Readings — From the April 1984 issue

The Pharmacology of Zombies

Excerpted from an article by E. Wade Davis in the November 1983 issue of the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. A fuller account of Davis’s search for the Haitian zombie poison was documented in The Serpent and the Rainbow, published by Simon & Schuster. His Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest was released by Knopf in 2011.

The anthropological and popular literature on Haiti is replete with references to zombies. According to these accounts, zombies are the living dead: innocent victims raised from their graves in a comatose trance by malevolent voodoo priests (bocors) and forced to toil indefinitely as slaves. Most authors have rather uncritically assumed the phenomenon to be folklore. Nevertheless, virtually all writers acknowledge that the majority of the Haitian population believes in the physical reality of zombies.

As long ago as 1938, Zora Hurston, a student of Franz Boas at Columbia University, suggested that there could be a material basis for the zombie phenomenon. Having visited what she believed to be a zombie in a hospital near Gonaive, in north-central Haiti, she concluded that “it is not a case of awakening the dead, but a matter of the semblance of death induced by some drug known to a few: some secret probably brought from Africa and handed down from generation to generation. The bocors know the effect of the drug and the antidote. It is evident that it destroys that part of the brain which governs speech and willpower. The victim can move and act but cannot formulate thought.”

Scientific interest in the zombie poison was rekindled recently by reported cases of zombies under the care of Haitian psychiatrist Lamarque Douyon. In one case it was suggested that the patient had been made a zombie by a bocor who had used a poison. Physicians close to the case recognized that the correct dosage of the proper drug could lower the metabolic rate of an individual to the point where he would appear to be dead. Cognizant of the profound medical potential of such a drug, they asked me in 1982 to investigate the composition of zombie poison in Haiti.

During the course of three expeditions, the complete preparation of five poisons used to make zombies was documented at four widely separated villages in Haiti. Although a number of lizards, tarantulas, nonvenomous snakes, and millipedes are added to the various preparations, there are five constant animal ingredients: burned and ground-up human remains, a small tree frog, a polychaete worm, a large New World toad, and one or more species of puffer fish. The most potent ingredients are the puffer fish, which contain deadly nerve toxins known as tetrodotoxin.

The effects of tetrodotoxin poisoning have been well documented. The most famous source of puffer poisoning is the Japanese fugu fish. The Japanese accept the risks of eating these fish because they enjoy the exhilarating physiological aftereffects, which include sensations of warmth, flushing of the skin, mild paresthesias of the tongue and lips, and euphoria.

Case histories from the Japanese literature about fugu poisoning read like accounts of zombification. A man who had died after eating fugu regained consciousness seven days later in a morgue. He claimed that he recalled the entire incident and said he feared he would be buried alive. Another case involved a man who walked away from a cart that was carrying him to a crematorium. Last summer, a Japanese man poisoned by fugu revived after he was nailed into a coffin.

One of the zombie patients who described his experiences to me said that he remained conscious at all times; although he was completely immobilized, he heard his sister weeping as he was pronounced dead. Both during and after his burial, his overall sensation was one of floating above the grave. He remembered that his earliest sign of discomfort before entering the hospital was difficulty in breathing. It was reported that his lips had turned blue. He did not know how long he had remained buried before the zombie makers released him. From his testimony and the medical dossier compiled at the time of his apparent death, it is evident that he exhibited twenty-one, or virtually all, of the prominent symptoms associated with tetrodotoxin poisoning.

The poisons I collected during my first two expeditions are currently being analyzed. Preliminary experiments with rats and rhesus monkeys have been most promising. Twenty minutes after a topical application of the poison to a monkey’s abdomen, the animal’s typical aggressive behavior diminished and it assumed a catatonic posture. It remained in a single position for nine hours. Recovery was complete.

These preliminary laboratory results, together with the biomedical literature and data gathered in the field, indicate that there is an ethnopharmacological basis for the zombie phenomenon. The toxins contained in the puffer fish are capable of pharmacologically inducing physical states similar to those characterized in Haiti as zombification. That the symptoms described by the zombie patient match so closely the symptoms of tetrodotoxin poisoning documented in the Japanese literature suggests that he was exposed to the poison.

From ethnopharmacological investigations, we know that the poison lowers the metabolic rate of the victim almost to the point of death. Pronounced dead by attending physicians who check only for superficial vital signs, and considered dead by family members and by the zombie maker, the victim is buried alive. Undoubtedly, in many cases the victim does die, either from the poison or from suffocating in the coffin. The widespread belief in the existence of zombies in Haiti, however, is based on those instances where the victim receives the correct dosage of the poison, wakes up in the coffin, and is dragged out of the grave by the zombie maker.

The victim, affected by the drug and traumatized by the situation, is immediately beaten by the zombie maker’s assistants. He is then bound and led before a cross to be baptized with a new zombie name. After the baptism, he is made to eat a paste containing a strong dose of a potent psychoactive drug (Datura Stramonium), known in Haiti as “zombie cucumbers,” which brings on a state of psychosis. During that intoxication, the zombie is carried off.

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