With a degree in biochemistry, Leah works for a small biotechnology company and enjoys writing about science.
Zombie: The Strange Case of Clairvius Narcisse
Clairvius Narcisse remembers his own funeral. He remembers the sheet being drawn across his face, the nails driven into his coffin, and the sound of his sister’s sobs as she wept in grief.
A few days earlier, Clairvius had checked himself into a hospital. He had not been feeling well for a few days, and had a fever and body aches. When he started coughing up blood, he sought medical advice: upon admission to the hospital, physicians noted that he had fluid accumulating in his lungs and difficulty breathing. His body temperature and blood pressure began dropping, his lips turned blue, and his limbs began to tingle and turn numb. He was declared dead the next day, by two physicians.
His body was exhumed a short while later by a voodoo priest. Clairvius was beaten, gagged, and hauled away to a sugar plantation to work as a slave for the next two years. Clairvius was a zombie.
The Making of a Zombie: Haitian Witch Doctors and Voodoo
American servicemen returning from Haiti in the 1920’s and 1930’s brought tales of black magic, mindless zombies, and voodoo masters back home with them. Haitian intellectuals and other researchers refuted the outlandish claims, calling them exaggerated legends.
Ethnobiologist Wade Davis heard of Clairvius Narcisse when the man, declared dead by two physicians at the Albert Schweitzer hospital in Deschapelle, Haiti, returned to his family.
Davis traveled to Haiti and gained the trust of the Voodoo Bokors (witch doctors), who gave him samples of their zombie powders for analysis. The closely guarded voodoo secret of zombification was unraveled.
The Mysterious Zombie Powder
The powders given to Davis varied in composition, but all contained powerful toxins which caused a deep coma simulating death. The three main ingredients common to all zombie powders are:
1) Charred human bones and other human remains
2) Toxic or irritating plants (with spines) or calcium oxalate crystals
3) The poison known as fou-fou from the porcupine puffer fish
The powder would be given to an unsuspecting person, who would then fall into a very deep coma. The Voodoo Bokor would dig the “body” up shortly after burial, as the victim could die of asphyxiation if not exhumed in a timely manner.
Zombie Powder Recipe
Various recipes may be used for making zombie powder. The ingredient list may include the following:
- Bouga Toads
- Sea Snake
- Cosigne seeds
- Cashew leaves
- Desmember plants
- Bwa pine leaves
- White tree frogs
- Puffer fish
- Dead, human flesh
Place a bouga toad and a sea snake in a jar and bury the jar. Once the animals are dead, dig up the jar and extract the venom. Add millipedes and tarantulas to the mixture (crush into a fine powder). Add the consigne seeds, cashew leaves, nettles, and bwa pine leaves. Crush into a powder. Add two species of tarantula and the skins of white tree frogs. Add another bouga toad and crush into powder. Add the puffer fish (including the porcupine puffer fish) and grind into a powder. Finally, add real, dead human flesh or bones and grind.
Zombification should only be performed by a licensed witch doctor.
Datura, the Zombie Plant
Jimson Weed: The Real Zombie Powder
The puffer fish zombie powder only causes a coma simulating death: it cannot keep the victim in an altered mental state. In fact, people who survive puffer fish poisoning in Japan after eating the infamous gourmet fugu fish recover completely. To truly make a zombie, a plant by the name of Datura stramonium is required.
Also known as the Zombie cucumber, Datura contains scopolamine (impairs memory and works as a mild sedative), atropine (causes dilated pupils and confusion), and hyoscyamine (causes memory loss and temporary aggression).
Many of the traits shown in Hollywood’s version of the zombie are created in the real-life Haitian zombies with Jimson Weed. The weed causes amnesia, delirium, dilated pupils, painful reaction to sunlight (photophobia), increased heart rate, and bizarre behavior.
Why Clairvius Was Turned Into a Zombie
Clairvius had angered his brothers, who sold him to a Voodoo Bokor. Essentially, his brothers sold him into slavery on a sugar plantation: the Bokors would perform the zombification, then use a powerful drug made from Jimson Weed (Datsura stramonium) to render the individual delirious. Clairvius did not return to his family until his older brother had died – he had no desire to go through the zombification process again.
