Saturday, January 23, 2016

BOOK: Wade Davis, "The Serpent and the Rainbow"

Wade Davis: The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Warner Books, 1987. (First ed.: New York, Simon & Schuster, 1985.) 0446343870. xii + 371 pp.


This is a very interesting and unusual book about the phenomenon of zombification in Haiti. Apparently there have been over the years several well-documented cases of people who have at one time been pronounced dead, were buried shortly afterwards, and were found much later walking about very much alive, telling improbable stories of having been raised from the grave as zombies and forced to work as slaves of some evil voodoo priest.

Davis describes his travels in Haiti in an effort to find out what exactly is behind these events. His main area of expertise is ethnobotany, i.e. the study of how people use plants, particularly medically active ones; so his hypothesis is that victims of zombification are actually poisoned so as to appear dead, and are then exhumed again by the poisoner shortly after their burial. This notion was indirectly recognized even by the authorities: “Article 249 of the Haitian penal code [. . .] referred specifically to the zombi poison, prohibiting the use of any substance that induced a lethargic coma indistinguishable from death [. . .] should a victim of such poisons be buried, the act would be considered murder no matter what the final result” (p. 60). Davis even meets two former zombies (pp. 62–3, 86).

Chapters 5 and 11 are a fascinating brief overview of the history of Haiti. I must say that this unfortunate country seems to have really had as sad, bloody and brutal a history as any I've read about so far, and if Gibbon had written his famous statement (about history being “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind”) about Haiti, one could hardly accuse him of cynicism.

The French, who colonized Haiti, set up their plantations of sugar cane and other cash crops, and they soon instituted an extremely harsh system of slavery to work these plantations (see also pp. 232–3). During the years of the French revolution, the slaves revolted and after a decade of suitably brutal fighting (“Fifteen hundred dogs were imported from Jamaica and taught to devour black prisoners in obscene public events housed in hastily built amphitheaters in Port-au-Prince”, p. 67) managed to actually win independence from the French. But then the leaders of the revolt, beliving that the country needs to keep exporting crops to retain its strength and prosperity, promptly made efforts to re-establish the very same plantation system that had caused the revolt in the first place! (P. 70.) This led to further insurrections and eventually to a situation where the thoroughly impoverished country hardly exported anything and most of the land was in the hands of small peasants who practiced subsistence farming, and over whom the central government had only a tenuous hold (p. 71): “The urban elite, though proudly Haitian, turned to Europe for cultural and spiritual inspiration [. . .] In the hinterland, however, the ex-slaves created an utterly different society based not on European models, but on their own ancestral traditions” (pp. 74–5), including, of course, the voodoo religion (p. 76).

After some time and effort, Davis gains the trust of a voodoo practitioner named Marcel Pierre and gets him to make a sample of the zombie poison (pp. 101–114). Davis then tries to determine which of the substances contained in the ingredients (p. 122) might bring about the sort of coma that gets the victim mistaken for dead. Some of the fish used in the preparation of the poison turn out to contain tetrodoxin, an extremely powerful neurotoxin that is chiefly known from various species of pufferfish and causes the death of numerous people who eat these fish as a delicacy (e.g. as fugu, in Japan); pp. 134–40. The symptoms of tetrodoxin poisoning are similar to those associated with zombies, including the deep paralysis (pp. 140–2). Davis mentions cases from Japan of people being mistaken for dead due to fugu poisoning (p. 143).

Is it all in their heads?

This is the point after which I started finding Davis's efforts to explain the zombie phenomenon a bit unsatisfactory. As he rightly points out, tetrodotoxin can only explain how to get your victim to be mistaken for dead, but it doesn't explain why this victim should behave like a zombie after you exhume him/her — after all, Japanese survivors of fugu poisoning don't act like zombies (pp. 151–2).

