Zombies: History, Belief, and Modern Ideas

Modern ideas of zombies as flesh-eating living dead all stem from just one movie: George A. Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead. Strange though it may sound, these new zombies are not zombies... they are a new monster that has adopted an old monster's name.

        In Hollywood, zombies were originally the supernatural slaves of evil magicians. These beings were generally innocent victims raised from the dead or enslaved while alive to become unquestioning servants that would perform any action they were ordered to... good or evil. This idea of zombies first appeared in the 1932 movie White Zombie that featured actor Bela Lugosi as the master of the undead, and continued as a popular sub-genre of monster movies until Romero's 1968 movie re-invented the idea of the monsters.

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

        These older movie zombies -- like the one shown here from I Walked with a Zombie (1942) (larger picture here) -- are also not zombies, really. The ideas that formed the basis for White Zombie in 1932 stemmed from the first foreign reports made of a phenomena that is only known to exist in one place, the island nation of Haiti...  and, unlike movie 'zombies', Haitian zombies are real.

        In Haitian folklore, “zombie” is the name given to a dead body that has been reanimated by magic. These moving corpses are free of all will and simply do whatever their master tells them to do, be it farm work or committing a crime. Haitian zombies are neither good nor evil unto themselves, as they have no personalities... they are just supernatural puppets, tools to be used by their masters.

Table of Contents
Haitian Beliefs and Zombies - Some Vagaries of Belief - A Traveler’s Encounter - The "Zombie Law" - The Search - The Zombie Speaks! - An Outsider's Viewpoint - The Remaining Question - Salt... It Does A Body Good?

Haitian Beliefs and Zombies

        Haitian Vodou -- typically called 'Voodoo' by outsiders -- is a combination of religious systems from various parts of Africa with aspects of Catholicism, making for a truly unique Haitian religion. The African aspects came with slaves brought to Haiti by the French. Though the slaves came from different parts of Africa, and their original beliefs were often based around single villages and families, the overall commonality of the beliefs allowed the transplanted people to create a larger system that united them as a separate culture under the French. Later attempts to stamp out African based religions and to force conversion to Catholic faiths largely resulted in the symbolism and names from the Catholic beliefs being used to mask the older African symbolism and practices... so many old African gods and spirits took on the names of Catholic Saints, allowing the Vodou religion to survive covertly over the years.

        Much of Vodou has to do with how spirits effect and interact with life and physical beings. Spirit possession can be a positive thing that is actually invited at certain times, and if the right spirit arrives during the possession then it can result in healing and good fortune. The flip side is that bad fortune and most unexplained or unlikely events are considered to be caused by spirits as well. Houngans -- priests in Vodou -- and bokors -- 'magicians' or freelance spirit workers -- can trap spirits, often in physical objects such as bottles, and can move spirits about... and these are the skills believed in Haiti to be used to create zombies.

        A dead body only needs a spirit to motivate it in order for it to rise and move again; by placing a subservient spirit into a spiritless body, a houngan or bokor can create a zombie that will follow orders. The body, once raised, must be cared for as any other living being -- it must be fed and allowed to rest from time to time -- but other than this, it is simply a robot that does as it is told, with no thought, feelings, or motivation of its own. This much is a given; but houngans and bokors need to have bodies to do this, and that's where the conflict lies. It is generally believed that bodies are taken from new graves; worse still, houngan and bokors are often suspected of having killed the victim in the first place, using their magic talents to cause illness, accident, and death... after which the body is to be stolen and resurrected.

        Because of this belief, extreme measures were (and are) sometimes taken when a recently deceased family member is suspected of being targeted to be turned into a zombie. Graves are given heavy cement memorials to prevent them being dug up in some cases; a less expensive solution is to bury the family dead either near the home or near a busy roadway or area, where the grave can be watched constantly for several days... after a body begins to rot, it is believed it can no longer be raised as a zombie. The more extreme solution is to give bodies a 'second death.' The body could be injected with poison, strangled, decapitated, or shot in the head, all to prevent it being raised as a zombie. This had to be done from behind the body though, as a houngan or bokor interested in the corpse might be able to see who performed the deed from the front of the body, presumably through the eyes of the corpse. Alfred Metraux, writing in 1959, was told by an associate named Monsieur Bernot that he had witnessed the strangulation of the corpse of a youth for the purpose of preventing zombification.

