Humans, being both predator and prey, may have the fear of being devoured etched into their DNA, if not, from nightmares generated by a midnight snack grumbling its way through their digestive tract. The Brothers Grimm didn’t help matters by publishing tales of ghouls and other creatures lurking in shadows, underneath bridges that must be crossed. Why, for all we know, that skittering sound under the bed is surely something other than an errant mouse, something hungry, something waiting for you to fall asleep.
From their introduction in the B movies of the 1950’s to modern times, the image of flesh-eating zombies has become well-known, if not saturated, throughout popular culture. You can find a horde of re-animated corpses hungering for living flesh in theaters, television and video games. Zombies are big business, big enough to generate income and interest from fans who gather at zombie festivals all over the country, participating in full make-up to terrorize a neighborhood near you. Or, perhaps, only amuse the cat. Obviously, there aren’t any real zombies. Are there?
As with many stories and myths, there is a historical or cultural origin based on either spiritual or religious belief, as described in the Sumerian epic poem of Gilgamesh:
“Father, give me the Bull of Heaven
So he can kill Gilgamesh in his dwelling.
If you do not give me the Bull of Heaven,
I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
and will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living.”
But sometimes, a even seemingly ludicrous tale is based on some amount of fact.
Take, for instance, the case of Haitian Clairvius Narcisse, the first well-known documentation of a real zombie. Declared dead on May 2, 1962, then buried, he walked back to his village eighteen years later, causing an understandable amount of distress to everyone. News of this remarkable story eventually reached the ears of anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who spent a great length of time researching the possibility that there was a botanical explanation behind the zombie phenomenon. What he uncovered was astonishing.
Mr. Davis went to Haiti and obtained a sample of what is know as zombie powder. After much chemical analysis, it was determined that one of the key ingredients is a tetrodotoxin derived from the deadly puffer fish. When used in small very small amounts, this toxin can produce paralysis, slow the heart rate and respiration so greatly that the victim appears to be dead, while all along, they remain fully aware of their surroundings.
The victim is then buried, only to be dug up later by a witch doctor, or Bokor who will use them as a slave, often to work on plantations. But, perhaps another of the key ingredients of zombie making, is the belief that it is possible to steal someone’s soul and possess the empty shell of their body, enslaved for the rest of their lives.
Add the hallucinogenic effects of datura to that belief and image yourself resurrected from the grave, incoherent, terrified and in a highly suggestible state of mind and you may indeed believe yourself to be a zombie. For the rest of your life you will be given a daily dose of this mind-altering drug to ensure that you continue to believe that your soul has been removed, that your will is not your own. And if you are lucky, as in the case of Clairvius Narcisse, your kidnapper will find their own death, leaving you free to wander away towards home.
Filed under: Traditions on April 27th, 2011