Horror Science: Do Zombies Really Exist?

By  · Published on October 2nd, 2013

Halloween is fast approaching, and as many cinephiles start watching as many horror films as they can in the month of October, you’ll start to see a trend. One of the most popular – and historically one of the most recent – monsters in horror movies are zombies. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a listing of October horror movies to watch without finding at least one or a dozen tales of the undead creeping (or rather, stumbling) in there.

Zombie popularity is at an all-time high, with mainstream television series like The Walking Dead and summer tent pole releases like World War Z bringing in serious cash to Hollywood. However, like other classic monsters that have their roots in fact (like lycanthropy being applied to people with mental illness or vampirism being attributed to an exhumed corpse whose gums had receded and fingernails had appeared to grow), one might question how much truth there is to this whole zombie thing. It was a flight of fancy, until a gruesome real-life attack happened in May 2012, which may have been caused by recreational drugs.

So that got us thinking. Could there be something to this zombie thing? Are zombies real?

The Answer: Possibly… but not like they are in the movies

In 1968, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead introduced the world to the modern zombie, but they weren’t really given the name until after the film’s release. In fact, Romero preferred the term “ghouls” to describe his monsters, but the zombie name eventually stuck with fans. Still, Romero’s creation of reanimated corpses that feed on human flesh (later refined to only eat brains in the offshoot series Return of the Living Dead) was not the traditional zombie, even if it’s the most recognizable today.

Before Romero, zombies existed in folklore and myth of voodoo superstitions in Haiti. Were this question posed to someone steeped in the voodoo faith, you would learn that a zombie is someone’s whose soul has been captured by a bokor (roughly described as a voodoo sorcerer). The body, which had died, rises again to do the bidding of the bokor. Rumors and myths of people turned into zombies are found throughout Haiti. Supposedly, the reanimated dead are forced to do manual labor in Haiti’s sugar plantations.

This concept of zombie slaves first crept into the American popular culture with the book “The Magic Island” by William Seabrook in 1929 (in which the term “zombie” is believed to be first introduced into the English language). Three years later, United Artists released Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi as Murder Legendrean, an evil businessman in Haiti who uses zombie slave labor. In order to make zombies, Legendrean doses them with a drug, which feigns death. Then he steals the body, revives them, and put them to work.

Of course, in typically racist 1932-era Hollywood, things only escalate when Legendrean zombifies a white woman. There are hints of supernatural communicative powers between Legendrean and his zombified minions (and apparently extremely loud vultures), but for the most part, the presentation of the condition in White Zombie fits well with the apocryphal tales of zombie-making in Haiti.

Still, it’s only a movie, right?

Again, it depends on who you ask. Many scientists and anthropologists say that zombies – even the slave labor victims in Haiti – are nothing more than tall tales brought to life with cultural superstitions. However, there are real examples of possible zombies on the books. In fact, the British medical academic journal Lancet profiled the cases of three potential zombies who had allegedly died, rose from the dead, and suffered as slaves for years. Thanks to DNA testing, researchers discovered that two of the victims were cases of mistaken identity. All three had some form of mental illness, which might be a reason for some of these stories that sound (no offense intended) insane.

However, in the 1980s, Harvard anthropologist Wade Davis made a name for himself by going to Haiti to research the process of zombification, and his story was fictionalized in Wes Craven’s film The Serpent and the Rainbow. Specifically, Davis investigated the case of Clairvius Narcisse, who “died” in 1962 but was found wandering the countryside 18 years later after being enslaved on a sugar plantation. Davis brought back with him the mysterious “zombie powder,” which was introduced into the victims’ circulatory system by means of a scratch. The powder had bizarre and diverse ingredients like the powerful poison tetrodotoxin from the puffer fish, the hallucinogenic drug datura, lizards and toads, and powdered remains of a human’s skull.

The zombie powder Davis discovered was thought to work by immobilizing the victim with the tetrodotoxin in a way that simulates death. The datura drug, which induced amnesia and suggestibility, was meant to keep the zombie in a pacified state. When the body was buried, often lack of oxygen caused brain damage, which mentally impaired the victim but left their body strong enough for physical labor.

It’s important to point out that much of Davis’s work was criticized for being non-repeatable, for lacking certain ethics (e.g., being personally involved in desecrating graves to obtain the human remains), and for failing to explain why enslaving people with a complex zombie cocktail when cheap labor is easily obtained throughout the fiercely poor country of Haiti. Still, there is at least a certain degree of scientific validity to his discovery.

So wait a minute… zombies are real freaking things?

There is some evidence for them, yes, but unlike the flesh-eating ghouls of popular films, zombies are victims of kidnapping and slavery rather than dangerous monsters. Even then, it depends on how much of the rumors and speculations coming out of Haiti you believe.

Don’t bother stocking up on ammunition and building a fortress around your house just yet. The zombie apocalypse is unlike to be happening anytime soon… or ever.

Unless you live in Haiti. But who wants to live in Haiti?

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