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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.

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Anna Byrne: Chapter 04 – Finding the Bokor

I twitched awake, I felt the unsettling warmth of sweaty palms, and my heart pounded in my chest as I gasped for air. It was the week following the winter Solstice and it was colder than it had been all year; the skies above my cabin were entirely void of cloud cover and had the clearest view of the milky way. Clear skies during the darkest parts of winter would always have a chilling effect on the temperature, this time it caused it to plummet to thirty below. Living in Alaska wasn’t always pleasant, especially times like the present, where I could see my breath rise as a fog above my face, even in the darkness of my cabin.

“The water again?” I groaned silently, then rolled over onto my side and squinted into the backlit screen of my laptop as it booted up. I blinked my eyes a couple of times to help them adjust to the screen, then clicked the only icon on my desktop. I waited as my secure connection bounced between Bruges, San Francisco, and finally Vancouver; Tor, the anonymous browser I used to access the dark web, opened to its usual homepage. I vaguely remembered where I had left off in the Oasis when I signed off at two in the morning, but when my eyes flicked over to the clock in the corner I saw that had only been three hours earlier. My dreams had turned into nightly hauntings, which always ended with me choking for air as I drifted beneath the murky surface of a strange body of water. I shook it off, even thinking about it gave me the chills.

It had been over eight years since the first time I logged into The Oasis, that was the summer before my nineteenth birthday, which now felt like such a long time ago. I entered in a string of seemingly random numbers into the address bar, this sequence had taken me nearly two weeks of typing it in to commit it to memory, despite entering it several times a day. Even with my high status as a long-term member of this particular darknet paranormal community, I still had no idea who ran the whole thing, let alone where it came from, all I knew was that it was legitimate.

I had only received an invitation after trolling the dregs of the paranormal communities for some time—right after I had sought out and documented proof of the Alaska Bushmen, the creatures that had been gnawing at my subconscious since I first heard of them as a child. It had taken me almost six years to find the damn things. A chat request from my anonymous buddy popped up in a panel on the side of my screen, I smiled softly. Even though I had never met him, he was probably the closest thing to a friend I had anymore–ever since my father lost his ability to speak, I had developed a tendency to keep to myself.

BanJack: Please tell me you heard.
Nevermore: Heard what?
BanJack: The Bayou is blowing up with news on the undead.
Nevermore: Back up Jack, are you telling me they might have found it?
BanJack: It’s possible, I mean the readings were off the charts. It’s really similar to the kind of power that we saw back…
Nevermore: Back when my dad had his stroke.
BanJack: Yeah, everything since then has only been a blip on the radar. I wasn’t expecting to see you on here for a few more hours though—had that dream again?
Nevermore: You’re psychic, B.
BanJack: So, you’re going, right?
Nevermore: Booking flights now. I’m not going to miss this opportunity again.
BanJack: Let me know what you find out.
Nevermore: You’ll be the first.

BanJack signed out of the chat and I was left to her own devices. There had been a little-known trend in New Orleans, for a small percentage of fringe Voodoo practitioners to fall in with a cult. Those unfortunate enough to be lured into the embrace of this cult, led by a bokor of ill repute ended up vanishing off of the face of the earth. This usually only happened to newly initiated followers who had no familial ties, nor anyone likely to miss them; these poor souls would end up on the lengthy list of officially missing, usually only after missing work for several consecutive days.

I had been the one to stumble upon this trend several years ago and mocked up a dossier to keep track of the happenings, but it had since only resurfaced twice. The first time was the day before my father experienced a stroke, the second I was already in the midst of an investigation. I was stuck in the Trinity Alps of Northern California in search of the Giant Salamander and only heard about it once I returned to civilization. Now I would finally get my opportunity to investigate this voodoo cult while the news was still fresh; if I could track down people with information before the trail went cold, I might actually have a chance to access this cult where the bokor was said to be resurrecting the dead.