“Pharmacologically it induces a certain condition, but that condition is mere raw material to be worked by particular cultural or psychological forces and expectations.” (P. 151.) That is, Davis's idea is that the Haitians are victims of their own belief in zombies: the victim, upon recognizing his/her symptoms, firmly and genuinely believes that he/she is turning into a zombie, and acts accordingly; see also p. 163.

By way of illustration of how societal beliefs and expectations may affect the cases of people mistaken for dead and/or buried alive, Davis mentions the 19th-century Victorian fear of premature burial (ch. 8): “At the root of the hysterical fear of premature burial was the fact that physicians recognized, and patients suffered, a number of peculiar conditions characterized by immobility and insensibility, and known variously as trance, catalepsy, cataplexy, and suspended animation.” (P. 157.) “Needless to say, these conditions are no longer recognized by the medial profession. [. . .] But for the Victorians these ailments did exist, and they were discussed seriously by the leading medical authorities precisely because people were succumbing to them.” (P. 159.) He also mentions similar examples from the culture of Australian aborigines (p. 160), and cases of WW1 soldiers who died of shock although they hadn't been wounded by anything (p. 161).

What is there in Hatian society and culture that enables this deep-seated belief in zombies and causes the victims of tetrodotoxin poisoning to play along with this whole zombification thing after they awake from coma? This is what Davis tries to find out in the last 1/3 or so of the book, which I found a bit less interesting than the rest of it, and the thread of Davis's investigations was a bit more difficult to follow. We get treated to numerous descriptions of voodoo rituals, and a long exposition of the voodoo religion's underlying mythology (including the Serpent and the Rainbow, a pair of deities; p. 213) and the various kinds of soul-like spiritual components that they believe each person to consist of (p. 218). A zombie is obtained by depriving a person of one of these components, the ti bon ange (‘small good angel’), which normally provides him/her with individuality and personality (p. 225). As for the ti bon ange itself, it can actually be captured and stored in a jar or bottle, and one such jar was shown to Davis (pp. 189, 200, 225); it is regarded by the believers as a kind of complementary zombie.

See pp. 226–7 for a handy summary of the zombification process: “For the vodounist the creation of a zombi is essentially a magical process. However, the bokor [i.e. the evil voodoo practitioner] in creating a zombi cadavre may cause the prerequisite unnatural death not by capturing the ti bon ange of the living but by the means of a slow-acting poison that is applied directly to the intended victim. [. . .] the victim receives the correct dose of the poison, wakes up in the coffin, and is taken from the grave by the bokor. The victim, affected by the drug, traumatized by the set and setting of the total experience, is bound and led before a cross to be baptized with a new name. After the baptism, or sometimes the next day, he or she is made to eat a paste containing a strong dose of a potent psychoactive drug, the zombi's cucumber, which brings on a state of disorientation and amnesia. During the course of that intoxication, the zombi is taken away into the night.” For more on the paste administered after the exhumation, see pp. 196–9.

One thing that I think is missing from this explanation is what happens to the victim afterwards. The zombies mentioned in this book were made to work practically as slaves, on somebody's plantation. Were they being given the drug all the time? If not, why didn't they escape? Was it because they were guarded well enough, or has all the traumatisation they had gone through, together with their honest belief in zombies (and their belief that they themselves are zombies now), deprived them of the will to resist?

The secret societies of Haiti

Anyway, instead of focusing on these questions, Davis's investigation veers into a different direction, namely the social infrastructure that makes the zombie phenomenon possible. Apparently there exist in Haiti a number of ‘secret societies’, which form a kind of social structure parallel and complementary to that of the state, and they actually exercise more influence on the day-to-day life of the people in the countryside than the state does (pp. 287–9, 314–6).

Similar secret societies exist in West Africa (p. 237), and the idea was brought to Haiti by the African slaves. Another source that contributed to the origin of the secret societies were the bands of maroons, i.e. runaway slaves who had fled into the hinterlands of the country and formed stable communities, successfully wresting the interior of the country from French control and conducting numerous raids on the plantations (pp. 233–6).

