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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A Sword Never Runs Out of Bullets: The Goddess Reviews “The Sky Has Fallen”

Greetings, minions! Today I’m doing something a little different on this humble blog: I’m actually reviewing a movie that came out in the 21st century! And no, before you ask, I haven’t been abducted by extraterrestrials and replaced with a replicant, so don’t worry your pretty little heads about that, carbon-based life forms. Hu-mans, I mean. Wait, did I get that right? *checks with mothership*

Anyway, what happened was that writer/director Doug Roos contacted me on my Facebook author page and very nicely asked me to review his indie horror film, The Sky Has Fallen, and gave me the super secret hookup for the screener. If you would like to see it yourself, you can buy it on Amazon right here, but obviously you’re gonna have to pay, because you’re not as cool as me. So since I know what a bitch it is out there for independent artists, and how hard it is to get anyone to pay attention to what you create, let alone write at length about it, I was happy to oblige.

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Roos raised the money for The Sky Has Fallen on Kickstarter, and in his pitch he played up the fact that the film was going to be 100% practical effects, which is rad and hopefully indicative of a larger trend, because I’m frankly kinda sick of looking at copious amounts of CGI and would love a return to more traditional special effects (as evidenced by my orgasmic review of Mad Max: Fury Road). The film was actually released in 2009, and went on to win several awards, including Best Feature at both the Indie Gathering Film Festival and the Freak Show Horror Film Festival.

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In the interest of trying not to post spoilers, I will just give a very basic overview of the film. It’s nominally a zombie movie, I guess, though the zombies are not your run-of-the-mill undead, but rather people who succumbed to a mysterious fast-acting virus—which wiped out most of humanity—and subsequently fell under the mind control of a group of equally mysterious black-robed figures and their faceless, white-robed leader. These shadowy figures also seem to experiment on and eat their victims for some unknown purpose. This is an interesting premise, and I actually wish it had been explored in more depth; I’m usually all for subtlety and not over-explaining things in your horror movie, but in this case I wanted to know who these figures were (aliens?), if they were the ones responsible for the killer virus, and what their endgame was with the mind-control and the experimentation and the flesh eating. Maybe these questions were answered obliquely during the course of the film, but I wasn’t astute enough to pick up on it.

The film is pretty much a one-location, two-character piece, following survivors Lance (Carey MacLaren) and Rachel (Laurel Kemper) as they traipse through the woods, periodically slash their way through groups of gore-faced shamblers, fall in love, and have nightmares, flashbacks and existential conversations as they quest to kill the white-robed leader, which they hope will bring an end to the horror. I admit this aspect of the film got a little repetitive, as it seemed as though the conversations the characters had were all of a similar nature, and the scenes of them fighting the zombies were pretty much interchangeable. I feel like it might have worked better as a short film, as some of its hour-and-twenty-minute runtime felt like filler. It actually seemed like it was structured more like an Asian horror film, with repeating patterns rather than a standard Western three-part plot arc.

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That said, the faceless leader was pretty damn cool-looking, and the shadowy figures suitably creepy. The effects were also quite good, very Fulci-esque, and gorehounds should be happy with the buckets of blood, hacked limbs, severed heads, eye-gougings and oozing wounds on display. I would have liked to see more of the blades and bullets actually impacting flesh, though, as most of the kills consisted of a shot of Lance swinging his katana, swiftly followed by a shot of a bloody head or arm rolling on the ground. The editing overall, in fact, was a little strange and stylized, and there were a lot of close-ups where sometimes I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at.

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The acting was decent for a low-budget indie, but I never really got the sense that these were real people dealing with a worldwide epidemic that had been going on for two months. They looked too clean, for one thing, and didn’t seem at all hardened by their experiences both during and following the apocalypse. I also thought the final revelation vis-a-vis Rachel’s identity was a little forced. The limitations of the budget are fairly obvious too, as the film’s single forest location gives no sense of scope to the cataclysm the characters are describing.

