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Horror Mystery and Lore

A Voodoo Practice: Mysteries of Zombification

Digging Up the Origin of Zombies

Hand reaching into the darkness
Photography by Lalesh Aldarwish

While zombies have been on the pop culture radar pretty heavily for several decades now, the history of this undead phenomenon has a history deeply rooted in the Haitian Voodoo religion—in fact, the belief in zombies is still a relevant aspect of New Orleans Voodoo. In our western society, we rely heavily upon our knowledge of what is presented to us in movies and television, but the zombie culture we know and love evolved from a very real magical tradition. Original zombification didn’t involve leaks from biological factories, like what happened in Train to Busan (2016), or an airborne virus as was the case in AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010)—it involved a spiritual, magical, and chemical process that arose through voodoo ritual which required the calling of several voodoo spirits (Loa).

Where we see zombies being portrayed as people who have died then coming back to life, the voodoo tradition it is actually a person who is under the powerful influence of psychoactive drugs. These drugs are usually administered to the unfortunate person by a bokor, the voodoo equivalent to a sorcerer or witch doctor. After being dosed with these psychoactive drugs, the victim essentially goes into drug-induced paralysis which mimics death so profoundly that it is rumored that people have been buried alive after being zombified. This is the case in one of the original, classic zombie films The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), where the main antagonist, is buried alive while fully cognizant—which, needless to say would be incredibly terrifying.

The Process of Zombification

Skulls piled on the ground
Photography Renato Danyi

There is a lot of disagreement about whether or not the person who is to become a zombie is actually deceased or not—some believe that the process revives the recently dead into mindless, soulless automatons, while others insist it’s just the effect of psychoactive drugs that leaves the victim in a state of deep, chemical-induced paralysis, which mimics death to the point that even vital signs are not measurable. Within the Voodoo religion, only bokors have the power to create and control zombies, while the methods and ingredient amounts changes from each individual bokor, the process follows the same pattern. Some processes use voodoo dolls, blood and hair from the intended victim, and others use a “zombie” powder—this powder is a concoction of varies herbs and animal parts, most of which are poisonous, as well as human remains.

This powder can then be administered through ingestion or injection and begins to take effect immediately. Immobility, slowed vitals, and reduced oxygen intake occur within minutes which results in the death-like paralysis where the victim is still fully conscious of their surroundings. Once officially declared dead, the victim is buried alive and within eight hours, the bokor digs up the body to keep the victim from actually dying from asphyxiation. Other procedures follow, which result in a mindless and easily controlled zombie which does the bidding of the bokor who created it. The person remains a zombie until the bokor passes away and is no longer capable of administering the drug that maintains the victim’s zombie-like state.

Clairvius Narcisse the Real Haitian Zombie

Creepy old, overgrown cemetary

Photography by NeONBRAND

Zombification is often referred to as either a solely magical or physical experience, but in truth it is a mixture of both, it’s essential for a person to have a belief in voodoo and the ability to be turned into a zombie in order for the process to work in its entirety. This was the case for Clairvius Narcisse, the man who claimed to be a zombie, but returned home after eighteen years and his story was finally told.

In 1962, Narcisse was admitted to the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, Haiti. He complained of fever, body aches, and ‘general malaise,’ but after being admitted he began to spit up blood. His condition declined rapidly, until two days later when he was officially pronounced dead by two separate physicians. Narcisse’s sister, Angelina, was present when he was declared dead and then notified the rest of the family, a day thereafter his body was buried, and ten days after that a concrete memorial slab was placed atop the grave by his family.

What most the family didn’t know is that Clairvius had actually been pulled out of the grave and resuscitated. He was given the zombie concoction and kept in a zombie-like state for two years, working as slave labor in a region of the country that was much farther north. This was all done at the behest of his brother, after refusing to sell his portion of the family estate to him. After two years of being a zombie, his master had been killed, then he and all of the other zombie-slaves were released from their chemical induced state of submission. Clairvius stayed away from his home for the next sixteen years, knowing that his return would make his brother aware that he was no longer being controlled by another. Once his brother passed, he finally returned home, where he approached his sister Angelina in a local marketplace and introduced himself by his childhood nickname which she and a few other intimate family members alone were aware of.

