Film portrayal of the unstoppable, unnatural undead has haunted the nightmares of many a bad night’s sleep. Despite this, the self perpetuating image of the Zombie may not solely be the product of Tarantino-esque brains. The legend may have some origin in the truth. Ethnobotanists the world over have travelled to Haiti; a small island nation often associated with the Vodun religion, where the act of zombification is more than fiction. Upon arrival they often found it was first necessary to gain a better understanding of Haitian belief systems and culture before breaking down the Fourth Wall.
The Vodun religion (commonly known as Voodoo) is a complex belief system with a global worship of Vodouisants. It is the main religion in Haiti. It is thought to have its origins in the practices of an oppressed, 18th century French slave colony. Although not directly associated with the ‘Zombie’, it has been suggested that the appeasing, ritualistic actions inspired by this belief contribute to the efficacy of zombification (through possible ‘nocebo’ action). Haitian’s see distinctions between ‘the body’ (gwobon anj) and the the ‘ti-bon anj’- the agency or awareness of a person. Therefore, the removal of the essence of the person by the Bòkò, and ‘astral’ containment, leaves behind the easily controllable body of the person. Such acts, indeterminate of outcome, are identified by Haitian penal law as murder, and were originally thought to be performed in order to provide free labour for rural plantations.
The removal of the ti-bon anj is the result of the Bòkò administration of coup de poudre (Kout poud in Haitian creole), the chemical constituents of which were largely identified by Wade Davis (inspiring his book, The Serpent and the Rainbow). It is thought that the included cane toad extracts contained tetradotoxin (TTX). TTX is a potent marine neurotoxin, commonly found in puffa fish, administration of which brings about a significant reduction in heart rate and metabolic activity in sub-acute doses. Thus giving the illusion of death. Upon ‘resurrection’ the combination of other drugs, deliriogenics such as atropine or scopolamine, and the shock of being buried alive brings about a catatonic state of delirium; the zombie.
Such subjects are colloquially identified in Haitian culture by their inability to raise their heads, their fixed expression, limited capacity for speech and through their repeated and seemingly purposeless actions. Symptoms confirmed in 1997 when a team of doctors investigated local claims of sightings of people previously thought dead. The team however found a number of proven medical conditions, ranging from catatonic schizophrenia to developmental learning disorders, accounting for this clinical presentation.
It is therefore interesting to suggest that it is perhaps the differing views of Western and Haitian cultures, regarding care of the person, that are responsible for the differing explanations of events. The anthropocentric Western view versus the cosmocentric of Haiti. And, in that perhaps a sound and satisfying scientific consensus regarding zombification will not be reached.