13 O’Clock Episode 51 – Haitian Voodoo and Zombies

Zombies are pretty ubiquitous in pop culture, what with all your Walking Deads and your George Romeros and what not. But the origins of the zombie, of course, lie in the voodoo practices of Haiti, and are less about flesh-eating ghouls than about using death-mimicking drugs to enslave your enemies. On this episode, Tom and Jenny explore the curious world of the Haitian zombies, including the famous case of real-life zombie Clairvius Narcisse, the study of the supposed “zombie powder” undertaken by anthropologist Wade Davis, and various other aspects of the zombification process as well as mythology surrounding the procedure and various digressions about zombie movies and the differences between zombies and vampires. Call the bokor to resurrect you from your grave, because it’s time for episode 51.

Download the audio podcast here, or watch the YouTube version here. Also, don’t forget to follow the 13 O’Clock Podcast blog, subscribe to our YouTube channel, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter. And be sure to check out our list channel, 13 O’Clock In Minutes! AND SUPPORT US ON PATREON!!! For iTunes listeners, here is a link to the new feed.  Songs at the end: “Now I’m Feeling Zombified” by Alien Sex Fiend and “I Am Legend” by White Zombie.

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The Goddess’s Top Ten Horror Movies Based on True Stories

Time for more list-based goodness from The Goddess, and I promise I’m not really gonna make this an ongoing thing; these are just easier for me to do when I’m pressed for time, you dig? I thought you could. When things calm down around here I swear I’ll get back to my more in-depth content.

Similar to my last post, where I picked my favorite horror films adapted from novels, this time around I’m picking my ten favorite horror films based on true events. Now, here’s where it gets a tad sticky, so I had to make a few loose rules for myself. What constitutes “true,” after all? There are a shit-ton of movies based on supposed “real-life” haunted house cases, alien abductions, poltergeist infestations, and demon possession, for example; any self-respecting list would include The Amityville Horror, A Haunting In Connecticut, Fire in the Sky, The Mothman Prophecies, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and many, many others. I’m disqualifying those because I don’t think most of them are “true” in the sense that they really happened; in other words, I don’t believe in ghosts or demons, so for me, these movies are not based on reality at all. I’m also avoiding films that were based on novels that were in turn based on true stories (for instance, 2007’s The Girl Next Door, which was based on Jack Ketchum’s fictionalized novel of a true event, doesn’t qualify, and I wrote about it last time anyway). Rule of thumb, the movie can be based on a book, as long as the book is non-fiction. I’m also discounting films that so drastically veered away from the stories that inspired them that they are no longer recognizable as the original event, and ones that were sorta loosely based on a particular person, but didn’t have much else to do with a true account of said person (the villains in both Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example, were inspired by serial killer Ed Gein, but both took so many liberties with the guy’s real biography that it no longer counts as anything but fiction; plus Psycho was based on Robert Bloch’s novel, so). I realize that by their very nature, movies are fictional entities, so there’s a lot of gray area here, and I’m sure I might break a few of my own rules with the movies I picked, but those are my standards and I’ll try to stick to them. I also realize that a few of these aren’t strictly horror films per se, so don’t bust my balls. They’re horror friendly, bitches. So here we go.

Dahmer

10. Dahmer (2002)

I wasn’t expecting much from this one, to be honest, since it came out right around the same time as a bunch of other direct-to-video serial killer flicks that weren’t much shakes, but I have to admit it really surprised me. Jeremy Renner is great in his complex, nuanced portrayal of rapist, murderer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer; he’s pitiful and vomit-inducing by turns.

FromHell

9. From Hell (2001)

Kind of a cheat, since it’s loosely adapted from Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel, but it’s also based on real theories surrounding the Jack the Ripper case, and I really liked it, so I’m gonna give it a pass. The thing looks great, drenched in gothic atmosphere, and Johnny Depp is his usual rad self as real-life Ripper investigator Frederick Abberline.

Ravenous

8. Ravenous (1999)

This blackly comic horror film, a sadly underrated one, takes aspects of the Donner Party and the case of cannibalistic gold prospector Alfred Packer and mashes them together into a grimly hilarious tale of man-eat-man during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. Directed by Antonia Bird and featuring great performances from Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle, this one’s not for all tastes (sorry), but it has a large cult following for a reason, and I thought it was terrific.