Investigating the Haitian Zombie with Hamilton Morris

The following six-part Vice production follows the investigation of The Haitian Zombie, with Hamilton’s Phramacopeia, in order to find the truth behind the folk magic and legends of this walking dead phenomenon; Hamilton follows the scientific trail to the origin of the poisons that are said to cause Zombification in order to bring them back for formal chemical analysis.


Please watch the following footage with discretion–there are scenes and images that some viewers may find disturbing.

These videos are meant to be educational in nature.


Part One

This first episode goes into the initial introduction, including the nature of what Zombification entails.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 05

Part Two

The following video contains graphic footage included in a voodoo ritual, in which an animal sacrifice is made for the Loa, please be advised it may be considered disturbing to some viewers.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 06

Part Three

In this third episode, Hamilton goes to find a Bokor in order to witness the process of Zombification, but results in angering the Bokor and being told the deal is off.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 07

Part Four

Hamilton goes to find the main ingredient of Zombie powder, in this fourth episodes, which is a species of puffer fish.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 08

Part Five

In the fifth part of Investigating the Haitian Zombie, Hamilton meets up with another Bokor who possesses the Zombie powder that they have been searching for and witnesses a real zombie.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 09

Part Six

The final installment of the investigation into Haitian zombies, they travel back to the Bokor who showed them what they had been searching for to come through with the final product they paid for.

Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia Season 01 Episode 10

Knowing what we have learned from different sources, about the process of Zombification, can it truly be said that it is a purely chemical process? These videos in particular have all but debunked the rationale that it can all be chalked up to a chemical reaction, so some aspects of this spiritual process is often contributed to the powerful belief in their magical practices. What do you think about the phenomenon of Zombification? Let us know in the comments below.

Categories
Horror Mystery and Lore Lifestyle

Oddities of the Bayou: Religions and the Occult

The Voodoo Religion of New Orleans

Zombie standing in a dark cornfield
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

The roots of voodoo run deep with the sordid history of slavery in America, originating from the traditional West African religion of vodoun (also vodun), it further evolved once it reached Haiti and Louisiana. Louisiana voodoo—properly known as vodoun—the queens and priestesses hold the highest position within this matriarchal religion. Something that may surprise those unfamiliar with vodoun, is that it’s actually a monotheistic religion which centers around the supreme creator, Bondye (French Creole for “good god”) who controls life and destiny. Bondye manifests his will through the many loa (also lwa) present within this belief system.

Loa: Spirits of Vodoun

The loa are spirits who connect the followers of vodoun to their deity—through the use of vèvè, symbols which serve as visual representation of the loa during ritual, practitioners are able to call upon the loa for their assistance in personal matters. Despite many people not having any formal knowledge of loa or their role in the religious practices of vodoun, they would easily recognize the visage of popular spirits such as Papa Ghede and Papa Legba, if not just as cultural references that they associate with New Orleans in general.

Assortment of voodoo dolls
Photography by Wian Juanico

Misconceptions of Voodoo Dolls

Misrepresented time and time again, voodoo dolls have come to represent something far beyond the reach of what they were originally used for. Hollywood would have us convinced that they’re instruments of evil, used to control the actions of people, or otherwise wreak havoc, and destroy their lives. Except voodoo dolls are not traditionally used to cause people harm in any sense of the word. These dolls are indeed used as a physical representation of the person who is the focus of the ritual, but instead of harm, they are often used for among other things, love, success, and healing.

