Posted on: February 7, 2013

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Haiti is one of the most mysterious and fascinating countries on earth, and voodoo lays at the heart of this fascination. From 1959 – 1971 Haiti was ruled by dictator Papa Doc Duvalier, who – like most ruthless dictators – knew full well the power of the cult of personality, and hyped up his own image to resemble that of the voodoo lord of the dead, Baron Samedi, who is often depicted in a top hat and dark glasses (as in the vintage James Bond film ‘Live And Let Die’).

Duvalier appointed many voodoo leaders into his own personal army, the feared Tonton Macoute, who terrified the populace by targetting victims without mercy, often burning them alive and hanging the corpses in trees. All this must have worked for Duvalier, who survived to die in office. I remember seeing an old Alan Whicker documentary, in which Whicker was sent to interview him. The personal fear generated by this old man was so intense that his staff were often too terrified to approach him.

When Duvalier came into office in 1957, he had resurrected (no pun intended) the old voodoo culture for his own ends, and suddenly the old legends of zombies, the walking dead, were back in vogue in Haiti once more.

Superstition has it that zombies are reanimated corpses, dug up out of their graves, and in some areas a freshly-deceased corpse would have its feet amputated, to stop it walking after death. These days it is thought that there is probably a much more scientific reason for these disturbing creatures. In the 1980s an American ethnobotanist called Wade Davis put forward a controversial theory that “zombies” were in fact dosed with a mix of tetrodotoxin, highly lethal neurotoxin obtained from the flesh of the pufferfish, (so-called because it swells up when threatened), and datura. The combination of these two substances would put the victim into a trancelike state. One woman was so detached in this zombified state that she couldn’t even feel it when a lighted cigarette was put on her tongue.

Arguably the most famous “zombie” of them all is Felicia Felix-Mentor. She stumbled into Ennery, Haiti on 24 October 1936. She was in a bad way. Her eyes were diseased, her eyelashes had fallen out, she was barefoot, dressed in rags, and she hated the direct glare of sunlight. This poor woman soon attracted quite a crowd. Eventually a local family, the Mentors, said that she looked like a deceased relative of theirs, Felicia, who had supposedly died in 1907 at the age of 29.

The family took her in, but after a few days she had to be transferred to a state hospital, where she died a few weeks later. Felicia was said to have spoken in a flat, emotionless way, and when she laughed it was also emotionless. She never referred to herself as “I”, and seemed quite indifferent to what was going on around her.

There was considerable doubt (naturally enough) that Felicia was really one of the walking dead. X-rays showed that she didn’t have a leg fracture, which Felicia was supposed to have had. One doctor, Dr Louis P Mars, believed that the woman probably wasn’t Felicia, and was simply a schizophrenic.

A similar case was that of Clairvius Narcisse, who was born in 1922, and who claimed he had been turned into a zombie by a bokor (sorceror) using drugs. Narcisse said he had been buried alive, then dug up, and forced to work for years on a sugar plantation. He only came out of sleepwalking state 2 years after the death of the bokor who had “hexed” him. On investigating his case, Wade Davis found that Narcisse had a reputation as a philanderer, fathering several illegitimate children. He concluded that his zombification at the hands of the bokor may have been a punishment for his wayward ways.

Zombies are still causing fascination the world over these days, and even if science now has the answer, it still doesn’t make them any the less disturbing.



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