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Hamilton Morris is Vice magazine’s pharmacopeia correspondent and is at work on a book about mushrooms. This is an excerpt from “I Walked with a Zombie: Travels Among the Undead,” which was published in the November 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Subscribers can read the entire piece here; non-subscribers are invited to sign up here.
My only suitcase is removed from my hand by the intact arm of a one-armed porter. It’s ninety-three degrees and I’m regretting not having brought some kind of a handkerchief to mop my brow or at least having worn something other than jeans and a black long-sleeved shirt made of wool. On a trip like this it feels as if one should pack everything or nothing and so I erred on the side of nothing and brought only a few pens and notebooks, my laptop, a bathing suit, a bottle of Ritalin, and several pairs of blue nitrile gloves in case I am required to handle human remains.
Alex, who is my fixer, translator, and guide (but is additionally a bodyguard, husband, and gallerist), is waiting for me in the parking lot next to a silver Mitsubishi Montero. He smiles, offering a hyperhidrotic handshake, and opens his shirt to reveal a Glock 22 wedged tightly into his waistband, explaining, “They would not let me into their airport with this.” Alex is doubtlessly in excess of 300 pounds, with pouty lips, dainty fingers, and the sort of dorsal hand fat that inverts the knuckles into shallow dimples. “You understand I was once head of airport security, but drug traffickers gave me fourteen bullets — two in the eye.” He looks at me with two white, spherical, undamaged eyes. “I see fine, but I cannot drink alcohol as it gives me headaches behind the eye.” His head is so large that a wedge of fabric has been sewn into the back of his hat as an extender.
Even now, three months before the January 2010 earthquake that will destroy much of Port-au-Prince, the chaos of waste in the streets seems without compare. The roads, alleys, and canals are littered with a skin of organic matter, peels, husks, and shells of every imaginable food. Banks of plastic miscellany line the sides of the roads waist-high, with a coverage so complete it would seem the soda bottles must have crystallized in the atmosphere and fallen upon the earth like snowflakes. Alex explains that the garbagemen are often kidnapped by bandits and their trucks held for ransom, and when the ransom is not met the trucks are torched. There is nothing to do with the trash and so polyethylene dunes sweep over the city.
I have hinted but not explained to Alex why I’m in Haiti. I am fully aware that what I’m doing is considered by some to be in poor taste and, perhaps worse, slightly obvious. It is approximately six hours into our meeting that I feel at liberty to broach the subject of zombification. We are eating lunch. Alex is more than happy to offer his opinions: “Many Americans think the zombie is a myth, but in Haiti it is a fact that is not questioned except when the upper class wish to impress an American. The politicians and the rich want to abandon the traditional ways, but zombies are real. They work like a slave or a maid. They work on the computers as well, making accounts.”
“What kind of accounts?” I ask.
“Eh, like spreadsheets, they make Excel.”
I almost choke, and feel compelled to unbutton my collar and ask for clarification, “You say they work on computers making Excel spreadsheets?” Alex’s face is straight. “Yes, they use the computer, they make the spread-sheets.” He responds in such a way as to communicate his complete lack of irony not only at that specific moment but at all moments before and after in perpetuity. He then delivers, through a mouth filled with red snapper, a world-class primer on the Haitian zombie. Alex tells me that zombies are laconic, preferring to be addressed with polar questions and responding with the Creole affirmatives and negatives wi and non. They occur in both genders. Keeping a zombie is taboo and not publicly discussed by the zombie master. Zombies are afraid of salt, disinclined to eat spicy foods, and prefer meals consisting of banana or plantain. They are unsociable, averse to sustained eye contact, and keep their heads hung low at all times. A zombie can be purchased for 15,000 Haitian gourdes (about $370). In addition to housekeeping and routine data entry, it seems they can also be trained to behave as tutors for children with learning disabilities.
I realize that if I’m going to approach this investigation as an anthropologist of sorts, I must embrace departures from the written history, unfetter my mind from the Procrustean bed of Americo-normative zombism. Cultures change, zombies evolve; now they use computers. I am open to that possibility. Perhaps it was foolish (even racist) of me to think otherwise.
