Myth Monday: Zombies & Revenants
(C) Dave Pinton
Myth Monday: Zombies and Revenants
Some things just don’t want to stay dead. You know what I mean. Things like zombies. Those nasty bastards have been traipsing all over the world since humans first started to revere—and fear—the dead. I mean, we have stories of them dating all the way back to the Epic of Gilgamesh in 2700 BC, where a hacked-off Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, threatens to raise the dead to eat the living.
But that’s just a story … right? Zombies aren’t real …
Traditionally, there are two kinds of zombies: the animated rotting corpses that you see in every post-1960s movie ever, and the animated but otherwise intact looking “corpses” that are associated with Voodoo. If you think they’re one and the same, you’d be forgiven—Hollywood has a way of twisting facts to make a better story. Actually, the rotting version that you see in things like The Walking Dead should be referred to as revenants. Zombies are totally different … and quite sadder, as you’ll see.
A revenant (from the French word revenir, “to return,”) is a kind of mindless, wandering, decaying vampire, completely devoid of logical thought, motivated only by its need for blood. Also known as the masticating (chewing) dead, revenants were well-known throughout Europe and were intensely feared (a similar entity referred to as a hungry ghost is known throughout Asia, but this is a spirit without a body.) Those medieval pictures you see of dancing skeletons and wasted corpses are basically what people thought the revenant looked like.
A person could become a revenant if they were bitten by one, if they were bitten but not killed by (and therefore not turned into) a vampire, if they led a sinful or evil life, died unexpectedly or in a violent manner, were cursed, or if an animal such as a cat or dog leapt over the body before it was buried. If any of these conditions were met, the person would come back as a revenant and prowl the streets, literally rotting away on its feet as it sought out blood from people and livestock (animals could also come back as revenants!) And revenants weren’t sneaky about killing things, unlike their sly vampire cousins; a revenant had no problem chasing a person down in front of witnesses.
If Death ever asks you to play chess, don't do it. Guy's like a whiz.
As with vampires, revenants were often to blame when epidemics broke out. When a revenant was believed to be the cause of many deaths, the grave or tomb of the suspected cadaverous killer was opened and the body inspected. Now, when an alleged vampire’s grave is open, a sure sign that vampirism was afoot was finding a body that hadn’t undergone a normal decomposing process. Revenants, on the other hand, were expected to be decaying, so the hunters had to look for signs of, well, chewing; if the clothes the person was buried in looked as though they had been gnawed on, or if the burial shroud over the suspect’s mouth was ripped as if the body had chomped through it, this was undeniable proof of a revenant. Some communities would exhume the body and dismember it or burn it, and exorcisms were often called in, but a common solution was to give the revenant something to nosh on for eternity, such as a chunk of rock. In fact, near Venice, Italy in 2009, a pit filled with the remains of Black Plague victims revealed the skeleton of an elderly woman with a huge stone slab crammed between her jaws. More recently in Poland in 2014, a 16th century coffin was discovered with a skeleton that had both a rock lodged in its mouth and a stake through the leg (why the leg? Back in the day of vampire plagues, a stake, rod, knife or other sharp implement was used to basically staple the vampire into the coffin. The idea that a stake through the heart killed a vampire came some time later.)
So that’s were the shambling, rotting, mindless, relentless zombie came from. As for the Haitian zombies … well, that’s were the real horror story begins.
Before we begin, a little history and disclaimer. Disclaimer: Voodoo is not evil. It’s not a cult. It’s a real religion, practiced by 60 million people throughout the world (according to National Geographic,) created by Haitian slaves blending their traditional West African beliefs and religion (hoodoo or houdon) with Roman Catholicism. A core belief of Voodoo followers is that the Loa (their pantheon of gods) are active in their world and can communicate with humans when a person is willing to become a temporary avatar for them. Zombies are a fairly normal if unpleasant part of their world.