“In the minds of the urban elite, zombification might well be criminal, but [. . .] in the vodoun society it was actually the opposite, a social sanction imposed by recognized corporate groups whose responsibility included the policing of that society.” (P. 260.) “[T]he secret societies represented a legitimate political and judicial force in the vodoun society” (p. 264).

Davis eventually manages to establish contact with a secret society called Bizango or Shanpwel, and is even allowed to attend one of their gatherings (p. 286). There are examples of ways in which the society might help its members on pp. 273 and 292, and how its judicial apparatus works on p. 310. See p. 312 for an explicit list of transgressions that are particularly looked down upon. But some of the society's activities don't seem quite so commendable; in particular, it seems to have a ridiculous insistence that the night belongs to it alone, and is willing to enforce a kind of curfew, harassing or persecuting non-members who are found outside at night (pp. 273, 292).

At the end of the book, Davis even goes so far as to consider becoming initiated into the secret society (p. 327). He also says he had been offered the opportunity to witness a zombie in the process of being taken from the grave, but declined: “If the affair turned out to be fraudulent, I would have wasted the money. If [. . .] it turned out to be legitimate, I would have no way of being certain that the money had not been responsible for the victim's fate.” (P. 328.)


I enjoyed this book a lot. Apart from the contents themselves, there is also its style: unlike in a typical popular-science book, this one is written as Davis' first-person narrative of his research, his travels to Haiti, the people he spoke to and the events he observed. I think it works very well and makes this book even more enjoyable to read. Of course, in a way the author is lucky that he is an anthropologist, and a fairly adventurous one too — in most other fields, e.g. if he were a historian or a physicist, this sort of first-person-narrative approach would make for very boring reading :) Anyway, this first-person narrative approach also has its drawbacks, e.g. I sometimes found it difficult to keep track of the big picture in the story, to understand why he is doing whatever it is that he is doing at this particular time.

But my main complaint about the book is that, as an investigation of zombification, it feels somehow incomplete. Davis has identified the drugs involved in the process, and the secret societies that form the social background to it. But I missed a clear answer to the question of what causes a person, once zombified, to keep acting like a zombie — can it really be just due to the Haitians' vivid and honest belief in the reality of the whole zombification business? This explanation strikes me as unsatisfactory. It is clear that, at the end of the book, Davis' main interest is in the secret societies, but I wish that instead of dabbling in them he had directed his efforts towards a better understanding of the zombie's fate beyond the first few hours after his/her exhumation.


  • Davis' later book, Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988). He also wrote several other potentially interesting books, unrelated to zombies.

  • On pp. 252–8, Davis mentions Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American anthropologist who did some pioneering research on Haitian secret societies in the early 20th century. She wrote about them in her book Tell My Horse (1937). It turns out that she was also a writer (see her Wikipedia page), and some of her novels might be interesting to read, e.g. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). A generous selection of her works is available in two volumes in the Library of America.

  • In the 19th century, Haiti was one of the few independent countries that were not ruled by whites. As a result “American and European foreign correspondents had indulged their readers' perverse infatuation with what was known as the Black Republic, serving it up garnished with every conceivable figment of their imaginations. [. . .] cast the entire nation as a caricature, an impoverished land of throbbing drums ruled by pretentions buffoons and populated by swamp doctors, licentious women, and children bred for the cauldron.” (P. 254.) Some of the titles mentioned include:

    • Spenser St. John: Hayti: or The Black Republic (1880).
    • John Houston Craige: Black Bagdad (1933) and Cannibal Cousins (1934).
    • William Seabrook: The Magic Island (1929). Mentioned on p. 353.

    Davis comments: “It was no coincidence that many of [these books] appeared during the years of the American occupation (1915–1934), and that every Marine above the rank of captain seemed to manage to land a publishing contract.” (Pp. 254–5.)

Important zombie-related links

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