Ethnobotany and Zombies: The Skeptic and the Rainbow

Gino Del Guercio’s article The Secrets of Haiti’s Living Dead, along with some criticisms, shed light on the accounts of Wade Davis’ adventures with VouDon Zombies.

| This article originally appeared on Mystic Politics / by Everett Tucker.

We open with the Haitian Clairvius Narcisse’s claims that he was drugged to appear dead, buried alive, and dug up by a Houngan priest who subsequently extracted labor from him while Clairvius was kept in a perpetual stupor or ‘zombie’ state. Clairvius claims he was beaten with a sisal whip and transplanted to a Haitian sugar plantation where he worked with other zombified victims.

What distinguishes Narcisse’s account from other modern and folkloric accounts of Haitian zombies is its documentation- his death was officially recorded in a hospital under American authority. Having entered the facility spitting up blood, feverish, and with complaints of aches, doctors were at a loss in their attempts at a diagnosis. Three days later they mispronounced him as dead.

Dr. Lamarque, a Haitian-born Canadian-trained psychiatrist, had been studying zombies for years and postulated the seeming revival from death was really a rousing from the effects of a metabolism lowering drug. But what drug, and how was it accomplished/ administered? To find the answers Lamarque sent word to New York searching for an ethnobotanist, whose peculiar discipline was needed to flesh out the zombie phenomena.

Harvard Botanical Museum’s director, Richard Evans Schultes, would have been ideal to investigate the phenomena as a professor of biology who had spent over a decade in the tropics indexing (and probably sampling) native medicines and potions. But as his dance card was already filled, he passed the task to the story’s protagonist, one Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist and researcher from Harvard.

During a previous trip to south America researching plants, Davis had proved himself as an ‘outstanding field man’ (or so says his mentor, Schultes), and one willing to go native in the ritualistic imbibing of sacred Ayahuasca vine (or the derivative hotchpotch brew).

While many had attempted before to extract the secrets of the Haitian VouDon, previous researchers searching for Zombie magick had failed. Davis claims it was his infiltration of VouDon’s clandestine groups and secret societies that facilitated the discoveries he made. Wade Davis’ highly sensationalized account of the Zombie research was made famous in his book The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic, which finds him portrayed as a mystical Indiana Jones buttressed between worlds of science and carnal low-magic.

He managed to procure a sample (finally) of the Zombie powder used to bring about the death-like state. He discovered that (among the fetid, ground remains of a child’s corpse), there was dried Puffer fish which contains a fierce poison known as tetrodotoxin, which was also found in every subsequent sample.

The tetrodotoxin brew isn’t what causes the zombification, though. A subsequent and perpetual dosage of paste from the Datura plant, or the “zombie’s cucumber”, is what keeps the ‘risen’ dead in their mesmerized state. It is part of the ‘magick’ that leads to Haitian Zombies.

An interesting note from Davis is that there is a third aspect to the spell: the cultural presuppositions about the verisimilitude and efficacy of VouDon magick and its Houngan practitioners. The victims were raised in an atmosphere that bought into the mysticism of neo-African low-magic. This is a major tenet of American new-thought infused ritual magick- that energy follows intent. Indeed it seems to be what Robert Anton Wilson calls the ‘high-strangeness’ of the human mind that is the catalyst in any effective witches-brew.

Bob Corbett, an expert of Haitian culture and history of Webster University, notes that while he supports Davis’ zombie theories, he finds the personal narrative of ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’ to be fantastic and barely plausible. The idea that the Haitian secret societies would so quickly and easily embrace a long-nosed and thin-lipped Yankee of education and the middling class seems implausible.

What is more troublesome is Davis’ too-easy capitulation to the propaganda narratives of those who hold secret sway over under-educated peasants. Gino Del Guercio summarizes the author’s views by stating “Davis believes the secret societies are responsible for policing their communities, and the threat of zombification is one way they maintain order.”

This to me smacks of indoctrination and superficial understanding on behalf of Davis, who seems to have been snookered by some local cult. I’m sure any local Freemason will also tell you of the pervasive power and providence of the clandestine fraternity, but the reality is probably more along the lines of a bunch of weirdos with romantic world-views who like to imagine they have power that didn’t evaporate scores if not hundreds of years ago.

One wonders if Davis supports secret government corruption and extra-legal action, which he in like might reconcile as a stabilizing force. A good rule of thumb is this: secrecy breeds corruption, and transparency breeds egalitarianism. People who drug and manipulate dissidents aren’t local peace-keepers, they are magickal rapists who use force to silence opposition and terrorize the common people. The embedded video intimates a similarity to Military Intelligence complex’s rendition tactics.

Davis’ book was made into a film, released in 1988 and directed by Wes Craven. It is a low-budget horror romp that further sensationalizes the already shaky account. The film sees the protagonist (Davis) played by b-actor Bill Pullman, who tries unsuccessfully to act his way out of a paper-bag script that cartoonifies the VouDon religion.

Through a series of dreams the male lead is haunted by prescient allegories that guide him to true understanding: that he works for a company wanting to market a new drug. Enlightening. His interactions with the local fuzz/secret society hierophants are probably truer than the book in their depictions of the bully-factor of the mystical sects and how they use temporal and perceived ephemeral abuse to solidify their own ascendancy.

While Ethnobotany is fascinating, and traversing jungles indexing and sampling exotic medicines seems fun, it seems we still have more to learn about the magick of neuroscience and where it crosses the path of pharmacology.

| Sources: Article (Everett Tucker) / Image (The Carousel of Dreams).

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Everett Tucker is the creator and editor of Mystic Politics. He is condescending, overconfident, under-educated, and extremely interested in exploring religiopolitical overlap, the psychology of belief, and the conspiratorial tropes & memes- real or otherwise- of popular culture. Signup for email updates to be notified of future ethnobotanical hack work.

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