Alex drives me past a large stone security wall through a metal gate and up to the colonnade of a gothic gingerbread mansion known as the Oloffson, which is said to have served, once upon a time, as cartoonist Charles Addams’s inspiration for the Addams Family home. The brick-nog hotel spews forth every sort of Victorian ornamentation imaginable: fretwork-spangled spandrels, dentate vergeboard pendants, openwork lintels, turned wood balusters, gabled dormers, spires and turrets, all painted dizzyingly white. Essentially it looks like a giant haunted doily. I check into my room, the Jean-Claude Van Damme Suite, and fall into a black and deathlike sleep.
Ten days before my departure for Haiti, I am reminded of the pitfalls that have ensnared even the most diligent and qualified zombie researchers, most notably the world-renowned ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who has agreed to meet with me to discuss his past zombie investigations. His home in Washington, D.C., is a Wunderkammer of anthropological and botanical curiosities. Bones, specimen jars filled with occult powders, a large bowl of dried coca leaves, robust Trichocereus cacti that flourish in the shade of his books, and some of the nicest Huichol yarn paintings I have seen. He now works for the National Geographic Society, where he holds the oxymoronic position of Explorer-in-Residence.
Newsweek called his book The Serpent and the Rainbow “swashbuckling,” which it is indeed, as is everything about Wade Davis — he’s swashbuckling when he pets his cat or offers me Earl Grey tea. We sit down to discuss his research and he recounts the zombie hypothesis in an uninterrupted flow, which could be summarized as follows: Haitian sorcerers, known as bokor, concoct a puffer-fish-based powder and administer it to unsuspecting victims. Tetrodotoxin (TTX), a compound present in the fish, induces a temporary flaccid paralysis that mimics death. The victim is entombed alive and then released after the effects of the TTX have subsided. Due to pervasive magical thinking in Haiti the victim truly believes he has been resurrected from the dead and submits to the commands of the bokor, potentially with the assistance of a deliriant plant called concombre zombi.
When Davis published his eighteen-page paper “The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie” in 1983, there was an explosion of controversy in both the scientific community and the press. C. Y. Kao, then the most prominent living expert on TTX, and Davis’s main detractor, labeled the work a “carefully planned, premeditated case of scientific fraud.” Davis was accused of checkbook ethnobotany for having paid $300 for each poison sample he collected. His role in exhuming the body of a freshly buried child was said to be a monstrous and immoral transgression. He was denounced for drawing sensationalistic attention to an unflattering and improbable phenomenon in a country plagued by misfortune. All this culminated when The Serpent and the Rainbow was adapted into a Wes Craven horror movie, which delighted in the exact sort of voodoosploitation Davis desperately campaigned to prevent — the film is best known for a scene in which Bill Pullman (as Davis) has a railroad spike driven through his scrotum. In an effort to avoid further media attention Davis fled to Borneo and vowed to friends that he had no desire to become a “zombiologist.” He washed his hands of zombies and has not returned to Haiti since.
Though most of the criticisms were leveled at Davis by Americans with limited, if any, knowledge of Haitian Vodou, his story demonstrates the strange sensitivity encountered when one provides scientific evidence for phenomena once believed to be purely supernatural. Accordingly, academic research into the Haitian zombie phenomenon has been sparse. Nobody aside from Davis, Haitian or otherwise, has published a chemical analysis of the zombie powder. So I thought I would try my hand at reviving such long-buried research by spending a month in Haiti, collecting powder samples, and bringing them back to the United States for gas chromatography–mass spectrometry analysis.
As I leave Davis’s home I ask one additional question: In a syncretic religion with no central text, in which customs, symbols, and core ideology are subject to a virtually limitless variety of permutations and the line between ancient tradition and tourist skullduggery is hazy — a religion whose name is literally synonymous with “deceptive or delusive nonsense” — how does one distinguish between authentic Vodou and, well, voodoo Vodou? Davis replies with assurance, embracing his cat, “I was never confused in this way. I could always sense what was real from what was not, even within that wildly surrealistic realm of the Vodoun society. I think your concern, to be honest, says more about you than Haiti.”
