On the trail of the real-life zombie: Haiti

The face of Voodoo has always been painted greasepaint white. The personification, stuck with me since I was a kid, comes from the final scene of the James Bond movie Live and Let Die. Bond has vanquished his foes, throwing the last one out the window of a moving train while on the way to a well-deserved respite with the movie’s leading lady. But perched on the front of the train sits the sinister Baron Samedi, the lord of death, a dark, dangerous figure throughout the movie, still there, in the final shot, offering a tip of his ragged top hat, laughing.

Samedi was played by Geoffrey Holder, who would go on to star in 7-Up’s “Crisp and clean and no caffeine” TV commercials, where he’d get to again let loose that deep bass laughter. As a Bond villain, that laugh had much less mirth. Samedi handled snakes, presided over dark ceremonies, and promised all sorts of evil nastiness for my favorite secret agent. He was Voodoo.

But real Voodoo is something else entirely (surprise, surprise). And yes, there are real zombies.

“This is the way Zombies are spoken of,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston in her 1938 book Tell My Horse: “They are the bodies without souls. The living dead. Once they were dead, and after that they were called back to life again.”

Hurston lived in Haiti for months on a Guggenheim grant so she could explore the Vodun religion—alternatively spelled “Voudun” and, in America, “Voodoo.” “[T]he symbolism is no better understood than that of other religions and consequently is taken too literally,” she concludes.

As a journalist, her work is excellent. She objectively describes life on the island while occasionally offering commentary on her experiences. She proves herself a reliable narrator.

“[U]nder the very sound of the drums, the upper class Haitian will tell you that there is no such thing as Voodoo in Haiti, and that all that has been written about it is nothing but the malicious lies of foreigners,” she discovers. “[H]e lies to save his own and the national pride.”

Haitians, she comes to learn, resent the way their religion had been misrepresented in America—such as the Hollywood pap I would revel in forty-plus years later—so they tend to downplay anything that might be sensationalized. “As someone in America said of whiskey, Voodoo has more enemies in public and more friends in private than anything else in Haiti,” Hurston writes.

Hurston devotes a third of the book to Voodoo and an entire chapter specifically to zombies. Unlike the modern horror movie zombie, Haitian zombies are brought back from the dead and used for menial labor. They must be sheltered and fed (no brains or flesh—just simple meal). They can be trained. They can be, most surprising of all, exploited.

“Think of the fiendishness of the thing,” she writes. Contemplate the idea of having your

resurrected body dragged from the vault…and set to toiling ceaselessly in the banana fields, working like a beast, unclothed like a beast, and like a brute crouching in some foul den in the few hours allowed for rest and food…. Family and friends cannot rescue the victim because they do not know. They think the loved one is sleeping peacefully in his grave.

She wonders about the veracity of reports she hears about people brought back from the dead until she has the chance to meet one for herself. “What is the whole truth and nothing else but the truth about Zombies? I do not know, but I know that I saw the broken remnant, relic, or refuse of Felicia Felix-Mentor in a hospital yard,” Hurston writes.

Talking with doctors and Voodoo practitioners, Hurston starts to draw some conclusions about zombies. But, she admits, “I kept meeting up with an unreasoning fear. Repeated incidents thrust upon my notice a fear out of all proportion to the danger.” When Hurston goes so far as to vow to find the secret of zombification, she is warned, “Perhaps it will cost you more than you are willing to pay, perhaps things will be required of you that you cannot stand.”

Hurston’s travels end up taking her off-track, so there’s no resolution to the zombiequest. She does ends up having to elude a blood cult, narrowly escaping, and the book ends soon thereafter, secret unrevealed.

“If embalming were customary, it would remove the possibility of Zombies from the minds of the people,” she writes. “But since it is not done, many families take precautions against the body being disturbed.” Whatever the cause of or nature of zombies, powerful cultural forces are at work.

Indeed, those forces may be more powerful than most people give them credit for. UNC enthnobiologist Wade Davis, author of The Serpent and the Rainbow and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie, is the modern worlds’ foremost expert on Haitian zombies. He posits that zombies are created when a person falls into a deep, death-like drug-induced trance. Combined with those powerful cultural forces, the victim basically loses all free will, powers of speech, and sense of identity.

Hamilton Morris, a reporter for Harper’s, gave Hurston’s book an update in a November 2011 article. Morris visited Haiti in 2009—just three months before the January 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of Port-au-Prince. Even then, he wrote,

the chaos of waste in the streets seems without compare. The roads, the alleys, and canals are littered with a skin of organic matter, peels, husks, and shells of every imaginable food. Banks of plastic miscellany line the sides of the roads waist-high, with a coverage so complete it would seem the soda bottles must have crystalized in the atmosphere and fallen upon the earth like snowflakes.

Morris makes it his quest to find the powder, derived from blowfish poison, allegedly at the heart of the zombification process. He sits in on several Voodoo ceremonies, has a number of misadventures (which he writes about in highly entertaining prose), and then finally finds a zombie. “At first the room appears empty save for a cloth thrown over a pile of stuff,” he writes. “Then I realize the pile of stuff is a zombie.” He gets a brief show—“$800. No second peeks.”—but is so impressed by the obvious huckster style of the bokor, the Voodoo priest, that he goes back for more entertainment, if nothing else.

Morris’s piece is lively and surreal; Hurston’s is more straightforward, less stylistically flashy. Both offer interesting explorations of the cultural forces that make zombies such a unique centerpiece of Voodoo legend.

Zombies in Haiti are, indeed, real, although neither reporter can get a finger on just how real, or how functional, or how common. One thing seems clear: even though people may think the zombies are reanimated corpses, they’re very much alive, despite their limited brain power. They aren’t evil, undead flesh-eaters.

Baron Samedi—now there’s evil. No wonder Voodoo creeps us out.



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