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The Mysterious Zombie Phenomena of Haiti

Evolution of zombie cult films originated from Haiti

Horror film makers love to film zombies. Horror fans were won over by AMC's The Walking Dead. The show enjoys continuous success and stole viewers away from Sunday Night Football and ran well against the Sochi Winter Olympics. Recent zombie revivals have not achieved positive success since George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. The zombie horror film inspired many sequels and similar zombie tales.

Both The Walking Dead and Night of the Living Dead portray zombies as weak individuals but terrifying cannibals congregated together in huge groups. The origin of zombies didn't start in the streets of Atlanta or a Pennsylvania country farmhouse. Zombies are considered unfortunate living dead corpses arisen from Haiti. Authentic zombies don't cannibalize people. Voodoo folklore combines old historical religious faiths shared among sixty million people around West Africa, Egypt, Haiti, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, New Orleans, and Louisiana.

American soldiers experienced encounters with Haitian black magic, voodoo, and zombies. They protected U.S corporations and returned back home in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Their personal stories led to the publication of successful pulp novels and zombie horror movies.

Voodoo bathing ritual

Haitian bathing ritual during voodoo ceromony

Haitian bathing ritual during voodoo ceromony

Haitian voodoo culture background

As recently as 1996, vodun had been considered the prominent religion of Haiti and Benin. Haitian people define "zombi" as "spirit of the dead." African scholars derive zombie word origin from the “Kongo word "soul" and spell it nzambi .

Fifty-percent of Haiti’s population identify with vodun. The other half identifies with Roman Catholicism, a social condition best described as “syncretism of afro-diasporic roots” and French missionary teachings. Vodun encourages polytheistic practices; it encourages both black and white magic. Haitian sorcery has been practiced for hundreds of years.

Yoruba people inhabited Benin, Nigeria, and Togo; they influenced vodun practices during the 18th century. French Colonists took them aboard their ship and used them as plantation worker slaves in Hispaniola, a Caribbean island. Frenchman tried to convert them to Roman Catholicism but slaves never abandoned their native religion. A modern form of vodun had begun.


Voodoo poison maker


Zombie terminology

Corps cadavre refers to the physical body.

Gwobon anj refers to the animating aspect of the human body.

Ti-bon anj refers to the “agency, awareness, and memory” of the human being.

The bokor practices spirit sorcery and attempts to separate “agency” and “awareness” from the human being, and imprison it in a bottle termed an “earthenware jar.” The zombie refers to “zombie astral.”

Uncanny powers of the Boker

Bokors (Voodoo priests) studied black magic and applied it. They resurrected dead people by administering a drug substance in the victim's mouth called coup padre, a powder containing a deadly ingredient called tetrodotoxin, a poison obtained from fou-fou, or "porcupine fish (puffer fish)."

Bokers first created zombies in secret societies. They ignored people involved with daily rituals in which they praised gods (Iwa).

Bokers force fed zombies a prepared paste. Ingredients include:

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Cane syrup
  • Nightshade
  • Henbane

Bokers drug their victims.

Datura (plant) Stramonium, a hallucinogenic drug many cultures recognize, contains 3 chemical ingredients:

1. Scopolamine: decreases secretion of body fluids. Organs controlling the stomach and intestines slow down. Pupils begin to dilate.

2. Hyoscyamine: reduction of fluid secretion in "stomach, pancreas, lungs, saliva glands, sweat glands, and nasal passages."

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3. Atropine: drug relieves spasms in gastrointestinal tract but FDA doesn't consider it safe or effective.


  • Human remains
  • A polychaete worm
  • Toads
  • Lizards
  • tarantulas

Haitian man claims a Boker turned him into a zombie

Clairvius Narcisse had his story documented by Wade Davis.

Clairvius Narcisse had his story documented by Wade Davis.

Zombie voodoo ritual


How Haitian victims turned into zombies

Zombie legend: a person displeases personal family members or in-laws, including neighboring people and gets branded an anti-social recluse. The combined group hires a Bokor to transform an outcast into a zombie. (Keegan,

Subjects taking coup padre are under a drug induced trance and seem near death.

Coup padre effects victims and lead to zombie conversion

  • heart rate weakens
  • breathing patterns are diminished
  • body temperature shows sharp decrease
  • The public prematurely bury coup padre victims like they would a corpse.
  • The Bokor exhumes the drugged victim. He doesn’t harm the subject physically but erases his/her memory for a life of uncontested labor. "Though still living, they remain under the Bokor's power until he dies." (Keegan,

Haitian zombies lose “cognition/consciousness” and “free will.” Zombies only regain free will by eating salt. Plantation slave holders feed zombies food without salt.

