Dead Man Walking: Wade Davis and the Secret of the Zombie Poison
By Patrick D. Hahn
Accepted on September 4, 2007
Twenty years ago, Wade Davis rocked the anthropological world with his claim to have discovered the secret formula that can turn human beings into zombies.
The word zombie comes from the Kongo word Nzambi which means “spirit of a dead person.” For generations, westerners had been horrified and fascinated by rumors of the zombie, or the walking dead. Travelers returning from Haiti told lurid tales of unsuspecting victims who had been poisoned by evil bokors, or witch doctors, who then disinterred the corpses of the victims and revived them with a magic formula. The hapless victim, stripped of volition and memory, was then rebaptized with a new name and taken away to be put to work as the bokor’s slave.
These stories were derided as a racist myth by Haitian intellectuals and ignored by the scientific community at large, until a case of reported zombification came along that was too well-documented to ignore. This was the case of Clairvius Narcisse.
The facts of the case of Clairvius Narcisse are as follows: on the 30th of April, 1962, at 9:45 PM, he checked himself into the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in the town of Deschapelle in the Artibonite Valley of Haiti. Narcisse had been sick for some time, complaining of fever, body aches, and general malaise, but just recently he had begun coughing up blood. His condition deteriorated rapidly. Attending physicians noted that Narcisse suffered from digestive disorders, pulmonary edema, hypothermia, respiratory difficulties, and hypotension. His sister Angelina would later recall that his lips turned blue, or cyanotic, and that he reported tingling sensations, or paraethesias, all over his body.
On the morning of May 2 his two attending physicians, one of whom was American and the other American -trained, pronounced Clairvius Narcisse dead. His body was identified by his oldest sister, Marie Claire, who affixed her thumbprint to the death certificate, and he was buried the next day.
Eighteen years later, Angelina Narcisse was walking through the village marketplace when she was approached by someone claiming to be Clairvius Narcisse. The man identified himself by a boyhood nickname which had not been used for years and which was known only to members of the immediate family, and he had a bizarre tale to tell.
He said that shortly before he was pronounced dead, he felt as if his skin was on fire, with insects crawling beneath it. He heard his sister Angelina weeping as he was pronounced dead, felt the sheet being pulled up over his face. Horrifyingly, although he was unable to move or speak, he remained lucid and aware the entire time, even as his coffin was nailed shut and buried. He even had a scar which he claimed was sustained as one of the coffin nails was driven through his face. He felt the sensation of floating above the grave. There he remained, for how long he did not know, until the coffin as opened by the bokor and his henchmen. He was beaten into submission, bound, gagged, and spirited away to a sugar plantation that was to be his home for the next two years.
On the plantation, Narcisse and some other zombies labored from sunup to sunset, pausing for only one spare meal a day. He would later report that he passed his time there in a dream-like state, devoid of will or volition, with events unfolding before him as if in slow motion.
Freedom came two years later. One of the zombies was being beaten by the bokor for insubordination, and in desperation the would-be victim managed to grab a hoe and kill his tormentor. The zombies all then escaped. Narcisse spent the next sixteen years wandering the Haitian countryside. He wrote to his family repeatedly, but his letters went unanswered. Only after the death of the brother he believed had arranged to have him done in did he dare to return to his village.
In 1982 his case came to the attention of two researchers: Dr. Nathan Kline, a prominent psychopharmacologist who had worked in Haiti for thirty years and who had played a central role in establishing the Centre de Psychologie et Neurologie Mars-Kline, Haiti’s first (and only) modern psychiatric facility, and Dr. Lamarque Douyon, the center’s director.
These men realized that opening up the grave of Clairvius Narcisse would tell them little. If the man claiming to be Narcisse was a fraud, he (or his coconspirators) could easily have removed the body themselves. On the other hand, if he had truly been a victim of zombification, those responsible could have substituted another body, which by then would be unidentifiable (this was in the days before DNA fingerprinting).
Instead, with the help of Narcisse’s family, Dr. Douyon came up with a series of questions about his intimate family history, which the man claiming to be Narcisse answered correctly. There was certainly no apparent motive for fraud in this case (zombies in Haiti are treated as complete social outcasts). His answers, together with the testimony of Narcisse’s family, neighbors, and physicians, convinced Dr. Douyon that the man claiming to be Narcisse was indeed who he claimed to be.