The first flight that I would be able to make out of Fairbanks was set to leave in about five hours, it had an hour-long layover in Seattle before it would be off to New Orleans–it was a pricey flight, but she would be there before this time tomorrow and every moment counted. I sighed, finished booking my flight, then a lump of blankets moved at my feet. Within a few moments, my ragged, angry-looking cat emerged from beneath the blankets that I was still stubbornly buried under.

“Hey Shazu,” a yawn escaped my mouth, “looks like you’re gonna have a babysitter here the next couple of days.” An unexpectedly small and sweet trill escaped the large black and gray mop, which served as a half-hearted feline shrug. My bear of a cat was used to me coming and going at the drop of a hat, but to prove his contempt for my schedule he would surely leave a dead shrew in my slipper for when I came home. I unlocked my phone and sent a quick message to my neighbor, headed to New Orleans on an emergency, I’ll be gone for a couple of days, the standing arrangement between us would ensure that Shazu would be taken care of while I was away. The next few hours passed in the blink of an eye, but I had managed to make breakfast for myself and the cat, then scheduled delivery of heating fuel so that I didn’t come back to a frozen cabin and a catsicle. Through the icy blackness of the early morning outside, I saw the headlights break through my frosted-over windows, the cab I had called twenty minutes prior had just arrived to take me to the airport. “I’ll see you in about a week ‘Zu,” I fluffed my cat’s head before I slipped a cowl over my head and pulled my heavy Carhartt jacket on. Thankfully I always had a bug-out bag ready for days like today, when I would need to leave without much preparation. I grabbed my bug-out bag and the messenger bag that held my laptop and paperwork, then headed out into the blisteringly unsympathetic weather.

What might be a harrowing experience getting through TSA in any other airport in the contiguous United States, was only a brief twenty minutes from check-in to the terminal for my flight. Fairbanks International Airport was always half empty, even this soon after the holidays. I found myself sitting at the bar in the only restaurant in the airport, the thick dossier of her years-long investigation cracked open and resting lightly on the edge of the bartop. Flying usually only made me uneasy when the destination was on the other side of large bodies of water but for reasons, I couldn’t quite articulate, the prospect of this flight was causing my anxiety to flare up. The bartender set a rum and diet cola in front of me, “thanks Gus,” I mumbled over her paperwork. My focus was on the picture of a vèvè that had been spray-painted in black on a dilapidated, moss-covered tomb in the Lafayette Cemetery; I knew it was connected to the activities of the bokor I was seeking.

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I took a sip of the cocktail that sat perspiring on the napkin in front of me, I’m sure my expression twisted, I wasn’t quite expecting it to slap me so hard in the face. “Still pouring them weak Gus?” I’m sure my voice was dripping in sarcasm, but the truth was I didn’t mind–Gus knew me well enough to know I appreciated a heavy pour.

I traced the vèvè with my finger, it consisted of a decorated cross upon a tomb that was flanked by two coffins, the symbol of Baron Samedi. Another hour passed without my notice until I heard them announce the flight to New Orleans was boarding. With the two flights and my layover, I would have plenty of time to review my file and bring myself back up to speed on everything I had found and worked on in connection with this cult. It was all of the relevant news articles that referenced the cult’s activities and missing person reports which dated back over ten years. It was like a morbid scrapbook that pointed me to the place where I would need to start looking.

The ride from the airport reminded me why she still lived in Alaska, buildings were crammed against other buildings and the small streets gave no room to breathe. I could never handle living in a cramped city. The cab pulled up in front of the hostel, it was a lemon-yellow small two-story victorian house with white pillars, decorative black wrought iron guardrails, and a row of colorful flags that fluttered lightly in the heavy air.

It wasn’t until I had checked in, that I felt like I could relax again. I was assigned a bunk, but I wasn’t tired, instead, I pulled out my laptop and logged into Tor so I could surf the Oasis for the new information to which my friend had tipped me off. The French Quarter was known to be the voodoo center of New Orleans, but that’s not where people had been going missing—what I had found was that the disappearances were actually occurring in the Bywater neighborhood—the Desire area in particular.