The Mystery of Zombification

A far cry from the stereotypical walking dead that has made the horror genre of international cinema so powerful, the origin of zombies is quite a bit more disturbing than we’re used to these days. When it comes to the origin of zombie lore, the fear isn’t derived from the idea of being the main course of a zombie feast—instead it’s the idea of being turned into a zombie. The short and sweet version? Zombies as derived from the Haitian vodun practice are actually living people, who have been chemically induced to have no free-will.

New Orleans Voodoo Display
Photography by Jane Hawkner

Hoodoo, Conjure, and Rootwork: African American Folk Magic

Many people believe that hoodoo and voodoo are interchangeable—it’s not a tough concept to explain that while they’re similar, they’re not the same, but it still seems to be an ongoing issue of mistaken identity. Voodoo, as has been explained now, is actually a religion that utilizes the folk magic practice, whereas hoodoo is actually just a folk magic practice with no hard and fast religious affiliation, although most practitioners identify as Protestant Christians. To be clear, hoodoo is but one of the most common types of African American Folk Magic, with other practices such as conjure and rootwork being nearly interchangeable with minimal differences, other than the region in which they are practiced.

Mural, Santeria the worship of Saints
Photography by Gerhard Lipold

Santería: The Worship of Saints

Another religion that is commonly mistaken for voodoo, is Santería—a religion that also has West African origins, but was further developed in Cuba among West African descendants. One of Louisiana’s best kept religious secrets, this Yoruba based religion merged with Roman Catholicism and embraced the Catholic saints, referred to often as orishas who act as emissaries to God—Olodumare.

The Honey Island Swamp Monster

Dark and spooky swampland
Photography by Anthony Roberts

A legend known in the Bayou is that of the Honey Island Swamp Monster—a bipedal cryptid that is likened to bigfoot, but described physically as being quite dissimilar other than its stature. This grey-haired, yellow (or red, depending on the source) eyed monster is said to be a creature that was born from chimpanzees that escaped from a circus train that wrecked on the tracks, and the local alligator population.

Categories
Reviews Scary Movies and Series

The Serpent and the Rainbow: Dissecting the Truth of Voodoo in Movies

The Serpent and the Rainbow Movie Poster
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Even if you’ve never been buried alive, rest assured, this movie cannot hope to capture the terror that one must feel waking up to the darkness and heart-stopping fear of waking up in a coffin, with no possible hope of being rescued. If you have not yet seen The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), then perhaps it’s time—this movie has aged well, at the time of this posting, it’s nearly thirty-two years old, still relevant and pretty terrifying through the right lens. Given the fact that this movie was created in the late eighties, it stands to reason that if it were remade, it could be given new life, it definitely has the potential with a higher-rated actor and better cinematography to be a more nail-biting journey to have a glimpse into what zombification in the voodoo culture is truly about. The Serpent and the Rainbow was based on a book with the same name and directed by Wes Craven—a highly regarded thrill-maker in his heyday—and is given the attribute of being inspired by a true story, which is believable considering the attention to detail that was paid to even the most insignificant aspects of the story.

“In the legends of voodoo
The Serpent is a symbol of Earth.
The Rainbow is a symbol of Heaven.
Between the two, all creatures must live and die.
But because he has a soul
Man can be trapped in a terrible place
Where death is only the beginning.”

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Set during the political unrest of Haiti in 1978, Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman), an anthropologist turned field-researcher has just come back from exploring for medicinal herbs and plants; he’s hailed as a hero at the biological research company, at which he works because he’s brought back medicines that no one before has ever been able to collect. No rest is given for the weary though and he’s immediately asked to go investigate the mysteries of zombification in Haiti—they have just come across evidence of a case eerily similar to that of real-life Clairvius Narcisse. Christophe was a man who died and was brought back to life. So, Dr. Alan sets off to find this mysterious zombification powder, something his bosses hope to find useful in their medical research.