Some Vagaries of Belief [Back to Top]

        In Haiti, the word 'zombie' does not always mean a walking corpse; it can refer to the disembodied soul or ghost of a dead person as well. Specifically, according to Alfred Metraux, Haitian folk belief states that if a person dies by accident then their spirit may be forced to wander the earth until the day of their actual pre-designated death arrives. In one of the accounts I list below, the word 'zombie' is used in this sense when the spirit of a dead woman is seen in a graveyard after being summoned by a bokor who wants to enslave her spirit to use as a magical force. It's also in this sense as "ghost" that the word 'zombi' first appeared in an English language story outside of Haiti, an 1838 tale called "The Unknown Painter" published in Chambers' Edinburgh Journal, among other magazines... but because the second use of the word 'zombie' to mean a ghost is not commonly known, this 1838 use of the word has led many people to believe it stands as proof that the walking corpse 'zombie' was a phenomena noted of that early in history. This appears to be a mistaken idea; the earliest I can trace the idea of the walking corpse version of the zombie in print is to some time around the 1870's, and I will discuss the evidence for this shortly.

        Another idea that has been expressed regarding the walking corpse version of the Haitian zombies is the belief that they must not be fed salt. It appears to be a common belief in Haiti that salt will, in a sense, end the zombification. I know of only one legend from Haiti that regards this idea, a tale said to have occurred in 1918 which ended in a group of zombies being accidentally fed a small amount of salt with their food, resulting in the zombies becoming aware they were dead and -- now ignoring all orders -- walking back to their individual graves where they fell down and immediately rotted (Note that the same author also said there is a meat restriction for zombie diet, but he didn't supply any accounts to evidence that as true, nor have I seen this anywhere else). The salt restriction on the zombie diet was brought up again in 1980 by a Haitian who had actually been a zombie on a salt free diet who stated he was set free in part by being giving a bit of salty food.

        Before we move on from the topic of the salt restriction, I have to note a variation on this idea that has arisen in literature outside of Haiti itself.  In Alfred Metraux's 1959 Voodoo in Haiti, Metraux states that if a zombie is inadvertently fed salt it will attack and kill its creator and masters, then return to its grave. Though Metraux then briefly re-told the 1918 tale above about zombies returning to their graves after eating salt, he gave no examples at all of zombies attacking their creators and masters... so there is no reason at the moment to consider this to be a correct belief about Haitian zombies.

        Another common belief, expressed in many of the stories, is that when a houngan or bokor dies then all the zombies they have created regain their souls in some sense. For some zombies, this means they become fully alive again; for others, it simply means they no longer follow orders. Some zombies are believed to be created when the houngan or bokor trap a living person's soul, often in a physical object such as a bottle. There is also a belief that humans have more than one soul, one being a sort of lower soul that simply controls basic body functions and another being the soul that thinks and feels. Sometimes it is just this lower soul that has been trapped and eventually returned to the body. In either case, the basic idea remains the same: that zombification is a magical process that somehow requires a constant low level effort on the part of the person who performs the magic, and that when they die and this low level effort stops, the zombies they created are re-inhabited by the souls they had taken from them.

        Of course, what Haitians believe about their walking dead and what foreigners think about the matter are two entirely different things. Though there is evidence that Haiti's walking dead existed at least back to the 1870's, the first real introduction of the Haitian zombies to the outside world dates from 1929.

A Traveler's Encounter [Back to Top]

The Magic Island, by William Seabrook (1929)

        It was the 1929 release of William Seabrook's book The Magic Island that both first explained the Haitian concept of zombies to the world, and introduced the first eye-witness report of the strange creatures by a foreigner (larger cover picture here). Seabrook's book was a sort of travelogue of his visit to Haiti, mostly concerned with the rituals of Vodou (now firmly renamed 'Voodoo') and with the magical beliefs of the natives that Seabrook encountered there.

        Seabrook was told many of the details already mentioned -- that a zombie was a human body raised from recent death to do its master's bidding, that families, even poor ones, took steps to protect the bodies of loved ones, that zombies could not be fed salt. When he found himself discussing this with his Haitian friend Polynice, Seabrook had expressed his feelings that the issue of the zombie was something of a superstitious belief; but Polynice disagreed.

