Zombies: An Anthropological Investigation of the Living Dead

Philippe Charlier, Translated from the French by Richard J. Gray II

University Press of Florida (May 2017)

$18.95 USD (Paperback); 160 pages; 1 map; glossary

ISBN 978-0-8130-5457-5

From Bela Lugosi’s path-breaking 1932 film White Zombie, to George A. Romero’s iconic Night of the Living Dead series, and the recent television phenomena of The Walking Dead, zombies have successfully maintained a particularly unsettling presence in popular culture. While the historical roots of this legend are arguably less blood soaked than what has been portrayed by Hollywood, zombies remain the source of palpable, real-world fear and mystery on the Caribbean island of Haiti. Charlier, a French forensic anthropologist at Paris Descartes University, presents a series of fascinating experiences compiled during a trip to the island in search of zombie fact, fiction, and lore. This information is shared with the author by a variety of practitioners and others who have had direct experience with Haiti’s native Vodou religion and its connections to the undead:

The term zombie takes on three meanings that are quite similar to each other. The first, which is no longer accepted, refers to children who died without being baptized whose souls have been captured in order to bring good luck. The second corresponds to a ghostly spirit which, flying away from the corpse at the moment of death, moves around detached from the body like a wandering soul….Finally, the last type—and the most commonly accepted—is the individual to whom a poison was given that put him in a cataleptic state. They pass him off as dead, and then he is buried before being exhumed from the cemetery two or three days later in order to turn him into a zombie.

At the center of this narrative is Charlier’s scientific/cultural explanation as to what techniques are actually used to create zombies. The author explains that bokars—Vodou practitioners who conduct malevolent rituals—employ tetrodotoxin, a strong poison made primarily from the organs of several species of blowfish, which at just the right dosages physically induces a state of markedly reduced respiration and slowed metabolic rates:

When the bokor makes his zombie powder, he opens up this fish, retrieves the liver, and then leaves it to one side….It is also necessary to fetch a bouga toad that you introduce to a garter snake, and you provoke the toad ‘until he bursts with rage’…because he is scared to death of the garter snake. When it is dead, its venom is removed, which is mixed with the tetrodotoxin to obtain the active poison. Magical elements can also be added, such as the powder of human bones that are first scraped into shavings, but chemically they have no real effect….Other ingredients typically enter into the composition of poudre à zombie, such as millipedes, tarantulas, poisonous frog skin, roots, seeds of toxic plants, etc.

Victims administered this toxin are subsequently declared dead, and then exhumed from their tombs to be made into slaves at the mercy of their poisoners. These “living dead” exist in near-death torpor that allows them to work, but makes them unable to do much else. Apparently, the U.S.’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) even considered using tetrodotoxin to “zombify” astronauts during lengthy space flights to Mars.

One of the strongest aspects of Charlier’s book is the range of interview subjects he chooses to visit. The author speaks with Vodou houngans (priests) and mambos (priestesses) who employ their magical powers in an ongoing battle against the bokars, government professionals who must integrate some level of zombie awareness into their daily public service activities, academics who study the island’s interconnected worlds of the living and the dead, and “freed” zombies who are struggling to put their lives back together. For example, one of the book’s most unexpected chapters, “Zombies in the Courthouse,” explores the various legal issues encountered by those rescued from zombification. Poisoned for a variety of reasons—in revenge for a perceived wrongdoing or as a punishment for “excessive ambition, fighting over inheritance, taking a woman from another man, and defamation”— and officially declared dead, these individuals eventually escape from their state of magical servitude to discover they must navigate a laborious process to regain their property, citizenship, and legal identities.

Charlier presents a vivid and thought-provoking look at a little-studied aspect of Caribbean culture that has evolved into the source of some of modern moviemakers’ most frightening images. Zombies will continue to be a powerful force in myth, legend, and popular culture for as long as we “fear the return of the dead.”