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Zombies

Zombies

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The word zombie refers to the living dead and originally derives from Central Africa. In Kongo, the cadaver or spirit of a deceased person is called nzambi. But the belief in the existence of the living dead is widespread, and the term has also been subject to much cross-cultural appropriation, decontextualization, and recontextualization.

Popular discourses associate zombies with the Caribbean Voodoo religion. For example, Haitians believe that malevolent sorcerers sometimes gain control of the bodies of their victims by robbing them of the component of the soul that contains personality, character, and willpower (tibon ange ) or by raising them from their graves. The sorcerers then lead their innocent victims in a comatose trance, under cover of night, to distant places where they must toil indefinitely as slaves. The Haitian conception has informed the image of zombies in massmediated popular culture as the macabre figure of a corpse in tattered rags, entirely subservient and beholden to the authority of some unknown master. Zombies are portrayed as docile, with glassy empty eyes, and as being without will, memory, and emotion.

A controversial theory by ethnobiologist Wade Davis (1988) suggests that there may well be an ethnobiological basis for reports of the zombie phenomenon in Haiti. He refers to a case of zombification that was verified by a team of physicians. In 1962 Clairvus Narcisse was pronounced dead at a hospital, and buried eight hours later. But Clairvus reappeared in 1980, claiming that his brother had made him a zombie because of a land dispute. Davis argues that Clairvus was mistakenly diagnosed as dead, buried alive, and taken from the grave. Clairvus claimed that following his resurrection from the grave, he was forced to work as a slave with other zombies. He escaped after two years and spent the next sixteen years wandering about the country, fearful of his vengeful brother. Among the various preparations used by Haitian sorcerers, Davis identified a fish containing tetrodotoxin, an extremely potent neurotoxin that induces a complete state of peripheral paralysis and imperceptibly low metabolic levels. Davis postulates that the Haitian belief in zombies could be based on rare instances where an individual receives the correct dosage of the poison and is misdiagnosed as dead. Davis describes zombification as a form of punishment imposed by Bizango secret societies. These societies are arbiters of social life, protect community resources such as land, and use poison and sorcery as weapons.

Other scholars regard the belief in zombies as purely mythical. From a neo-Marxian perspective, the image of zombies as people who are dehumanized and left only with the ability to work is seen as a symbolic commentary on the historical processes of enslavement, colonialization, and proletarianization.

In many parts of Africa, zombies are recognized as an integral aspect of witchcraft discourses, particularly where these address social inequalities. Throughout the Cameroon, nouveau riches are imagined as witches who no longer eat their victims but change them into zombies. For example, the concept of nyongo emerged amongst the Bakweri after German and British colonists arrogated their land, resettled them on reserves, and allowed strangers to profit from the new economic opportunities. The Bakweri suspected prosperous outsiders of forming witch associations, taking deceased kin from their graves, and transporting the zombie spirits by lorry to Mount Kupe, where they worked on invisible plantations. These beliefs are informed by traumatic memories of the slave trade and of forced labor, as well as by perceptions of wealthy absentee landlords.

In Malawi, witchcraft discourses constitute an argument about the morality of accumulation. Accumulation is endowed with moral adequacy when entrepreneurs make their constitutive relations visible by supporting their kin financially, and by redistributing wealth through patronage, gift giving, and feasting. It is perfectly legitimate when entrepreneurs, who are motivated by these concerns, use medicines to protect their businesses. By contrast, accumulation that is motivated by individualism and greed is morally despised. In this situation, entrepreneurs are said to achieve prosperity at the cost of human lives. Zombies are believed to reside with them, to protect their money, and to attract customers to their businesses. Zombies thus serve exactly the same purposes as medicines, but are an index of morally disreputable witchcraft.

In South Africa, images of witches and zombies have multiple symbolic meanings, but capture the desire to dominate and the fear of being dominated. These images resonate with those of elderly women who control the work of their daughters-in-law, and of white industrialists who employ black laborers. The deployment of zombies in a nocturnal second world echoes the daunting experiences of young brides who leave their natal households for those of their husbands family, and of migrants who leave the countryside for alien industrial and mining centers. The smallness of zombies alludes to the diminutive status of these persons, and the idea that their tongues are cut suggests unquestioning obedience.

SEE ALSO Vodou

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Davis, Wade. 1988. Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Isak Niehaus

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Zombies

ZOMBIES

The phenomenon of zombies, the living dead, is one of the most popular aspects of Haitian voodoo that has created a morbid interest and has inspired myriads of movies. Voodoo is more than the sorcery or magic that is portrayed in movies or literature; voodoo is a religion, cult, healing process, and body of magical practice.

In voodoo practice, the Bokor is a sorcerer who uses evil forces to bewitch, and he can change a human being into a zombie. Essentially every Hougan, who is at the same time a voodoo priest, a doctor, and the intermediary between the community and the spirit world, is more or less a Bokor. In fact, the major difference between a Hougan and a Bokor is the nature of the bewitchment he or she performs.