        Polynice explained how his family had buried his brother on the top of a nearby ridge that they could see from the front of his house and that was also next to a very busy path, and that he and a friend then watched the ridge at night while holding shotguns for four nights... until they were sure the body had begun to rot and was no longer in danger of resurrection. Polynice said that if a friend or family member saw a beloved one walking as a zombie, the bokor or houngan who controlled the zombie was likely to be found and killed; and for this reason, zombies would often be raised on one part of the island, then walked to an entirely different part of the island to be put to use. Finally, Polynice told Seabrook the story of several zombies that had been sent to work for a large factory on the island many years previously, and how they had returned to their graves after eating salt (the 1918 tale I mentioned previously).

       Seabrook listened politely to all of this, but Polynice could see that his friend was still not convinced; so he told Seabrook that, before he left Haiti, he would arrange for his friend to meet a zombie face to face. It took a few days, but when the opportunity arose Polynice literally jumped at it, hopping off the horse he was riding next to Seabrook and running into a field to ask permission of a woman he knew who was working with three zombies... and when Seabrook found himself face to face with one of the zombies, what he saw horrified him. Clearly, it was a man; but just as clearly, this man showed no signs of paying attention to the world around him, and his eyes remained dead steady, focused on and looking at nothing... the eyes appeared empty of any thought or feeling, and sent chills down Seabrook's spine. This was, without a doubt, not just a local superstition. Zombies were real.

        As Seabrook recovered some from this startling encounter, he convinced himself that the real problem was related to a dog he had once seen which had experienced an experimental surgery on its brain... which led Seabrook to believe that zombies must be people who have somehow had their brains altered. In discussing these matters with a foreigner who had lived in Haiti for some time, Dr. Antoine Villiers, Seabrook was given a possible reason why men would be walking after they had apparently died and why they would do what they were told. Villers showed Seabrook an article in the Haitian penal code that stated the use of "any substance" that would create a prolonged "lethargic coma" would be considered as attempted murder; and that if the person was buried while in this state, "no matter what results follow," it would be considered murder. So the use of some sort of drug to cause zombification was being implied by the legal code; and Seabrook's own experience told him that similar behavior could be caused by altering the brain, which drugs definitely could do.

        The Magic Island was a massive bestseller, and Seabrook's book led to many other authors writing -- more and more sensationally -- of Haitian 'Voodoo' and the zombies, each emphasizing the weirdest and wildest 'true' facts and stories they could come up with. It's also now believed that Seabrook's book inspired the 1932 movie White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi, largely advertised with altered quotes of the 'zombie law' mentioned in Seabrook's book. White Zombie started a new monster genre in Hollywood around zombies, but these movie zombies were not exactly what Seabrook had described in his book... which would become a problem later.

        But what needed to be examined next in regards to zombies was the questions of what exactly was the strange Haitian law that Seabrook quoted, and what did it really say and imply about Haitian zombies?

The "Zombie Law" [Back to Top]

        There does indeed exist an article in the Haitian Criminal Code that has come to be nick-named the "Zombie Law," an over-the-top nickname most likely due to the advertising campaign that occurred around the movie White Zombie when it was released in 1932. Part of the promotion for the movie included a highly re-written version of the law that was presented in Seabrook's book in almost all posters for the film. The law, as Seabrook presented it, reads:

"Article 249. Also shall be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substance which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after administering of such substances, the person has been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows."

The law, as it was presented in promotional materials for White Zombie, was re-written as:

"Article 249, Penal Code of the Republic of Haiti. 'Also shall be qualified as attempted murder the employment of drugs, hypnosis or any other occult practice which produces lethargic coma, or lifeless sleep. And if the person (Zombie) has been buried it shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.'"

Note the emphasis on hypnosis and 'occult practice'... this was key to the movie's presentation of Bela Lugosi as master of the zombies, but not representative of the original Haitian ideas of them. White Zombie proved popular enough to decide the direction that almost all American horror movies that included zombies would go from then on -- more and more mystical and supernatural, blaming zombification on a combination of hypnotism and black magic.

        In the real world, however, zombies were starting to look like they had an entirely different cause. The actual Haitian article being misquoted by Seabrook and White Zombie above is Article 246 (not 249, as Seabrook and his imitators still report). The following translation is from the Library of Congress website, and a 2011 copy of the criminal code:

"Art. 246. Is considered a poisoning any attempt on the life of a person through the use of substances which can cause death more or less promptly, regardless of the manner in which these substances were used or administered, and regardless of the consequences. Is also considered attempt on life by poisoning the use made against a person of substances which, without giving death, will cause a more-or-less prolonged state of lethargy, regardless of the manner in which these substances were used and regardless of the consequences. If the person was buried as a consequence of this state of lethargy, the attempt will be considered a murder."