All in all, I didn’t love it, but keep in mind that other than “The Walking Dead,” which I adore, the last zombie things I really enjoyed were both horror comedies (Dead Snow and Zombieland, in case you wondered). I think in general the zombie genre is pretty burned out at this point, though The Sky Has Fallen did have a fairly original concept, and I understand that zombie films are probably the easiest horrors to make on a nothing budget. I’d be interested to see what Roos could do with more money, as long as he retained his obvious enthusiasm for the genre and for old-school gore effects.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.

The Goddess Picks Her Top Five Most Emotionally Wrenching Moments from “The Walking Dead”

As much as I like to use this blog to discuss older and lesser-known horror films, TV shows, and books, I have to confess that I, like millions of others, am endlessly captivated by The Little Zombie Drama That Could. Every Sunday night during the season, the GoH and I can be found piled in our recliners in front of the TV, bouncing up and down with anxious excitement to see what awful shit is gonna go down this week with characters that at this point almost seem like members of our own family.

I actually find it really cool that a straight-up horror series—with copious gore and a decidedly gray morality—has made such deep inroads into popular culture. Twenty or thirty years ago, proposing a serious drama based on a comic about a zombie apocalypse would have got you laughed out of every TV exec’s office in America, and yet today, “The Walking Dead” is the most successful cable television series OF ALL TIME, regularly pulling in millions and millions of viewers in its Sunday night time slot and even more on DVR. I think the secret to its success, aside from the admittedly awesome gore and violence, is the terrific acting, the depths of the relationships portrayed, and the way it gives viewers the chance to put themselves in the middle of the terrible moral decisions the characters have to face and wonder what they would have done in the same situation. At least that’s what I’ve always liked about it.

I’ve not yet had a chance to read the comics, so I don’t have a point of comparison for the scenes I chose as the most emotionally taxing for me. I don’t care if it didn’t happen that way in the comic, or if it was so much better in the comic, or whatever. This is based on the TV series only, and I guess it goes without saying, but there will be MASSIVE SPOILERS below. You have been warned. Onward.

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Tyreese Goes Out for a Bite

This is the most recent scene that slayed me, having only occurred on last night’s (as I write this) mid-season premiere of season five. At this point in the show, I really like and root for all the remaining main characters (except maybe Father Gabriel), so ANY death is gonna have me reaching for the tissues, no matter whose it is. This couldn’t have been said for previous episodes, by the way, as Beth’s end earlier this season, while kind of a bummer, didn’t really bother me that much, and Andrea’s death at the end of season three had me cheering, because come on. It was Andrea. Nobody liked Andrea.

Anyway, last night’s episode, titled “What Happened and What’s Going On,” saw Rick, Glenn, Michonne, and Tyreese traveling to Richmond, Virginia to take Noah back home to his family. Noah had helped Beth when they were both prisoners at Grady Memorial, and Rick felt that completing her mission of getting Noah home would be the best way to honor the departed Beth. Unfortunately, this being the show it is, things very quickly turn ugly. The walled neighborhood where Noah had been living has been raided and overrun, and everyone is dead. Noah insists on going into his house to see his dead family, and Tyreese insists on accompanying him. While inside, Tyreese is distracted by photos of Noah’s twin brothers, and is set upon by a walker, who bites him on the forearm (at which point both I and the GoH screamed, “NOOOOOOOOO!!!” simultaneously). The zombie fever begins to set in, and Tyreese starts to hallucinate many of the dead characters, who either chastise him for his failings or tell him that everything is better now that they’re dead. The episode toys with your emotions big time: Tyreese was only bitten on the forearm, you think, and Michonne is right outside the house with her katana. If they find Tyreese in time and chop off his arm (as they did with Herschel’s leg), then maybe he can still survive! COME ON, SHOW, DON’T KILL OFF TYREESE!!! And indeed, the gang do find Tyreese and cut off his arm, as you would. They fight through a horde of zombies and pile Tyreese into their waiting SUV. Rick radios ahead to Carol and tells her to get everything ready so they can cauterize the wound. TYREESE IS GONNA MAKE IT, YOU GUYS!!! YAAAAYYYYY!!! But then, Tyresse begins hallucinating the dead characters again in the car. Uh oh, you think. And indeed, I’m sad to say, your “uh oh” was justified. The next scene shows the SUV stopping in the middle of the road, and the gang dragging the dead Tyreese out of the back seat. Cut to his funeral, with Father Gabriel presiding. Fuck. FUCK. I liked Tyreese a lot, and I felt like he was just coming into his own as a character. FUCK. Rest in peace, ya big teddy bear. Sigh.

