A medical study of the Haitian zombie

We hear a lot about zombies these days – in films, in music and even in philosophy – but many are unaware that in 1997 The Lancet published a medical study of three genuine Haitian zombies.

The cases studies were reported by British anthropologist Roland Littlewood and Haitian doctor Chavannes Douyon and concerned three individuals identified as zombies after they had apparently passed away.

The Haitian explanation for how zombies are created involves the distinction between different elements of the human being – including the body, the gwobon anj (the animating principle) and the ti-bon anj, which represents something akin to agency, awareness, and memory.

In line with these beliefs is the fact that awareness and agency can be split off from the human being – and can be captured and stored in a bottle by a bòkò, a type of magician and spirit worker who can be paid to send curses or help individuals achieve their aims.

This purportedly leaves a passive easily-controlled animated body – the zombie – believed to be created to provide free labour on plantations.

Anthropologist Wade Davis claimed to have identified the ingredients of the bòkò’s zombification powder which supposedly included tetrodotoxin – a naturally occurring neurotoxin found in some animals, like the pufferfish, which can cause temporary coma-like states.

I won’t say much more about the ‘neurotoxin’ theory of zombification, not least because it was brilliantly covered by science writer Mo Costandi and I couldn’t improve on his fantastic article which will tell you everything you need to know.

But on the cultural level, zombies are identified by specific characteristics – they cannot lift up their heads, have a nasal intonation, a fixed staring expression, they carry repeated purposeless actions and have limited and repetitive speech.

This means that they are easily identified by the community and Littlewood and Douyon’s study was a medical investigation into three ‘returned zombies’ – each of which was identified as a member of the family who had died and who had returned with the characteristic features.

FI was a 30-year-old woman who had died after a short illness and was buried next to the house, only for her to be recognised in a zombified state three years later by her family, wandering near to her village.

WD died at the age of 18 shortly after his “eyes turned yellow” and his body “swelled up” and was buried in a family tomb. He was identified as a zombie at a cockfight eight years after he had been buried.

MM was a young woman who also died at 18 after a short illness, but who was identified 13 years later in the town market, walking around in the characteristic detached shambling way.

While the families put their fate down to sorcery, a full medical examination was carried out by the two doctors, including the use of EEG and CT brain scans.

FI showed no neurological damage but was diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia, a very withdrawn form of psychosis. WD was found to have brain damage, probably from lack of oxygen, and epilepsy, which could be treated with drugs. MM was found to a developmental learning disability, probably caused by her alcoholism when her mother was pregnant with her.

The fact that doctors gave medical explanations for people identified as zombies is, perhaps, no big surprise, but most interesting was that DNA and fingerprinting tests that showed that two of the zombies were cases of mistaken identity. They weren’t the dead relatives that the families thought they were.

The authors of the study noted that it is unlikely that there is a single explanation for all people identified as zombies and there was a hint that the ‘neurotoxin’ theory could explain some cases. Two types of ‘zombification’ powder from local bòkòs were tested, and, in line with Wade Davis’s ideas, tetrodotoxin was found.

But more probable is that most cases are mistaken identification of wandering mentally ill or neurologically impaired strangers by bereaved relatives.

They noted “People with a chronic schizophrenic illness, brain damage, or learning disability are not uncommonly met with wandering in Haiti, and they would be particularly likely to be identified as lacking volition and memory which are characteristics of a zombi.”

Interestingly, the first known photograph of a zombie, shown above, was taken by anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston and reproduced in her 1938 book Voodoo Gods where it notes that the subject was photographed in a psychiatric hospital, which makes more sense in light of this more recent medical examination.

It’s worth making a final point that while zombies are a particularly well-known aspect of Haitian culture, thanks to the stereotypes and Hollywood hijacking, traditional Haitian psychology and related concepts of illness are hugely fascinating topics in themselves.

If you want to lose yourself in another understanding of ourselves and the world, you could do much worse than reading the World Health Organisation’s short report ‘Culture and Mental Health in Haiti’ which is available online as a pdf. The whole report is fascinating but start at the section on ‘Religion’ from page 6 if you want to get straight to the psychology.
 

Link to locked case study in The Lancet.
Link to Mo Costandi’s “The ethnobiology of voodoo zombification”.
pdf of WHO report on ‘Culture and Mental Health in Haiti’.

8 Comments

  1. Posted January 12, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    That’s fascinating stuff, thanks.

  2. c
    Posted January 12, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    They always try to explain things from a scientific point of view. They are quick to label them with mental illneses or physical anomalies or defective genes. Ask any random hatian kid and he will know more about zombies than this guys. You are only scratching the surface.

    • Bill
      Posted January 28, 2013 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

      That’s true, but both groups only know what their peers tell them. Most scientific people don’t know about the Loa, most Haitian kids don’t know about potassium channels. Wouldn’t it be cool if they could take each other seriously?