Indeed, nearly all Haitian zombies are created as acts of revenge. Family members, friends, and enemies may approach a Bokor when a person has vexed them in some way. The Bokors agree to create the Zombie, who is then drugged with Datura and made to work as slave labor.
Clairvius worked as a slave on a sugar plantation for two years. The zombies worked from the time the sun rose until the sun set, and were fed only once per day. The Bokors were known to beat and abuse their zombified slaves, though this occasionally backfired. One day, a Bokor was beating a zombie, and the zombie fought back: he killed the witch doctor cum slave master with a hoe in a fit of rage. Clairvius took this opportunity to escape his life of slavery: an amazing feat for someone kept on high levels of Datura (Jimson Weed, or Zombie Cucumber). Clairvius wandered for sixteen years before returning home, to the great delight of his sisters.
Skepticism on Davis’s Research and Haitian Zombies
When Davis wrote his first book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, his work was widely criticized by other scientists. His work seemed like an egotistical version of an Indiana Jones narrative: the famed tetrodotoxin breaks down in alkaline environments and on exposure to water. The ability to store this toxin in a stable, powder form is doubted by many scientists. At the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, a researcher named Dr. John Hartung took samples of Davis’s purchased “Zombie powder” and fed it to rats: the rats showed absolutely no effect from having eaten the powder (as an aside, Hartung also injected the rats with the powder and rubbed it on their skin – all to no effect). As it turns out, Davis had run a similar experiment with his own powder, and found that the powder had no biological effect. He failed to report these findings when he wrote his books about Haitian zombies.
Davis was also criticized for paying for the zombie powders he acquired, and for his presence during the illegal exhumation of a dead Haitian infant.
Another point of contention is the question of Clairvius’s true identity. The majority of Haitians are poor, and medical care is costly. Local citizens pay less for hospital care than those living outside of the municipality, so it is possible for a person to check into the hospital under an assumed (local) name, to receive medical care for a much lower cost. The man who checked into the hospital under the name of Clairvius was recognized by family members after death, which makes this scenario less likely. However, the official cause of death on Clairvius’s medical records was “kidney failure,” and not heart and lung failure. Once the kidneys have failed and the person has been declared dead, it would be highly unlikely for that person to regain kidney function and revive.
The length of time that Clairvius’s body was kept in the hospital morgue is another cause for questioning Davis’s presumptions: the body was kept in a refrigerated room for 24 hours following his death. A total of 48 hours passed before his body was buried, and three more days passed from when he was buried to the day he was supposedly exhumed by the Bokor. That leads to a total of 5 days where his brain received little or no oxygen, which makes survival unlikely. After his five days spent in a “dead” state due to kidney failure, Clairvius was supposedly revived, where he was able to spend many years working on a sugar plantation performing hard labor.
Of course, if the man claiming to be Clairvius was not the actual man, then why would the real Clairvius have disappeared? As it turns out, the real Clairvius had a shady past. He was the black sheep of his family, with a number of debts and an even greater number of children he fathered: the mothers of the children were clamoring for financial support from the man. One theory postulates that when a man checked into the hospital under Clairvius’s name and died, it may have given the real Clairvius a chance to disappear from his overwhelming responsibilities and debts. When Clairvius “disappeared,” the family assumed the Voodoo Bokors had come for him to punish him for his sins.
In a time before DNA fingerprinting, the only way to determine if the returned “Clairvius” was the original Clairvius was through questioning of his family history. Dr. Lamarque Douyon (the director of Haiti’s psychiatric hospital) questioned Clairvius’s family members, Clairvius, and neighbors. Douyon was convinced that the returned Clairvius was the same Clairvius that had been declared dead sixteen years prior. No empirical evidence proves that the returned Clairvius is the same man that died in the hospital.
But why would the family recognize the “revived” Clairvius as their own family member, sixteen years after his disappearance? One explanation is quite likely: bereived family members may prefer to have a semblance of the brother who had gone, than to have no brother at all.
At the University College of London, Roland Littlewood examined three individuals who claimed to be Haitian zombies. Family members had brought these “zombies” forward, claiming they had died and returned years later to rejoin their families.