The term zombi comes from either the Kimbundu word nzambi, “god” or the Kikongo word zumbi, “fetish.” According to Voodoo tradition, a zombie is a human being that died and was brought back to life by a voodoo priest called a bokor. This walking body would operate as it should—walking, breathing, even eating—but its eyes retained a dull, distant, lifeless look, and the person would never speak, and never act of its own accord, always needing to be directed to do something. There is no soul or consciousness remaining inside the body, leaving the zombie to act robot-like. They are frequently sent into the fields to work as slave labor, and, because the bokor’s power keeps them from rotting, the zombies can work tirelessly for ever.
The only way to break the bokor’s spell on a zombie is to feed it food made with salt, give it salt water to drink or, according to some, let it see the ocean. A certain amount of sense returns to the zombie and, understanding that they’re dead, they’ll return to their grave sites, dig up the ground, then lay down beside the hole and wait for their relatives to come, place them back inside and rebury them. The Haitians consider zombisim to be truly horrifying (a nation of people descended from slaves, forced to work as slaves after death? Why wouldn’t that be horrifying?) and will pay a lot of money to have heavy stone slabs placed over their graves to prevent it from happening and undergo Voodoo rites to protect themselves. Sometimes they’ll have the corpses buried face down with clods of dirt placed in their mouths, have the mouths and noses sewn shut, have the corpses strangled or shot in the head before burial, or bury the body with a knife in their hand. I’ll explain why in a minute.
Voodoo and zombies were largely a mystery to Westerners, and much of what we learned early on—especially about zombies—came from reporter William Seabrook in his book, The Magic Island, (1929, the inspiration for the first zombie movie ever, White Zombie, in 1932.) In it he recounts the first time he saw a zombie—or rather, a group of them—working in a cotton field in La Gonave. He does not describe them as being decayed or desiccated; actually, they look perfectly human. It wasn’t until one stood up and Seabrook got a good look did he realize something was seriously off about these laborers. He said, “The eyes were the worst. It is not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was inhuman. It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it, and drained of expression.” Seabrook thought that maybe these men were just mentally handicapped, but his Haitian friends told him the truth: they were zombies.
Seabrook was also told a story of how, a few years prior, the Haitian-American Sugar Company in Port-au-Prince needed more workers and offered impressive salaries to attract people. One day a man from Colombier showed up with nine dead-eyed men, saying that the men were mentally disabled but would be able to work. The men were hired and placed in the fields, and their headman collected their wages. One day the headman’s wife felt sorry for the workers, so she took them to town and bought them all biscuits as a treat. Unbeknownst to the wife, the biscuits were made with salt, and the second the men tasted it, they all realized that they were dead and ran back to their cemetery.
You might be thinking, “Yeah, okay, but that doesn’t mean that zombies are real.” Hold up a second there, Junior—as it turns out, there are quite a few stories of ACTUAL ZOMBIES being discovered in Haiti … in the twentieth century, no less!
Here’s a few of the more famous stories:
In 1980, a police officer was stunned to find a dazed woman staggering through a village he was patrolling. It wasn’t the fact that she was walking but unresponsive that had him shocked; it was that this woman, Natagette Joseph, had died in 1966 at the age of 46 … and the officer himself had been the one to pronounce her dead.
In 1907, Felicia Felix-Mentor took ill with a sudden fever, died and was buried. She was found in 1936, wandering half-naked through the streets. American ethnographer Zora Neale Hurston studied and photographed Felicia at a hospital in Gonaives and said of the woman, “The sight was dreadful. That blank face with the dead eyes. The eyelids were burned all around as though burned by acid. There was nothing you could say to her or get from her except by looking at her, and the sight of this wreckage was too much to endure for long.”
Anthropologist Francis Huxley met a Roman Catholic priest in Haiti who told him that he had seen a zombie in his village, chewing on the ropes that tied his hands together. Someone gave the zombie a drink of salt water, causing him to come to his senses and give his name. His aunt was called, and she identified him as her nephew who had died four years earlier. Two days later the boy collapsed and died again.
