A History of 'Real' Zombies

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Zombies are all the rage these days — on television, in movies, books and now in the news. Of course zombies aren’t new — they were co-opted decades ago by pop culture, especially in George Romero’s 1968 classic zombie film Night of the Living Dead.

Or were they? Actually, notes Blake Smith, zombie aficionado and co-host of the monster-themed MonsterTalk podcast, “Though many people think of Night of the Living Dead as being all about zombies, Romero never called them zombies; he wanted them to be ghouls. The public called them zombies, so the name stuck.”

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Though many people treat the current “zombie apocalypse” as a fun pop culture meme, it’s important to realize that some people believe zombies are very real. Haitian culture — like many African cultures — is heavily steeped in belief in magic and witchcraft. Belief in zombies is related to the Voodoo religion, and has been widespread throughout Haiti for decades. The existence of zombies is not questioned, though believers would not recognize the sensational, Hollywood brain-eating version that most Americans are familiar with.

Unlike today's malevolent movie zombies, the original Haitian zombies were not villains but victims. They are corpses who have been re-animated and controlled by magical means for some specific purpose (usually labor). Historically, fear of zombies was used as a method of political and social control in Haiti. Those people believed to have the magical power to zombify a person — mainly witch doctors called bokors — were widely feared and respected. Bokors were also believed to be in service of the Tonton Macoute, the brutal and much-feared secret police used by the oppressive Duvalier political regimes (1957-1984). Those who defied authorities were threatened with becoming the living dead—a concern not taken lightly.

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In popular fiction there are several ways to destroy zombies (decapitations or gunshots to the head are popular), though according to Haitian folklore the goal is to release the person from his or her zombie state, not to outright kill the person. There are several ways to free a zombie; one is to feed the zombie salt; others say that if a zombie sees the ocean its mind will return and it will become self-aware and angry, trying to return to its grave.

So are zombies real? Many believe so, but evidence is scarce. There are a few supposed cases of real zombies, including a mentally ill man named Clairvius Narcisse, who in 1980 claimed that he had “died” in 1962, then become a zombie and forced to work as a slave on one of Haiti’s sugarcane plantations. He offered no evidence of his claims, and could not show investigators where he had supposedly worked for almost twenty years.

Scientific Evidence for Zombies?

Outside of Haiti (and a few other places where belief in Voodoo exists), zombies were widely assumed to be nothing more than a legendary boogeyman, not unlike werewolves and vampires. However this changed in the 1980s when Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist, claimed to have discovered a secret “zombie powder” while doing field work in Haiti. The main active ingredient was said to be a neurotoxin which could be used to poison victims into a zombie-like state.

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Voodoo magic was an unlikely source of zombies—but could science and medicine explain them? Davis wrote several books on the topic, including The Serpent and the Rainbow, later made into a horror film by director Wes Craven. Though the book was a public success, many scientists were skeptical of Davis’s claims, suggesting that they were exaggerated and that the amounts of neurotoxin in the powder samples he found were inconsistent and not high enough to induce the zombifying effects. While in theory the zombie power might work under certain ideal conditions, in the real world it would be very difficult to create a zombie with it; too little of the toxin would have only temporary effects, and too much could easily kill its victim.

Pharmacological doubts aside, there are other reasons to doubt the claim that people had for decades been turned into zombie slave labor. For one thing, the very process that would turn people into zombies (assuming it didn’t kill them) would leave them brain-damaged, uncoordinated, and slow — in other words, hardly ideal farm workers.

Furthermore, the economics of zombie-making don’t make sense: Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with no shortage of very cheap labor to work farms and plantations. In a country where the average annual income is less than $2,000 there are plenty of able-bodied, non-zombified people willing to work for almost nothing. Unpaid zombie workers would still need to be clothed, housed, and fed, negating most of the potential profit from using them. And, of course, the sugar plantations allegedly filled with fields of zombies have never been found.

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With the main reason for creating zombies pretty well debunked, the question remains — even if Davis’s zombie powder is all he claims it is — why anyone would bother to make a zombie in the first place. It would be a lot of time and effort to abduct someone, fake their death, get the toxins just right, revive them, and put them to work.

There are easier ways to give someone brain damage, and even if it worked there’s no guarantee that the person would be docile or compliant; it’s just as likely that they would be left in a vegetative state. While zombies are infesting television and film (and, some cases, news headlines), true zombies remain an unproven myth.

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