Most recently, a young man by the name of Stanley Dean Keeling had gone missing, I worked at a corner store and after two consecutive days of not calling or showing up to his job—something which he apparently had never done before—his boss of three years had gone to check on him at his home. His home was in disarray, beyond just poor housekeeping, his boss told the police it looked like there had been a struggle. A week later and it was a nonissue, the police had insisted that Stanley had probably left town–and just like that Stanley was another name on a growing list of missing people who had no one to really miss them.

A brief stop in at Stanley’s home only revealed how quickly the landlord cleared out his abandoned belongings and relisted the home for rent. I didn’t fail to notice the vèvè of Baron Samedi that had been carved into the threshold of the front door. My eyes darkened because I knew it was no longer a question of what happened to Stanley, he had been taken, but where and by whom? I knew what my next step had to be; I was close enough to the French Quarter where I could search the local voodoo market for leads on where to look next. It was going to be tedious work, but I knew I would come up with something before I had to turn in for the night. I had no delusions that tracking down a cult that had stayed hidden this long was going to be easy, but the hunt for the truth was what I lived for.

A short muggy cab ride to the French Quarter gave me access to almost a dozen different voodoo shops on foot. I could see now that jeans were the wrong choice to wear in such a humid environment—even with the temperatures in the mid-fifties, it was difficult for me to breathe. I wandered with purpose from store to store, trying to conversationally ask questions about the local voodoo scene until I got to the last shop on my list. I eyed the old wooden sign that hung from the awning, then took in the scene in the window. It was dreary on the outside, animal skulls adorned the display and there was nothing about the shop that welcomed a stranger. Inside it had a different atmosphere than any of the other shops, it was darker, less kitschy, and there was something else about it—maybe it was just my imagination, or maybe it was the lack of tourists in this particular shop. Either way, I realized I was probably exactly where I needed to be.

Upon walking inside, I was in a completely different world, the old ornate shelves were worn and the paint was distressed. Each of the shelves were full to the brim with ritual ingredients, like powdered eggshells, chicken bones, and feet, then there was a full spectrum of hairs from different animals. Each of these oddities had a brief description on the label, but even upon reading some of them I couldn’t quite understand what might be useful about dirt taken from the grave of a mentally ill convicted murderer. A petite bottle of Florida water caught my eye and in my research I had heard of its usefulness in protection and cleansing rituals, so I took one from the shelf without a second thought. Moments later my eyes fell upon a jar of red brick dust­—for use in thresholds, so none that intend to cause harm may cross—I plucked the jar from the shelf, noting that this and the Florida water may come in handy somewhere down the line.

Caught up in the ambiance of the store, I perused a display of jewelry, where I saw the familiar loa vèvès carved into metal pendants. Among the ones I was most familiar with, I saw Maman Brigitte, Papa Legba, Erzulie Dantor, and Baron Samedi. A copper one for Papa Legba, as well as a silver one for Baron Samedi, seemed to make their own way into my hands. I considered putting them back but thoughtfully considered that a ritual offering to both of them might afford me some protection in my search. All I would need now would be a couple of fine cigars, rum, and freshly baked bread to set out for the two loa I would be petitioning for help. Once I was done looking through each section of the small shop, I approached the counter, set down my selected items, and pulled out the picture of Stanley that I had brought with me. I had the foresight to bring it with me, I might as well see if it got me any reactions, but this cashier looked unamused from the moment I had walked in.

“I was hoping to ask you if you had seen my cousin in here,” I offered before I slid his picture across the counter, while the cashier rang up my purchases.  “No one has seen him in the past two weeks—we’re really worried, he usually doesn’t go this long without contacting his mom.” I was an honest person–I swear–but I considered these kinds of white lies fairly valuable in gaining information—Stanley, as far as I knew, didn’t actually have any living family and even if he did, they obviously weren’t making too much of a fuss about finding him. A brief search on the darknet had told me as much, these days I didn’t have to dive too deep in order to find the information I needed. Because that’s what friends are for…

“No,” the cashier was curt, but upon seeing the look of distress on my face, he continued, “he used to come in here a lot, a ways back at least. It’s been a couple of months since I seen him last.” At this, my face brightened.

