When Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis traveled to Haiti in the early 80s, he did so as a sponsored scientist set on finding and studying a chemical known as tetrodotoxin for corporate means. The chemical, a potent neurotoxin, was first isolated in 1909 by a Japanese scientist named Yoshizumi Tahara and was further explored in 1964 by renowned pharmacologist Toshio Narahashi. The chemical is found in certain kinds of marine life, most notably the pufferfish, and is known for its ability to paralyze and induce a death-like state in those who come into contact with it. For Davis, a keen ethnobotanist, travelling to Haiti would serve two purposes; finding and isolating the chemical and exploring its cultural function in Haiti's Vodou/Catholic population.
Haiti's history is one of slavery and revolution, like many of the French colonies of the late 1700s. Taking influence from the French Revolution and the humanist movement, the slaves of Haiti and the Free Gens De Couleur (Mixed race activists and revolutionaries) sought to free Haiti of French imperial rule and resist Napoléon Bonaparte's forces. The revolution lasted between 1791 and 1803, and with dominant rebel forces as well as American (who fought for both sides, at times when it was most beneficial to them) assistance, the slaves were freed, Bonaparte's armies withdrew and Haiti declared its independence by 1804.
However, there is a hidden history of the Haitian revolution that only seems to be told through questionable sources and jigsaw puzzle pieces. It is said that from 1771, a resistance group of African Vodun practitioners who were brought to Haiti as slaves, sought to do battle with the French through physical and occult means and were vital to the liberation of Haiti. When the war ended, this resistance group sunk into obscurity in order to become the watchful protectors of Haiti and the Vodou religion, they called themselves the Bizango Secret Society and are apparently as active today as ever. There is very little information about this group, only hazy web references, though with Haiti's history of combining Vodou ritual with politics, it isn't entirely unbelievable.
|François Duvalier, former Haitian president and Voodou priest.|
François Duvalier was elected president of Haiti in 1957 and through military action and his cult of personality approach, he was responsible for the purge and murder of thousands of Haitians. He was responsible for the establishment of a Haitian elite, keeping himself and many others in wealth and power, as well as violently repressing and intimidating the working classes. A huge part of Duvalier's intimidation technique came from his well noted affiliation with the occult and his status as a Vodou priest. He was as set on portraying himself as a danger to those who opposed him as he was on ruling Haiti with an iron fist, and it is rumored that a during this time he used the threat of zombification against anyone who sought to overthrow him. Symbolism and status were extremely important to him, which is why the severed head of Blucher Philogenes, a revolutionary who tried to overthrow him, was kept in his closet as a token and reminder.
Duvalier was important because his story shows just how ingrained Vodou was in the politics of the country, and how it was used as a scare tactic to keep people in line. Many Vodou practitioners can tell you that they do not use their magic as a means to harm others, but Duvalier used it to exploit the imagination of an entire nation. There doesn't seem to be any reports of Duvalier using zombification during his blood-spattered reign, but as Wade Davis would reveal in his book Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988), the practice was most definitely real.
|A commonly occurring image of a young Haitian(?) man on various zombie articles.|
I won't pretend I have any context.
According to Davis, there are or at least were zombies in Haiti, however they were very few in number. Medical case studies of three alleged zombies have been undertaken, one male and two females were studied and each of them showed signs of some kind of trauma after their supposed ordeals. The eldest female was diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia, the man suffered from brain damage and the youngest girl, though it may have been present her whole life, was diagnosed with a learning disability.
Each of the victims were buried by their families after they succumbed to short and fast-working illnesses, and they were all found roaming the streets years later in a similarly confused, lethargic and shambling manner.
Wade suggests that the chemical tetrodotoxin, as well as a whole plethora of other drugs and poisons, were used in order to induce the zombie-like state in these people. In Passage of Darkness, Wade explains how zombification works as well as touching on the secret society of Bizango Vodou priests who are behind it. He claims that the Bizango do not use zombification whimsically as popular culture has portayed it, rather it is a calculated process used against people who have broken the rules of the society and religion. The preparation of the "zombie powder" alone is a meticulous and laborious process and there are many risks involved, so the powder is reserved for very special cases.
The general outline for zombification is quite vague, though it provides a framework for how the Bizango may have gone about it;
1. The powder is created using tetrodotoxin as well as other assorted poisons and drugs.
2. The powder is then introduced to the body of the victim, reportedly through osmosis.
3. The victim begins to succumb to the illness very quickly, showing signs of a heavy fever.
4. The victim enters into a death-like state, a combination of paralysis as well as an extremely lowered heart rate.
5. The victim, believed to be dead, is buried by their family.
6. Days, perhaps only hours later, the Vodou priest exhumes the victim, who may still be showing signs of the tetrodotoxin's neurological damage, and is taken to the priest's home.
7. The victim is drugged heavily in order to keep them in a haze, their cognitive ability is lowered significantly but they are entirely subordinate to the priest in their drugged state.
It is hard to tell whether or not Wade's claims are 100% factual, and there is a risk of negatively impacting the Vodou community with such claims, though it cannot be doubted that his findings are important on both cultural and scientific levels. In the wake of Ryan Duffy's exploration into the world of Columbia's "Death Breath", a poison with similar effects to that of the zombie powder, is it really hard to believe that such powerful poisons exist? And is it really hard to believe that there are people out there who would exploit them?