The last post was about a book I spotted by chance in a documentary about a completely unrelated subject. I came across Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis by a more circuitous route. It started with a Twitter post and through a bunch of intermediate steps I wound up with a battered library copy of it.
The central argument is that zombies, at least in Haiti, are real. They don’t eat brains or otherwise threaten the living, but they exist. But they’re not created randomly or just for cheap labor. Secret societies are responsible for allowing sorcerers to turn someone judged a criminal into a zombie. Zombification is the ultimate punishment for those who wrong others in the community. And this is a punishment that actually seems to have some deterrent effect.
Instead, the concept of slavery implies that the victim of zombification suffers a fate worse than death–the loss of individual freedom implied by enslavement, and the sacrifice of individual identity and autonomy implied by the loss of the ti bon ange [soul; personality, character, willpower]. It must be emphasized that the fear in Haiti is not of zombies, but rather of becoming a zombie. This fear is pervasive and has given rise to a complex body of folklore that continues to influence behavior. [page 9]
Every aspect of culture in rural Haiti fits together to reinforce the power of the secret societies, the reality of sorcerers’ powers, and the horror of becoming a zombie.
In other words, a world of few alternatives makes for an absolute acceptance of established tenets of belief, and those beliefs, in turn, have an absolute and exclusive validity. Within these confines the believer can maneuver with some intellectual ingenuity, but beyond the limits of the beliefs there is only chaos. Within such a system of belief there are no accidents, and no event has a life of its own. [page 55]
Davis does slightly underemphasize the importance of the psychological factors in zombification. Zombies are first exposed to a powder that includes the same toxin that makes fugu a sushi to die for. Then they’re buried alive while fully conscious (courtesy of the poison), which is enough to break anyone. Then they’re unburied and have the crap beaten out of them. Then they’re fed a hallucinogen and taken far from home. If they ever manage to get back to their family and friends, they are shunned. Isolated. The stress of these experiences is what really makes the zombie. The drugs that Davis spends most of the book talking about are only there to cause the apparent death of the soon-to-be-zombie and make it possible to bury him or her.
Seems like zombies are sufferers of an extreme form of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and also must deal with the powerful stress of social isolation. (Note: I’m not a psychologist, so take my diagnosis here with a shaker of salt. Or a box.)
There’s been a lot of discussion lately, what with Halloween and the rebirth of the zombie movie, about what zombies symbolize. The usual theory is that they represent the dehumanization and de-individualization of people by consumer culture (modern zombies) or Communism (older zombies). To me, the cause of Haitian zombies is even more frightening.To think that real zombies are people damaged through the application of psychology is more horrific than images of movie zombies eating brains.
And it’s yet another reason to remember the humanity of all of those we encounter every day. Smile. Greet. Listen. Admire the wonder that is each individual.