I'm probably one of the few people my age who doesn't like Vice Magazine. I don't know why it irritates the shit out of me, but it does. I do have a guilty pleasure though, Hamilton's Pharmacopia. This little midnight escape of mine has turned out pretty handy for Beam's Undead Week. Because in this episode, Hamilton goes zombie hunting...
In 1791, rebelling slaves vowed to kill their white masters and were anointed with the blood of a slaughtered pig. This auspicious Vodou ceremony precipitated the uprising that eventually lead to the expulsion of the French and the establishment of the first independent black republic, Haiti.
After the US occupation of Haiti from 1915-34, Marines returned from the island with stories of strange potions, black magic, and the living dead. They later wrote and helped to inspire a new genre of pulp fiction novels and movies that came to form the basis of the American concept of the Zombie.
"The first thing you have to do when you even begin to try to understand a phenomenon like the Haitian zombie - which is just one thread woven through the fabric of this amazing culture - is to eliminate from your consciousness all your preconceptions... Where did we get the idea of the Zombie as evil or black magic? It really goes back to the fact that if you name the great religions of the world - Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity - there's always one continent left out: Sub-saharan Africa. The tacit assumption being that black people had no religion. Of course by ethnographic definition they did."
Wade Davis, Harvard ethnobotanist and author of 1985 bestseller, The Serpent and the Rainbow, spent four years in Haiti investigating the biological underpinnings of the Haitian zombie, or nzambi (which when read phonetically sounds like the word, zombie, in a really cool Caribbean accent). He returned convinced that such a thing existed and could be realized through a subtle mix of biological neurotoxins, poisons, and Haitian cultural interpretation/worldview.
He describes how he came to his conclusion:
"Zombies were deemed to be off limits for serious academic research. But Dr. Lamarque Douyon, of the Port-au-Prince psychiatric centre, found an extra ordinary case of a man called Clarvius Narcisse. What made the case unique was that Narcisse had been pronounced dead in the hospital. His death had been witnessed by two physicians - both American trained, one actually American - and impeccable records had described his pathology at the time of his demise. Eighteen years later a man claiming to be Clarvius Narcisse turned up in his home village claiming that he'd been made a zombie. This chain of evidence led Dr. Douyon to go public and claim that they had found the first medically verifiable instance of a zombie."
The incident made space for researchers, like Wade Davis, to begin investigating reports from the folk literature. As an ethnobotanist, Davis was asked to investigate and attempt to secure the formula for zombification, which he did. The formula, he says, spans a host of Haitian flora and fauna including various herbs, weeds, cane toad, puffer fish, hispanola boa, bearded fireworm, tarantula, cashew leaves, and the bones of a human child. The powder mixes into a poison said to bring on a state of apparent death so profound that it could fool a physician.
"We never could really prove [it was occurring]. But we could show that there was a kind of coherence with the worldview of the Haitian people. If it could not be absolutely proven, it was at least so provocative that it demanded investigation... I felt very strongly that this phenomenon existed."
Davis is talking about the coherence between western understanding of chemistry and Haitian folk practices. For example, the toxins in the puffer fish were known to induce a state of flaccid paralysis very similar to that of death, while one of the herbs in the formula (known as concombre zombie or Zombie's cucumber) was found to obliterate the memory of the person who ingested it and make them susceptible to influence.
An undead, lobotomized slave? Sounds like a zombie.
It also induces a sense of "psychic dislocation" that is reported as incredibly terrifying.
But beyond the mere chemical components of the nzambi potion, the cultural container of Haitian religious beliefs is equally important.
Max Beauvoir, the supreme chief of Haitian Vodou, former guide and mentor to Wade Davis during his time in Port-au-Prince, and French-trained biochemist specializing in the medicinal plants of Haiti, insists that, "Being a nzambi is not something physical that happens to you. It is something spiritual. A nzambi is somebody who has misbehaved. In fact, somebody that in any other society would be called a criminal. Most likely, in other societies, this person would be condemned to death.
Our society, like every society, has decided that certain crimes are intolerable. But Vodou doesn't believe in killing people. So, in fact, this is why even that person considered a criminal is not killed. We instead remove from him or her that desire of committing bad deeds. And this is what zombification is all about."
Davis says that he was sent to Haiti by "linear, rational, Cartesian scientists to find the drug that's used to make zombies. But no drug can make a social phenomenon. And in the end, instead of finding the drug used to make zombies I found myself investigating the social, psychological, spiritual, political, and historical dimensions of a chemical possibility.
The whole purpose of the research in the end was not to prove zombies existed - which it did - but really to take a phenomenon that had been used in an explicitly racist way and turn it on its head, make sense of it, and try to draw attention to the preconceptions and misconceptions that we have about this extraordinary worldview of Haitain Vodou. That is, this was not a black magic cult but an amazingly complex metaphysical world...
You always have to investigate the belief system that mediates the pharmacological event or the pharmacological possibility... The key to the puzzle is that every drug, particularly hallucinogenic drugs, have an absolutely neutral potential for good or evil - ambivalent potential. Everything depends on the cultural matrix in which the drug is used."
Check out the entire story - including an encounter with an actual Haitian nzambi - at Vice Magazine, on Hamilton's Pharmacopia.