“O-oh, he did?” I watched as the cashier bagged up my items. “I’m kind of desperate to find him, the police won’t take this seriously, won’t even officially take him down as a missing person. Told me he had just moved on,” my hand gestured in the air as if Stanley had just wafted away on a light breeze. “Do you know if he ever came in with anyone else? It would be helpful if I could find someone who knew him down here.”

The cashier looked at me as if I had just asked him to cut out his own tongue, his jaw tightened—I knew something wasn’t quite right, but I thought my questions were quite reasonable considering the persona I had taken on to find this guy. After a moment of awkward silence, the cashier took a piece of scrap paper and scribbled something down, then slid Stanley’s picture and the note back across the counter without looking back up at me.

“Listen, this is just a rumor, I don’t know if there is any truth to it, but it might be something—you didn’t get this information from me and I’ve never seen you before.” My brow furrowed softly, I slowly grabbed the picture and note from the counter and nodded my head.

“Thank you—,” I looked down at the note, it was an address, but the whole situation felt wrong, I took my bag, then stuffed the address in my jeans pocket, “I really appreciate the help.” It wasn’t until I had stepped out of the shop that I realized that it felt like there was something heavy sitting on my chest while I had been in the store. The sensation passed and I breathed in the dense but cooling evening air. It was getting fairly late, but one more stop at the closest corner market had me laden with some snacks, a bottle of rum, some nice cigars, and two white pillar candles which I would take with me to Lafayette cemetery where the vèvè of Baron Samedi had been marked on an old tomb. It was going to be a long night, but if everything worked out like I hoped it would, the address I had gotten from the creepy cashier and this offering might give me a better direction to continue in.

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Anna Byrne: Chapter 05 – Night of Resurrection

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It was a nice walk from the corner store to the cemetery I had marked on my map, it was so alien to see grass that was still green this time of year, and the sun beat down through the thick humid air. I reminded myself to not get used to the length of the days down in the lower forty-eight, it would just make me miss the sun that much more when I got home. Walking through what felt like ancient relics dedicated to days of luxury, I noticed many of the tombs I was passing by were in various states of decay. The lavish stonework had gone through years of disrepair and had been devastated by vandals in some places, but there was still a certain beauty to it. Moss grew heavy on the older monuments to the dead as if the tragically forgotten were being reclaimed by the earth. I found the tomb when I stumbled upon it, quite literally, my foot had caught on a rough edge that stuck out just-so underneath the bedraggled grass that lined the trodden pathway.

The tomb adjacent to the one I had been searching for had enough of an overhang to cast some shade—I settled myself down on the grass and leaned back lazily, sweat beaded down the side of my face. I had just realized how much I had been moving around when I finally let out the breath I had unwittingly been holding. The vèvè graffiti had been covered up since the picture I had, had been taken. The blotchy, mismatched paint stared back at me tauntingly—why had it been covered up when the rest of the cemetery was in such disarray. I pondered the thought for a while, even though I already had my suspicions—I had no authority to jump to conclusions, but I had a gut feeling that there was someone higher up involved with keeping it all under the radar.

The shadows grew longer and longer as the day drew to a close, the rhythmic chirp of the crickets as they began to sing caught my ears, but I still felt the sun left me too exposed to be comfortable with leaving an offering out in the open. My paranoia often worked in my favor, so I couldn’t help but listen to the agonizing anxious conspiracies that often traipsed lackadaisically through my mind. The sun seemed to be taking its sweet time and in my restlessness, I got my notebook out to study and scribbled down the address I had been given at the voodoo shop. Another thirty minutes would go by before I finally opened the bags I had been hauling around.

