Into the Zombie Underworld
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy

For obvious reasons, the ethnographic literature on the secret societies of Haiti is thin. The best source is a single chapter in Michel Laguerre's 1989 book Voodoo and Politics in Haiti. The societies, Laguerre argues, are a legacy of colonial Haiti – modern-day descendants of bands of escaped slaves. Nowadays, these secret societies have evolved into something of a cross, in Laguerre's telling, between Cosa Nostra and the Rotary Club: They are violent when necessary but devoted au fond to the cause of justice.

Laguerre offers a portrait of daily life in the society known as the Bizango. There is, he says, a complicated process of recruitment, an initiation ceremony, a period of hazing consisting of nasty jobs like cleaning other members' outhouses, then another ceremony to welcome the full-fledged members involving, Laguerre says, drinking pig's blood. The societies meet regularly at night and march around wearing spooky-looking clothes and singing spooky-sounding songs. ("Be careful about what you might say / When we organize a Bizango rally / We don't wish for people to start talking about our / Songs and dances, the morning after" – but it's way creepier-sounding in Creole.)

For all of the ritual, Laguerre emphasizes, these societies are not well organized. Rivalries between different bands are intense and often result in fights. Prominent sorcerers and magicians will often be members of several societies simultaneously, and an up-and-coming sorcerer might found his own band in a bid to attract power. The secret societies are as chaotic and ill-organized as all Haitian institutions.

In the course of his research on zombies, Wade Davis himself was initiated into the Bizango in a lurid midnight ceremony. He has drawn on Laguerre's work and his own observations to draw two important – and somewhat terrifying – conclusions.

Davis argues that these secret societies have been intensely involved in the governance of Haiti. During the reign of the Duvaliers, when Davis conducted his research, the president of a local secret society was very often the Chef de Section of the same community, in addition to serving as the priest of a large and powerful voodoo temple. The president of Haiti no longer appoints the Chefs de Section, but important elected officials are still, today, often well-placed members of secret societies. These societies control large swaths of rural Haiti.

Second, Davis argues that these societies enforce their power through zombification. Generally, those who are zombified are only zombified after a quasi-judicial proceeding, the zombie having been accused of committing some crime against the community. Clairvius Narcisse, for example, was zombified on account of his failure to support his illegitimate children. Zombification is not the only punishment the secret societies can inflict, but in rural Haiti it is the ultimate sanction, more dramatic even than death. The fear of zombification, Davis argues, is absolutely central to the social system of rural Haiti. 

One example will suffice.

I asked Judge Etienne why he released Madame Precieuse from prison. He hemmed and hawed a moment, then admitted: "The state in Haiti ignores the persecution of these secret societies. We need to defend ourselves. I was afraid."