You only have to scroll through your TV schedule to see our fascination with zombies. Whether it is a TV series like the Walking Dead or films such as 28 Days Later and World War Z, zombies fill our screens.
Our attraction to this gruesome subject is at a safe distance, in fictional depictions. Luckily, there is no such thing as a real zombie. Or is there?
If you are like me and are compellingly drawn to these soulless creatures, then I have a story for you. My advice is that you take it seriously, especially if you are planning a trip to the Caribbean. After all, you don’t want to end up as one of the Haitian zombies.
Haitian Zombies and the Case of Clairvius Narcisse
In 1980, a man approached Angelina Narcisse and claimed he was her brother Clairvius. But this was no happy reunion of long-lost siblings. Angelina had buried her brother Clairvius 18 years ago and attended his funeral.
Who was this imposter she thought and what did he want from her? Just as she was about to dismiss his ridiculous claims, the strange man revealed details only the real Clairvius could have known.
Angelina listened as Clairvius sat down and told his shocked family the story of his life, death, and the lost years living as a Haitian zombie. It was an unbelievable tale that starts hundreds of years before Clairvius was born.
History of the Haitian Zombies
Haiti – French colony
Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Caribbean was a very different place from how it is today. This was at the height of the slave trade. Haiti was known then as Saint-Domingue and had been colonised by the French.
This was also the time of a huge increase in demand for commodities such as sugar and coffee. Black landowners were stripped of their rights and had their land seized by the French and British.
This land was turned into large plantations and tens of thousands of black men and women were captured and forced to work in appalling conditions.
History of Slavery in Haiti
Working conditions in these plantations under the French were so brutal that most slaves died within a year. It was cheaper to replace these slaves than provide the existing ones with adequate food, water, and shelter.
Because of these brutally inhumane conditions, slaves often committed suicide, but this was against their beliefs. Haitians believed that taking their own life was a sin and those who did would be condemned to walk the earth, trapped in a soulless body.
It is thought that the word ‘zombie‘ derives from this belief. Zombie sounds very much like a couple of West African words – ndzumbi which means ‘corpse’, and nzambi meaning the ‘spirit of a dead person‘.
Revolution and Haitian Zombies Folklore
French colonialism ended in 1804 after an incredible bloody uprising by black slaves. Slaves meted their revenge on the pitiless slave-owners, wives, and children. Slavery might have been over in Haiti, but the myth of zombies was firmly established.
It was adopted by voodoo priests and shamans who used it as a fear tactic. Voodoo sorcerers known as bokor claimed they could make anyone into a zombie. They would sell potions to render a person into a zombie-like stupor.
Haiti may have had its revolution, but the threat of slavery still loomed large in the minds of the local people. For them, after everything they had lived through, returning to a former slave existence and becoming a zombie was their ultimate nightmare.
The Story of a True Haitian Zombie – Clairvius Narcisse
So now we come to the story of Clairvius Narcisse. Clairvius had been feeling ill for days, but his condition deteriorated rapidly, so on 30th April 1962, he managed to get himself to a hospital for treatment.
Doctors catalogued a series of disorders including breathing difficulties, hypothermia, and pulmonary oedema. Sadly, a few days later, Clairvius died. A doctor signed the death certificate, his body was identified by his older sister Marie Claire and he was buried on 3rd May 1962.
But this was not the end for Clairvius. Instead, it was the beginning of an 18-year nightmare. Clairvius’ lifeless body may have appeared dead to all around him, but he was conscious. Not only that, but he could hear everything that was being said, including the part when the doctor pronounced him dead and his sister crying at the news.
The next part of Clairvius’ story is the stuff that keeps us all awake at night. He remembers a sheet being pulled over his face and being placed in a coffin. Clairvius recalls the nails pounding into the coffin and floating into the grave.
The next thing he remembers is the coffin lid opening and the bokor and several men hauling him out and beating him.
For the next 2 years, he was forced to work as slave labour on a sugar plantation, alongside other Haitian zombies. Clairvius managed to escape after another prisoner beat the bokor to death.
For the next 16 years, Clairvius was homeless, searching for his family and living hand to mouth as a beggar. He found his family and wrote to them but none replied. Perhaps they didn’t believe him.
Then Clairvius received some vital information that was to change everything. His brother had died. Clairvius knew it was now safe for him to go back to his village and confront his family. But why? Because Clairvius believed his brother was responsible for his entire ordeal.
To understand why a family member would want to turn a relative into a zombie, you have to look at two things; Haitian culture and Clairvius’ character.
Justice in Haiti
In Haiti, if you have a problem, you don’t go to the police. Instead, you consult a voodoo priest. Communities mete out their punishment on criminals. Matters are solved with potions, threats, and fear. So why was Clairvius targeted?
It appears that Clairvius was not popular with his family. He was frequently the cause and focus of conflict, not only within his family but the village. He was seen as an irresponsible conman who only looked out for himself.
Clairvius had several children but refused to help pay for them or raise them. He looked after only one person and that was Clairvius. Whilst others in the village suffered hardships, by contrast, Clairvius was a wealthy man.
The final straw came when he refused to give his brother, a hardworking man with a family, his share of family land. It was because of this that Clairvius believed that his brother had enlisted the services of the bokor.
Haitian Zombie Potion
If you are not convinced of Clairvius’ zombie story, then I have a final piece of the puzzle that might convince you.
In the early 1980s, anthropologist Wade Davis investigated the case of the Haitian zombies and obtained samples of powders used to induce the zombie-state by the bokors.
He found that although the ingredients varied from each bokor, the main composition was the same.
Haitian Zombie powder:
- A mixture of ground and burned bones, other human remains
- Poison from a pufferfish
- Plant material that irritates the skin, allowing the poison entry into the body
In Japan, the flesh from a pufferfish is regarded as a delicacy and known as fugu. The fish has to be prepared by a skilled chef as just the right amount of poison must be removed for it to be safe to eat. However, when a small amount is left, the diner experiences tingling in the lips and the body and a sense of euphoria whilst eating.
Of course, it is an extremely delicate balance, and diners have died when the chef has misjudged the ratio. The interesting side note to the discovery of fugu poison is that some of the poison victims had very similar symptoms to Clairvius. They were unable to move or speak and were pronounced dead but regained consciousness days later.
Fugu poison is known the world over. But because of Haiti’s gruesome history and cultural affiliations with voodoo practices, it was assumed a mystical and sinister quality.
That being said, there can be nothing more terrifying than being a zombie, trapped in your own body.
- Featured image: JNL (Jean-noël Lafargue), FAL, via Wikimedia Commons
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