Surprisingly, much of the lore of voodoo is represented quite faithfully, which has a lot to do with the fact that most of the movie was filmed on location during a time of political and social unrest; the scenes in which voodoo rituals occur, they were actually filming voodoo practitioners who were in a trance state. The authenticity of these scenes sets this movie apart from any other movie about voodoo that is out there, it can’t get more realistic than this without being an outright documentary. The whole movie was based loosely around The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) a non-fiction book was written by Wade Davis. The author is to this day, an anthropologist who initially made himself famous by his research in the field of psychoactive plants; he was one of the first outsiders to gain access to the secrets of zombification and how the powder was created, which are highly guarded secrets in the community of voodoo in Haiti.

So, while simultaneously staying true to much of what voodoo is about and not intending to create a horror movie, director Wes Craven was somehow able to make the movie a psychological experience that kept it both interesting and entertaining, long enough to get to the meat and bones of the plot. Insights into the poorly staffed insane asylums and the psychological state of a person who had undergone the trauma of being drugged, declared dead, buried alive and then being dug up and made to serve a master, created an environment early in the movie that this entire expedition was going to be a dangerous one for Dr. Alan. Like a well-trained and eager anthropologist, our antagonist goes above and beyond what any sane field researcher would do, finding himself in graveyards searching for a mentally unstable resurrected Christophe, attending voodoo rituals in which he witnesses men chewing on fire and women eating glass, and running into an evil witch doctor, Peytraud, who does not want him to be successful in finding the secrets to zombification. It’s important to watch this movie without any lens of bias, as far as what valid religion and spiritual practice are, it requires people to be open to what is possible when belief in the strange and unnatural is strong and unwavering.

Possessing the knowledge that Wes Craven never intended this movie to be a horror flick, it’s quite easy to see past the dated effects and experience Dr. Alan’s nightmarish visions with the depth of fear that someone that has had the superstition of the land seeded into his brain. With an added element of complexity, Dr. Alan falls for the beautiful psychiatrist who aids him in his journey to the highly sought-after zombification powder, which allows him to be more easily manipulated by Peytraud who later has Dr. Alan in his clutches. The cinematography in the torture room of Peytraud is intense, especially considering the time in which the movie was made, the gore wasn’t a necessary element to induce fear in audiences. We know what is going to happen to our antagonist when we find him being strapped into a chair, with his underwear around his ankles, when Peytraud reveals a coffin nail and tells Dr. Alan that he wants to, “hear (him) scream.”

Dr. Alan drowning in blood in a nightmare
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Not to be deterred, we see the effects that Peytraud has had to Dr. Alan’s mental state, his nightmares and visions get worse—he’s being buried alive in his dreams, he screams as blood begins to fill the coffin and quickly consumes his body. Political tactics are taken to scare Dr. Alan into leaving Haiti without what he came for, which nearly works if it weren’t for his hidden ally who ends up sneaking it to him after he has been forced into a plane that will take him home. Threats of being arrested and executed have been levied on him, which means he has to leave his lover, Marielle (Cathy Tyson), behind despite the danger she would be in for her associations with him. The brief time back in Boston is punctuated with the powder having been researched, which the movie is also incredibly true to its source, noting that the subject would be aware of everything that was going on, while still appearing clinically dead. Peytraud shows himself through magical means, making it clear that he can reach Dr. Alan wherever he may be—his visions have not ceased since arriving back home. Dr. Alan returns to Haiti in order to make sure Marielle is safe, he finds the ally that gave him the powder has been executed for what he has done—this is where things truly turn bad for him.

Don’t let them bury me. I’m not dead.

Dr. Alan – The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

After having zombie powder blown into his face by one of Peytraud’s associates, Dr, Alan stumbles through the village and eventually falls to the ground, pale and apparently dying–he utters the words that the movie is famous for, “Don’t let them bury me. I’m not dead.” The fear in his eyes is not overplayed, in fact, this part was incredibly well done. After being declared dead in the hospital, we see Peytraud has taken control of his body and is seeing to it that Dr. Alan is put in the grave.

