In A Nutshell
A Haitian man claims to have been poisoned and buried alive, only to be exhumed shortly after, drugged, and forced to work on a sugar plantation with others just like him. Much of his story has been backed up by a psychiatrist, two US-trained doctors, and a Harvard-educated ethnobotanist.
The Whole Bushel
The Afro-Caribbean religion of Vodou (also spelled Vodun and Voodoo) includes many stories of mind- and body-control, spirit possession, and zombie-like states. The English word “zombie” is even a derivative of the Haitian Creole word “zonbi.” While many non-believers dismiss these stories as superstitious bunk, a Canadian-born researcher may have found an explanation to one prominent case of alleged Zombieism in Haiti.
Clairvius Narcisse was a poor Haitian man who became deathly ill in 1962. His symptoms included fever, trouble breathing, and the feeling of bugs crawling under his skin. He was taken to a hospital some distance from his home. While there he was seen and treated by two doctors (one was an American and the other had been trained in the United States). After some time, he took a turn for the worse and was pronounced dead. He was buried shortly after, but he claims he was never really dead.
Narcisse’s story is that he woke up in his coffin in a daze. He believed he was poisoned or under a spell. The next night, he was exhumed by a Bokor, or Vodou shaman, and taken to an unknown location. He was given some sort of concoction that put him in a zombie-like trance. The substance left him perceptible to suggestion, and he says he was forced to work on a sugar plantation day and night. Each day, the same concoction was given to him and others on the farm to keep them compliant.
At some point, the captives managed to flee their imprisonment and Narcisse spent the next 18 years wandering and begging on the streets. In 1981, he came upon his home village and still recognized his sister after 20 years. She apparently recognized him too, because when she saw him, she screamed quite loudly. He convinced her it was really him by using a nickname known only to the family.
A psychiatrist was brought in to question Narcisse to see if his story checked out. Narcisse was able to correctly answer all of his questions based on the information given to him by the family. Many of the townspeople concurred and said they recognized Narcisse from 20 years prior.
The media caught wind of the story and many prominent news outlets in the US and elsewhere sent crews to cover it. In addition to the media, a researcher from Harvard took particular curiosity in the case. Wade Davis is an ethnobotanist (he studies the ways people use plants). Davis claims that Narcisse and others may have been under the influence of one or more drugs to keep them in their sedated and suggestive state.
According to Davis, a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin or TTX is responsible for the death-like state that Narcisse was in prior to his burial. People who have ingested this toxin are often catatonic with very few signs of life and are sometimes mistaken for dead. The toxin is available via an indigenous toad in Haiti. Narcisse thinks his brother may have slipped him the toxin before he became ill.
While a daily regimen of a paralyzing toxin doesn’t sound like an efficient way run a plantation, Davis has argued that another drug, datura stimonium, may have been included in the concoction given to the plantation workers. Datura stimonium is prevalent in much of the Americas and, when used in regulated doses, can produce delirium, suggestibility, and amnesia. Higher doses can result in hallucinations. Davis claims to have been present during the making of these potions and is convinced they are the impetus behind Narcisse’s strange story.