Characteristics of zombies

  • unable to raise up their heads
  • lack “nasal intonation”
  • unable to make eye-contact
  • repetitive actions considered insignificant
  • repetitive limited vocabulary

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was one of the first Americans to investigate  zombies in Haiti

Zora Neale Hurston was one of the first Americans to investigate zombies in Haiti

American anthropologist investigate zombie phenomena

In 1937, an American folklorist and anthropologist investigated the credibility of zombie phenomena. Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Haiti and villagers told her an unusual story about Felicia Felix-Mentor, she died in 1907, 29 years of age. Some Haitians told Hurston she came back from the dead twenty years later. Hurston learned about dangerous drugs responsible for effecting people with death-like symptoms. She doubted Americans learned about mixing secret ingredients to create zompie white powder from voodoo sorcerers.

In 1938, Hurston’s book, Voodoo Gods was published, and printed the first photograph taken of Clairvius Narcisse in a psychiatric hospital. The converted zombie lived to tell about it.

Papa Doc Duvalier

Haitian dictator and his son, Jean Claude

Haitian dictator and his son, Jean Claude

The Credibility of Zombies

Haitian dictator felt protected by zombie army

Papa Doc Duvalier, dictator of Haiti from 1957-1971, had a ruthless army called Tonton Macoutes; it means bogeyman (secret police). Zombie like sentries obeyed Duvalier's commands in a trance-like state, wore dark glasses and armed themselves with machetes, hung their victims in public squares and earned fearful respect from Haitians. Jean Claude Duvalier succeeded his father and used the feared militia to keep political rivals in check. They were also known as the Volunteer Militias of National Security (MVSN). Duvalier felt inspired by Italian fascist Blackshirts.

Political protesters had been abducted by Tonton Macoute according to the international media. Forced victims participated in voodoo rituals and force fed poisonous white powder. They suffered from brain damage and turned into zombies.

The dictator, a serious voodooist, had grandiose dreams of immortality as eternal Haiti’ ruler. He promised Haitian people he would return to them after his own death. Duvallier died of a heart attack and a guard looked after his tomb, prevented him from coming back as a zombie, and prevented grave robbers from taking his corpse. Haiti traditionally place guards at padlocked tombs. Some people believe Haitian folklore often confuses fact, but Haiti has a long history of black slavery. Drugs and hypnosis kept slaves in check, although they may not have been actual zombies.

Wade Davis

Wade Davis's book Serpent and the Rainbow uncover startling evidence about zombification in Haiti

Wade Davis's book Serpent and the Rainbow uncover startling evidence about zombification in Haiti

The Puffer fish

Poisonous puffer fish contains deadly neurotoxin tetrodotoxin; consumed by zombie victims.

Poisonous puffer fish contains deadly neurotoxin tetrodotoxin; consumed by zombie victims.

Wade Davis discovered Haitian drugs used in zombification

The Serpent and the Rainbow, a book written by Wade Davis

Haitian male, Clairvius Narcisse, a 40 years old in 1962, checked into a hospital to alleviate pain in his body and had difficulty breathing. He died two days later and his death certificate had been filed on record. His body underwent refrigeration in the morgue for 24 hours. He was buried in the family plot. Eighteen years later, he introduced himself to his sister and told an unbelievable tale. He claimed his mind retained consciousness while his body lost muscular function; he couldn't breathe at the hospital or his burial site at the family plot. Buried underground, his coffin had been dug out and opened up three days later. Men physically beat him, gagged his mouth, and forced a hallucinatory drug into his mouth. He unwillingly performed slave labor at a sugar plantation for two years. The drugs caused his mind to hallucinate. He moved around in a dream like transient state and lacked strength to fight it. Another zombie used a hoe as a murder weapon and freed all the zombies. Narcisse wandered for sixteen years and avoided returning home; he suspected his brother devised a scheme to turn him into a zombie. Narcisse returned home to his sister after his brother died

Wade Davis pharmaceutical explanation

Ethno botanist Wade Davis worked at Harvard University and traveled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1982 and discovered tetrodotoxin, a poisonous drug (considered 100 times more deadly than cyanide). He interviewed numerous Bokers and purchased 8 different samples of white powder from 4 Haitian regions.

Boker’s white powders all included charred and crushed human bones, an assortment of stinging spine plants and puffer fish (a fish containing dangerous ingredients in a popular sushi dish called fugu and requires careful preparation to minimize lethal dosages of neurotoxin tetrodotoxin). The puffer fish contains growing bacteria present in newts, toads, and numerous other animals. Human beings and predators feel sickened by it although through conditioning, they may develop immunity from puffer fish.