If his story was true – and there was every reason to believe it was – then it would be expected that there would be a material explanation – some kind of drug which reduced the heartbeat and ventilation to imperceptible levels while allowing the victim to be brought back from the brink of death. The potential value of such a drug was enormous, as a new anaesthetic or even as a means of inducing suspended animation for astronauts on long space flights. In 1982, at Kline’s behest, a twenty-eight-year-old Harvard graduate student named Wade Davis journeyed to Haiti in search of the secret of the zombie poison.
Davis obtained specimens of the zombie powder, from several different bokors, in several different locations. The composition of the powders varied widely: each one was a witch’s brew of strange ingredients, including toads, tree frogs, snakes, lizards, centipedes, and sea worms. However, three classes of ingredients were common to all the preparations: 1) charred and ground bones and other human remains, 2) plants with urticating hairs, spines, toxic resins, or calcium oxalate crystals, and 3) puffer fish.
The human bones are almost certainly pharmacologically inert, although their presence was to play an important role in the ensuing controversy, as we shall see shortly. The plants with urticating hairs or other irritants doubtless served to abrade the skin and enable the entry of the poison into the bloodstream. Sometimes the powders also contained tarantulas (which also have urticating hairs) and/or ground glass as well, which would have the same effect. These ingredients would also cause itching and irritation, and the victim’s attempts to relive his suffering by scratching himself could result in self-inflicted wounds, which would further act to facilitate the uptake of the poison. The bokors were adamant that the powders were never taken orally; they suggested sprinkling the powder in the victim’s shoes or down his back, or onto an open wound. They also counseled Davis that the powder might have to be applied more than once to have the desired effect.
It was the third ingredient, the puffer fish, which sparked the controversy. The puffer fish contains tetrodotoxin, one of the deadliest poisons known to man. Easily five hundred times more powerful than cyanide, tetrodotoxin binds to the sodium channels on the nerve cell membrane, blocking transmission of the nervous impulse. Symptoms of tetrodotoxin poisoning include malaise, paraesthesias, cyanosis of the lips, digestive disorders, pulmonary edema, hypothermia, respiratory difficulties, hypotension, aphonia, and complete paralysis.
Note that every one of these symptoms was exhibited by Clairvius Narcisse when he “died” at the Albert Schweitzer Medical Center.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its potential lethality, the flesh of the puffer fish is prized as a delicacy in Japan, where it is called fugu. Most of the poison in the puffer fish is found in the viscera (especially the reproductive organs). When these are removed, the fish can be eaten safely, giving diners no more than an agreeable prickling sensation of the tongue and a slight feeling of euphoria.
Most of the time, that is. The amount of tetrodotoxin in puffer fish varies widely between the sexes (females have more), between different individuals of the same sex, and even within the same individual at different times of the year. Sometimes diners get too much tetrodotoxin, and they lapse into a state of complete paralysis. Heartbeat and ventilation fall to imperceptible levels. Some of these individuals have revived after they had been pronounced dead, and in one case even after his coffin was nailed shut! Afterwards, most of these victims reported that they had been fully aware of what had been going on around them, even as they were unable to move or speak. Again, note the parallels to the case of Clairvius Narcisse.
It is likely that an individual poisoned with tetrodotoxin and then buried alive would suffer some degree of brain damage due to lack of oxygen. As Nathan Kline and others have pointed out, the higher centers of the brain, that control will and volition, would be the first to die, while the more primitive parts of the brain, that control vital functions such as heartbeat and ventilation, might still survive. This could help explain the, well, zombie-like condition of most zombies. Presumably, Narcisse survived his ordeal with little or no brain damage. Davis reported that, in an interview, Narcisse spoke slowly but otherwise seemed normal. Another alleged zombie examined by Davis, a young woman named Francina Ileus, was a near-vegetable.
Additionally, the bokors told Davis that when the victim is disinterred, he or she is beaten into submission and then force-fed a paste made of sweet potatoes, cane syrup, and Datura, a plant suggestively named the concombre zombi, or the zombie cucumber. Datura contains the hallucinogens atropine and scopolamine, and induces delirium, confusion, psychosis, and complete amnesia. (cf. Narcisse’s remarks that he passed his time as the bokor’s slave in a dream-like state). Furthermore, zombies are said to be fed a salt-free diet, which would induce extreme lassitude, especially in Haiti’s sweltering climate.
