Haitian Zombies and Puffer Fish Poison
Do voodoo priests make “real” zombies using a powder containing tetrodotoxin? The original article I wrote can be found here.
In 1985, ethnobotanist Wade Davis published The Serpent and the Rainbow, a book in which he described his immersion into the world of Haitian culture, voodoo, and specifically the supposed manufacture of “real” zombies.
The book was partly fictionalized in a 1988 horror film of the same name, starring Bill Pullman. Both book and film chronicle Davis’ quest to discover the secrets of the mysterious powder that voodoo priests allegedly used to produce zombies, and ever since then the existence of a real-life zombification powder has almost been taken for granted. But is it possible to make a zombie in such a fashion? Or was Wade Davis the victim (or perpetrator) of a hoax?
Traditional Haitian Vodou
The traditional Haitian practice of Vodou (or voodoo) is an amalgam of Catholicism and certain West African animist religions that were carried over to the North American/Caribbean region by the slave trade. To some extent, it is a religion that’s greatly misunderstood by foreigners, who tend to focus on the lurid aspects of animal sacrifice and zombification in detriment to the more mundane aspects of worship. Perhaps for this reason, tourists visiting Haiti will often be entertained by supposedly “authentic” voodoo ceremonies that are in fact put on solely for their benefit and entertainment.
In a 2008 article in Skeptical Inquirer, professor of psychology and neurology Terence Hines argued that it was just such a situation that may have led Wade Davis to his questionable ideas about voodoo and the zombie powder. In The Serpent and the Rainbow, for example, Davis writes of witnessing a ceremony performed for tourists in which a woman apparently went into a trance and put hot coals into her mouth without injury; he immediately described this feat in terms of the supernatural, even though similar tricks are performed in circus sideshows the world over.
Tetrodotoxin Zombie Powder
The fulcrum of The Serpent and the Rainbow, however, was Davis’ hunt for the formula of the elusive zombie powder that houngans (voodoo priests) were supposedly using to produce “undead” slaves to work their plantations.
Davis claimed to have witnessed (and participated in) such a ceremony, and seems to have taken the results at face value. According to Davis, the powder was administered to a victim, who would then enter a state of catalepsy that was indistinguishable from death, and be buried alive. Later, the houngan would visit the victim’s grave and “awaken” the person, after which the victim would remain in a zombified state under the complete control of the houngan.
Davis was eventually able to procure some samples of the zombie powder, and he wrote that the main ingredient in the formula was the poison tetrodotoxin, or TTX, found most infamously in some species of puffer fish native to the Caribbean and the waters around Asia. Tetrodotoxin is the same substance responsible for fugu poisoning, a rare but regular occurrence in Japan where it’s most often caused by eating incorrectly prepared raw puffer fish.
Could TTX Create Zombies?
When Wade Davis’s zombie powder samples were analyzed, however, only one contained any significant amount of TTX, casting doubt on his entire hypothesis. And as Terence Hines points out in his Skeptical Inquirer article, even if the powder had contained TTX in large amounts, the effects of the poison on the body are not consistent with the reports of zombie plantation workers that had been taken so seriously by Davis.
Tetrodotoxin works by blocking sodium channels on the neural membrane, affecting the peripheral nervous system. At low doses, TTX causes nausea and numbness around the mouth, but as the amount ingested increases, victims may suffer motor difficulties, respiratory failure, and possibly cardiac arrest, followed by death. If medical intervention occurs in time, victims can generally recover in about a week.
Hines points out that the main symptoms of tetrodotoxin poisoning — namely total muscular flaccidity and inability to move, breathing difficulties, and lack of oxygen to the brain — would seem inconsistent with the image of the shambling zombie slave toiling on a plantation from sunrise to sunset. In his view, Wade Davis was taken in by trickery, or perhaps simply saw in Haiti what he wished to see.
Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.
Hines, Terence. “Zombies and Tetrodotoxin”. Skeptical Inquirer May/June 2008: 60-62.