This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.
Zombies: Where Does the Idea Come From? by Thomas Taylor
The idea of reanimated corpses taking over the world has become a rather active discussion in society today. It has been the basis for numerous movies, television shows, and horror stories in pop culture dating all the way back to the 1920’s. In more recent times, this idea has spawned zombie apocalypse cults and a wave of apocalypse survivalist. But the sad reality of this idea is that it is a perversion of the belief system of an entire group of people.
Imagine you live in the western Sahel area of Africa. To the north is the immense expanse of the Sahara desert. To the south is the Savanna, home of some of the largest and most dangerous predators in the world. The temperature is hot, with the average daily high being in the 100’s through much of the year. The region is plagued by decade long droughts followed by massive flooding. The area you live is plagued by regular swarms of as many as 50 million locusts that demolish everything in sight. As I am sure you can imagine, life is both hard and cherished. This is the environment the Fon people of southwestern Nigeria live in.
The Fon’s had two beliefs as part of their Vodun religion that lead them to an odd problem. The first belief is that death is sacred. This was so central to their culture that they would hold anniversary parties of funerals and mourning activities would include dancing that often lasted for days. People’s ancestors walked beside them every day and were even a part of them. The second belief was that when someone dies, part of them is reincarnated.
The problem that would unfold with this system of beliefs happens when someone commits a crime against the tribe that was so bad that it would disrupt the lives of the tribe to allow this person to continue life. If the person was sentenced to death, they would be able to roam freely among the population as a spirit until being reborn with the directives of their ancestors, and thus they would be directed to the same types of actions. This would also put the burden of taking a life upon another member of the tribe, creating another crime.
The answer that the Fon people came up with is something that both fit their belief and turned a negative member of society into a positive one. Rather than executing someone, they would attempt to disable the person’s ability to make the decisions that lead to the crimes the people feared. In the worst cases this involved inflicting a form of brain damage, using various toxins, and allowing the person to contribute to the society in whatever remaining capacity they had. This concept is somewhat the same idea as more modern societies performing lobotomies on their mentally ill population to calm them down and make them easier to manage. This culture was carried across the Atlantic during the slave trade and eventually mixed with the Christian culture and was carried to Haiti.
The method that the Bokor, a Vodun sorcerer, would employ to create zombies is widely disputed. The most commonly released method involves the use of “zombie powder.” This powder is made from tetrodotoxin, pufferfish venom, bufotoxin, toad venom, datura stramonium (which comes from the datura plant, also known as the zombie cucumber) and a little bit of human bone for good measure. This powder puts the person into a coma that appears dead, then after a few days the Bokor will wake the person up and administer zombie cucumber extract to keep the victim in an amnesic, hallucinogenic, and highly suggestive state for as long as desired.
Something of note here is that these items are mostly used in Asia for medicinal purpose and are not native to Africa or Haiti. This this may prove to be an issue for a tribal witch doctor to acquire. Anthropologist Wade Davis studied this powder in the early 1980s, reporting on these ingredients. These reports, though, have fallen under much scrutiny. The first issue is that, as with most pharmacological cases, the difference between comas with no vitals and death is a very thin line. The samples reported by Davis all have varying degrees of these ingredients, as would be expected from powders made by tribal witch doctors with little to no exact measuring instruments. This was proven to be even more inconsequential as Kao and Yasumoto (1986) tested the quantity of the toxins provided by Davis and found that they would be insignificant amounts to cause the effects stated. This was also found by John Hartung (1984) who gave the powder to mice and was not able to get any results.
There have been cases of Vodun zombies that have been reported and presented for study. The most popular study was reported by an anthropology professor Roland Littlewood from the University of London; in this study there were three “zombies” studied. The first one was a woman named FI. Her family reported that she died at the age of 30 from a short illness, but three years later she was found roaming the outskirts of the village. The study found that she was younger than what the family photo showed and did not have the same build that the original FI had. They also found that her symptoms were caused by catatonic schizophrenia.
The second case was a person referred to as WD. WD died at the young age of 18 from a mysterious illness; 19 months later he was found at a cockfight. He exhibited all the symptoms of a zombie and claimed his uncle was responsible for the zombification. His uncle was tracked down and reported that this case was, “A trick on the part of WD’s father to expropriate his property entirely, and his confession had been induced through torture by the police.” As for WD himself, he was younger and thinner than in the picture and the cousin whose land he was “buried” in would not allow the grave to be exhumed to see if there was a body in it. WD was diagnosed as having organic brain syndrome and epilepsy consistent with a period of anoxia.
The third and final case is of MM. MM died at the age of 18 from diarrhea and fever. Thirteen years later, she appeared in the town market claiming to have been retained as a zombie and had produced a child to another zombie in a village 100 miles north of theirs. After they found her, they treated her with a daily “laying on of hands.” Once again she was younger and thinner than the photos, but unlike the others she was responsive and emotional. The diagnosis was fetal alcohol syndrome. When she was taken to the town she claimed to be held captive in, she was immediately recognized in the town market and had a family there that claimed she was theirs. It is likely that this too was a case of misidentification.
In this brief overview, you have seen the origins of the zombie myth. None of these “zombies” actually studied would have the possibility of surviving without direct care of a human or the ability to transmit their illness as portrayed by Hollywood. The cases of reported zombies have all fallen under suspicious circumstances and likely not been the same person that was reported dead. Finally, the powder that is “used” to create them did not work on mice and would have insignificant amounts of the chemicals to work on humans. At this point of time, it is difficult to say that zombies have ever existed or if they have all been cases of superstition and mistaken identity mixed with mental illness.