The Island of Zombies

Many people, strictly tongue in cheek, are awaiting the Zombie Apocalypse, and many current movies and TV shows focus on suddenly mutating viruses or man made diseases that have gotten out of control. In most cases, the disease is spread by bites, in much the way rabies is spread.

The myth of the zombie grew from the Vodun (Vodou, Voodoo) religion, which is associated with the island of La Española, especially the country of Haiti. Not at all resembling the Voodoo of Hollywood, variations of this hybrid of Christianity and animism are practiced by millions of people worldwide.

Haitian Vodou, called Sevis Gineh or “African Service”, is the primary culture and religion of the approximately 7 million people of Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. It has its primary roots among the Fon-Ewe peoples of West Africa, in the country now known as Benin, formerly the Kingdom of Dahomey. It also has strong elements from the Ibo and Kongo peoples of Central Africa and the Yoruba of Nigeria, though many different peoples or “nations” of Africa have representation in the liturgy of the Sevis Gineh, as do the Taino Indians, the original peoples of the island we now know as Hispaniola. Haitian Vodou exists in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, parts of Cuba, the United States, France, Montreal, and other places that Haitian immigrants have dispersed to over the years.

Other New World traditions it is closely related to or bears resemblance to include Jeje Vodun in Brazil, La Regla Arara in Cuba, and the Black Spiritualist Christian churches of New Orleans. Haitian Vodou also bears superficial resemblances in many ways with the Nigerian Yoruba-derived traditions of Orisha service, represented by La Regla de Ocha or Lukumi, aka “Santeria”, in Cuba, the United States, and Puerto Rico as well as Candomble in Brazil. While popularly thought of as related to Haitian Vodou, what is commonly referred to as “voodoo” in New Orleans and the southern US is a variant of the word “hoodoo”, also called “rootwork” or “root doctoring”. This is a folk magical tradition from Central Africa in the Congo region in which roots, leaves, minerals, and the spirits of the dead are employed to improve the lot of the living, often including the reciting of Psalms and other Biblical prayers. Rootwork also incorporates Native American herb lore and European and Jewish magical traditions. As a folk magic tradition, New Orleans “voodoo” and southern “hoodoo” rootwork are distinct from the RELIGION of Haitian Vodou and its siblings and cousins.

In Haiti, the act of turning another person into a zombie is written into the criminal code.

In Haiti, zombification is considered as murder, even though the victim remains alive. Article 246 of the Haitian penal code states:

It shall also be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the person had been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.

Rather than being entirely mythical, zombies do roam the countryside of Haiti.

But on the cultural level, zombies are identified by specific characteristics – they cannot lift up their heads, have a nasal intonation, a fixed staring expression, they carry repeated purposeless actions and have limited and repetitive speech.

But how are zombies created, and why are they limited to Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora? The answers lie in the both the practices and beliefs of Haitian Vodun.

Vodun is a vitalist religion where the human being is composed of different elements.

The person has four dimensions:

  • Kò kadav (‘body’);
  • Lonbraj (‘shade’);
  • Gwo bon-anj (‘big good angel’);
  • Nam/ti bon-anj (‘little good angel’).

Health practitioners, particularly of the poor, practice herbalism and other treatments based upon tradition, similar to what we know as Traditional Chinese Medicine. The long tradition that combines religion with healing, leaves believers susceptible to control by priests and sorcerers. Haiti also suffers from state wide poverty and a population where over 70% have less than a grade school education. Skepticism is unlikely to take root under these conditions.

This is especially true in instances of mental illness.

"Zombie" in mental hospital 1938

Mental health problems are often attributed to supernatural forces. Mental illness,  problems in daily functioning and academic underachievement may all be seen as the consequences of a spell, a hex, or a curse transmitted by a jealous person. In such cases, people generally do not blame themselves for their illness or see themselves as defective.Indeed, the sense of self may even be enhanced as a curse is often aimed at a person deemed to be attractive, intelligent, and successful. Mental illness is also sometimes attributed to failure to please spirits (lwa-s, zanj-s, etc.), including those of deceased family members. Desrosiers and Fleurose (2002) point out that this external attribution  may help recovery, in that people can call upon the lwa-s to intervene on their behalf to assist healing. People often rely on their inner spiritual and religious strength to deal with their problems. Mentally ill people may be seen as victims of powerful forces beyond their control and thus receive the support of the community. However, shame may be associated with the decline in functioning in severe mental illness and the family may be reluctant to acknowledge that a member is ill.

The lack of understanding of the causes of mental illness and the lack of availability of modern treatments can leave the sufferers homeless, and wandering the countryside in a dazed dissociated state: the characteristics of both zombies and schizophrenics.In fact this, along with other forms of organic illness have been documented in several cases. There have also been cases of the administration of tetrodotoxin, a paralytic agent found in puffer fish.

The sorcerer then administers another cocktail of drugs that leaves the victim in a permanent state of delirium and disorientation. This second powder is thought to contain atropine and scopolamine, toxic and dissociative hallucinogenic compounds derived from the plants Datura stramonium (left) and Datura metel (both of which are known in Haiti as the “zombie cucumber”).

In a society where the religious beliefs are so closely tied with every day life, the power of suggestion cannot be underestimated.

While the spiritual concept of zombification seems to lack any substance in reality, we should remember that a great number of Christians in western society believe in demonic possession and exorcisms are not uncommon in North America and Europe. This is another example of religion proving to be antithetical to health.


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