The question remains: why would anyone want to turn another person into a zombie? It cannot be for their labor, which is dirt-cheap in Haiti (at the time Davis made his sojourn to Haiti, the average wage for a working man was less than a dollar a day). Most of the individuals who survive the process of zombification must be so diminished that their labor cannot be worth much, anyway.
The Haitian people suffered a long and particularly gruesome history of oppression before overthrowing their French slavemasters, and the zombie is the embodiment of their worst fears of depersonalization and loss of liberty. Davis argued that zombification is the ultimate social sanction levied against those who trespass against community mores. Narcisse was widely seen as a quarrelsome and troublesome individual who had enriched himself at the expense of others. He had fought repeatedly with members of his family, and he had fathered numerous children he had refused to accept responsibility for. Reaching mid-life with few financial burdens, he became the first person in his village to replace the thatched roof on his hut with a tin one. Perhaps most seriously, he had refused to cede his share of the family land to a brother who had a family to support. Access to the land is an issue taken extremely seriously in Haiti. Narcisse himself believed that the brother to whom he had refused to cede his share of the land was the one who had arranged to have him turned into a zombie.
Davis returned from Haiti with samples of the zombie powder. In a private communication to Davis, Leo Roisin of the New York State Psychiatric Institute reported that topical application of the powder to rats induced a state of suspended animation, akin to that seen in victims of fugu poisoning . Davis expounded his thesis that tetrodotoxin is the active ingredient in the zombie powder in two books, The Serpent and the Rainbow  and Passage of Darkness .
Almost immediately the fur began to fly. Yasumoto and Kao  reported in the British journal Toxicon that they analyzed two samples of the zombie powder and found only insignificant traces of tetrodotoxin – 64 ng/g or less. They further noted that the powders, which contained ground human bone, were extremely alkaline when dissolved in water, and since tetrodotoxin breaks down rapidly in alkaline solution, any tetrodotoxin that had been present in the powder would have been destroyed. They concluded that, “The widely circulated claim in the lay press that tetrodotoxin is the causal agent in the initial zombification process is without factual foundation ”
There is no particular reason to doubt the veracity of Yasumoto and Kao’s data. However they performed a gigantic leap of logic when they extrapolated from the contents of a couple of test tubes in their laboratory to an entire culture’s belief system and worldview. Yasumoto and Kao seemed oblivious to the fact that the powders were prepared by witch doctors in a primitive culture, not by a major pharmaceutical firm. We have already noted that the amount of tetrodotoxin in the puffer fish varies widely. Furthermore, Yasumoto and Kao were correct in noting that tetrodotoxin breaks down in alkaline solution, but they ignored the fact that the bokors were insistent that the powder must be rubbed on to the skin or onto an open wound, thus enabling the poison to enter directly into the bloodstream. (Human blood has tremendous buffering capacity, so absorption of the powder should not cause a significant change in pH.) Benedek and Rivier  of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland tested one of Davis’s samples, this time carefully keeping the pH at a constant value of 5.5, and they found levels of tetrodotoxin of 20 μg/g – more than two orders of magnitude higher than the value reported by Yasumoto and Kao.
Yasumoto and Kao  fired back at Benedek and Rivier, claiming that their tests failed to distinguish between tetrodotoxin and a number of similar but biologically inactive compounds. This point is well taken, but rather than collect the data that would enable a definitive test of the Davis’ hypothesis, they veered off into an ad hominem tirade against Davis. They noted that Davis had failed to report that he himself had repeated the rat bioassay with one of his samples and found no biological activity whatsoever. They pointed out that half of the voucher specimens Davis had provided of puffer fish supposedly used to make the zombie powder were in fact of a non-toxic species (ignoring the fact that the failure of the bokors to distinguish between toxic and non-toxic species would be an additional source of variability in the quality of the powders). They also blasted Davis for being present during the illegal exhumation of a recently deceased infant (as if such going-on would not be taking place whether or not Davis had ever set foot in Haiti).
Other critics joined the fray. They slammed Davis for paying for the zombie powders (Davis pointed out, reasonably enough, that Haitians have to pay for zombie powder, so why shouldn’t he?) and even derided the literary merits of his two books and a movie based (very loosely) on The Serpent and the Rainbow. (Granted, the film version of The Serpent and the Rainbow is appallingly stupid, but it hardly seems fair to blame Davis for that; as the novelist John Le Carre famously remarked, “Seeing your book being turned into a movie is like seeing you ox being turned into bouillion cubes.”)
