A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How do I go about creating a zombie?

May 21, 1999

Dear Cecil:

How would I go about putting a curse on someone? With voodoo, preferably? Is there someone I would have to contact, or could I do it all at home? Thanks in advance.

Cecil replies:

Easy, pal. Do my job for a week.

As for the curse, sorry, but I come out of that one either a fraud or a codefendant.   Zombies are another story. Although I don't have a recipe, some claim we do know the active ingredient for a zombie cocktail that'll take your breath away, literally. But I have to warn you: the one account of zombification we have by a Western scientist has been hotly disputed. Proceed at your own risk.

Our source here is ethnobotanist Wade Davis. In 1982 he visited Haiti to see if he could learn the secret of the "zombie powder" that local sorcerers, known as bokors, allegedly used to reanimate the dead. As told in his 1985 book, The Serpent and the Rainbow (a scholarly version, Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie, appeared later), Davis had little to go on but some tantalizing stories and a few contacts. Nonetheless, during his first week in Haiti he managed to meet two alleged zombies who'd been patients at a local psychiatric institute. (One would become the subject of a BBC documentary.) What's more, with the aid of a wad of greenbacks he was able to witness the manufacture of a batch of zombie powder. In a chilling passage he tells of a midnight trip to a graveyard where he watched a bokor and his assistants dig up the corpse of a recently deceased infant, portions of which — Davis is a bit vague on the details — were added to a witch's brew of plants, sea worm, toad, lizard, and fish.

As time went on Davis learned a bit about why zombies were created. Typically the victim had antagonized his family or neighbors, who hired a bokor to do him in. The bokor would spread zombie powder on the threshold of the home of the victim, where he would absorb it through his feet. After falling into a deathlike trance the victim would be buried then later summoned from the grave by the bokor, who would exploit the zombie as a slave.

During several trips to Haiti, Davis was able to collect eight samples of powder. A number of the ingredients had psychoactive properties, but the most important, he concluded, was a potent neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin, which was extracted from the puffer fish found in Haitian waters. The principal symptom of tetrodotoxin poisoning is paralysis — often the victim remains conscious, but his breathing becomes so shallow as to be undetectable and he appears lifeless. Davis claims some victims were thought dead but revived.

Davis tells of providing samples of zombie powder to pathologist Leon Roizin, who tested them on rats. Roizin told him the animals became completely immobilized and unresponsive, though heartbeat and brainwaves were still detectable. After 24 hours the rats recovered, apparently without lingering effects. Davis never actually saw the creation of a zombie and concedes there is much about Haitian society he doesn't understand. But one might conclude that tetrodotoxin was the drug used to create zombies.

It ain't necessarily so. Davis's hypothesis has been bitterly disputed by other scientists. Two experts on tetrodotoxin, C.Y. Kao and Takeshi Yasumoto, tested two of his samples and found they contained only a minute amount of it, too little to have any pharmacological effect. They also condemned Davis for his involvement in grave robbing. According to an account of the controversy in the journal Science, Davis himself fed zombie powder to rats without result, a fact not cited in his books. Roizin never repeated his experiments, published his results, or determined what was in the samples he was given. In the Science article he was quoted as saying he was "embarrassed" by his involvement in the affair.

If tetrodotoxin doesn't produce zombies, what does? In 1997 two researchers told of examining three alleged zombies. One they conjectured was a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome and a second they pegged as a catatonic schizophrenic. They concluded that "mistaken identification of a wandering, mentally ill stranger by bereaved relatives is the most likely explanation" of zombies.  I mean, we've all encountered our share of glassy-eyed vegetables. But who's to say whether the cause is exotic poisons or too much TV?

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