Note: There was a lot of foreshadowing in this episode, what with all the zombie torsos in the truck, and the hint that the town was taken down by a group of bloodthirsty humans. Readers of the comic are already speculating that this could portend the introduction of big bad Negan and/or the zombie-skin-wearing Whisperers, so we’ll see how that goes.

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Rick Goes Full Shane, Gets His Teeth Into It

Holy shit, this scene. Coming from the season four finale, “A,” which was one of the very best episodes of the series in my humble opinion, this stunning sequence sees Rick, Michonne, and Carl camping out in the woods on their way to Terminus. They are set upon by the assholic Claimers, who are seeking revenge on Rick for killing one of their gang. It’s looking pretty bad; our heroes are outnumbered and outgunned, and it looks like both Carl and Michonne are gonna get a raping, and that all three of them are then gonna get blown away or beaten to death. But then Daryl, who had been traveling with the Claimers but had been hanging back in order to make his escape, intervenes and tries to give his life for Rick’s. The Claimers ain’t having it, and proceed to beat the stuffing out of Daryl. But Rick, sent into a Shane-worthy rage by the sight of some fat fuck attempting to rape his son, head-butts main Claimer Joe, then gets the drop on him and TEARS THE GUY’S THROAT OUT WITH HIS TEETH. Holy SHIT, y’all. In the ensuing melee, the good guys kill all the Claimers, and Rick takes the would-be rapist and slowly guts him from stem to stern. Brutal and amazing, and the point at which Rick comes completely to terms with the world as it is now. A great, GREAT scene, and the one that caused the loudest screams from the GoH and myself when we first saw it.

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The Problem With Lizzie

Let me just say that Carol is one of my favorite characters on the show. She started out the series as such a shrinking violet, but she has had the most interesting character arc by far, simultaneously embodying the caring mother figure while also being completely willing to make and act upon the hardest decisions when no one else will do it. While I still question her pre-emptive murder of Karen and David at the prison in order to try to stem the influenza outbreak, I feel like her heart is always in the right place, and I think the group needs her to take care of business, particularly when that business is morally repugnant and awful. In a way, she’s almost like a good-guy version of Merle, in that she’ll step up to do the “dirty work,” but with a much more defined moral center and a highly developed instinct to do what she feels will be best for the group.

Her resolve is tested, though, in another of the all-time best episodes, season four’s “The Grove.” Carol and Tyreese have been heading toward Terminus with three children in tow: Lizzie, her sister Mika, and Rick’s baby daughter Judith. There have been hints for several episodes that Lizzie is really not right in the head, but so far Carol and Tyreese have been able to keep her mostly under control. However, it soon becomes clear that Lizzie’s strange ideas about the walkers and her sadly broken brain are making her a terrible danger. While Carol and Tyreese are distracted, Lizzie kills her sister and waits for her to turn, in order to demonstrate to her caretakers that the walkers are still people. She also seems set to murder Judith next. Carol, holding back tears, plays along with Lizzie’s delusions in order to get her into the house and away from the baby. A heart-wrenching conversation with Tyreese ensues, in which they come to the conclusion that Lizzie will have to be eliminated for the safety of everyone else. Can you imagine having to make such a decision about a child in a world in which there is no longer any help or resources for treating mental illness? Carol, badass woman that she is, takes on the mantle of responsibility, telling Lizzie to “look at the flowers” (which was Mika’s calming phrase whenever Lizzie was having one of her panic attacks) and then shooting her right in the head, execution style. Devastating. And not only that, but in this episode, Carol also confesses to Tyreese that she was the one who killed Karen, and bravely hands Tyreese a gun and tells him that he may kill her if he cannot forgive her. Tyreese does forgive her, and they live to fight another day. I fucking love Carol.