“When you wake up, Dr. Alan—scream.
Scream all you want, there is no escape from the grave.”

Peytraud – The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Before watching this movie, I read reviews of it, so this is always where I was led to believe that the movie ended—our hero, the noble anthropologist, seeking secrets for the future of medicine gets buried alive and that’s that—the ultimate fear of someone who is claustrophobic, meeting their demise in a cramped box with severely limited oxygen. Except, this isn’t where we end—Christophe, comes to Dr. Alan’s rescue when he awakens from his drug-induced trance and begins to scream. In a moment of unexpected vulnerability, Christophe consoles the anthropologist, “You’re alive. You see things the living can’t see. In a daring rescue of his lover, Dr. Alan squares off against Peytraud where he encounters several setbacks and finally overcomes the mind control of his nemesis, defeats the bad guy, rescues the girl, and saves the day. His visions cease and we’re led to believe that he goes on to live a happy and full life.

All in all, this movie has stayed relevant over the past three decades and is highly recommended for being both unique and authentic in its representation of zombies. You’ve got to check this one out!

Categories
Horror Mystery and Lore Lifestyle

Voodoo on the Bayou

Spiritual Speaker in the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana
Photography by Nico Bhlr

Anyone can practice voodoo in New Orleans—embraced by people no matter their race, creed, or origin—there are no standard worship practices, in this flexible and inclusive spiritual and religious practice. A religion so immersed in mystery, voodoo is often mistaken for something much more sinister. First introduced to the United States through the repugnant practice of slavery, it originated from the Fon people of West Africa and was then intermixed with European cultural influences, as well as Native American herbalism and spiritual practices.

In Denise Alvarado’s The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook, it’s explained that voodoo and hoodoo are not the same, despite the how often they are confused for one another. Incredibly complementary in nature, voodoo and hoodoo in New Orleans are melded together in a practice endearingly referred to as voodoo hoodoo, something that is distinct to the region—elsewhere, voodoo is strictly a religion and hoodoo is strictly a folk magic practice. New Orleans is a mixing pot—multiple cultures converging together, the influences of voodoo are so incredibly diverse that it’s no wonder why those who aren’t involved in the religion would be confused about the whole thing.

The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook

Well, here is where the confusion clears—like it was mentioned before, voodoo is a religion, while hoodoo is a practice. Voodoo practitioners believe in a single supreme creator, known as Bondye, which in French Creole stands for “good god.” There is no mention of only good or only evil beings in the religion—instead it is a practice that embraces the good and bad in all situations, where spirits known as the loa act as messengers for Bondye. Despite there being a single god, the loa, also known as lwa, are the ones that practitioners communicate with. Frequently likened to the saints in Catholicism, there is a loa to contact in regards to nearly every aspect of normal life.

Popular media insists that New Orleans voodoo is an ominous, evil tradition—this is based on the demonization of the unique practices within the religion. During the reign of the infamous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Marie Laveau, the use of voodoo dolls came into common use, like gris gris (gree-gree), as a form of talismanic magic. There is an odd tradition of depicting voodoo dolls are objects of revenge—ways for malevolent practitioners to send destruction and pain into the lives of their targets. The majority of Voodoo practitioners have been actively working against this negative media presence, showing that most voodoo dolls are centered on healing, finding true love, and obtaining spiritual guidance. Just like Marie Laveau, it seeks to help those in need—to feed the hungry, help the poor, and curing ailments such as anxiety, addictions, depression, and loneliness are mainstays of this religion.

Skulls deteriorating in the jungle
Photography by Christian Grecu

All in all, it seems that those who are a part of the voodoo religion actually prefer to keep their beliefs and practices to themselves, you won’t find any legitimate practitioners displaying their rituals in public, as this would be considered disrespectful to the spirits. This is fair, considering the amount of public bile that spills over into their culture whenever it is brought to light anywhere else in the United States. Privacy is often more pleasant than negativity when it comes to personal beliefs.