IF -- as it seems clear -- the article is aimed at a practice of using unknown substances to fake a death and then keep a person in a "lethargic state," then it can be assumed it was known to be happening at least as early as 1872, which is the earliest copy of the Haitian criminal code I've been able to find so far.

        So: in 1929, William Seabrook's book not only showed that zombies actually existed, it also showed that the government of Haiti implicitly knew the making of zombies was being purposely caused by the administration of poisonous substances, and that these poisons were likely directly effecting the brains of the people being assaulted in this way... a chemical slavery that was implied to have existed since at least around 1872.

        And then, despite all of this fairly straightforward evidence, no one went looking for the 'substance' that created zombies until 1982.

The Search [Back to Top]

        It seems the reason for this near fifty year gap between Seabrook's 1929 book first exposing a possibly chemical cause for zombification and the effort in the 1980's to track down the actual formula on the assumption it existed was due to scientists largely being influenced by the pre-1968 horror movies that attributed the creation of zombies to hypnotism and black magic... which were two subjects few scientists wanted to be associated with. Even after 1968, with the release of Night of the Living Dead and the creation of a whole new cinematic idea of what zombies were, there was not good motivation for mainstream scientists to acknowledge the matter of the Haitian zombie.

        There had been attempts, of course. After Seabrook in 1929, author Zora Neale Hurston had investigated the 1936 appearance of a strange woman in Ennery, Haiti, who was believed to be the abandoned zombie of a woman named Felicia Felix-Mentor. Hurston had talked to the physicians looking after the woman, who had expressed their opinion that zombies were being created by the use of a drug that affected people's sense of time, memory, and free will. Unfortunately, Hurston's writings in general didn't exactly encourage people to take her literally; and when it was later proven that the woman could not possibly be Felicia Felix-Mentor, this was also taken as evidence that she was not a zombie. Almost overnight, everything Hurston had written about the woman -- including the physician's opinions about the use of a drug -- was treated as if it was all de facto incorrect. The very idea of actual zombies, with an implication of a chemical cause, was quickly becoming a damned topic that most scientists and researchers didn't want to be associated with.

        Next came Dr. Lemarque Douyon, who started investigating zombies and the possibility of a zombie drug in 1961. Douyon, a native Haitian, did his psychiatry residency at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, during the 1950's when the university was testing the effects of psychotropic drugs on human subjects. He was able to observe reactions and behaviors in the test subjects that reminded him of the tales of zombies he had heard when younger... and it also reminded him of the general belief that there was a poison that imitated death, that victims could recover from. When he returned to Haiti in 1961 as the director of the Centre de Psychiatrie et Neurologie Mars-Kline, Douyon began to systematically investigate all popular reports of the appearance of zombies in the hopes of finding evidence of the proposed drug.

In his attempts to discover the secret zombie powder, Douyon had two abortive attempts to go to a graveyard with a bokor to see them raise a zombie. The first time, the body was already missing... the second time, Douyon and his camera crew were arrested before anything could happen!

        Despite all of Douyon's efforts, he could not gather enough evidence to prove that a drug was purposely being used to fake human deaths, nor change the behavior of otherwise healthy people. The reason for the difficulty was the criteria that had to be met before a case could be considered evidence of a 'true' zombie. First, the 'zombie' needed to be a confirmed return, with certificate of death and proof of identity. Many cases failed as evidence because establishing identity often relied on whether or not another person recognized the zombie, and it had already been shown by the Felix-Mentor case in 1936 that simple recognition was unreliable. There was also a general tendency in the villages to identify anyone acting strange in some way as a zombie, and to assign their identity to people who had died locally... even when the 'zombie' in question really was just someone with mental illness and/or from an entirely different town.

