I have a problem. I’ll admit to it. I am slightly
(and only slightly!) obsessed with zombies. Books, films, games… seriously, it’s taking
over my life. I spend so much time on Left 4 Dead I dream about it. My waking reality seems like the dream! Anyway, I reckon I have a pretty decent
chance of survival if
an apocalypse did come about but
film zombies are the product of folklore, and I decided to research some of that
folklore. Because I was bored and waiting for a friend to get ready so I could pick her up. Sorry, it’s another monster... (no pun intended)
So, originally zombies were part of Voodoo culture – where a person could be put under a ‘spell’ and have their minds controlled by a sorcerer
(or 'bokor'). That or a corpse brought to life in order to serve another person.
In Haitian ‘Vodou’, which most of us on the site will know of, and is especially interesting in my opinion (because I’m doing a medicinal course
and I’m morbid like that), a person can be put under a ‘spell’ to make them into a zombie, much like West African voodoo. This is actually
regarded so much as truth that people often cut up bodies, removing essential organs or limbs, or watch over the graves until they decay so that they
don’t get stolen. And I mean that has to be a very long time, so belief in this ‘magic’ is strong. The bokor has many ‘powers’ such as using
voodoo dolls to harm people, and paralysing them using powders on the ground that they walk – but is definitely feared most of all because of the
zombies they can create.
Apparently, the bokor steals a persons soul, waits for them to be buried, and then revives the body using the bottle containing the soul. This is then
apparently followed by rituals, drugs and beatings on the revived body to ensure the zombies compliance to their will.
There is a theory that this is achieved through two powders entering the bloodstream coined by a man named Wade Davis, and put down in a thesis named
The Passage of Darkness
.When I heard about this ‘zombie powder’, my ears pricked up. Because a chemical, or combination of chemicals being
so powerful that they can create a ‘zombie’ from a person is pretty impressive. And sick. Very sick. Also, to back up the more morbid side of
this, he claims the quantities put forward by these sorcerers/priests/witch doctors/houngans… whatever you want to call them is nowhere near exact,
and that a lot of people actually die, or have no ill affect at all, when a bokor attempts to poison them into becoming the ‘living dead’.
Now, a bit of science about these powders explains a lot, and I will try my best to use my pharmacological knowledge to explain what was put forward
by Davis in 1982.
The first ‘powder’ contains a neurotoxin called TTX (tetrodotoxin) which is usually found in the blood of pufferfish and is a very nasty poison
(usually fatal). Neurotoxins tend to affect ion channels, preventing impulses being fired, and stopping contractions. It could also potentially lower
the metabolic rate of a person to the appearance of death. And this is what Davis stated happened.
A second powder, made from plants such as datura, which contain tropane alkaloids is also used. This is anticholenergic, which means that it blocks
acetyl choline (a neurotransmitter responsible for muscle contraction in involuntary systems like the lungs, heart and gastro-intestinal system), and
so parasympathetic neurones can’t fire. Amongst the more potent organ failure that can occur, it causes delirium – a person literally can’t tell
the difference between fantasy and reality, hyperthermia, high heart rate, (both contribute to a ‘fever’) photophobia (light sensitivity) and
violent behaviour (sound familiar?). If the person ingesting the powder lives, they usually experience amnesia. It is treatable if the person is
hospitalised in time, but if not, organ failure and fatality can occur, along with harm to others around the person because of the delirium. If it is
possible for the person to be kept on a dose of the poison where they will experience symptoms but not die, a zombie could, in theory, be achieved.
Since the people of Haiti know of zombies and most believe that voodoo and zombies exist, the second powder will be used along with such things as I
said above – rituals and violence etc – to bend the will of the person and convince
them that they are in fact the living dead, and turn
them into a zombie slave. Without the belief, the powder will not work (hence Davis can cover his tracks if someone decides to repeat his research and
After the first powder/poison is administered to the subject, they will be seen as dead, and buried by their family. The bokor will then go and dig up
the body, administering the second powder, and if they are within a timeframe (the person may die in the meanwhile if the poison dose is too high, or
the reawakening too late) the subject will awaken, confused, disorientated and possibly violent – and other means, such as violence and rituals will
be performed to bend the mind of the person into believing they are a zombie, and becoming a slave to the bokor (which in turn will create fear of the
person, gaining them powder).
On the other hand, a lot of people don’t think TTX poisoning can cause the death-state, and mental illness such as schizophrenia could be the reason
for Haitian zombies – as in the bokor would pick up on people who are more easily influenced, and bend them to their will that way instead as the
culture isn’t really very medically advanced and most of the population won’t understand or be able to treat these conditions that we pick up on
Most of the book reviews were negative, and he’s been accused of exaggerating or lying about his results. As far as I’m aware, no more research
has been done on this, with Davis’ own research causing controversy because of the holes in it – but the legends in Haiti go on, especially
related to a Bizango society which exists beneath that of Haiti itself and is apparently responsible for the voodoo magic and zombies (think back to
the earthquake when threads were put up about it signifying an incoming apocalypse). But it is an interesting thought, and kinda scary when you think
about it like that – as the legends could be a possibility, even if it is an explainable one in a society familiar with poisons and modern medicine.
But at the end of the day, if your culture states and believes that zombies exist and bokors are to be feared, and someone you know of gets up out of
their grave and starts wandering round in a violent trance, what else are they to think?
Thanks for reading! Got the links and or references at hand if anyone wants them (Uni has instilled a fear in me about referencing). Apologies for any
typos that I've missed too. This keyboard is a menace.