Working with Chavannes Douyon from the Polyclinique Medica of Port-Au-Prince, the researchers discovered various causes for the three “zombies” brought to their attention. One had fetal alcohol syndrome, and another had brain damage from an incident involving lack of oxygen to the brain. Most interestingly, the researchers had access to modern DNA fingerprinting technology. Through the use of genetic testing, the men found that none of the supposed zombies were actually related to the “family members” who had taken them in and claimed them as their own.
It is highly likely that Voodoo priests use Datura (Jimson weed) to perform zombie rituals in drug induced trances, though the existence of actual Haitian zombies has never been proven through objective, scientific methods.
Are Zombies Real?
Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on September 10, 2020:
This is a very interesting story and makes a lot of sense that they would dig up the dead and make them work as slaves.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on August 01, 2018:
Wow, Julia, that must have been an interesting year! Voodoo is a fascinating subject area and is certainly entwined with Christianity in Haiti as the African tribes were forced to convert when they were captured and enslaved by Europeans. Voodoo (or Vodou) originated in Nigeria.
Julia Goodman on July 31, 2018:
I lived in Haiti for over a year. Its a well known fact that a voodoo priest or priestess can lay a hex & zombify another human being. Haitians are incredibly supersticous people & 100% believe in voodoo. They might practice Christianity but they ALL believe in the power of voodoo.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on July 17, 2018:
Thanks, Gerry - I find the stories of voodoo zombies to be fascinating!
Gerry Glenn Jones from Somerville, Tennessee on July 17, 2018:
Leah, this was a very interesting article, and even though I have read a good deal about zombies, I learned much more from your article. It was also well researched and well written.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 16, 2012:
Haitian zombies are definitely interesting - the Voodoo practices allowed for slave labor in the sugar cane fields according to Davis, though there has never been definitive proof on the subject matter. Thanks for the comment, lorddraven2000!
Sam Little from Wheelwright KY on November 14, 2012:
This was a very detailed hub and I am glad I stumpled on it. I am fascinated with zombies as my writings on my own hub will tell you and I am always eager to read about the haitian variation. A lot of people are unaware of just how real zombies can be a reality. Great job.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on August 19, 2011:
The practices are very secretive. Many people believe that Wade Davis was sold a "watered down" version of the zombie powder, because the Voodoo witch doctors would not really divulge their secrets to an outsider.
Terri Meredith from Pennsylvania on August 19, 2011:
Fascinating read! I worked with a young lady whose grandmother practiced Santeria. She told me some strange stories, but was never one to elaborate on the actual rituals and how they are done. Good job
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on August 18, 2011:
The idea is fascinating (if morbid) - the anoxia would cause brain damage that would leave a person in a "zombie" like state - permanent brain damage would be caused by the lack of oxygen. There is controversy because Davis purchased the powders: whether the Bokors sold him a weaker dose or the powder was less of an agent than the Datura hallucinogen is up to debate.
Jim Henderson from Hattiesburg, Mississippi on August 18, 2011:
Great article. The first part had me convinced, the second part make me blush for being taken in. I particularly appreciate how you leave it up to the reader to arrive at their own conclusion.
I had originally read a newspaper article several years ago about an archeologist who had discovered the link to tetrodotoxin poisoning and 'zombies'. I guess about that's as close to the real thing as you can get. Certainly plausible enough. The article mentioned varying degrees of brain damage from the process and that the metabolism of the victim would be lowered so that it appears plausible that they might be able to survive in a low-oxygen environment until dug up.
A revolting prospect yet curiously enthralling in a morbid way.
ruffridyer from Dayton, ohio on August 18, 2011:
The witch doctors may have given him a formula that was not complete. They are not stupid.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on August 18, 2011:
The research articles around Haitian zombies are fascinating: some question whether other scientists are simply envious of Davis's great find. Others question Davis's research methods. The thought of using Datura-drugged slave labor is horrifying - the Voodoo Bokors managed to accrue free labor for the sugar cane industry, if Wade Davis's assertion is correct.
BakerRambles from Baltimore, MD on August 18, 2011:
The True voodoo zombie is characterized as a person who has been stripped of all emotion, to walk the earth with no sense of self or being, not necessarily the flesh eating zombies people pretend them to be today. Great article, I liked it!