Into the Zombie Underworld
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy

In 1982, Wade Davis, then a doctoral candidate in ethnobotany at Harvard, traveled to Haiti to explore the secrets of zombification. His work was sponsored by a pharmaceutical company, the supposition being that the zombie's apparent death was illusory, a transient, paralyzed, coma-like state produced by some sort of poison or chemical agent. Such a poison, Davis's backers supposed, might very well prove pharmacologically useful as an anesthetic.

Davis's first book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, is his account of that trip. The book bristles with machismo, in highly wrought prose: "Marcel came so close I could feel his breath, smell it like a buzzard's. The silence was unbearable, yet only I could break it." And Davis's Haitians tend to say things like: "Haiti will teach you that good and evil are one. We never confuse them, nor do we keep them apart." But for all its bluster, The Serpent and the Rainbow is an admirable book, unfailingly interesting, and at times captures in a single sentence something very much like the Haiti that I came to know: "There in the late afternoon sun was a single individual, quite sane and very happy, standing alone, dancing with his own shadow."

Such is the book's narrative power that the author's conclusions about zombies are almost swept away in the adventurous flood, and it is most likely the novelistic quality of his prose that provoked the ferocity of his critics: Ethnologists, pharmacologists, and old Haiti hands alike responded to the book and its author with a collective "Oh, come on."

Davis's second book, Passage of Darkness, is an adaptation of his doctoral thesis on zombification and serves as his response to the critics. It is a book as sober as The Serpent and the Rainbow is overwrought. It demonstrates the value of clear, academic prose, and the importance of the scholarly apparatus – the footnote, citation of sources, the extended bibliography – and has one enormous advantage over The Serpent and the Rainbow: It is convincing. It is the definitive book on zombies.

Davis's thesis – certainly one of the very most sensational in all of ethnography – goes something like this: Zombies, he tells us, are real, not some figment of the collective Haitian imagination but men and women who have died (or rather who appear to have died), been buried, then brought back to life to pass the rest of their days as imbecile slaves. As proof he cites the case of Clairvius Narcisse, a man whose death certificate was signed by an American doctor in Haiti in 1962, only for him to be found again in his natal village in 1980 with a story to tell of years passed in zombie servitude. Davis shows us a photograph of Narcisse, looking hale, standing beside his own grave.

Davis argues that Narcisse and other zombies do not really die but rather are poisoned with a compound containing tetrodotoxin (TTX), found in the crapaud de mer, a fish swimming off the Haitian coast. (Other ingredients in the zombie powder apparently include human cadavers, a variety of plants, and a toad.) The effect of such a poison is to produce a paralytic state so profound that even medical experts are convinced that the sufferer has expired.

The poison, Davis writes, is always applied "directly into the blood through abraded skin." At its onset, it is known to cause "malaise, pallor, dizziness," along with "profuse sweating, extreme weakness, headache, subnormal temperatures, decreased blood pressure, and a rapid, weak pulse." (Here Davis is quoting Bruce W. Halstead's Poisonous and Venomous Marine Animals of the World.) This is followed by dilated pupils, glassy fixed eyes, respiratory distress, muscular twitching, and "finally terminates in extensive paralysis.… The victim may become comatose but in most cases retains consciousness."

The victim, having "died," is buried, and the zombiemakers return in the night. The tomb is opened. The victim, now in the custody of his new masters, is returned to life.

But TTX alone does not make a zombie. TTX is the same poison found in the deadly Japanese fugu fish, whose sushi is a great delicacy. Every year, several gourmand fools, having eaten improperly prepared sushi, fall victim to TTX poisoning, and upon their resuscitation, if they survive, are normal.

Not so the Haitian zombie.

The Haitian zombie, Davis argues, is the product of a series of terrifying experiences, all specific to the cultural context of rural Haiti. First comes the overwhelming trauma of having been buried alive. Clairvius Narcisse reported total lucidity through the entire ordeal. Upon removal from the coffin, the would-be zombie is fed a hallucinogenic drug from the plant Datura stramonium, locally known by the suggestive name concombre zombi. At the same time, the victim is given a ferocious beating by his captors. The final touch is the total rejection of the zombie by his own community. The cumulative effect is the destruction of the zombie's will – what the Haitians call the "ti bon ange," or the good little angel, the unseen thing that gives personality and resolve to each individual soul. The victim is now a zombie, and he knows he is now a zombie: He has fallen into a well-known trap from which no man or woman escapes.

His soul collapses.

The zombie is now like a living corpse.