Zombie Special: Slavery and Sorcery in Haiti

This is the first in our exploration of the culture, science and mythology of zombies. Find parts two and three here.

It’s hard to imagine a time when zombies were anything but ghouls on a big screen. But looking at the darker roots of where zombies come from, what is now a source of entertainment once held true terror for Haiti’s enslaved population.

By Katerina Flynn: @katerinaflynn1

Among the many Caribbean countries, lies Haiti which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic to its east. For decades Haiti’s history has fascinated occult enthusiasts, film makers and authors. There are many intriguing aspects to Haiti’s history – the cultural diversity, the Haitian carnival, even the fact that Haiti has been consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. But there is one aspect of Haiti that has excited people more than any other part of the culture: the religion of Vodou.

When we hear the word Vodou we think of pins sticking out of dolls and black magic, but what is Haitian Vodou and why have so many people become so transfixed on this part of Haitian history?

Voodoo originated in Haiti during the French Colonial Period, and it is still widely practiced in Haiti today.

The foundations of Vodou are the tribal religions of West Africa, brought to Haiti by slaves in the seventeenth century. It is a religion that was born out of a desperate time, when Haitians were forced by the white Christian masters to abandon everything they held dear. Vodou brought about a feeling of community, of safety and belonging to those in the plantations.

Those who practice Vodou believe in the Bondye but also the Loa which are spirits of the Bondye. Each Loa has their own gender, likes and dislikes and are not just worshipped but are instead served. Within the faith there are of course leaders, priests and priestesses who lead the services, who actively serve the Loa and who may also act as healers and midwives in the more rural areas of Haiti.

While being gay in Haiti isn’t illegal it’s also not socially acceptable. The Vodou practitioners are highly supportive of the LGBT community and have turned temples into makeshift religious gay clubs. They are so openly accepting of everyone’s colour and lifestyle. Whether you are a rich man in a mansion or a beggar on the streets, all are welcome to Vodou. Given the sense of community, the freedom and calmness within the faith, why are people of this religion still persecuted?

Because of zombies, that’s why.

‘’The only thing worse than being a slave in life was being one in death.’’

Within every religion, there are those who would turn something so peaceful into a symbol of fear. Consider how the swastika was an image of hope for thousands of years and appeared in many faiths before it was used to inspire fear. There are those who practice the forbidden art of raising the dead, despite the fact that almost all priests and priestesses have outlawed even attempting to delve into the dark arts.

For many who are interested in this topic, the question isn’t why someone would want to raise a person from the dead, but instead how its done and who can do it. Entertaining for a moment the idea that reanimation is possible, there are so many reasons people would want to do it. A lost relative you miss, a child taken too soon or perhaps the chance to have an rival do your bidding. The reasons whether good or bad, are endless.

The first port of call is to find someone in Haiti that is not only willing to attempt the forbidden art but who can actually do it. There is only one type of Vodou practitioner who supposedly has the power to successfully raise the dead. A Bokor (male) or Caplata (female) are said to have far more power than the general Vodou practitioner.

Bokors are similar to the “root workers” in New Orleans voodoo. Some may be priests of a Vodou house. Bokors are usually chosen from birth, those who are believed to bear a great ashe (power). A bokor can be, by worldly terms, good or evil, though some sources (Judeo-Christian) consider him an evil version of a houngan (Vodou priests).  

Now we know who can allegedly undertake this incredible task, the real question is how is it done? Using a combination of ingredients, the bokors create a zombie powder. The neurotoxins from a Puffer fish called Tetrodotoxin are used to induce a state of complete peripheral paralysis. They use a marine toad that produces numerous toxic substances which has pain killing effects. Human remains are said by bokors to be the critical ingredients in the making of the zombie powder. Additionally the zombie powders contained a variety of other animal and plant ingredients (including Jimsons Weed, spiders, lizards and ground glass) which likely would have irritated the skin, caused hallucinogenic effects or were poisonous.

‘’There have been many alleged cases of people coming back from the dead in Haiti.’’

After the body is buried, the bokor enters the grave and digs up the body. Next, the bokor performs a ritual where they capture the victim’s soul. They can do this by capturing it within seven days following the death of the person. He traps the soul in a  a jar or commonplace container, and replaces it with the loa that the bokor controls. After a day or two, the bokor then administers a hallucinogenic mixture that revives the victim and is used to keep the zombie in a state of submissive confusion. In this state, the zombi cannot speak, has no memory, and no longer resembles its past human personality.

As a result, the zombie is easy to control and the bokor can use the zombie as a slave for farm labor. The zombies are completely under the rule of the bokor that made them and consequently work as slaves until the bokor dies. Once they are released from their slave labor, the zombies can return to their home village or place of burial and die. A major concern in Haitian folklore concerning zombies is the act of feeding salt to a zombie. While zombies are usually not particularly dangerous, giving them salt will return their senses and restore their personality. This will lead the zombies to attack the bokor who created them.

While zombification seems at first to be a physical experience, there is additionally a psychological aspect in the ritual.  After being buried, the victim’s reawakening as a zombie follows a psychotic state. The victim is able to reconstruct their identity as a zombie due to a combination of the psychosis induced by the drugs and the strong beliefs of zombies in their culture. This contributes to the psychological aspect that controls the victim’s perception and actions.

There have been many cases of people allegedly coming back from the dead in Haiti, the most famous case being that of Clairvius Narcisse. In 1962, Narcisse was 40 years old when he checked himself into the hospital complaining of pain and difficulty in breathing. Two days later he was dead, and his official death certificate is on file. His body lay in the morgue for 24 hours (in unsurvivable refrigeration) until his family collected his body and buried him in the family plot.

18 years later, Narcisse suddenly identified himself to his sister in the street and told a shocking tale. After three days underground, his coffin was suddenly opened. He was beaten, gagged, forced to take a hallucinogenic drug, and dragged away to face two years of slave labor on a sugar plantation, as one of many imprisoned zombies. He reported being in a dream state with no willpower the whole time. Finally another zombie killed a captor with a hoe, and the zombies all escaped. Narcisse wandered for sixteen years, afraid to return home, convinced that his brother had been to blame. Then, upon his brother’s death, he visited his sister.  

Unlike the reactions we are used to seeing on screen, Haitians did not fear the presence of zombies. Their fear stemmed simply from the threat of becoming a zombie. Whether or not the masters themselves truly believed in the zombie we’ll never know but they weren’t above using it as a threat to keep the slaves in line.

Given the trauma they endured in their lives as slaves, many attempted suicide. The masters, obviously afraid of losing their workforce, came up with a way to keep the slaves alive. As if the threat of the beating, raping and killing the slaves wasn’t enough, they turned their greatest fear against them. The only thing worse than being a slave in life was being one in death. Haitians believe that if you are turned into a zombie, you will never be allowed entry into heaven. Given the horror they suffered in life, the belief they would gain peace after their death was the only hope they had to get them through.

Whether you are a true believer or you simply think Vodou is nonsense and trickery, this topic is indeed fascinating. The Haitian government take the pursuit of making zombies so seriously, that there is a law in place forbidding even attempting to making one.

While Haiti’s thoughts on zombies will never change, thanks to the work of author William Seabrook, the rest of world’s viewpoint on them has shifted drastically – as we’ll explore in part two of this series.

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Magazine and website celebrating Nottingham's stories.

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