The Case of Clairvius Narcisse
Clairvius Narcisse was a Haitian man said to have been turned into a living zombie by a bokor, or witch doctor. His story was the subject of a book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and scientific investigation.
The word zombie comes from the Kongo word Nzambi which means "spirit of a dead person." There were many stories of bokors, or witch doctors, who disinterred corpses of victims and revived them, stripped of volition and memory. They were taken away to be put to work as the bokor's slave.
In April 1962 Clairvius Narcisse checked himself into the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in the town of Deschapelle in the Artibonite Valley of Haiti. He had been sick for some time complaining of fever, body aches, and general malaise, but just recently he had begun coughing up blood. His sister Angelina would later recall that his lips turned blue, or cyanotic and that he reported tingling sensations, or paraesthesias, all over his body. In the hospital, his condition deteriorated rapidly. On the morning of May 2nd, two days later, his two attending physicians 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 was opened by the Bokor and his henchmen.
He was taken to a plantation, where he, and some other zombies laboured from sunrise 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. When the bokor died, and regular doses of the hallucinogen ceased, he eventually regained sanity and 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.
A Case for Research
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 psychiatric facility, and Dr. Lamarque Douyon, the centre's director.
The two researchers realised that the opening of the grave of Clairvius Narcisse would tell them little as if the man claiming to be Narcisse was a fraud, he 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.
Instead, the two researchers along with Narcisse's family 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 as zombies in Haiti are treated as complete social outcasts. His answers, together with the testimony of Narcisse's family, neighbours, 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. He obtained specimens of zombie powder from several different bokors from 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, there are three classes of ingredients were common to all the preparations:
- Charred and ground bones and other human remains
- Plants with urticating (irritating) hairs, spines, toxic resins, or calcium oxalate crystals
- Puffer fish
The human bones are pharmacologically inert, it is expected that their presence was more for show rather than anything else.
The plants with urticating hairs, or other irritants, served to abrade the skin and enable the entry of the poison into the bloodstream. Sometimes the powders also contained ground glass as well, which would have the same effect. These ingredients would 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 told 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 oedema, hypothermia, respiratory difficulties, hypotension, aphonia, and complete paralysis. Each of these symptoms was exhibited by Clairvius Narcisse when he "died" at the Albert Schweitzer Medical Centre.
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 internal organs, which are removed by skilled chefs, after which the fish can be eaten safely, giving diners no more than an agreeable prickling sensation of the tongue and a slight feeling of euphoria. There have however been several instances where the flesh contains more tetrodotoxin than usual and results in susceptible diners lapsing into a state of complete paralysis, with their heartbeat and ventilation falling 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 anyone buried alive would suffer some degree of brain damage due to lack of oxygen. The higher centres 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 zombie-like state of most zombies.
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. Furthermore, zombies are said to be fed a salt-free diet, which would induce extreme lassitude, especially in Haiti's sweltering climate.
Why Turn Anyone into a Zombie?
The first and obvious reason would be free labour, but Davis notes in his research that 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 labour cannot be worth much, anyway.
The Haitian people suffered a long and particularly gruesome history of oppression before overthrowing their French slave masters, and the zombie is the embodiment of their worst fears of depersonalization and loss of liberty. Davis has 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 after Davis published his findings, Yasumoto and Kao reported in the British journal, Toxicon, that they analysed two samples of the zombie powder and found only insignificant traces of tetrodotoxin - 64 ng/g or less. They also 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 were, however, several omissions to the paper, most notably that the powders were prepared by witch doctors in a primitive culture, not by a major pharmaceutical firm, and that the Bokors were insistent that the powder must be rubbed on to the skin or onto an open wound, not dissolved in water. Later research by 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 nearly 300 times higher level of 20 ng/g.
More Recent Investigation
In 1997 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 (total depletion in the level of oxygen), and the other was a young woman who appeared to be afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome (defects that can develop in a fetus in linked with high levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy).
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.
The manufacturing process and ingredients of a zombie powder have never been documented, as is the process of creating a zombie. However, there are some facts that are accepted as truth.
- 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
- Tetrodotoxin can induce a state of suspended animation almost indistinguishable from death
These facts, and the case of Clairvius Narcisse, do not add up to conclusive proof of zombies
Last updated on: Saturday 17th June 2017
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