March 14, 2021

Aaaah Zombies

Welcome to our notes for our zombie episode, if you haven't listened, listen here. We dive into the history of  zombies, zombies in media today and real life zombie cases. 

History of the Zombie 

Tales of the zombie can be dated back to Haiti, in the 17th century when the colonizing French called it Saint-Domingue and kidnapped enslaved Africans to work the sugar plantations. Half of the kidnapped enslaved Africans were dead within a few years, which only led the French to steal more. Fast forward to now and a tale that rose from the horrible conditions of the enslaved has been whitewashed and essentially erased. 

The folklore of the zombie was brought into Haiti from the enslaved Africans. In West and South Africa, there are beliefs in zombie-like creatures called xidachane and maduxwane. The Xidachane myth came from when rail lines were being built and witch trains transported workers but delivered them as Xidachane, zombies to work as enslaved forever. 

In Haitian folklore, zombies were not these mindless beings that lived only to consume the flesh of others, they were beings condemned to work the plantations for eternity. The enslaved believed that death would free them back to Africa, but they could not take their own life, for if they did, they would become a soulless zombie, trapped forever as an undead body, and work the plantation as an undead being. They did not consume the flesh of others. 

It wasn’t until the Haitian revolution in 1804 that the folklore of the zombie was woven into voodoo religion. The myth evolved into the belief that zombies were living undead, reanimated by shamans and voodoo priests. Sorcerers, known as bokor, were known to revive the dead to do the bokor’s tasks or labor. Haiti continued on the brink of reinstating slavery and the myth of the zombie was still tied to the fears of colonized Haiti and slavery. Haitians feared enslavement at the hands of a bokor. It was believed that salt would free a zombie, so the bokor had to keep the zombies food bland and tasteless (so again, they were not brain eating zombies). If a zombie under bokor control tasted salt, the scales of death over their eyes would fall off, life would return to their bodies and they would be free. So good food was equated to freedom, which explains why Haitian food is amazing. To this day, in Haiti, people suffering from mental illnesses are often believed to be zombies. Kind of like other countries where psychosis was confused with demonic possessions. 

First zombie movie in the US

The movie White Zombie, released in 1932, was the first to use the idea of the Haitian zombie and bring it to white audiences and is the first to use a white person that controls zombies or make them zombies. The plot of the movie goes like this, a young woman goes to Haiti to meet with her fiance, and they are on their way to stay at someone’s plantation. On their way, an evil voodoo master named Murder takes an interest in them. When they arrive to the plantation, it turns out the guy that owns it is in love with the woman and unbeknownst to her and her fiance he meets with Murder, to make her fall in love with him with the use of Voodoo. So then murder, whose own plantation is operated by zombies, says he can turn her into a zombie so that she will marry him instead of her fiance, with the use of a potion. The movie is based on the book called Magic Island, by William Seabrook, who was hoping to make a quick book on the beliefs of another culture. 

Fast forward to years later and the truth behind the folklore of the zombie, the horrible deaths of of the enslaved, and just the origin of the myth stemming from the horrific experience of colonized Haiti is forgotten completely. We now have all these movies and shows, like the Walking Dead, that one video game I’m blanking of the name completely, anyway and zombies have gone from something created out of a traumatic history to this idea of escapism. Instead of being about beings that have 0 control over their own bodies and seek death as an escape, it is now about humans surviving an apocalyptic scenario, where the existence of humans solely depends on this group of people to survive. It’s almost as if the idea of a zombie apocalypse is a new start, a new life, with fewer people, no way for pollution to increase and all about survivalism and it doesn’t escape me how this is a form of escapism and fantasy, while the origin of the zombie is quite the opposite. 

Real Life Zombie Case

This story is about Clairvius Narcisse. It’s a pretty well known zombie story. This takes place in Haiti, on April 30th 1962 Clairvius admitted himself to the hospital. He had a fever, was coughing up blood. The staff couldn’t find a reason for his symptoms. Three days later he had passed away. Then in 1980 a man claiming to be Clairvius Narcisse walked up to Angelina Narcisse claiming to be her brother. He knew things only Clairvius would know. So he was validating his identity. He claimed he had been paralyzed but conscious. During his death and burial. He was later dugged up and forced to work on a sugar plantation. According to clairvius he was given a paste. Which is speculated to be datura. Which is a poisonous flower which when consumed in some dosages can cause hallucinations and memory loss. The Bokar (voodou witch) died and once the regular doses of these toxins he was given stopped he regained his consciousness.  After 16 years he finally returned to his family. It is speculated that this can happen with puffer fish poison or as I stated before datura. These toxins have been known to affect people and make them zombie like.

Rabies as a zombie virus? 

When I used to study veterinary medicine my professor once told us that the Rabies virus theoretically may be tweaked to form a zombie like virus. If he was pulling our leg I don't know. The Rabies Virus causes its victims to have a fear of water and they will not go near it or drink it. It is fatal and though it can be cured, the cure must be given in the first or second day of the infection. The person/animal with rabies is known to become rabid & bite others. While this is purely theoretical, there's something about it that is truly frightening. 

The Zombie Fungus

One thing that does strike me as terrifying is a fungus called ophiocordyceps. This particular fungus is terrifying due to the fact that it infects insects, and most well-known, ants. Now what this fungus does it pretty much takes control over the insects' mind. For an animal like an ant, if one of them is sick they tend to leave their colony to go off and die alone so as to not infect any other ant. But what this fungus does is take over their instincts and instead of going away from the colony it makes them go to the colony. And this fungi grows everywhere on the ants. Inside outside until it basically dies. My professor at the time asked us a simple question. What happens once this fungus mutates to infect humans. Terrifying thought. However good news it’s highly unlikely. This fungus has been attacking ants for 48 million years. So maybe in another 48 million years for humans.