         Second, the 'zombie' needed to be intelligent enough to explain some of what happened, and/or there needed to be good medical records and eye-witness testimony about the physical effects experienced in their "death." Without these details, no guess could be hazarded about what drug might have been used. Even when a person had a death certificate and reliable evidence of identity, such as Francina Illeus (aka "Ti-Femme"), there could be a lack of useful information... in her case, neither the death certificate nor her brief hospital visit before her 'death' in 1976 gave enough actual medical detail about her case, and Illeus herself had been severely retarded by the experience, with much of her memory just gone. Though Douyon worked with illeus for three years, he was never able to get good descriptions of her experience as a zombie or of her 'death'. So if a zombie could not explain him or herself and there were no good records, then it was only speculation that they might have been exposed to a drug. Because of this, Douyon couldn't gather enough evidence to allow useful conclusions to be drawn and proven.

        Until 1980.

The Zombie Speaks! [Back to Top]

        In 1980, Dr. Lemarque Douyon took a man named Clairvius Narcisse in at his private clinic... and Narcisse proved to have all the criteria that Douyon had searched for.

        Narcisse had become ill in 1962 after an argument with his brother over property; various simple remedies failed to help, so Narcisse checked in to the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles. His health quickly deteriorated, and he was pronounced dead a day after admission. Narcisse was buried by his family two days later... and walked back into his home town of l'Estere eighteen years after that when he heard the brother he'd had the argument with had finally died himself.

Dr. Lemarque Douyon stands with Ti-Femme and Clairvius Narcisse.
Picture: Dr. Lemarque Douyon (with glasses) is seen with former
zombies Ti-Femme and Clairvius Narcisse, ca. 1983. (larger version)

        Douyon investigated, naturally. Narcisse claimed to have been removed from his grave after his burial but before a heavy cement slab was placed on top. He was walked to a far northern plantation where he labored with other zombies. They worked from sunup to sunset, and only ate one meal a day, usually standard peasant fare but with no salt. During this time Narcisse was aware of being trapped but was unable to take action himself, simply doing what he was ordered to do. After two years of this labor, the bokor in charge of him and the others was killed. The zombies dispersed after this, and Narcisse found himself able to think and take care of himself again... but he was afraid to return to l"Estere as long as his brother was still alive, for he assumed his brother had arranged for him to be made a zombie in the first place.

        After Douyon had confirmed that the man who returned to l'Estere in 1980 was in fact the same man who was buried in 1962, he found in Clairvius Narcisse something that no previous 'zombie' could offer: for, though slow in his communication, Narcisse had apparently maintained his normal mental facilities despite his odd history. Narcisse could explain the circumstances around his death and new life as a zombie. Better still, the hospital he went to was one of a few in Haiti that kept precise records of their patients and their ailments, so Douyon had access to Narcisse's symptoms at the time of his 'death.'

        For the first time, Douyon could prove that a person had been mis-diagnosed as dead, then retrieved by someone who knew the victim was indeed alive... proof that the odd resurrection of Clairvius Narcisse was a man-made event, which further meant that someone knew how to fake death in an unwilling victim. Douyon had two influential backers -- psychopharmacologists Nathan S. Kline and Heinz Lehmann -- and all felt the evidence was suggestive of a possible folk drug with tremendous medical potential... so Kline and Lehmann decided to fund a special investigation to try and isolate the drug.

        So in 1982 they chose their investigator: anthropologist and ethnobiologist Wade Davis. And, in the end, Davis discovered far more than any of the men expected or imagined.

An Outsider's Viewpoint [Back to Top]

        Wade Davis soon discovered that other people had attempted to find out what was being used to fake death in Haiti before. Those that had gotten close enough to the bokors had learned that it was some sort of powder which could be absorbed through skin; it could be left on mats in front of doorways and be picked up from a person walking across barefoot, for instance. Davis also learned that every sample of this secret powder that had been obtained from a bokor previously had tested as having no active ingredients... in short, no bokor had ever given away an actual sample of the zombie powder.

        Davis began to build a relationship with a bokor, and received (not surprisingly) a fake powder... but then he went back to the same bokor and continued to pester and work with him, and -- slowly -- a wide world opened before Davis. In investigating the histories of Clairvius Narcisse and Francina Ileus (Ti-Femme), and in talking to a wide variety of people across the island, Davis discovered that zombies were not what foreigners thought: unfortunate victims being exploited for cheap labor. The truth was far stranger.

        Simply put, zombies are bad workers. They are not fast, they are not careful, and they are not efficient... so there is no advantage to having zombies work a field compared to just paying locals to do the same work. So zombies were not being created to be a labor force.