I set the candles down, on the left and right sides of where the covered vèvè was blaring through the shadows that had been cast by the fading sunlight. I set the sweet snacks and the cigars next to one another and then produced a shot glass from the tchotchkes section of the corner market I had found on my way here. I poured an ample shot of rum into the glass, took a swig and winced at the roughness of the liquor that hit my tongue. I lit the candles and began what some may call a ritual, others may call witchcraft—I knew it best as an offering, in honor of the spirits of the region. My experience had proven, that when in Rome wasn’t just a silly thing that people said when they were feeling uncomfortable with customs that seemed alien to them. I slipped the metal pendants over my neck and verbally petitioned Papa Legba and Baron Samedi to be with me in my investigation. It was just something you paid attention to—customs were to be respected and followed if at all possible.

After two hours of sitting there in silence I noticed the sky darkened until it was eventually pitch black. With just the flickering of the dim golden glow of the candles against the paled, peeling paint of the stones they sat against, I felt my eyes grow heavy as I sat there, in near meditation. I shook my head and mentally made a note to get a grip. The heaviness in the surrounding air still hadn’t given me a break since I had left the airport and I doubted I would find a reprieve from it before I left. I decided that I had sat there long enough and gathered everything but the offering I had left then set a course to walk back to the hostel. It still wasn’t all that late, and the Blues being carried by the wind through the streets on the way back, gave me a bit of bliss after a trying evening. In unfamiliar territory, I was just thankful that the GPS on my phone was working, or else I might be utterly lost.

I noted the course that I would have to take from where I was and slipped my phone into my bag—I couldn’t shake the feeling of eyes on me though and I stopped in my tracks just as I began to pass what looked to be an abandoned shop. My eyes were fixed on the door to the shop, it was white, the glass panes cracked from the corners, paint peeling on the bottom where the sun was brightest and hottest during the day. What really made me stop though, was the slight creak that rose above the fading melancholy of the band playing at the old club around the corner. The ruddy glow of an aging light fixture cast a haunting shadow—did that door just—I instantly dismissed any notion that it had but watched as it creaked open into the darkness beyond.

I walked slowly towards the door and stopped short of the cracked and weathered façade when I felt the force of someone pushing me hard against the door. My head cracked against the threshold, the sound drowned into blackness and conscious thought evaporated from me completely.

Zombified victim of voodoo ritual

My eyes opened to look upon a freshly painted black vèvè that stung the wall of the tomb and it was barely illuminated in the night that surrounded me, but it wasn’t night. I realized that when I looked to either side of me, the shadow was as thick as tar. I looked back at the tomb where the symbol was; it had begun to bleed down the wall in an inky red. Over my shoulder, I could feel someone press their chin gently upon the top of my head as if viewing the blood as it gushed down the face of the wall. Beyond the adulteration of my peripheral and through my own copper hair, I saw the outline of what looked to be a skull, but was it wearing a top hat?

The Cheshire grin that spread across its toothy smile was unsettling, even so I couldn’t help but bring myself to look at it directly. My eyes barely caught the hand reaching for my neck before it grasped me unrelentingly, the ashen skin was streaked with blood as it protruded through a large crack that had appeared in the center of the symbol. There were drums in the distance, a beat that I had not ever heard before, I gasped for air, closed my eyes for a moment, then opened them to find I was back staring up at the surface of the water. I screamed inaudibly and water began to fill my lungs.

My screams were interrupted by an abrupt jerk of my head; my head throbbed. The last thing I remembered was a misty old storefront and an intense curiosity. My confusion was unaltered by the strangeness of my current surroundings. My eyes were crusted over, no doubt from the sensation of choking… was that a dream? By the looks of it, I was in a root cellar somewhere; the only problem was, the infamous swamplands of the south didn’t create a hospitable foundation for root cellars to even exist. I twisted my body and finally noticed that my hands and feet had been bound. Awkwardly, I squirmed into a sitting position and backed up against the wall; I could tell now that I wasn’t actually underground at all, but the room had been insulated with a thick layer of muddy clay.

The darkened corners of this room seemed to house a dark and looming presence, a guttural and graveled groan that arose after a moment of my blurred gaze. It took longer than I would later like to admit, but I finally recognized the figure of a man in the corner, hunched and aggressive. “What have I gotten myself into?” My chest felt like it was going to explode—this adrenaline rush was working me up into fight-or-flight mode, but neither option would really get me anywhere in my current situation. I closed my eyes gently and took in a shallow unsteady breath.

