Zombies: The "Real Life" Walking Dead

By , Columnist

Gene Page/AMC

Zombies have a lot of life left in them, it seems. The continuing popularity of the genre is great news for those of us who like our entertainment on the gruesome side, especially as it brings back The Walking Dead for a very welcome second season.

Not everyone has the luxury of enjoying zombies in the guise of fiction, though. To some, they are terrifyingly real.

In the Caribbean country of Haiti, for example, a belief persists that sorcerers known as bokors can magically revive corpses. The resulting zombies are able to eat, breathe, and move, but not to think, and they retain no recollection of who they were. Thus stripped of any free will, they make ideal slaves.

This belief in zombies sometimes strays out of the semi-comfortable realm of folklore and shambles forth into reality. The most famous real-life (if such a term is in any way appropriate here) example of this concerns a man named Clairvius Narcisse.

In 1980, Angelina Narcisse was out shopping in the market of her home village of l’Estère, Haiti, when she heard a voice whisper to her the nickname of her brother, Clairvius. That nickname was known only to close relatives and even they barely remembered it, her brother having died way back in 1962. Angelina turned around to see a sick-looking man standing beside her, and when she recognised him as her brother she fainted from shock.

Later, other family members as well as numerous other residents of l’Estère confirmed her identification. This was not the first time that a supposed zombie had been identified, but unusually this man’s mind appeared sufficiently intact for him to answer questions that only the real Clairvius should have been able to. He was also able to reveal what had happened to him.

He claimed that he had got into a heated argument over land and money with his brother, who had hired a bokor to do away with him. The bokor secretly administered a poison, inducing a fever that was followed by a deathlike trance. Clairvius was pronounced dead and buried alive, conscious but trapped inside his immobile body.

The bokor later returned, dug him up, and gave him a second drug, which enabled him to move but fogged his thoughts. Now one of the living dead, Clairvius was taken to the north of Haiti, where he endured two years working with a group of other zombie slaves. They were kept drugged until one day the mind of one of his fellow zombies somehow cleared enough for that man to attack and kill the bokor.

With the mind-controlling drug no longer being administered, Clairvius’s memories gradually started to return. For years he wandered from place to place until he learned that his brother had died, prompting him to return to his home village.

Such stories came to fascinate a Canadian anthropologist and ethnobiologist named Wade Davis, who determined to discover what the secret poisons involved might be.

Davis’s researches led him to believe that a bokor could bring on the initial deathlike state using a substance containing tetrodotoxin (a paralysing nerve agent found in puffer fish) combined with a potent anaesthetic and hallucinogen that was secreted by the highly poisonous cane toad.

Given this, the victim’s heartbeat and respiration would slow so much that the person appeared to be dead and would be buried, only to be dug up later and partially revived using another substance, containing the mind-altering drug datura. In most cases, the combined effect would be compounded by brain damage resulting from oxygen starvation, a result of being buried alive. Presumably, Clairvius had been taken from his coffin relatively quickly, which was why he had eventually recovered as much as he had.

Although Davis’s ideas have become widely known, not everyone accepts them. Another theory is that supposed zombies can be explained as wandering, brain-damaged or mentally ill strangers, mistakenly identified by the bereaved as their deceased relatives.

Whatever the explanation(s) for zombies, belief in and fear of their reality in Haiti is actively encouraged by bokors. As Davis pointed out, this widespread cultural acceptance of zombies is certainly an important component in whatever really goes on.

In our own culture, the zombie has evolved a rather different identity, one more akin to monster than to victim. For all the terror embodied in the traditional version, the modern Western zombie is every bit as unsettling a creature.

Although its physical body remains, the essence of what made that person who they were has gone, leaving only a soulless shell animated by some inhuman force. Instead of the traditional powers of sorcery, zombies such as The Walking Dead’s “walkers” are animated by something perhaps even more disturbing.

They are compelled by a primal hunger so deep it is practically pre-human, an irresistible motivating impulse reminding us that, after all our higher mental process are stripped away, we may be nothing more than creatures driven by raw and brutal instinct.

That may be the greatest horror of all.

All photos: Gene Page/AMC

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James Clark is a freelance writer based in deepest, darkest south London, UK. His latest book, "Haunted Lambeth", exploring ghosts and legends from the London Borough of Lambeth, is due out in February 2013.

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