        In addition, people were not being chosen at random to become zombies, and it wasn't just a matter of whim or personal gratification on the part of the bokor performing the deed... in most cases, the person who would become a zombie was being punished for some social transgression. The choice of turning a person to a zombie did not usually rely on an individual choice, but on a group decision; and that group decision was usually being made by a local secret society.

        Davis' greatest discovery -- other than the identity of the active ingredient in the zombie powder -- was that rural Haiti (which is most of the country) is actual ruled and governed by these secret societies, and that the legends and tales of zombies that terrify the citizens of the country are largely to remind them of what the greatest punishment is for those people who disrupt the normal social order. Zombies were, for the most part, people who didn't follow the rules of society and were not respectful to others. Clairvius Narcisse refused to marry or acknowledge a number of children he'd fathered, and was extremely greedy; Ti-Femme was a chronic thief, wouldn't marry who her family told her to, and was disliked and untrusted by the other women in the market area she frequented. 

        Past this set of discoveries, Davis did also finally acquire a sample of the true zombie powder, and was able to cross compare ingredients and techniques with many people across Haiti. Going into the investigation, Davis had suspected the main ingredient would be a plant called datura... but instead, the prime ingredient was something very different. The active poison that caused the fake death state was a chemical called 'tetrodotoxin,' and it came from puffer fish, the same sort of fish served in Japan as the dangerous sushi called 'Fugu.' When applied properly and absorbed through the skin, a victim could be brought to a death-like state in a matter of days that would fool all but the most exacting examiners... and the victim would also remain aware of what was happening throughout. This awareness was critical to the bokor's job as well; for the victim would know they were being buried and then recovered from their graves; so they would know they were becoming a zombie, as all the tales of their childhood had told them.

        Granted, it's a dangerous trick. Too much poison, and the victim simply dies. If buried too long, they suffocate. Davis guessed that the reason so many of the recovered zombies that had been examined in the past were mentally deficit was due to a combination of just a little too much zombie powder and/or just a little too little oxygen during their stay underground resulting in permanent brain damage. This also explained why rural Haitians would often identify any strange person displaying signs of mental disease as a zombie.

The Remaining Question [Back to Top]

        For all the answers that Davis was able to find regarding the reasons for creating zombies and the drug and methods used to imitate death, he was unable to offer a good answer to one of the last remaining questions regarding Haitian Zombies. If, as shown, Haitian zombies are just people that have been fooled into believing they've died and been resurrected, what exactly makes them follow orders and stay zombies after the initial 'recruitment'? Davis, remember, had been paid to find the answer to just one question... how the bokors were imitating death in their victims. So not surprisingly, his research focused on that question with only minor attention to the existence of a zombie past their fake death and resurrection.

        Since the effects of the tetrodotoxin would fully fade a short time after a zombie's resurrection and did nothing to make a victim compliant, this drug was not what made zombies act docile and follow orders; nor would brain damage caused by either the drug or a lack of oxygen cause such a state. Davis offered that most bokors applied a psychoactive paste made from a plant called datura to the newly retrieved zombies, which caused disorientation and short term memory loss as the new zombie was being transferred to a new home elsewhere on the island... but this also would not produce a person who would follow every order without question, and there was no evidence for the continued use of the datura paste past the transportation of the new zombies.

        Davis suggested only one possible answer for why zombies stay zombies; he felt that local beliefs and social pressure were enough to make a victim act like a zombie. Since Haitians are raised from childhood to both believe in zombies and to understand that zombies cannot make their own choices, Davis theorized that a Haitian who experienced being pronounced dead and buried only to be retrieved by a bokor would understand that, technically and socially, they had become zombies... and, therefore, would act like zombies because they knew they were supposed to. This, he felt, was reinforced by a social stigma against zombies, preventing people labeled as such to re-enter Haitian society.

        This explanation has problems with it, however. First off, Davis himself blurred the line on whether or not zombies have a social stigma against them. His own study of previously reported 'zombies' -- both actual and mistaken -- showed that people suspected of being zombies, if unknown to the area they were found, were generally treated like people. Clairvius Narcisse, who was mentally sound, was able to start a new life in a town far away from where he was kidnapped; and when a mentally deficient female zombie was mistaken for Felecia Felix-Mentor in 1936, she was taken in by the woman's family who genuinely hoped their deceased family member was back. The social stigma that Davis suggested only seems to matter when the 'zombie' returns to the area they were originally from... but then the returned zombie seems to be treated badly only when no one there liked them to begin with, which is generally why a person might have been turned into a zombie to start with. Thus, though able to live a normal life elsewhere, when Clairvius Narcisse returned to his home village he was in danger of being lynched... but not because he was a zombie.