To better understand the concept of zombies, one must first understand the Haitian conception of the duality of the soul. The n'âmm (soul) is principally divided into two distinctive parts: the gro bonanj ("big guardian angel") and the ti bonanj ("little guardian angel"). The gro bonanj, which represents the consciousness and the personality, is a spiritual substance connected with the world of living. When the individual passes away, the gro bonanj survives and joins the world of lwa (spirit) to eventually become a lwa himself. The second part of the soul, the ti bonanj, is the conscience or the spiritual energy of the person. This corresponds to the individuality of each human being and also corresponds to the individual will.

The most popular and well-documented hypothesis concerning how a person is changed into a zombie state is that of poison. The Bokor "work of the left hand" possesses the knowledge to constitute a powerful poison with a mixture of venom like tetradoxine, which is found in several puffer fishes. The victims sink into a state of catalepsy and passes for dead; however, it seems that the person is still aware of what occurs around him or her. The person is then buried alive.

At night the Bokor comes to help the person get out of the grave and captures the ti bonanj. He then administers an antidote that enslaves him. The Bokor can use the services of the zombie to carry out work in the fields or he can sell or rent his slave's services. This kind of zombie is the soulless body and the victim is "deprived of will, memory, and consciousness, speaks with a nasal voice and is recognized chiefly by dull, glazed eyes and an absent air" (Ackerman 1991, p. 474). The ethnobotanist Wade Davis suggests that zombie laborers were created to install order against antisocial individuals.

There exists a type of zombie of the soul, a disembodied soul of a dead person. In this case, the sorcerer uses the gro bonanj or the ti bonanj of the victims for magical purposes. The soul may belong to an individual who died in an accident or the sorcerer may use the soul of a sterile woman or even a soul that has been captured by a magical process and is enslaved. In any case, the soul must be stored in a bottle or jar and then the Bokor can either use it or sell it.

Whether myth or reality, zombies inspire an intense fear among the peasant Haitian population. The terror that is engendered by zombies is not the fear that they can be evil, but the fear that one might become one of them. In Haiti, a country that has known a long period of slavery with the Spanish and French colonizations until their independence in 1804, the fear of becoming enslaved has remained a part of their collective consciousness. The fear of being changed into a slave for the rest of one's life is a fear of being constrained to live without individuality, will, and conscience.

See also: Buried Alive; Persistent Vegetative State; Voodoo

Bibliography

Ackermann, Hans W., and Jeanine Gauthier. "The Ways and Nature of the Zombi." Journal of American Folklore 104 (1991):466494.

Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.

GENEVIÈVE GARNEAU

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Zombies

Zombies

In Haitian voudou superstition, a zombie is a dead body revived by magic to act as a soulless robot. In recent years stories of zombies have spread throughout Western countries in Hollywood horror films about the walking dead. According to the folk tradition, the houngans, or voudou priests, are said to dig up corpses and reanimate them by magic rituals. Another way of creating a zombie is to feed the victim a preparation that stupefies the soul, leaving the body a living corpse.

To cure a zombie, it is said one should give it saltwater to drink. Special burial techniques are sometimes used to prevent corpses from being used as zombies. The corpse may be buried face down and its mouth filled with earth; sometimes the lips are sewn together, presumably to prevent the soul from leaving by the mouth. A somewhat naive custom is to strew handfuls of sesame seed on the grave (a common practice in eastern Europe to entertain vampires), so that the spirit of the deceased will always be occupied in counting the seeds.

Firsthand accounts of zombies have continued into the late twentieth century. Author Alfred Métraux stated that six months after the death of a friend he saw that friend as a zombie at the house of a houngan. Harvard ethnobiologist Wade Davis, who visited Haiti in 1982, succeeded in penetrating the secret societies and understanding and documenting the voudoo culture. He has suggested that certain powerful drugs might be capable of influencing centers in the brain concerned with conscious control. A person given such drugs would appear dead, would be buried alive, and revived several days later. They would then be given hallucinogens and forced into a new life as an unpaid laborer.

Davis' theories were recently validated by an expedition to Haiti that was the subject of a remarkable BBC television program presented by John Tusa in 1984. In interviews with houngans, the secret of creating zombies was disclosed. A poisonous substance from the puffer fish (Diodon hystrix ) is carefully prepared by the houngan and administered to the victim, who thereafter appears dead and is buried. He is exhumed by the houngan and used as a zombie. The poison stupefies certain brain centers.

The poison was analyzed by Leon Roizy, professor of neuro-biology at Columbia University, and identified as tetrodotoxin, found in the puffer fish, the exquisitely dangerous gourmet dish of Japanese Fugu, requiring skillful preparation by experienced chefs in order to avoid poisoning the diner.

When eaten sliced raw (sashimi ), the flesh is relatively safe, but among eaters of the partly cooked dish known as chiri, which includes toxic cooked livers, there are over a hundred deaths annually.

Sources:

Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.

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