  3. Posted January 19, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    There is a really interesting historical work by Otneil Dror on voodoo death that explains more of the backstory to this post. Dror shows how such studies led to theories about the action of adrenalin and also to the formulation of “sudden unexpected death syndrome.” Well worth checking it out.

  4. AnarchyDragon7
    Posted January 23, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article, but it felt cut short. 2 of the 3 were mistaken identity. Which 2? And then most importantly, what of the third? How had he or she come back from the dead? Or been mistaken for dead? What was the reason? Or were there inconclusive results? Was it the tetrodotoxin or was that the one with schizophrenia (who had perhaps just wandered off?) I was really left wondering…

  5. Posted May 29, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting! Some of my readers are freaked by what just happened in Miami – with one man eating another man’s face. I read about how the bad drug he was on caused the horrible results, but I was interested to learn more about zombies. Your article was helpful!

  6. juniorfilm
    Posted April 8, 2013 at 3:19 am | Permalink

    I think 99.9% of haitian like myself will tell you that the #1 motivation in creating a zombie is justice or revenge. Davis Wade was on to something when he posit that zombification is a form of punishment. Zombifying a person is a very costly enterprise, a process which is beyond the means of the majority of haitians. It’s an elaborate process which demands the resources and the skilled involvement of varied members of the society; not least the most secret organization in afro-carribean culture, the feared Sanpwel or Bizango; secret societies who actually control the process, and carry out the trial. Believe it or not, the target or the accused is judged albeit by a secret court b4 condemnation is warranted. Why would people sometimes ruin themselves to pass someone through the ground, as we say in Haiti. It’s not only to commit a crime but to get away with it. That is the genius and the true purpose of zombification. If you believe someone has wronged you in a way that warrants death, there’s only two way to do it. Killing the person yourself or hire someone to do it. Both ways, you run a high risk of being dealt severely with the law. Late in the 19th century, article 246 of the Haitian penal code stipulated “It shall also be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the person had been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.” These were enlightened lawmen, not superstitious negroes. They know it was a drug, understand the effect and grasp the motive of this phenomena. Are there zombies today in haiti, I highly doubt it. The conditions that existed in 18th and 19th century haiti that made this process possible are non existant today. Today, the myth survives.

  7. David Linan
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    This article is Outstanding. I think 99.9% of haitian like myself will tell you that the #1 motivation in creating a zombie is justice or revenge. Davis Wade was on to something when he posit that zombification is a form of punishment. Zombifying a person is a very costly enterprise, a process which is beyond the means of the majority of haitians. It’s an elaborate process which demands the resources and the skilled involvement of varied members of the society; not least the most secret organization in afro-carribean culture, the feared Sanpwel or Bizango; secret societies who actually control the process, and carry out the trial. Believe it or not, the target or the accused is judged albeit by a secret court b4 condemnation is warranted. Why would people sometimes ruin themselves to pass someone through the ground, as we say in Haiti. It’s not only to commit a crime but to get away with it. That is the genius and the true purpose of zombification. If you believe someone has wronged you in a way that warrants death, there’s only two way to do it. Killing the person yourself or hire someone to do it. Both ways, you run a high risk of being dealt severely with the law. Late in the 19th century, article 246 of the Haitian penal code stipulated “It shall also be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the person had been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.” These were enlightened lawmen, not superstitious negroes. They know it was a drug, understand the effect and grasp the motive of this phenomena. Are there zombies today in haiti, I highly doubt it. The conditions that existed in 18th and 19th century haiti that made this process possible are non existant today. Today, the myth survives.


8 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] A medical study of the Haitian zombie – [...]

  2. [...] You can read about the study here. [...]

  3. [...] great article on Haitian Zombies found over at MindHacks here>>  Posted by zombie at 4:44 [...]

  4. [...] two doctors pursued an alternate theory of zombification. This research, brilliantly written up over at Mind Hacks, involved research into three separate case histories. FI was a 30-year-old woman who had died [...]

  5. [...] A medical study of the Haitian zombie « Mind Hacks. Despite, but sometimes thanks to, the absence of a functioning government, rich Haitians have [...]

  6. [...] (oui oui c’est possible!): The ethnobiology of voodoo zombification par Mo Costandi et A medical study of the Haitian zombie par Vaughan [...]

  7. [...] than being entirely mythical, zombies do roam the countryside of Haiti. But on the cultural level, zombies are identified by specific characteristics – they cannot lift [...]

  8. [...] out more, let me know! Sources for this article are Alex Knapp for Forbes, and  vaughanbell from Mind Hacks. The Mind Hacks article in particular has links to the case studies so please check it out. Image [...]

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *
*
*

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 23,535 other followers