On May 2, 1962, Clairvius Narcise died at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti. His death, caused by malnutrition and accompanied by high fever, severe pain and respiratory problems, was certified by two hospital doctors. One of his sisters, Angelina, identified the body and the other, Marie Claire, authenticated the death certificate by putting her fingerprint. The family buried Clarivius in a small cemetery in l’Estere. Everything would have ended there and we would not have known of the existence of this man, like so many other millions of people who die every year, if it were not for the fact that 18 years later, in the spring of 1980, he was seen in the market of his small town half-naked and with a lost look . At least that tells the story, because it is difficult to establish the facts. It is also unclear whether he was recognized by his countrymen and relatives or, as Time magazine wrote at the time, he approached his sister Angelina, introduced himself as her dead brother, and she evidently screamed in horror.
“The theory on which the belief in zombies is based is that some Haitian sorcerers have the power to bring dead and buried people back to life ,” wrote Louis P. Mars, professor of psychiatry at the Haitian Institute of Ethnology, in 1945. . “In remote areas of the country, it is believed that some rich farmers are lucky in their harvests because they are helped by mysterious beings who work on their farms ; who steal money for them; that travel at fantastic speeds, faster than cars, and fly through the sky like airplanes. These are supposed to be men and women who died and were brought back to life thanks to powerful drugs.” And he added: “I have never found anyone in Haiti who could assure me that they have personally seen a zombie. However, I often hear that a zombie is living in a town…and they are, in fact, sick vagrants who can neither say who they are , nor give any information that might shed light on their past or current state.”
In 1982, Narcise’s story prompted Harvard University ethnobotanist Wade Davis to travel to Haiti. He found out that there was a potion, called coup de poudre , which was applied topically and induced the zombie state. After taking some samples, Davis found that the key ingredient was tetradotoxin, a nerve toxin that with less than a milligram is capable of killing an adult. Its effects are well known in Japan, as it is produced by the liver and reproductive organs of the puffer fish ( fugu ), one of the most appreciated delicacies in the Japanese world and that can only be prepared by cooks with a special license. All in all, it is estimated that around 200 cases of fugu poisoning occur each year, with a mortality of 50%.
The key to making a zombie: Tetrodotoxin
The first symptoms of tetradodoxine poisoning appear 20 minutes to three hours after consumption. It begins with a numbness of the lips and tongue, which continues with paresthesia of the face and extremities followed by a certain sensation of floating. Headache, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, even difficulty walking may appear. The paralysis spreads making it impossible for the patient to move , to which must be added pain when breathing, seizures, cognitive disturbances and arrhythmia. It may happen that the victim, totally paralyzed, remains lucid until the moment of his death, which usually arrives from half an hour to 8 hours after ingesting this toxin.
When in 1985 Davis published his findings in the bestseller The Serpent and the Rainbow , which was made into a film by horror film director Wes Craven, controversy arose. In it he assured that thanks to this toxin a person could be turned into the classic zombie without conscience. Many critics claimed that he had exaggerated about the chemical properties of the coup de poudre . As William Booth pointed out in the journal Science in 1988, the amount of tetradodoxine found in the famous “D sample”, the only one of the 8 obtained by Davis that actually contained it, was not enough to do anything. The whole book, he said, was a gross exaggeration.
Does the zombie potion really work?
Three years later, Davis published the less sensational and much more documented Passage of Darkness . His starting point is clear: “The evidence suggests that zombification is a form of social sanction imposed by certain groups – the little-known and clandestine Bizango secret societies – as a way of maintaining order and control in local communities.” In fact, Davis showed that to think that it is a way to obtain slaves to work in the fields is really silly, given that a day laborer was paid the measly amount of 1 dollar a day. In the same way, in a society as violent as Haiti’s, believing that zombification is a way of getting rid of enemies is even more incredible, when it is easier and less economically costly to eliminate them by classical means (we must remember that Haitians pay voodoo sorcerers ( bokor ) for their potions, as Davis did).
On the other hand, Davis argued that believing that tetradodoxine alone is to blame for zombies is a tremendous mistake. In fact, those who survive do not become zombies : their mental faculties are not impaired in any way. According to the ethnobotanist, the toxin is necessary, but not sufficient: it needs all the voodoo folklore to work . For Davis, the number of real zombies is very small: the production of zombie powder is not carried out with precise weighing following an exact formula, but is made based on magical recipes that are not at all quantitative, where the bokor must fine-tune the mixture through trial and error. . It is obvious that few of these potions work. But do any really work?
Davis, W. (1987), The Zombie Enigma, Martinez Roca