“Tetrodotoxin blocks a sodium channel in nerve cell membranes, preventing the nerves from being able to fire any muscles.” Humans ingesting small doses of it experience paralysis of their voluntary muscle activity, including the heart and muscles responsible for the function of controlled breathing. The conscious subject fails to register a pulse beat and feels unable to breath, eventually slipping into unconsciousness and death. The brain lacks sufficient blood flow. Witnesses remembered bizarre occasions; people ate fugu and revived after appearing in a death like state. Consumed poisonous doses lacked a potent knock-out punch to permanently destroy the brain.

Wade Davis: Looking for Zombies

Critics and doctors weigh scientific opinion about zombies

Haitian Zombies, an article by Skeptoid, June 14, 2011, analyzed rare occurrences of zombie phenomena. The zombie making poison tetrodotoxin appears present in rare white powders. Bokers attempting to convert their subjects with tetrodotoxin must concoct a perfect balance. The subject faces fatal death or doesn't ingest a sufficient amount of magical toxin. Brain damage severity differs with each subject..

Many critics doubt Davis’s story about Clairvius Narcisse, a man who experienced death, burial, and became a zombie. The Albert Schweitzer Medical Center, a hospital in Haiti, only charges residents five dollars a day. Critics suspected a non-local person suffered kidney failure and checked into the hospital using Narcisse’s name in order to get local customer's a low rate.

Dr. Douyon discovered interesting facts about Narcisse after interviewing family members. Naricisse produced numerous illegitimate children and incurred debts which displeased many mothers. He fit the ideal prototype a Boker would victimize and torment by converting him into a zombie.

Narcisse’s incredible zombie resurrection defies belief. He felt mentally conscious during his two day survival, but couldn't detect a beating heart, his lung and brain lacked oxygen. His body was delivered to the morgue and endured hypothermic refrigeration for twenty-four hours. He was buried in a grave for three days. Lab tests confirmed he had non-functioning kidneys. A Boker brought him back to life and restored his health. Narcisse spent several years working in a sugar plantation.

Haitian history claims voodoo priests drugged themselves under datura’s influence before performing voodoo rituals, and at times, survived the poisonous effects of tetrodotoxin. But how much brain damage could a zombie endure? Could he retain adequate physical skills to perform hard labor? “The grain of truth in the zombie mythology is a real one, but its popular portrayal — even within Haiti — is an exaggeration based on tradition and superstition.”

1997- The Lancet published a medical report about 3 individuals identified as actual zombies. Case studies had been written by “British anthropologist Roland Littlewood and Haitian doctor Chavannes Douyon.” They conducted EEG and CT brain scans. DNA and fingerprinting tests confirmed only one zombie named FI, verified authentic identification. Doctors believed neurotoxin theory explained some cases linked to zombie classification. Some people suffering deadly illness had been actually effected by catalepsy or motor paralysis. They tested two different Bokor white powders and discovered the poison ingredient tetrodotoxin. Many Haitian natives suffering forms of mental illness and AIDS mislead people. They weren't zombies.

  1. FI, properly identified as a 30 year old woman, passed away after suffering a short term illness and buried by her house. Three years later, her family recognized her facial mark and identified her walking with the characteristic movements of a zombie into the village. Her family believed she had been turned into a zombie; her husband wanted revenge because of her extramarital affair. She was taken to a psychiatric hospital in Port-Au-Prince and suffered from “catatonic schizophrenia.”
  2. WD, an 18 year-old male teenager and son of a secret police, had eyes develop yellow coloration. He quickly died after his body swelled up. His body was entered in the family tomb. Eight years later, word spread; he appeared as a zombie at a cockfight event. His mother identified a fourth finger, hyper-extended as a child. He accused his uncle of making him a zombie. The uncle felt envious of the secret police’s literacy which entitled family land ownership under his name. Lack of oxygen caused WD to suffer brain damage and his epilepsy had been treated with drugs. He took daily doses of 100mg phenytonin. The drug reduces uncontrollable fits to one day per month.
  3. MM, an 18 year-old female teenager, died before suffering a prolonged illness. Thirteen years later, she was identified as a wandering zombie at the town market. The daughters thought she had been abducted. She struggled from a “developmental learning disability” caused by alcoholism during the time her mother felt impregnated by her.

Haitian Vodou

Haitian zombie



Haitian voodoo has been practiced for hundreds of years. The ritual of converting unfortunate victims into zombies began with secret societies and the tradition continues to this day. Bokers need to keep their zombie making activities a private affair. Bokers attempting to convert human beings into zombies are considered murderers by the Haitian government.

