The Natural Life of Zombies

In 1962 in Haiti, Clairvius Narcisse was certified dead and buried. Days later, he was raised from the grave by a sorcerer and became a will-less zombie slave. In 1980, a Haitian psychiatrist found him. In 1983, a Harvard ethnobotanist discovered the secret of his poisoning. In 1985, a reporter decided to take the zombie to lunch.

  1. It is late morning in Port-au-Prince, and the Haitian psychiatrist’s chauffeur has arrived to drive us up north to meet two zombies.

    We are ready. Wiggins, my traveling companion, has packed a bag of supplies, including a rusty pocketknife and a first-aid kit with bandages, antiseptic, and something called Dr. Seltzer’s Hangover Remedy. He has just dashed up to his room to add some Lomotil to his kit after spotting a suspicious substance floating in his breakfast Pepsi. He does not have anything that will raise the dead. But that has already been taken care of.

    Zombies, according to my Webster’s, are “will-less and speechless humans in the West Indies… who are held to have died and been reanimated.” They are “people whose decease has been duly recorded, and whose burial has been witnessed, but who are found a few years later living with a bokor (voodoo sorcerer) in a state verging on idiocy,” reports Alfred Metraux’s classic 1959 study, Voodoo in Haiti. You know about zombies if you ever saw Night of the Living Dead or any of a hundred other horror films. Wiggins and I had ourselves prepared for our Haitian expedition by renting and studying on my VCR a 1964 zombie film called I Eat Your Skin, in which the hero lands on “Voodoo Island” and remarks to a native, “I’ve heard a rumor that there’s an army of walking dead on this island. Is there any truth to that?” Minutes later, the hero and his friends are being chased by a mob of zombies (played by black people made up with w...

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