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Herschel Loses His Head

It’s really ironic, because when the character of Herschel Greene was introduced in season two, I really couldn’t stand the dude. He was unpleasantly rigid, delusionally religious, and willing to put his own family and Rick’s group in danger because of his stupidly unrealistic ideas about the walkers. Sure, he saved Carl, and his medical expertise was a tremendous boon, but to be honest, if Shane had killed him after the barn clear-out, I wouldn’t have been the least bit upset about it. But then, dagnabbit, Herschel came to his senses and turned into the awesome, grandfatherly, moral backbone of the show, a man who was happily willing to sacrifice his own life to save others and who was always there to take the high road and get things done when Rick lost his shit after Lori’s death. I loved Herschel so much in the later seasons that I actually felt bad that I had once rooted for his demise. And of course, because I loved him, the show had to fuck all that up.

The good guys, still holed up at the prison, fall prey to a second incursion by the Governor, who has taken Herschel and Michonne hostage. Rick tries to reason with the man (never a great idea), telling him that they can all live in the prison and work together for the common good of Rick’s people and the innocent people of Woodbury. The Governor, being a psycho, doesn’t want any part of a sissy-ass compromise, and to demonstrate his commitment to general evil and craziness, grabs Michonne’s katana and chops off Herschel’s head right in front of the horrified heroes. The shots of Maggie’s and Beth’s screaming faces behind the fence was almost too much for me to take, and I ain’t ashamed to admit it. Poor fuckin’ Herschel. He was such a fantastic character, so necessary to the group’s cohesion, and to have him taken out in such an ignominious way was like a punch in the gut. It made me hate the Governor even more (which I suppose was the intention) and feel tremendous satisfaction at his eventual death. Damn. I really should stop watching this shit; I think it’s giving me a hint of PTSD.

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The Search for Sophia

The first half of season two was all but consumed with the endless search for Carol’s lost daughter Sophia, and though some viewers complained that it went on for an unrealistically long time, I think that particular plot arc was an important catalyst for a lot of the interpersonal dramas playing out among the characters. The search finally brought the aloof Daryl completely on board with the group, for example, and it brought the group closer than ever before as they banded together to pursue a noble goal. Besides that, it gave everyone something to hope for, a purpose. It also brought the conflict between the brutally practical but unstable Shane and the still-trying-to-be-the-good-guy Rick to a tragic head as they struggled over leadership and direction of the group.

In “Pretty Much Dead Already,” Shane, who despite his batshittiness is actually correct that the search for Sophia is taking up too much of their time and resources, has learned that Herschel has been keeping (and feeding) a bunch of walkers that had once been his family members and neighbors. The zombies are all locked up in the barn, and much conflict ensues as the group try to reconcile Herschel’s wish to keep the walkers with their own wish to, y’know, not have a horde of zombies milling around only yards from where they sleep. Rick hems and haws, not wishing to piss off Herschel and alienate the only man who can safely deliver Lori’s baby, but finally Shane has had enough and decides to take matters into his own hands. He gathers up the guns and a few people in the group who agree with him, busts open the barn, and mows all the zombies down.

