Reaping Grimly: How to Make the Traditional Zombie

Another seasonal blast from the past.

A Real Tale for Halloween


Wade Davis is a Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist. He has written extensively about culture, botany, the environment and he has become a noted photographer. Davis has done hundreds of interviews, inspired many documentaries, and even was the source for three X-files shows. And Wade Davis has met a zombie. Not the made-up kind delighting so many Americans nowadays, but the very real kind. A poor, unschooled man who was victimized by his family.

Back in the 80s Wade Davis wrote about his experience investigating the zombification process in Haiti. His book The Serpent & the Rainbow propelled him to worldwide fame and a Hollywood movie followed in 1988.

Drawn to Haiti by legends concerning the existence of zombies, Davis wanted to investigate the botanical or chemical aspects of the phenomena. Soon he was drawn into the vodoun culture of the Haitian witchdoctor (bokor). Escape the cities of Haiti for the countryside and fear and magic play a very real role in the society. Wade Davis knew the story of Clairvius Narcisse and before long the two would meet.

In 1980, Clairvius Narcisse approached a woman in a marketplace and identified himself as her long gone, well- dead actually, brother. She was shocked to say the least, but then so is his story. Shocking. Clairvius told a tale of being drugged, buried, resurrected, and made a slave on a sugar plantation. Apparently a brother wanting Clairvius’ land sold him to a bokor. Having “died” in 1962, Clairvius escaped the plantation a couple of years later only to wander aimlessly for the next sixteen. Now having learned of his brother’s recent death, he felt safe enough to make himself known to the sister. A local doctor developed a questionnaire to establish once and for all, if the man was who he claimed to be. Clairvius answered everything correctly and the doctor along with his village accepted him as the true Clairvius. Had the curious tale of Clairvius Narcisse been isolated, maybe it could have been dismissed easily. But there are many tales of zombies in Haiti long before Clairvius and after.

Davis’ investigation into the world of vodoun and the zombie led him to advance the hypothesis that tetrodotoxin (TTX) was the chemical agent used by the bokor to induce a death-like state. A mixture of toad skin and puffer fish, either rubbed on the skin or ingested through food, seems to accomplish this. Breathing slows, the heartbeat weakens, and victim appears dead even to medical personnel. In the tropical climate of Haiti, bodies are buried quickly and the bokor likes it that way. A zombie in the ground for more than eight hours risks asphyxiation. The zombie is dug up and restored to life possibly with an antidote. Delivered to a plantation, the zombie is kept in a semi-permanent induced psychotic state by force feeding a datura paste. Datura destroys memory and wreaks havoc with gaining any sense of reality. It is also known to produce powerful hallucinations.

All of the chemicals used or potentially used are powerful enough to cause real death so the bokor has to be knowledgeable and proficient in their use to be successful. Davis also credited the culture of fear and belief that underlies the creation of the zombie. There are powerful cultural influences that must be in place to create and maintain a zombie.

Are zombies scary? Maybe not, they’re victims, but the idea that you or I could be made into one makes me uncomfortable. That’s why I try to make sure my siblings are happy with me and I’m not more valuable “dead” than alive. Happy Halloween!



Filed under Books, Halloween, Spooky stuff

13 responses to “Reaping Grimly: How to Make the Traditional Zombie

  1. This is a very interesting article although I just cannot fathom how a person could act so inhumanely towards another.


  2. You got my attention with this one! I’m not a fan of zombies at all but after seeing this at last there’s a meaning to their existence! I nearly scrapped my own blog on zombies but when I saw this it brought it back to life! So to thank you I’ve added a link to this article – it’s out on Thurs.


  3. hello ellis nelson its dennis the vizsla dog hay my dada sez he luvs this dokyoomentary!!! he sez is fayvrit part is at the verry end ware bill pullman totaly flips owt!!! persunaly tho this sownds a littel skarry for my taysts espeshly after reeding elseware abowt all the other horribul monsters owt their like the black eyed kids i think i wil just stay under the bed for a wile!!! ok bye


  4. As a famous scientist once observed, not only is the universe stranger than we suppose, it is stranger than we CAN suppose. From that viewpoint, zombies are just part of the overall strangeness within which we live…


  5. Well, it’s a nicely written article and I suppose it is good to know, however not comfortable to know, that there are zombies and yeah, I kind of always thought that the “Resident Evil” type zombies were clichéd. Recently, I have been playing a few zombie video games and I was thinking that hey, how come zombies are always depicted eating brains and guts? It could be that they are, well, different. I understand that they need food and they don’t have enough ‘brains’ to cook but why humans for food? That’s not human natural instinct of food! Now I know that Haitian zombies are the different ones and rather than creepy it’s just so sad!


  6. I recall seeing the movie of “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” and thinking Wade Davis deserved better than this.
    And let’s not forget one of Davis’s predecessors, Zora Neale Hurston and her anthropological account of voodoo, “Tell My Horse” (1938).


  7. Interesting. I think I’ll cross Haiti off my list of potential vacation sights. How did you decided to get into this line of research? sd


  8. bluecraneglamour

    Very creepy to think this happens


  9. Interesting read! And yes, it is scary to know things like this exist outside of movies albeit not in the traditional Hollywood depiction.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s