Halloween is on the horizon. Today’s post is on the science of Zombies. Because Zombies, apparently, exist. In Haiti.
Haiti is located in the Caribbean, near Jamaica and Cuba. Ah… the Caribbean… Anyway, this story is not about cocktails served in coconuts with little umbrellas on the side. It’s more about mind control.
The guy mainly credited with this discovery is Wade Davis, who wrote two books on the subject The Serpent and the Rainbow, a bit of an adventure, Indiana Jones wannabe read and Passage of Darkness, a more scientific work. Davis went on location at Haiti, which has voodoo as part of their religion, and found evidence that zombies really exist – having met a man called Clairvius Narcisse whose death was reported in 1962 by hospital staff, and 18 years later claimed to be an escaped zombie.
Davis managed to get his hands on some ‘zombie powder’ by bribing some informants. The powder was found to have toxins from a variety of natural sources: Bufotoxin from toads, a neurotoxin released on the skin, and the reason why toad-licking can be psychedelic. Also the reason why many princesses took to kissing frogs to find a prince, in my opinion; and puffer fish venom – tetrodotoxin, which can cause muscle paralysis, low blood pressure, and a pseudocomatose effect, and which always reminds me of that Simpsons episode where Homer thinks he’s going to die because he ate puffer fish at a sushi restaurant.
However, the amount of toxins in each of the samples Davis gathered varied wildly, and often the amounts were so trace as they would scarcely have any effect at all. Not to mention, getting the amount of toxins correct to make someone enter a death-like state without actually dying would be an extraordinary feat. We do a similar thing with anesthetics, but natural products tend to vary the concentration of toxin they have plant-to-plant (or toad-to-toad in this case) so getting it right would be trickier than teaching your parrot to swim. Davis’ answer to this is psychobiological – the idea that psychoactive drugs are effective not only because of what they do on a biological level, but also because of what we expect them to do and the cultural influences around us. If someone thinks a little bit of alcohol will make them giggly and relaxed, then they’ll giggle their way out of a goose egg after a mere drop of rum. In this case, if you think a powder is going to knock you out and make you appear dead, if you really BELIEVE it, then maybe it works even if the quantity of drug is a little low. It’s like the placebo effect, except with zombies.
Following the death-like state, the zombie is revived and kept in a submissive state by being given Datura stramonium, aka the Zombie Cucumber. Datura is both highly poisonous (NOT a party drug!) and psychoactive, and due to a mixture of toxins it contains it can cause severe anticholinergic delirium – read ‘off your face, probably in a bad way’. Again, part of the effects are probably due to mind and cultural influences. If someone just almost died, and then is given Datura and treated like a zombie – well that’s a pretty bad trip!
However, let me point out that if there are zombies as Davis suggests, there are not very many of them, and they don’t eat brains. Davis believed zombies either worked a farm as cheap labour, or more likely are turned into zombies by a Bokor (like a voodoo high priest) as an extreme form of punishment similar to a death sentence used by a secret society in Haiti called the Bizango. It’s interesting to note that creating a zombie in Haiti is considered illegal, and if a body is buried it is considered murder, whether the person dies or not. Good to know the law is on the side of the undead.
In essence, zombification may exist as a form of punishment by voodoo believers, and involves a seriously dangerous drug cocktail (not the kind served with a paper umbrella) whose action is probably assisted by mental and cultural influences. Turning people into zombies is against the law in Haiti, and totally not cool anywhere. Cross me and I might make you walk the plank, but I won’t turn you into no brain-craving undead.