1980: Clairvius Narcisse

In the island country of Haiti, zombies are real.

        Not brain-eating, vicious hoards, with gaping wounds, guts hanging out, and near invulnerability to harm... those types of zombies only exist in movies. Rather, Haiti is where the first true zombies existed and exist still, which Haitian folklore paints as people raised from death to serve as supernatural slaves for their masters, devoid of a sense of self or any form of thought.

        Of course, European and American scientists and doctors did not credit this idea as being true; but it was proven that people called "zombies" did exist in Haiti, that they were in fact being used as workers & slaves, and that they even occasionally returned to their previous homes where they were recognized by family who believed them to be dead -- which led to a variety of theories regarding what was actually happening in these odd cases. But the occasions that a 'zombie' could be examined was rare; rarer still were occasions when a 'zombie' could talk and explain themselves; and, far rarer still, a case of where not only could the 'zombie' explain its experiences but that there was also medical and scientific evidence to support what they were saying... well, without that, scientists and doctors didn't have any way to properly explain the existence of zombies in Haiti. And so the phenomena was largely ignored.

        Until the case of Clairvius Narcisse appeared.

The Return of the Zombie

        As the story was generally told in newspapers in 1980, on April 30, 1962, a peasant named Clairvius Narcisse was admitted to the Albert Schweitzer Hospital at Deschapelles, Haiti, complaining of fever, body aches, and 'general malaise;' alarmingly, he was also spitting up blood. Over the next day his condition rapidly declined, until on May 2 Narcisse was pronounced dead at 1:15 in the afternoon by the two attending physicians. One of Clairvius' sisters, Angelina, was present when he died; she immediately notified the family, and a short time later an elder sister, Marie Claire, arrived, identified the body, and added her thumbprint to the official death certificate. Narcisse's body was placed in cold storage for twenty-four hours, then buried on May 3 at 10:00 AM, in a small cemetery just north of Clairvius' home village of L'Estere. Ten days later a heavy concrete memorial slab was placed over the grave by his family.

        Eighteen years later, in 1980, a man approached Angelina Narcisse in the marketplace of L'Estere, and introduced himself using a childhood nickname for Clairvius that only intimate family members knew. The man, who claimed to be Clairvius, explained that eighteen years previously he had refused to sell his portion of the family land he had inherited to his brother, and that his brother had arranged for Clairvius to be made into a zombie so the land would pass to his brother. Clairvius had been dug up before the slab was placed in the cemetery, and had spent two years working as a zombie in the far north of the country. After two years his master had been killed, and Clairvius and all the other zombies had dispersed, free of whatever influence the master had held over them. For the next sixteen years Claivius had avoided returning home, fearful of his brother, until he heard of his sibling's death... which is why he had finally returned.

Clairvius NarcisseClairvius on his empty grave, ca. 1980. [Larger version here]

        Lamarque Douyon, who was director of the Centre de Psychiatrie et Neurologie Mars-Kline in Port-au-Prince, had made it his task for twenty years to investigate every public appearance of a supposed 'zombie' that occurred; he soon involved himself with the Narcisse case. Douyon designed a questionnaire with the help of Clairvius' living family that would quiz the claimed zombie about the dead man's childhood; all of the questions were ones that only the true Clairvius Narcisse and his immediate family would have knowledge of. The man claiming to be Clairvius answered them all correctly. There was also no clear social or monetary motive for the family to commit a fraud or a hoax.

A Zombie's Story

        When asked about his "death," Narcisse told Douyon something surprising... he had been awake and aware during the whole event. Unable to move in any way, Narcisse heard the doctor pronounce him dead, his sister crying over him, and was even aware of being put into his coffin -- a nail driven into the coffin penetrated his cheek -- and he was aware of the dirt being tossed down onto the box until all became silent.

        Narcisse explained: "They call my name three times. ... Even as they cast the dirt on my coffin, I was not there. My flesh was there, but I floated here, moving wherever. I could hear everything that happened. Then they came. They had my soul, they called me, casting it into the ground." Narcisse believed he had been in the coffin for a couple of days before he was retrieved by a bocor (a Haitian magician), but Douyon doubted he was in the coffin longer than eight hours due to a lack of oxygen available. Narcisse continued, "the earth opens up and then you sit up. They slapped me three times. Then they made me smell something. I was taken to the house of the bocor and he cured my cheek where the nail of the coffin went through." The former zombie also stated that he was judged for eight days, during which time he was questioned about the problems he had with the people who wanted him dead; which, of course, implies he was told who had arranged for his zombification.

        Narcisse was walked a great distance to a northern plantation near Ravine-Trompette owned by a bocor named Josef Jean. Here, Narcisse claimed, he worked with 151 other zombies, 9 of whom were female, for two years. From sunrise to sunset he was put to work in the fields, weeding and planting; at night he would rest in a big hanger with all of the other zombies. Narcisse stated he was aware the whole time; he knew he was a zombie, he missed friends and family, and wanted to return home. But he was held back by a strange inability to interact with the world in a normal way. Events around him felt dreamlike, distorted, and slow; simple obstacles seemed impossible to pass or deal with; and he was unable to make decisions or take conscious action of any sort. One of the doctors who had examined Narcisse in 1980 said he had been told by the ex-zombie that a small stream on the property had appeared as if it were a large river, impossible to cross. Another aspect of Narcisse's story matched up to Haitian beliefs regarding zombies; that the food he was fed was salt free. Other than that simple difference, the food was generally "normal peasant fare," and the zombies were fed just once a day.