Article 246 of the Haitian penal code states:

It shall also be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the person had been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.

Many Haitian voodoo rituals remained a mystery to Americans until the United States sent soldiers to Haiti during the 1920's and 1930's. No serious study about zombies had been investigated until Zora Neale Hurston, in the late 30's. Wade Davis took her study further and discovered the secret ingredients Bokers used to convert people into zombies.

Many Haitians believed their dictator, Duvalier, used voodoo to create a zombie army. Present day zombie case studies have been examined by anthropologist Littlewood and Dr. Douyon. Doctors successfully discredited the validity of zombification by pointing to credible medical explanations. But not all zombie case studies have been discredited. Many journalists admit credible evidence suggests zombie powders suspended the life of their victims in limbo and brought them back to life. It remains uncertain how many people actually survived zombification.

Rational explanations satisfy skeptics. Haiti has a long history of black slavery. Slaves may have been drugged and hypnotized into submission for plantation owners and resembled mechanical walking zombies. Many dilapidated illnesses in Haiti effect people into behaving like zombies, too.

The power of voodoo wasn't conducted with only chemical powders but spiritual worship attracted wielders of black magic and white magic. Haitian zombies aren't considered cannibals. Who can prove an African cannibal slave had never been a victim of a Boker? In the magical world of Haitian voodoo it seems anything is possible.


Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on October 23, 2020:

James, I never heard of RNA while I conducted research on zombies. I looked up the definition. Now I understand it's a vital chemical process inherent in humans like DNA. I can't tell you RNA doesn't have any affect on the process of making zombies. But the strongest chemical I know about, tetrodotoxin, a vital poison taken from pufferfish, has the ability to make people appear deathlike, something like suspended animation, think Romeo and Juliet. Bokers (witch doctors) also use crushed bones, and other plants like ingredients. Tetrodotoxin doesn't always work. It depends on the person and the right amount of poison, and other ingredients. Thanks for looking at my article. Many question the reality of making zombies. Some people think victims are just turned into mindless slaves.

James on October 09, 2020:

Is RNA a real virus that can make zombies

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on June 23, 2014:

Thanks very much rustedmemory. I've only written two articles about zombies but the research was fascinating.

I agree with you Kate that mind control and drugs are very terrifying things. Horror doesn't always need supernatural elements.

kate rushton on June 21, 2014:

There's big money in zombies and the zombie apocalypse. Credit George Romero, “Resident Evil,” “The Walking Dead” and a number of other popular culture resources for that phenomenon. But the business of zombies and zombie folklore isn't all fun and games. There's a darker side to “zombies” involving mind control narcotics, kidnapping, extortion and mind-numbing weapons engineering that's sure to give even the most skeptical individuals a scare. Source of article: [url=]zombie apocalypse[/url]

David Hamilton from Lexington, KY on June 19, 2014:

Very well done. When I have a space moment I will read all the hubs about zombies you have shared!

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on March 01, 2014:

Thanks for commenting Pallavi Maini. I'm glad I brought useful information to your attention.

Pallavi Maini from India on February 28, 2014:

Really this article provide us useful information.

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on February 28, 2014:

I'm glad you enjoyed the article, Colleen. You'll probably get inspired to write another article about people abusing toxins in the criminal justice system. Thanks for the information jamesjohnbell. I'll refer back to it because I have another type of article I am writing about zombies. The recent article was focused in Haiti.

James John Bell from Union, Washington on February 28, 2014:

Nice deep dive into the world of 'real' zombies. I have read The Serpent and the Rainbow but didn't know about much of the other info you present.

There's a recent indy art film called Upstream Color, which is kind of difficult to folllow as it presents a nonlinear narrative, however the film features a zombie inducing critter that allows a person to control another person. It's like a couple recovering zombies get together and go after the zombie god, so maybe it's a metaphor for religion.

There is a really good interview with linguist Noam Chomsky on the reason that zombies are popular in western media right now, just Google Chomsky and zombie.

Also, scopolamine is the common main ingredient for motion sickness pills or tremors medication and can be found over the counter in many stores, like at airports. It would take a heavy dose but criminals easily harvest it to create 'date rape' drugs. It should really be banned here for that reason alone, but it is 'patented' and sold by big pharma so they could care less unfortunately..

Colleen Swan from County Durham on February 28, 2014:

Hi Gilbert. A great article. It's not my cup of tea so to speak. I wonder if there is an element of escapism sought by the victim. However the use of toxins is fascinating.

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