Under the Duvalier regime (1957 – 1986), many people believed that the private army Tonton Macoutes was largely made up of zombie soldiers, a belief that dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier encouraged.
In 1997, a woman called FI in the reports was found lost in the woods three years after reportedly dying and being buried. Her family and husband recognized her, and when they dug up her grave they found it empty. Her family accused her husband of having the woman turned into a zombie because of a supposed affair she was having.
In the late 1980s/early 1990s, a man called WD in the reports was thought to have died but was found slight over a year later at a cockfight where he recognized his father, a secret policeman in Duvalier’s regime. The father accused the young man’s uncle of zombifying him. WD was kept chained to a log in his father’s house to keep from wandering away.
Naturally I can’t find it, but a recent documentary on National Geographic (which I believe it is) or the History Channel featured at least two young women who were thought to have been zombified in the 2000s-2010s in Haiti.
And now probably the most famous zombie story of them all, important because it revealed so much about what makes the zombie so horrifying: In 1980, Angeline Narcisse was out shopping in her hometown of l’Estere when she heard a weak whispering something behind her. The voice was whispering the childhood nickname of her later brother Clairvius Narcisse, who had died from a sudden fever on May 2, 1962, Wondering who was speaking, Angeline turned around … and fainted when she saw her weakened brother Clairvius standing there! When the locals revived Angeline and calmed her down, she identified the man as her brother. Relatives and friends were immediately sent for, and all of them—about 200 people total—recognized the man as Clairvius Narcisse. When Clairvius recovered enough, he told his astounded family and friends that he had been in a land dispute with his brother, and this brother had hired a bokor to poison Clairvius. Either the bokor or the brother poisoned Clairvius’s food, and Clairvius became sick and fell into a coma, with a heartbeat so faint that two US doctors who examined him couldn’t detect it and pronounced him dead. Clairvius was buried, and several hours later dug up by the bokor and his assistants. They gave Clairvius a drug to bring him to semi-wakefulness, then dragged him to a plantation where he was made to work in a drugged stupor for two years. One day one of the other zombies managed to wake up enough that he attacked and killed the bokor, and, since no one was around to continue administering the enslaving drug, Clairvius and many other zombies eventually woke up and fled. Clairvius avoided his hometown until he was certain his brother had died, then returned to look for his family.
It was Clairvius Narcisse’s story that drew American biologist Wade Davis to Haiti. Davis was intrigued by Clairvius’s description of a mind-controlling drug, and wondered if there could be any truth to the story—and if it was true, what would possibly be the source of the mind-altering chemicals? After researching, interviewing and testing and aided by the late Max Beauvoir (known as the “Pope of Voodoo”), Davis surmised in his book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, that there were two drugs that were primarily used to create zombies. The first drug was made of tetrodotoxin, a paralyzing venom found in puffer fish, and the hallucinogenic and anesthetic secretions from the local cane toads. This would be added gradually to the victim’s food and bring on a coma so deep it resembles death. The drug used to waken and control the victim was made from the aptly named zombie cucumber, which created prolonged confusion, amnesia, delusion and, in sufficient doses, a heavy stupor. Because the victims were buried alive in coffins, Davis adds that the resulting oxygen deprivation would cause brain damage which enhances the effect of the zombie cucumber, and people rarely recover from it. Clairvius likely wasn’t buried long enough to suffer any long term effects.
So, remember how I mentioned all the things Haitians would do to try to prevent their loved ones or themselves from being revived as a zombie and forced to work as slaves for the rest of their lives—lives that they no longer have any control over at all? Now you understand why.
And that’s what really makes the real zombies so horrifying.
(Oh, and as for the Florida zombies … I’ll try to get to that another time. In the meantime, just stay away from the drug flakka.)