This wasn’t the first time I had been in a tough situation but given the circumstances, I felt that I would much rather be back in front of the polar bear I had the bad luck of running into while traveling in the North Slope as a teen. Luckily for me, not so much for the unfortunate polar bear, I had my rifle with me that day and I survived to tell the tale. Looking back, I still wasn’t sure how I had steadied myself, but my mother’s brothers had developed a fondness for me, their little kassak niece from which we had formed an unlikely bond. I had known how to track and make myself scarce in the wild from the time I was a child—a forte I had never managed to possess while in the city or around too many people.

My face felt hot when I heard chains drag against the concrete floor, the automaton in the corner had grown more agitated; in a grasp for hope, I hugged my legs close to my chest and awkwardly fished through the ankle of my boot for the knife I always kept handy. When I finally fumbled it out of my boot, it loudly clacked upon the floor. The creature that kept me company responded in kind, his chains clanked as a hand reached out from the shadows. The blood-streaked arm reaching for me from my nightmare flashed through my mind, I shuddered and grasped the knife and clipped the zip tie on my ankles, then made quick work of my wrists as well. Before my corner companion could utter another, “eergh!” I was up on my feet with my knife tucked back into my boot.

My investigative and curious nature urged me to look more closely into the figure in the corner—the light was too dim for me to see much of anything, but my internal voice was telling me this was just a man. He lunged at me when I inched too close trying to analyze something which I had never truly believed could exist and he briefly came into the light—this man looked as if he had been drained of all of his color, his lips were cracked, his eyes bloodshot and glazed over.

“Holy fuck, Stanley?” slipped out of my mouth before I even realized I had said it and I stumbled backward. This last sound must have roused the suspicions of whoever was guarding the room because I heard steps echo from the hall just outside the door. In a moment of hesitation, my feet slipped out from underneath me as I scrambled on the concrete to get behind something, anything, that I could hide behind to stall for time. I narrowly ducked behind a bookshelf stacked with dusty boxes when the door opened. Another man walked in, he was large in stature and all of his exposed skin painted in symbols I wasn’t familiar with. My breathing was unsteady as I watched the man through a space between the boxes, he was obviously looking for me and I wasn’t exactly ready to be found.

It wasn’t long before the man found me in my hiding place, I wasn’t exactly a secret agent, skilled in elusive behavior. I feel like I bravely attempted to fight back left me kicking my feet in futility as he ultimately dragged me out of the room and into the hallway. There the strange drumbeats I just barely recognized, could be heard coming from the direction in which we were headed. I was pulled violently through another door which led outside, the drums grew louder and the lights got brighter. I was tossed into a corner of what looked to be a small, closed-off courtyard and my head hit the ground hard. Dazed and likely concussed I tried to regain my senses once again and even with my blurred vision I saw the bonfire in the courtyard. If I had been uncertain of whether or not I was in danger before, it couldn’t be clearer now—this is what I had been searching for all along.

There were several men and women gathered loosely around the fire, one of the women danced around in a trance, a man followed suit chewing on coals, while a couple of others dragged a struggling pig into the mix. I wasn’t versed in French Creole, otherwise, I might have been able to understand words other than the brief recognition of them calling out the names of the loa I was familiar with. I knew I heard, “Baron Samedi!” as well as, “Papa Legba!” being shouted within their chants and hollers, but it wasn’t until a man came into the circle with a machete and slit the screaming pig’s throat that I became nauseous. The pendants that rested against my chest began to burn slightly and another man dragged me closer to the bonfire.

My vision had cleared somewhat and I could see a man standing over me, colorful clothes, beaded jewelry, and white paint adorned this man—he looked like a witch doctor straight out of an anthropology textbook. I knew, without having to be told, that he was the bokor I had come to New Orleans to find. He knows… I need to find out what he knows. Tears involuntarily began to streak down my face, I would never be able to find out how to help my father if I didn’t find out the source of this man’s power. The bokor crouched down, a handful of white powder presented in his palm, and just as he was about to blow it in my face, I kicked my feet out at the man who was holding me on the ground. Apparently, I caught him off guard because he stumbled directly into the powder that burst forth from the bokor’s palm, in a last-ditch effort I rolled off to the side. The man writhed and screamed, the white powder coated his face and the ceremony came to an abrupt end.