        In 1964, one of the other zombies stopped eating his daily meal. This zombie was beaten repeatedly for this over several days... until one day, in the midst of such a beating, this zombie grabbed a hoe and, "in a fit of rage," killed the bocor.

        From here, I have two different accounts of what happened next... the first states simply that with the bocor dead, the zombies dispersed. The second story -- intriguingly -- states that the bocor's widow "gave them salt and freed them," after which the zombies were all placed in an alms house in Cap Haitien, from which the zombies presumably then dispersed. This second story has a connection to the statement from the doctor who was told in 1980 by Narcisse that the stream looked like a river when he was a zombie; the doctor was also told that when Narcisse left the plantation, after eating the salt, the stream appeared in its correct appearance to the former zombie... implying that Narcisse believed the salt had cured him of the dreamlike state he had existed in for two years.

        Narcisse remained in the north for several years, then moved to Saint Michel de l'Attalaye in the south for eight years. During this time he sent letters to his family in l'Estere, but no response was ever returned. When news of his brother's death reached him, Clairvius Narcisse finally returned to l'Estere.

Further Revelations

        While evidence does seem to suggest that Clairvius Narcisse was turned into a Haitian zombie, a study of his and other zombies' pasts conducted in 1982-1983 by anthropologist and ethnobotonist Wade Davis showed that likely none of the people who were turned into zombies were selected at random. Narcisse, in particular, was not an innocent victim of some fiendish plan to simply make zombies... unlike the straightforward tale Narcisse told in newspapers about how he died, was resurrected, and returned, the truth is that Narcisse was hated by his family and community and they, collectively, arranged for him to be removed.

        Narcisse himself claimed an argument with his brother over land they had inherited was the sole reason he was zombified... but this is an incorrect idea of what happened between the two brothers, starting off with the fact that neither brother had inherited land: their father was still alive.

        Though Clairvius Narcisse had apparently himself fathered several children by different women, he supported none of them. Because he wouldn't marry, and ignored other social obligations in l'Estere, he had saved up a good deal of money. Despite being reasonably well-off, Clairvius always refused to employ this money to help his friends and neighbors when asked, spending it only on himself and his own house.

        This meant that not only was Clairvius generally disliked by the town's community but, in the eyes of his family, was waiting like a wolf to inherit a section of his father's land that would normally be divided equally between the wifeless and childless Clairvius and his younger brother, who was supporting a large family. Add to this that Clairvius often fought with his own family, and often about not sharing his money or resources to help in some way, and it becomes clear there were many people who would want Clairvius Narcisse to be punished for simply not paying attention to the social norms that made his town work.

        Davis' investigation led him to believe that it was Clairvius' uncle who initiated the request for Clairvius to be zombified. Evidence that his family was involved can be seen in that his family refused to allow an autopsy on him at the hospital, and never returned his letters once he found himself free again. With Clairvius legally dead, all of the father's land presumably passed to the younger brother sometime in the eighteen years Clairvius was not present in l'Estere.

        When Clairvius Narcisse returned to l'Estere in 1980, instead of the quiet meeting implied by the newspaper version of his story, the villagers had been shocked to see him and made such a commotion that the government authorities placed him in jail to protect him from attack. Clairvius' family did not welcome him back home. He was taken under the care (and protection) of Dr. Lemarque Douyon, and then spent his time largely at Douyon's private clinic or at the Baptist mission in the area, only visiting l'Estere for short periods, and always with Douyon accompanying him.

The Significance of Narcisse's Experience

        However unimportant his family and town thought Clairvius Narcisse was, his case was the key element that led to investigation of the phenomena of Haitian zombies and the discovery of many of the secrets attached.

        Dr. Douyon Lemarque had spent his twenty years investigating every claim of a returned zombie because each time he hoped to find evidence of a drug being used to imitate death in these victims; but every single case had problems that prevented Douyon from establishing enough evidence to suggest the actual existence of such a drug. In most cases, either there was not enough proof that the alleged 'zombie' had in fact been a zombie, or there were insufficient medical records to allow for any sort of guess at a cause of 'death.'

        With the case of Clairvius Narcisse, however, not only was there ample evidence that Narcisse was in fact the same man who had been buried eighteen years previous, but he was able to state for himself what his experience had been like. In addition, the Albert Schweitzer Hospital was one of the few facilities in Haiti at the time that kept complete and exact medical records, as hospitals in the United States and Europe did. So for the first time, Douyon had a confirmed zombie with reliable medical information.

        Armed with this evidence, Douyon and his backers felt it was very sure that a drug was indeed being used to induce a false death in victims; a drug that could have great medical potential if identified. For this reason, it was decided to hire a specialist to follow the chain of evidence and, hopefully, discover the drug; that specialist was anthropologist and ethnobotonist Wade Davis... and by the time he was done investigating, Davis had discovered much more than just what drug was faking death in the zombies; he also discovered the real reasons why zombies are created in Haiti... but that is a longer story, for a different time.

        So the strange 'death' of Clairvius Narcisse had far reaching consequences that all involved could not have predicted when the the dead man returned home eighteen years after being buried in his grave.

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