposedly killed in 1966. In 1980 she was recognized by a police officer as she wandered around her home village.
But, back to Clairvius Narcisse – In the spring of 1962, a Haitian peasant aged about 40 approached an emergency entrance of the hospital where he was admitted under the name Clairvius Narcisse complaining of fever, body aches, and general malaise. He had also begun to spit blood. He was pronounced dead a few hours later by two attendant physicians, one of them American. The body was identified and placed in cold storage for 20 hours and then taken for burial. In 1980, 18 years after, he returned, claimed he had been made a zombie by his brother because of a land dispute when he refused to sell off his inheritance. Immediately following his resurrection from the grave he was beaten, bound and led away by a team of men to the north country where he worked as a slave with other zombies. Eventually, the zombie master was killed and whatever force kept them bound to him, dispersed. It was then that Narcisse returned to his village.
After a clinical discussion by Kline and Lehman about the reduced metabolic rate, dying brain cells, and the likelihood of a hoax, Kline noted that the precise definition of a zombie was a body without character and without will. They explained to Davis that they felt it was a drug that allowed the dead to be resurrected. A zombie poison. They wanted to know what drug it was that could lower the metabolic rate of a victim to such a level that they would be considered dead but in fact be alive. Think of the difference this could make in surgeries!
“What we want from you is the formula of the poison,” Lehman said to Davis. They gave him a few contact names, a small fund that had been put aside, and sent him to find the voodoo sorcerers responsible and to obtain samples of the poison and antidote, with as much observation as possible.
Mind awhirl with questions, foreboding, and ideas, the phrase “The frontier of death” was the phrase that haunted Davis most of all. What lay ahead?
The mystery of Haiti existed in the very air as he arrived. The thump of the city, the flow of the people, there was something electric in the air – a raw elemental energy. Port-au-Prince lies prostrate across a low, hot tropical plain at the head of a bay flanked on both sides by soaring mountains. Haiti’s multitude – 6 million people – sat on only 10 thousand square miles and they harbored a history of slavery, revolt, and farming.
Davis met his contact and before long found himself experienced the rites of Rada– Voodoun possession. The spirits arrived and mounted the bodies they would possess and the drums and the dancing and fire eating left him in ah. His contact introduced him to the man he would offer to buy the poison from, and after a charade of grocery lists of ingredients, collecting and creating he walked away with a fraudulent product. As he searched for the plants himself, those he suspected to be ingredients, he found that they were difficult to find. At one point Davis meets up with Lamarque Douyon, Haiti’s leading psychiatrist and the director of its only psychiatric institute. Douyon’s scientific interest in the zombie phenomenon dates to a series of experiments he conducted in the late 1950’s while completing his psychiatric residency at McGill University. What he observed during the experiments reminded him of the stories he’d heard when he was younger about accounts of zombies. He recalled as well the prevalent belief among Haitians that zombies were created by a poison that brought on a semblance of death from which the victim would eventually recover. By the time he returned to take his position in Haiti he was convinced the poison existed.
In the meeting with Douyon he was passed a document, Article 249 of the Haitian penal code, that referred specifically to zombie poison and prohibiting the use of any substance that could induce a lethargic coma indistinguishable from death. The Haitian government recognized the existence of the poison.
Douyon also introduced him to Clairvius Narcisse, the man who had recovered from his zombification. When he shared his account he showed a scar he bore on his right cheek, just to the edge of his mouth where a nail was driven through his coffin. He recalled remaining conscious throughout this ordeal and though completely immobilized he heard is sister crying, he remembered the doctor pronouncing him dead, the arrival of the Bokor and his assistants, drums pounding, the bokor singing. They beat him with a whip, tied him with a rope and wrapped his body in black cloth. Bound and gagged he was led away on foot by two men. He was passed from party to party along the road traveling by night and hiding by day until they reached a sugar plantation in which he would be put to work.
In his book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Wade Davis shares his discoveries and adventures in this Haitian realm of Voodoo, and today I’m adding in a modern voice. My interview with Lynne McNeill, assistant professor of folklore at Utah State University and her first-hand experiences in Haiti with a film crew in search of rites, rituals, zombies, possession, and Voodoun culture just this past year. Here’s our interview.
For the interview with Lynne McNeill that picks up and shares her story in Haiti, tune in to the audio program.
By the end of the book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Wade Davis has crossed far beyond simply finding plants and poisons. Oh, yes, a poison had been found and identified, but now he found himself swept into a worldview, a cultural view that was far beyond his as a Western Scientist. Straddling the cultural understandings, his research here in Haiti suggested that there was a logical purpose for zombification consistent with the heritage of the people and culture here. Invited into inner realms for which there would be no return things looked very different than they did through his skeptical eyes upon landing in Haiti.
He said, “To be sure, I had failed to document a zombie as it was taken from the cemetery, but this was no longer something I deliberately sought out. In the last weeks, I had in fact, been offered two promising opportunities to do so, provided, of course, that the cash payment to the bokor be sufficient. I had gone as far as making the preliminary contacts before I realized that the whole concept had changed. A year or two before I would have gone ahead, emboldened by the deep skepticism I had brought with me to Haiti; now that I had completely overcome my doubts, I found myself forced by that very certainty to turn aside an opportunity that might have offered final proof to those who still share my early skepticism.” The money that the party in question demanded was considerable. Ethically he could never be sure that his payment might not have been responsible for the victim’s fate, and that was an ethical Rubicon he was not willing to cross. So he did not pay to see the zombie rise. But like Lynne, he records seeing first hand the ritual possessions. The young man moving like a reptile past the legs of naked women coated in clay. The sacrificial bull, for animal sacrifices are key in the rituals to the spirits they allow to ride their own live bodies. The machete cuts the throat of the bull and Davis finishes the book, “I turned to a man pressed close beside me and saw his arm, riddled with needles and small blades, and the blood running copiously over the scars of past years, staining some leaves bound to his elbow before dripping from his skin to mine. The man was smiling. He too was possessed, like the youth straddling the dying bull, or the dancers and the women wallowing in the mud.”
As folklorists, we observe, with as little bias as possible, the rituals and ways of folk groups and cultures. We are there to record not to pass judgment; to learn and try to understand as best we can from an emic or outside perspective. Sometimes we tell their stories, when appropriate, but most often we tell our stories of observation. Zombies have been a rampant part of popular culture in the United States; influenced by media portrayals. Chances are your impressions of a zombie are contrived from media portrayals, but here today we tell stories of a long-held religion brought from Africa on the slave ships and clung to as a form of worship that helped the slaves of Haiti retain their cultural ties despite their removal from their country of origin. If you thought zombies were just another made up monster, maybe now you have more pieces of the truth; more background behind the stories.
Happy Halloween. May you fight past all forms of zombification in your life, no matter where you are, no matter what you believe. Create your story on purpose, with your own will, conviction, and agency. May death find you alive. Truly alive.