SerpentAndTheRainbow

7. The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

This one obviously takes some liberties with the source material to ramp up the horror factor, but it’s rooted enough in non-fiction to qualify for the list. Based on anthropologist Wade Davis’s 1985 book of the same name, in which he described the practices of Haitian Vodou and specifically the case of real-life “zombie” Clairvius Narcisse, the film veers into the supernatural, but retains the scientific trappings of the real events.

InColdBlood

6. In Cold Blood (1967)

Nominated for four Oscars and starring the suspected real-life wife-killer Robert Blake, this one stays pretty faithful to Truman Capote’s classic non-fiction work about the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in Kansas. It’s another film that uses a stark, documentary-style feel to make the horrific crime as chilling as possible, and Blake and Scott Wilson (who portray the killers) are eerily believable.

ShadowOfTheVampire

5. Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

A sort-of realistic retelling of the making of the 1921 silent classic Nosferatu, this stylish film (directed by E. Elias Merhige, also responsible for the disturbing 1991 silent film Begotten, which I covered here) uses many techniques from the silent film era to great effectiveness. John Malkovich is fantastic as driven director F.W. Murnau, who will stop at nothing to get his vision on celluloid, and Willem Dafoe turns in a skin-crawling performance as Max Schreck, who may just be a REALLY hardcore method actor or may be an actual vampire. Totally meta and wonderful.

Henry

4. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Probably one of the most uncomfortable films I’ve ever watched, simply because the crimes are so unflinchingly presented. Michael Rooker is skeezy perfection as real-life drifter and serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, and the scenes of him unemotionally watching videos of his killings with scumbag partner in crime Otis (based on Henry’s real-life sidekick Ottis Toole and played by Tom Towles) are intensely disturbing. One of the ickiest films ever made, but also one of the best.

Zodiac

3. Zodiac (2007)

David Fincher’s chilling thriller is based on the famous series of random murders that took place in the San Francisco area in the 60s and 70s. He chose to focus on the police investigation of the case rather than the killer (which I guess he had to, since Zodiac was never caught, heh heh), but that only serves to make the film even creepier, since the identity and motivations of the murderer remain unknown. The scenes of the actual killings are matter-of-fact and completely horrifying, striking from out of the blue and giving the viewer the visceral feeling that no one is safe, ever. Brrrrr.

DeadRingers

2. Dead Ringers (1988)

I’ve written about this film before, as it’s my favorite of all of Cronenberg’s body-horror epics. As disturbing as this movie is, it’s made even more so by the fact that the creepy Mantle twins were based on real dudes, specifically twin gynecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus, who practiced together in their New York City clinic and were both found dead in the apartment they shared, presumably from barbiturate withdrawal.

Monster

1. Monster (2003)

A brutal, gritty take on the crimes and trial of female serial killer Aileen Wuornos, this one is a twisted masterpiece, elevated to classic status by Charlize Theron’s unbelievable turn as Aileen. I saw this in the theater, and had to keep reminding myself that Aileen Wuornos was actually dead and not appearing in this movie; Theron embodied the character in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen in another film (except maybe for Martin Landau portraying Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood). A complex film that dares you to sympathize with its protagonist even as you revile her. Astonishing.

And ten more, just for the hell of it:

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Based on a real family of cannibals in 15th-century Scotland, headed by Alexander “Sawney” Bean.

The Elephant Man (1980)
David Lynch’s fictionalized biography of deformed Englishman Joseph Carey Merrick.

Rope (1948)
Based on a 1929 play that was in turn based on the famous 1924 Leopold and Loeb murders.

The Lodger (1944)
Somewhat fictionalized retelling of the Jack the Ripper case, based on a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes.

Jaws (1975)
Adapted from Peter Benchley’s novel, but inspired by a real 1964 story about fisherman Frank Mundus catching a monster great white shark off the coast of Long Island.

Helter Skelter (1976)
Based on Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 account of the Charles Manson murders.

The Black Dahlia (2006)
Brian de Palma’s histrionic film was based on the real-life, grisly murder of actress Elizabeth Short in 1947.

Hollywoodland (2006)
More a detective thriller than a horror film, this is a speculative adaptation of the mysteries surrounding the death of Superman actor George Reeves in 1959.

Ed Wood (1994)
Definitely not a horror film, but one of my favorites, this loving film sort-of-accurately eulogizes famed terrible horror and sci-fi film director Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Also not a horror film, but a great account of the real 1954 Parker-Holme murder case in New Zealand.

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.

VoodooPic

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.

Sources:

Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.

Hines, Terence. “Zombies and Tetrodotoxin”. Skeptical Inquirer May/June 2008: 60-62.