Into the Zombie Underworld
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy

I moved to Haiti in the spring of 2007, when my wife found a job with the United Nations' peacekeeping mission there, established after the fall of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. She was assigned to Jérémie, a small town on Haiti's southwest coast. Jérémie is just 125 miles or so from Port-au-Prince, but only a dirt road links the two cities, and the trip can take 14 or 15 hours, if the road is passable at all: When the summer rains set in or the fall hurricanes blow through, the road is just mud. The weekly boat to Port-au-Prince is slow and dangerous. Otherwise, the only connection to the capital is by propeller plane.

About a month after I arrived in Jérémie, a rumor swept through town that a deadly zombie was on the loose. This zombie, it was said, could kill by touch alone. The story had enough authority that schools closed. The head of the local secret society responsible for the management of the zombie population was asked to investigate. Later that week, Monsieur Roswald Val, having conducted a presumably thorough inquiry, made an announcement on Radio Lambi: There was nothing to fear; all his zombies were accounted for.

Shortly after that incident, I started taking Creole lessons from a motorcycle-taxi driver named Lucner Delzor. Delzor was married with four children, but he kept a mistress on the other side of town. He told me that he had never so much as drunk a glass of water at his mistress's house for fear she might lace his food with love powder. He loved his wife and children far too much to risk that.

One of my first complete sentences in Creole was "Gen vréman vre zonbi an Ayiti?" Or: "Are there really, truly zombies in Haiti?"

"Bien sûr," Delzor said. He had even seen them: affectless men and women with a deathlike pallor, high nasal voices, and the characteristic drooping at the chin – men and women who he knew for a fact had died and been buried.

"Ayiti, se repiblik zonbi," Delzor added. Haiti is the republic of zombies.

I was eager to meet a zombie for myself, and began making appropriate inquiries. Several weeks later, my wife came home from a judicial conference. Making small talk, a local judicial official mentioned the strange case of zombification that his courtroom had seen not several months before. The case was, he said, "un peu spectaculaire."

I met Judge Isaac Etienne a week or so later at his unfinished concrete house in the village of Roseaux. Roseaux is on the sea, and the fishermen, their nets already in, were stretched out on the small grassy town square, drinking rum and playing dominoes under a dazzling midmorning sun. The judge was a boyish-looking man of 42, slender, wearing baggy surfer shorts, flip-flops, and a brightly colored Hawaiian shirt.

The dossier was, at bottom, a murder story, the judge said – but it was a murder story with the great oddity that the victim did not die.