        Secondly, Davis' theory ignores some of the testimony of former zombie Clairvius Narcisse in which Narcisse explained that, as a zombie, he was aware of his situation, missed his family and home, yet felt like he was in a dreamlike state where everything looked impossible to do and he instantly followed orders without really thinking about it. Only after his bokor master had been killed did Narcisse state he regained his ability to make his own decisions and to see the world in proper perspective. According to Davis' theory, all of this would be a self-imposed mental state that Narcisse created because he knew that he had to be a zombie until he was freed from his bokor... but it also sounds like a possibly drug-induced state of mind, which is something that I don't believe Davis had an opportunity to investigate.

        There is other evidence that also suggests the possible use of a drug to keep zombies compliant; evidence that has been minimized in scientific studies of Haitian zombies, and simplified by foreign literature.

Salt... It Does a Body Good? [Back to Top]

        As mentioned before, there is a belief in Haiti that zombies cannot be fed salt, or they will either become aware of being dead or become fully alive again... depending on how the zombie was magically produced. According to Clairvius Narcisse and Wade Davis, however, the salt-free diet for zombies is an actual practice among those that keep them. Narcisse told how he and the other 150 or so zombies at the plantation he worked at were given just one meal a day of standard peasant food, but free of all salt; and Davis commented that zombies in generally were "fed a physically debilitating, salt-free diet." So, why salt-free? There are two possible arguments... one social, and one possibly chemical.

        To follow through on Davis' theory that zombies act like zombies because -- socially speaking -- they know they should, then giving people who are convinced they are zombies a salt free diet is just another way to reinforce their socially different status. They get zombie food, so they know they are zombies. In this case, if the bokor then gave one of these people salt, either accidentally or purposely, then that person would also understand that they no longer had to act like a zombie. But this idea of why people act like zombies doesn't quite sync up with the odd tales of zombie existence told by former zombie Clairvius Narcisse, who described being in a dream-like state where everything seemed impossible to accomplish and in which he followed orders without thought.

        Narcisse told a few different versions of the way he was freed from being a zombie, but the essential details are this: of the 150 or so zombies that Narcisse existed with at the plantation, all were being given just one, salt free meal a day. Then, about two years into Narcisse's servitude, one of the zombies started to refuse his daily meal. This continued long enough that the bokor took to beating the zombie to try and make him eat... and it was during one of these beatings that Narcisse says this zombie flew into a rage, grabbed a hoe, and killed the bokor. So the questions are why did the zombie refuse to eat, and did that somehow allow it the ability to take action against the bokor?

        Narcisse also adds on a strange end to his story in one interview, claiming that after the bokor's death his wife gave each of the zombies a little salt to eat, including Narcisse... and that, once he had eaten the salt, the dream-like quality of his world vanished, and he could see things as they really were again. What he had formerly thought to be an impassible raging river to one end of the plantation now revealed itself as no more than a small stream. So Narcisse was claiming that salt had been used to free him and the others in exactly the way the stories of Haitian zombies claimed it could. Still, it seems unlikely that any drug in a person's body could be instantly neutralized by salt, so this addition to Narcisse's tale of escape has been generally ignored. There is, however, another possible reason for giving zombies a salt free diet that could explain the behavior of the zombie that set Narcisse and the others free.

        Salt free food is extremely easy to detect when eaten... with most recipes that require salt, leaving the salt out while doing every other step correct will result in a dish that tastes entirely different. So, while a salt free dish may be a social signal to zombies of their unique status, it could also act as a warning signal to bokors if they accidentally grab food from the wrong pot. Perhaps the meals given to the zombies not only lack salt, but also include a drug that makes them take orders; a drug that takes a little time to build up in a person's body, so a small dose accidentally eaten by a bokor would not be harmful. Such a drug would also take a little time to clear out of a person's body as well; which might require not eating for a few days to clear your head. This would mean that the salt free diet is both a social sign to the zombies, and a means of applying a controlling drug... if such a drug exists.

        So the question of why a zombie acts like a zombie is the main remaining unanswered question regarding the existence of Haitian zombies. Perhaps someday, another researcher will be funded to look into the matter... and to see if there are any potential medical benefits to such a drug, of course.