Sirens blared just as the participants were ready to converge upon me and police officers burst through the doors, breaking up a party that would have likely ended in my own demise. An intense hour of speaking with the police made me aware that an anonymous caller had alerted them to my location and that I had been kidnapped. Despite not understanding who might have called it in, I was just thankful that the night was over and that these people were going to go away for a long time. I was allowed to recover my bag, which had been taken from me, my laptop and phone were still in my bag as if it had been utterly undisturbed. It was clear these people had no idea who I really was, perhaps they really just didn’t want anyone on their trail, and the act of someone coming to look for one of their zombified victims was enough to catch their attention. I could have just been another statistic, a tourist who slipped through the cracks in a city with a hidden reputation of violence.

I told them about Stanley being locked up in the building and once all of the participants had been cuffed and stuffed into the back of police cruisers, I was told I was free to go. The police officer I had been speaking with turned and walked away and I was left to my own devices. I spotted a large book that had been sitting in proximity to where the pig had been slain, but in the commotion had been knocked into the blood that had been spilled on the ground. Certain that no one was paying attention, I grabbed the book and haphazardly stuffed it into my bag. It was the only thing I knew I could get from the scene without an extensive search of the premises which I knew was not an option now.

Coffee and Beignets at Cafe Du Monde
Photography by Chelsea Audibert

Light broke over the horizon and I finally felt my body start to give in to exhaustion, I had managed to call a taxi and asked to be taken to a place where I could get food and coffee at such an early hour. I was dropped off after a short ride at Café Du Monde, apparently famous for their beignets and chicory coffee. I had spent the past several hours feeling as if I were going to die at any moment and to me, this was a relatively sane response. I heard the relay of orders being shouted to and from the kitchen, the scant crowd of early birds waited for their piping hot beignets and scalding coffee while a lovely, slender black woman tended dutifully and happily to her customers.

The waitress approached me with a coy smile, “what can I get you, hun?” and I knew that the woman had me pegged as a tourist. Who could blame her, after all, I was wearing heavy jeans in New Orleans.

“I was told this place was great for coffee and beignets,” I responded with a weak smile; I must have looked as exhausted and disheveled as I felt because the waitress simply nodded and took down my order.

“I’ll have it right up for ya!” there was an enthusiasm in this woman’s voice and step that I knew I couldn’t hope to match even on my best day, let alone today.

I pulled my laptop out of my bag and was pleasantly surprised to find that my phone still had a decent charge on it when I turned on my hotspot access. I began the long task of documenting what I had encountered during my investigation? Kidnapping? I honestly didn’t know what to call it at this point. I felt as if I was no closer to the answers that I needed than I was before. I would have to wait to take a look at the book when I was back home, a cursory glance at it when I had been in the taxi proved that it was far too much to absorb in a short car ride and much too disturbing to look through in public. I was midway through a new entry into the dossier when a message popped up on my screen.

BanJack: You’re lucky I knew where you were going.

I wasn’t sure whether or not I should be happy that my anonymous friend had been keeping tabs on me; there was part of me that was disconcerted at the idea of him knowing where I was.

Nevermore: I’m guessing you hacked the GPS on my phone?
BanJack: You promised to keep me in the loop, remember?
Nevermore: Fair enough, I’m catching a flight home later today, I’ll send you some of what I found when I get back.
BanJack: Just don’t disappear on me again.
Nevermore: Pinky promise.

My waitress set my coffee and before she set the beignets in front of me, asked if I wanted extra powdered sugar on them. I thanked her and politely declined, then changed my booking to an earlier flight as she walked away from the table. I had never ached to be at home, curled up in my bed next to my goblin of a cat, more in my life.

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!