The next case comes from 1959, and is an account written of in the book Voodoo in Haiti, by Alfred Metraux. Apparently, there was a young aristocrat who had his car break down near a remote village, and as he wondered what to do, an older man with a white beard approached and said that he would make arrangements to have the car fixed. In the meantime, the two went off to have coffee together and as they talked, the old man admitted that he was actually a powerful Voodoo priest. Not only this, he also claimed that he had cast a spell to cause the car to break down to begin with. The priest then explained that the aristocrat had been harboring a powerful cursed object in his vehicle, which was what had drawn his attention to it in the first place, but none of this impressed the rich young man, who was skeptical to say the least.
In order to prove that he was who he said he was, the priest asked the aristocrat if he knew a man named Monsieur Célestin, and he indeed did, as the man in question had died 6 months earlier. The priest then cracked a whip and called forth a lumbering, dimwitted figure who stumbled into the room and turned out to be the thought-to-be-dead Celestin, who was described to be lethargic, slow-moving, and in a daze, and would apparently do whatever the priest requested of him. When asked how he had come into possession of the apparent zombie, the priest told him that a bokor had sold Célestin to him for a small fee.
The very same book tells of the bizarre story of a young woman who was engaged to be married to the man she loved. A powerful Voodoo priest also seemed to be enamored with her, and he tried to gain her hand as well but was rejected. Not long after this, the young woman became suspiciously ill, finally dying of her mysterious, undiagnosed sickness. Her body was given back to her family and she was buried in a coffin that was too small for her, causing her corpse to be put into the ground with the neck bent at an angle. To make matters worse, at the funeral, a careless guest allegedly dropped a cigarette to burn the poor dead woman’s ankle before she was buried.
In the days after the funeral, the family purportedly learned that their dead daughter had been seen walking around with the priest she had spurned, but they refused to believed this was anything more than a morbid rumor. Years later, the priest in question had a change of heart and came forward to apologize for his various evil deeds, in the process promising to free all of his zombies. One of these was a young woman with her neck bent at an angle and a cigarette burn on her leg, who was recognized as the dead woman who had been buried years before. Although the family took her back, she was said to never be the same again, never really regaining full awareness of her surroundings or her mental faculties.
Moving on into the 1970s comes the curious account of Francina Illeus, a 30-year-old woman who was checked into a hospital after suffering from what were described as digestive problems in February of 1976. She was treated and sent on her way, but would turn up dead just a few days later, after which she was dutifully buried at a local cemetery. That would be the end of things until several years later, when in 1979, the woman’s mother was contacted by some women at a marketplace in a nearby town, who claimed that there was a thin, pale woman roving about who matched the description of her daughter. When the mother arrived, she was quick to positively identify the mystery woman as her own daughter, although she was a shadow of her former self, unresponsive, squatting about, and generally acting like an animal. The only thing she would somewhat respond to was her former nickname, “Ti-Femme” (“small woman”), which managed to at least get her attention, at least fleetingly.
Some nearby American missionaries came to investigate and found that the woman’s family had refused to take her in in her current state, and one of the missionaries would take it upon himself to look after her. The strange story came to the attention of Dr. Lemarque Douyon, at the Centre de Psychiatrie et Neurologie Mars-Kline in Port-au-Prince, who made the trip out to examine the strange young woman. He soon found that she showed classic signs of mental retardation, unable to really put two thoughts together, and against the constant claims that she was a zombie her grave was dug up and checked. Chillingly, it would be found to merely be full of rocks. The young woman was never able to really articulate where she had been since her supposed burial and never regained complete motor functions. It was thought at the time that she had been zombified by a man whose advances she had rejected, but there were others who suspected that her current state had been arranged by none other than her own mother, in order
to be given to an arranged marriage. Illeus would apparently have three children to this man while in a zombie state, none of which survived.
The grandaddy of all supposed zombie cases certainly has to be that of Clairvius Narcisse, who in April of 1962 found himself at a hospital complaining of a fever and various aches and pains all over, with the added bonus that he was reportedly spitting up blood. The very next day, Narcisse was pronounced dead and his body placed in cold storage at the facility, after which he was buried. The family was already suspicious of an attempt to zombify their loved one, and apparently had a very heavy concrete slab placed over his casket as a precaution. This would be the end of the story until a full 18 years later, when a stranger approached Angelina Narcisse and introduced himself by an obscure childhood nickname. It seemed that this was Clairvius Narcisse, back from the dead.
Narcisse would go on to tell of how he had been zombified by his own brother for refusing to sell a portion of family land, and that after turning, he had been sent to work as slave labor on a plantation. When his master had died, he claimed that he and other zombies working there had been freed of the force controlling them and let loose to aimlessly wander the landscape. He had then managed to make his way to where his family had found him. After intense questioning, he was found to indeed be the missing Narcisse, and he would go on to explain that during the whole process, he had been aware of what was going on around him but unable to do anything about it. He even chillingly claimed that he had been aware and awake as he had been lowered into the ground during his burial, unable to cry out for help. He would say of the horrifying experience:
They call my name three times... Even as they cast the dirt on my coffin, I was not there. My flesh was there, but I floated here, moving wherever. I could hear everything that happened. Then they came. They had my soul, they called me, casting it into the ground. Then the earth opens up and then you sit up. They slapped me three times. Then they made me smell something. I was taken to the house of the bocor and he cured my cheek where the nail of the coffin went through.
During his whole enslavement on the plantation, he claimed that he knew what had become of him but was held in a daze and rendered unable to interact with the world in any meaningful way, instead doomed to a strange, lackadaisical trance. Everything was like a dream, in which he could not make any focused decisions or feel much of anything. Eerily, he also claimed that no salt was ever put in the food, echoing the legends of salt being a cure to zombification. After being freed, he had remained somewhat in this state, although having a bit further usage of his mental faculties, and had wandered the wilderness for years looking for home. He would eventually gradually return to normal in the absence of the bokor’s powerful dark magic. Whether his story is true or not, Clairvius Narcisse remains one of the best documented cases of a supposed real life zombie there is.
One of the most earnest of the many expeditions launched to research the zombie phenomenon in Haiti was that of Harvard educated ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who suspected that the cause of these zombies was something pharmaceutical in nature and went to Haiti in 1982 to explore this possibility. After analyzing the evidence and witnessing actual zombie rituals, which often utilized a magical powder, Davis came to the conclusion that some sort of potent drug was being used, perhaps a powder crafted from some powerful neurotoxin that would be absorbed through the skin, emulate death and create the mind-altering effects that were reported for zombies. The victim could then be kept in a passive, compliant and brainwashed state to do the bidding of whoever was their master. Davis would go on to collect samples of this supposed “zombie powder” but none of them seemed to be the real deal, seemingly having none of the desired effect when analyzed and containing no such neurotoxin except in the smallest of quantities.
These were surmised as perhaps being fake powders given out by bokors who did not want their dark secrets revealed to outsiders. For all of his various efforts, Davis was never able to fully get to the bottom of the mystery of the Haitian zombies.
Many of these accounts are perhaps unreliable and fail to provide concrete evidence for real zombification, but they nevertheless offer an intriguing, faint glimpse into the rather exotic world of black magic and strange beliefs of a faraway land which have served as the origins of the zombies we enjoy on film and on television today. Whatever truth can be attributed to these stories, they serve to provide a good look into a world beyond our own, where magic, myth, and monsters collide. Whether zombies really exist or not, there is no doubt that the people of Haiti truly think they do, and there seems to be more than enough room here for further investigations into this truly bizarre phenomenon.