Article: The Birth of the Zombie

 

Clairvius Narcisse
Clairvius Narcisse

Who hasn’t heard of the zombie, living-dead antagonist of both television and the silver screen for the past decade?

Actually, the notion of the zombie as a dead person who has been brought back to life – so to speak – has its origins in West African tribal religions and their New World counterpart, vodoun, more commonly known as voodoo.

According to voodoo folklore, a sorcerer, called a bokor, gives his victim a poison derived from various toxic plants and animals including white tree frogs, bouga toads, tarantulas, and puffer fish. (The puffer fish contains tetrodotoxin, one of the deadliest poisons known to man.)

The ill-fated victim begins to suffer dizziness and a prickling feeling in the fingers and toes which soon leads to complete numbness. Next come headache, weakness, a drop in body temperature, rapid pulse, vomiting and diarrhea. Within 30 – 45 minutes, decreased pulse and respiration occur, and the lips turn blue. This is followed by complete paralysis, and the victim is declared dead. Unfortunately the person is completely conscious for the entire ordeal. Even more unfortunately, he or she remains conscious during burial!

A day or two after burial, the bokor retrieves the victim from the grave and revives the person with a potion of hallucinogenic plants. The zombie, disoriented, traumatized and mentally damaged by the experience, can then be made by the bokor to do the sorcerer’s bidding.

One of the best documented cases of alleged zombification is that of a Haitian man named Clairvius Narcisse. On April 30, 1962, Narcisse checked into the American-run Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelle, Haiti, basically complaining of the very symptoms mentioned above.

White Zombie poster
White Zombie poster

His condition rapidly deteriorated and on May 2, doctors declared him dead. He was identified by his sister, Marie-Claire, and buried the next day. Eighteen years later, Narcisse appeared to another one of his sisters, Angelina, with an incredible tale to tell: Narcisse claimed he had been poisoned, raised from his coffin and revived, beaten into submission and forced to work sunup to sunset on a plantation. He escaped after two years, only to wander the countryside for the next sixteen years. In 1982, researchers from Haiti’s Centre de Psychologie et Neurologie Mars-Kline investigated the case, examining and questioning the man, and finally determined that he was, in fact, Clairvius Narcisse. The rest of Narcisse’s story could not be substantiated, but it seems that family and townsfolk believed it to be true

 

Night of the Living Dead lobby card
Night of the Living Dead lobby card

The first zombie movie, White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi (1932), followed the voodoo-master-zombie-slave scenario. In modern zombie lore, however, the living dead are most often not a sorcerer’s slaves, but victims of a pandemic who mindlessly roam the streets hunting surviving humans, and eating any living thing they can catch. This is the premise for the cult classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Brad Pitt’s recent venture into the horror genre, World War Z (2013), as well as the popular television series, The Walking Dead and Z Nation. There is, of course, no historical record of a zombie epidemic having ever happened. At least not yet.

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