A lot of books, movies, and even video games employ the motif of the living dead. All of this is, of course, fiction, but have you ever wondered whether there is something to it? In the Haitian Voodoo religion, zombies are believed to be corpses that have been reanimated through witchcraft by a sorcerer called a “Bokor.” These zombies are nothing like the ones shown in movies like “Night of the Living Dead”, but still their existence has always been the mainstay of myth and legend.
In 1982 the peculiar case of Clairvius Narcisse was brought to the attention of Drs. Nathan Kline and Lamarque Douyon. Narcisse had died and been certified as dead by an American doctor working in Haiti. The thing is that 18 years after his death he showed up in his village very much alive. He claimed that he had been paralyzed, declared dead, and buried alive. Then a Bokor disinterred him and made him work on his plantation. Drs. Kline and Douyon studied his case carefully and concluded that the man was indeed who he claimed to be.
At the request of Dr. Kline, Wade Davis, a Harvard graduate student in ethnobotany, travelled to Haiti to try to study what components go into the potions used by Bokors to make zombies. As a result of his studies he claimed that zombies were a reality and even put forward a scientific explanation of their existence! Wade found that one of the common ingredients in the zombie poison is the puffer fish. The internal organs of this fish contain a poison called tetrodotoxin (TTX). Although TTX can kill, in small amounts it can paralyze a person while they remain conscious. In Japan where a similar fish (the fugu) is a gourmet delicacy, there are stories of people that ate the fish prepared improperly, became paralyzed, and were almost buried alive after being declared dead.
So the zombification would work like this. The Bokor rubs his potion on a person’s skin or preferably into a superficial wound. If the right amount of TTX gets into the body, the person is paralyzed, declared dead, and buried. The Bokor must then unbury the person before he/she dies from lack of oxygen. The disinterred person is then beaten and fed mind altering drugs (notably the zombie’s cucumber: Datura) to keep them docile. The whole process is reinforced if the person believes that he/she is actually being turned into a zombie. Davis published his findings and theories in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 1983 and in the book “The Serpent and the Rainbow” in 1985.
Unfortunately, scientists analyzing the zombification powders Davis brought back from Haiti did not find any TTX in them and could not elicit any symptoms of poisoning when they rubbed said powders into the skin of rats. This was followed by a series of attacks and claims and counter claims between Davis and his critics that left his particular theory hopelessly mired in disrepute, and no further attempts have been made to readdress it.
But Davis at least raised the possibility that what is called a zombie in these cultures is not, of course, a reanimated corpse, but rather a product of the synergism between mind and chemistry. Other scientists have taken this line of inquiry and studied zombie-like behavior induced by drugs or other agents and documented several cases. This alternative is no doubt less satisfying for all the fans of the nightmarish beings that hunger for the flesh of the living in popular culture. But if you want horror and ghoulish things look no further than the world of nature. What would you think about zombie cockroaches?
The Jewel Wasp hunts cockroaches and makes them docile (zombifies them) by injecting venom into their brains. It then leads the cockroach into a place where it will lay an egg on it. The wasp then seals the cockroach in. After a while a larva hatches from the egg and proceeds to eat the drugged insect alive!
You can watch the wasp’s grisly work in the video below. It is not anything that George Romero has dreamed up (yet), but it’s real!
The photograph of a zombie by Daniel Hollister is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.