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Haitian Voodoo Zombies - Real Zombies

Haitian Voodoo And Real Zombies / Zonbi

Although the history of zombies is deeply rooted in West African culture, it is Haitian culture that provides us with the richest chronicle for all things zombie. In fact, in Haitian Creole culture, the word is zonbi. In Bantu, it is nzumbe. These words are used to refer to an active corpse, who has been animated through witchcraft or other mystical methods. That is the literal definition. Figuratively, the term can also be used to discuss someone who is essentially hypnotized: lacking self-awareness but able to respond to external stimuli. In the late 19th century, the zombie has become quite popular in the folklore of Europe and America.

In West African culture, a sorcerer of voodoo (Vodou in West African or Haitain culture) can revive someone who is dead. But the revived person lacks their own will and can only do the bidding of the sorcerer, called a bokor. The bokor can also capture the soul of the human and keep it inside a bottle. This increases the bokor’s own power, but can also be sold to a client to heal, bring luck or success. But the soul of the human is only on loan. Eventually God will reclaim this zombie. In this vodou legend, salt is an antidote to the zombie, who will return to the grave after consuming it.

Zora Neale Hurston investigated zombies in Haiti. And decades later, Wade Davis, who studied at Harvard also pursued the evidence. He believed that special powders could turn someone living into a zombie. He believed that TTX (tetrodotoxin), a neurotoxin in the flesh of the puffer fish, and datura, a dissociative drug, used together would bring on a death-like state. In this state, the person would be entirely suggestive and subject to the will of the bokor. A famous case of this was Clairvius Narcisse, a man who was pronounced dead in 1962, yet appeared in his home village in Haiti in 1980.

Narcisse was believed to have been given these two powders, which basically brought on a coma, making people believe he was dead. He was essentially buried alive then dug up by the bokor, who gave him another powder to put him into a zombie-state. The bokor put him to work on a plantation. Throughout his time on a sugar plantation, the bokor gave him regular doses of hallucinogen, which kept him compliant and gave him memory loss. After the owner/bokor died, the doses stopped. Thus, Narcisse walked off the plantation. Narcisse was not the only ‘zombie’ this bokor had working on his plantation.  Some of those working on the plantation did not recover due to the brain damage they incurred while being buried alive. But Narcisse recovered fully.

It was later believed Narcisse’s own brother was in fact the person who originally dosed Narcisse with the drugs that caused his coma. This was due to a dispute over land.

Davis believed that part of the zombie phenomenon was culture. That since the culture reinforces the belief in zombies, Narcisse, and others like him, construct a new identity as a zombie because on some level they know they are dead. In the Haitian community, there is no role for them to play as a dead person but a zombie. In fact, people who have been dosed and controlled by bokors were reported to hang about graveyards with a depressed affect.

While it is approximated that 85% of Haitians practive Vodou, zombies are a fringe part of the religion.

In Vodou, people who die unnaturally—through murder or unnatural causes or die too young—linger at their own graves. They cannot join their ancestor until the gods approve. During this time period of waiting, their souls are very vulnerable. As a result, they can be captured by a bokor. The bokor stores their soul in a bottle and uses that soul to manipulate the actions of their body, which is trapped between life and death. Some bokors will not use the body, just the soul.

Sometimes, this is a positive thing.  A bokor may use the soul or the zombie to heal. But unscrupulous bokor may use a zombie for mindless toil or even black magic. The bokor may even kill a man in order to create a zombie.

 Not all Haitians believe in zombies. But some do. Some people believe the zombie story is an allegory for a life of hard work with no reward, a loss of faith, or a loss of control. However, in Haitian culture, zombies aren’t to be feared. Haitians fear becoming a zombie themselves.

Thus, the threat of the bokor to make zombies helps maintain social order. The bokor will not routinely try to catch a soul. Although the zombie is a potent image, the stories are often told with laughter.

The whole concept of the zonbi came from the history of slavery and oppression. The zonbi is a metaphor for a life of slavery and oppression. “There is always the possibility that the zonbi will wake up, shake off the oppressor and start a revolution” (McAlister 314).

Often, scholars studying zombies are met with criticism like Wade Davis. However, Robert Farris Thompson explained that the work of Davis allowed Thompson to understand the phenomenon of the zombie as a social sanction.

Indeed, the social control is alive and well, as evidenced by Mischa Berlinski, who saw the effects of a zombie outbreak in Haiti in 2007. A zombie rumored to be roaming about caused the schools to close. In fact, relatives are often so afraid that their loved one will be taken as a zombie that bodies will be dismembered before they are buried. Other families will post guards at the grave until the decomposition makes retrieval useless.

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