Yasumoto and Kao were correct in pointing out that Davis had hurt his own credibility by neglecting to report the rat bioassay results that did not support his thesis. But that does not even begin to explain the level of vitriol directed against him. Wasn’t the whole point of the enlightenment to shine the light of truth on to areas of life clouded by ignorance and superstition? It is hard to imagine any motive behind these attacks besides sheer envy.
It seems likely that reported cases of zombification have multiple causes. Roland Littlewood of the University College of London and Chavannes Douyon of the Polyclinique Medica of Port-Au-Prince  examined three individuals said to be zombies. Two of these individuals are of particular interest because Littlewood and Douyon were able to perform DNA testing on them. One was a young man whom they diagnosed with brain damage due to anoxia, and the other was a young woman who appeared to be afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome. On the basis of DNA tests, Littlewood and Douyon concluded that these individuals were not related to the people who claimed to be their families. The authors noted that mentally ill or brain-damaged individuals are often found to be wandering the streets in Haiti, and they suggested that people might mistake these individuals for dead loved ones and take them into their homes. The authors seemed at a loss for an explanation of why anybody would do this, but one readily suggests itself: people would prefer to have a diminished version of their departed loved one around to none at all.
So where does that leave us? The actual manufacture of a zombie has never been documented. (Needless to say, such an act would be a serious crime in Haiti, or anywhere else in the world for that matter.) But these facts seem beyond dispute:
- Belief in zombies is almost universal in Haiti
- The zombie powder always contains puffer fish
- The flesh of the puffer fish at least some of the time contains medically significant quantities of tetrodotoxin, and
- Tetrodotoxin can induce a state of suspended animation almost indistinguishable from death.
These facts, along with the facts of the case of Clairvius Narcisse, may not add up to proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but the smart money is on Davis’s thesis, even if zombification is not an everyday event – a fact that Davis himself took pains to emphasize: “I’ve never said there is some kind of assembly line producing zombies in Haiti ” Indeed, it may be that zombification is no longer practiced in Haiti, and if this be the case, it may be that Davis deserves the credit for exposing the reality behind this cruel practice. If so, then the defilement of the grave of one child (who obviously never knew about it) seems well worth the trade-off.
One question remains: why is it that Japanese diners who ingest too much tetrodotoxin do not turn into zombies? The answer lies in what Davis calls the “set and setting” of any drug experience – “set” being the individual’s expectation of what the drug will do to him, and setting being the environment, including the matrix of beliefs in which an individual is embedded. Imagine, if you will, what Narcisse must have gone through. Isolated from his community by his actions, he found himself growing sicker and weaker. In desperation, he entered the alien environment of the western hospital, where he actually heard himself pronounced dead by his doctors. Unable to move or speak, he felt the sheet being pulled up over his face, heard his coffin lid being nailed shut. No doubt he felt that his worst nightmares were coming true. And remember that he came from a culture in which belief in zombies – and in the efficacy of the bokor’s powers – is universal. In the end, it wasn’t the bokor’s poisons that did Narcisse in – it was his own mind.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. E. Wade Davis: “The ethnobiology of the Haitian zombi,” Journal of
Ethnopharmacology, No. 9, pp. 85-104. (1983).
2. E. Wade Davis: The Serpent and the Rainbow, Warner Books, New York NY (1985).
3. E. Wade Davis: Passage of Darkness, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel
Hill NC (1989).
4. Takeshi Yasumoto and C.Y. Kao, “Tetrodotoxin and the Haitian zombie,” Toxicon,
No. 24, pp. 747-749 (1986).
5. Ibid., p. 748
6. C. Benedek and L. Rivier, “Evidence for the presence of tetrodotoxin in a powder used
in Haiti for zombification,” Toxicon, pp. 473-480, (1989).
7. Takeshi Yasumoto and C.Y. Kao, “Tetrodotoxin in ‘Zombie powder,” Toxicon, No.
28, pp. 129-132 (1990).
8. Roland Littlewood and Chavannes Douyon, “Clinical findings in three cases of
zombification,” Lancet, No. 350, pp. 1094-1096, (1997).
9. William Booth, “Voodoo science,” Science, No. 240, pp. 274-277.