At the end of the carnage, we think the barn is empty, but just then, the door opens a little, and out emerges…a zombified Sophia. She has been dead in the barn for the entire time the group have been looking for her, and if that revelation didn’t hit you like a freight train, then you’re probably dead inside. Rick steps up and tearfully shoots Sophia in the head while Carol howls in grief in Daryl’s arms. Holy SHIT. This scene codified so much of the ensuing story; it made Rick question his leadership, it justified a lot of Shane’s previously questionable opinions, it woke Herschel up to the fact that the world had gone to shit and he’d better pull his head out of his ass and deal with it. It also unified the group once and for all, and directly led to the final showdown between Shane and Rick, which ended up with Rick having to take on some of Shane’s less savory characteristics in order to keep his people alive. Pretty much all the badass character traits that everyone took on in later seasons was directly attributable to that one scene, and as such, it is probably my favorite of the entire series.

Honorable Mentions: This post was long enough as it was, but I also wanted to give a shout-out to two more scenes that got me right in the feels. First was the scene in which a horribly distraught Daryl has to kill the zombified Merle, who had redeemed himself before his death by taking out a bunch of the Governor’s henchmen. The other scene was, surprisingly, the death of Lori. I never really liked Lori as a character, as many viewers didn’t; I thought she was a manipulative bitch who purposely set Rick and Shane against each other for her own bizarre reasons. But the scene where she tells Maggie to go ahead and perform the Cesarean section that she knows will kill her was pretty damn hard to watch. Maggie’s reaction, Lori’s final speech to Carl, and the subsequent reaction of Rick when he first lays eyes on the baby and realizes that Lori is dead, were pretty fucking shattering. So there’s that.

Agree? Disagree? Fight it out in the comments, if you’re so inclined. Until next time, Goddess out.

Excerpt from “Understanding the Reanimated”

The full short story appears in my 2011 book, The Associated Villainies.

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Daisy swayed back and forth in her chair, a thin stream of drool hanging from the corner of her mouth. She appeared not to notice it, and she appeared not to have heard Dr. Jenner’s question, so he gently repeated it.

“Why do you want to eat human flesh, Daisy?”

Her eyes seemed to meet his for a moment, and he drew in his breath, for he swore he’d seen a spark there, though of what he couldn’t be sure. Was it simply hunger? Or the effects of the drug the nurses came to inject every four hours? Or could it have been something else, perhaps nothing as profound as intelligence, no, but maybe a kind of rudimentary understanding at least… He didn’t want to get too excited; it had only been a flash, a second, but he couldn’t help his palms moistening.

“Daisy? Can you hear me? Do you understand?” He was leaning toward her now, closer than he should have really—the reanimated were still dangerous, despite the medication, and it never paid to be careless around them. But Daisy seemed far more responsive than any of the other patients he’d interviewed in the clinic. He realized that wasn’t saying much, but in this case he’d take what he could get.

She was swaying endlessly, like a snake looking for a place to strike. All of them did that, and he assumed it was simply a manifestation of their condition, filtered through the pharmaceuticals they were forced to take by law. She still didn’t speak—none of them did, or at least they never had when live humans were around—but her strange eyes were fixed on his again, and this time they didn’t simply drift away but held there, seeming to focus sharply behind their milky lenses. Dr. Jenner felt his pulse beginning to race.

“You do understand me, don’t you,” he said, whispering as if the two of them were sharing some delicious secret. “This could change everything.”

He sat there for another hour, firing questions at her and still getting no answers, but becoming more and more certain that he was getting through to her on some level, which was far more than he could say about any of the others. When he finally left the clinic, he called out a musical goodbye to Vera at the nurse’s station. “Any luck today, Doc?” she asked him.

“Yes, Vera, I think my luck is improving. You will call me immediately if any of them say a single word, won’t you?”

“You know I will. Have a good one.”

“Indeed. Good day, Vera.” Dr. Jenner left the clinic, not noticing the way Vera smiled indulgently and shook her head at his receding back.

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.

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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.