It seems logical to begin my search in the same place as Davis did, and so I have arranged a meeting with Max Beauvoir, world-renowned Vodou houngan (priest) and scholar at his temple and home, Le Peristyle de Mariani. Beauvoir is a celebrity in Haiti, and though his religious office is not exactly comparable, he is often analogized “the pope of Vodou.” He is the founder and chief of an organization called the National Confederation of Haitian Vodou and the distinguished webmaster of www.vodou.org. A former medicinal chemist with a degree in biochemistry from the Sorbonne, he is of an exceedingly rare breed that understands and straddles the line between the positivist molecular reality of science and the metaphysical calabash of the 401-godded Vodou pantheon. While Wade Davis was conducting his research in Haiti he lived in Beauvoir’s home and used his connections with rural bokor as a starting point for his collection of zombie-powder samples.
As we drive to the peristyle, Alex is vocal about his skepticism regarding Beauvoir, repeatedly asking, “How can a man who claims to be the representative of Vodou and the Haitian people have never seen a flying woman?” I’m not exactly certain why Alex is so sure that Beauvoir hasn’t, but I choose not to press the issue.
With short-cropped fresh white hair Max looks handsome, regal, and he is unsweaty sitting beneath a rainbow umbrella in a white and pink tunic. He smokes Marlboro Golds as we speak through a vibrating screen of mosquitoes. As I attempt to minimize my squirming and swatting I recall that much of his peristyle was built with profits from a patent on the synthesis of anti-inflammatory drugs. Max recounts, “Wade Davis was a fantastic worker, he is the kind of guy who wakes up at five in the morning and at seven he is on his way. He lived in my house. I do respect the amount of energy that he has spent. That was a teaching of what ambition can do and what good people can do … but unfortunately the whole idea collapsed because” — he mimes pulling a rope. “Everybody tried to pull the project below their own carpet and this is why, so far, nobody has put a man on Mars.”
Among the many things I discussed with Davis, a manned mission to the Red Planet was not one of them. Yet the financial impetus for his zombie project was the need for a drug that could induce a state of true suspended animation, not the trifling thirty-minute paralysis of tubocurarine or the transient stupor of kavalactones, but something that could pause human life for days or even years. There was such excitement that even before Davis had published his TTX hypothesis, Max recalls, the substance had been given the proposed trade name of Zombinol. “NASA understood that the human mind cannot suffer such a long trip at the speeds required to reach Mars, if men were submitted to that they would become crazy,” Max explains. “NASA thought they could zombify an astronaut, put him into the ship, and after a certain time give the astronaut a counter-potion to allow him to conduct his work on Mars and then re-zombify him for the trip back. I don’t believe any American knows how to make a zombie well enough to allow an astronaut to reach Mars, but with more time and more genuine research the project will be finished.”
Max’s emphasis on genuine implies contrast with the smash-and-grab ethos of Western drug prospecting, wherein plants are reduced to active ingredients and social mores are respected only inasmuch as they allow access to local bio-knowledge. Max is in favor of a holistic approach in which the totality of the plants, their traditional preparation, and the cultural matrix in which they are administered can be preserved. From this perspective, the zombie project never stood a chance.
I ask Max whether he feels the research was damaged by media attention, offhandedly mentioning that Wade Davis said The Serpent and the Rainbow was one of the worst movies in the history of cinema. Max frowns and blows two jets of cigarette smoke from his nostrils in a taurine snort. “Wade cannot complain. He is the one who earned from that movie, no Haitian earned.” He looks up to the canopy of plants. “In fact, all of them died miserably of hunger and disease, while Wade Davis profited enormously.” Max pauses, perturbed for the first and only time during our meeting, then smiles. “I think the movie was excellent, yes. If you look at the Haitian population, it’s fantastic, it’s beautiful, it’s a bunch of people happy to live singing and dancing.” He throws his hands into the air. “Wes Craven is a filmmaker who understands the Haitian people.”?
To read the rest of “I Walked with a Zombie,” pick up a copy of the November issue on newsstands, or subscribe here to Harper’s Magazine.
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