Here’s a lil’ something I wrote for my African Traditions class. I have also included an accompanying PowerPoint at the end of this post. It covers many elements discussed here and also includes a brief look at our current American obsession with zombies. Important note: Wes Craven’s film version of The Serpent and the Rainbow is a gross misrepresentation of Wade Davis’ original work discussed here.
The Vodoun tradition stems from a “complex mystical worldview,” explained by ethnobiologist Wade Davis as “sacred and secular . . . material and spiritual” (Serpent 72). This community-based tradition is “concern[ed] [about] the relationship with man, nature, and the supernatural forces of the universe” (72). One area of particular concern to Haitians is the soul, composed of both the ti bon ange and gros bon ange. While the gros bon ange is the part of the soul that operates to keep an individual alive, the ti bon ange is the individual aspect that is “vulnerable to capture by the sorcerer” (185). The well-being of the soul is so highly regarded that Haitian physicians are also priests because it is believed that the spiritual state of the individual determines the physical state (183). Because of their belief in immortal spirits, Haitians do not fear death, but they do fear becoming a zombie, a process that involves possession of the soul.
While the zombie itself is harmless, the idea of becoming a zombie instills terror in Haitians. As explained by Maya Deren, “A zombie is nothing more than a body deprived of its conscious power of cerebration” (43). This type of “soulless living” (70) is the greatest fear in this African tradition. Operating from this fear, family members of the recently deceased will often verify the death by either observing the body for several days or even stabbing the individual to make sure the death is complete (Davis, Serpent 185). This will spare the individual from undergoing the frightening process of zombification. This process involves an apparent death, burial, and revival, which is followed by a severe beating conducted to ensure that the soul does not return to the body (186).
In 1982, Harvard funded Wade Davis’s research in Haiti to discover the scientific process believed to be involved in recorded zombie cases. Throughout his book The Serpent and the Rainbow, Davis chronicles his research and experiences in Haiti, including his exploration of the most famous case of zombification involving Clairvius Narcisse. In 1962, Narcisse was pronounced dead by American doctors. Eighteen years later, he returned to his village, claiming that he had escaped after being turned into a zombie. However, his village, including his own sister, did not welcome him back. This element stirred Davis’ curiosity: why were individuals selected to become zombies in the first place? While Davis continued the research he was sent to Haiti for, this question became another driving force behind his inquiries.
Davis did ascertain a mix of the purported zombie poison from a hougan in Haiti. He took this sample back to Harvard where lab testing concluded that the potent mixture could create a death-like state where the victim could easily be declared dead, even by the finest doctors. The ingredients in the poison were congruent with the symptoms Narcisse had described to physicians and even personally to Davis. Though Haitians maintain the tradition that the bokor conducting the zombification steals the soul of the victim, it is clear that the strongest ingredient from the deadly puffer fish induces the physical zombification outcome. Essentially, the physical and emotional trauma from the poison and the burial process leaves the victim brain-damaged and easily controlled. While spiritual elements may be involved and clearly cannot be proven or disproven from the Western scientific perspective, the poison Davis examined is a key component to the zombification process. (Davis, Serpent).
After identifying the poison at Harvard, Davis returned to Haiti, primarily inspired to continue his cultural exploration. He discovered that zombification is utilized as a just punishment under the rules of a secret society. The Bizango is responsible for finding criminals and punishing them. Though Haitian law contains a penal code that “prohibit[s] the use of any substance that induce[s] a lethargic coma indistinguishable from death,” i.e. zombification (60), the “social sanction imposed” by the Bizango is permitted by authorities (213). However, zombification is not a frequent punishment (Davis, “Letters” 1715), and it is only executed when an individual has committed certain punishable offenses (Davis, Serpent 253). After learning of these offenses, which include lack of familial respect and land issues, Davis realized that Narcisse was not an innocent victim after all, but a man justly persecuted under this secret system. After gaining insight into this aspect of the Haitian system, Davis understood why Narcisse, a criminal, was not welcomed back to his village upon his return.
The research conducted by Davis brought a realistic understanding and appreciation of Haitian traditions to America. Unfortunately, this reality is not typically portrayed in film and other pop-culture media. In 1988, famed horror movie director Wes Craven brought The Serpent and the Zombie to the screen. Aside from the general premise of an American conducting research in Haiti, the film completely diverts from Davis’s research by incorporating sexuality, violence, dark magic, and persistent misinterpretations. The film maintains the negative and inaccurate image of Voodoo presented in the first Hollywood films in the early 1900s such as White Zombie and Walked with a Zombie. It is unfortunate that the mainstream image in America has not evolved beyond these misrepresentations over the course of the last century. Currently, however, the zombie trend seems to have moved entirely away from its Haitian roots as American films, television programs, and games are consumed by images of the living dead consuming living flesh and brains.
Davis, Wade. “Letters.” Science 240.4860 (1988): 1715-716. Print.
— The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985. Print.
Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: the Living Gods of Haiti. New Paltz, NY: McPherson, 1983. Print.