By Wade Davis. Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press. 1988

Review by Bob Corbett
March, 1990

In June, 1989 I attended a seminar in Port-au-Prince on zombification. During the discussion I raised the question to the 40 or so people in attendance, had any one of them every seen a zombie "bab pou bab," the Haitian equivalent of face to face. Everyone had. So I randomly questioned one person about her experience. It turned out it wasn't she herself who had seen the zombie, but her first cousin. The next person hadn't actually met a zombie, but his aunt had. Someone else's father, another's best friend and so on around the room. In the end not one single person was able to tell a tale of having actually, personally been face to face with a zombie.

Are there really zombies in Haiti? Wade Davis devotes two long sections to this question. He first looks at the popular views and then explores cases where there have been some attempts to carefully and more scientifically determine the status of suspected cases. His key candidate for zombiehood is Clairvius Narcisse. In spring, 1962 Narcisse "died" at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, Haiti. His death was verified by the hospital staff. 18 years later Narcisse turned up alive and well, and claimed to be an escaped zombie.

Having thus satisfied himself that it is likely there are zombies in Haiti, PASSAGE OF DARKNESS is Davis' fascinating and provocative attempt to explain how zombies are made.

The extraordinary thesis he puts forward is, as the subtitle tells us, an ethnobiological story. That is, on Davis' account, what makes zombies is the interplay between certain features of the culture of Haiti and the use of drugs. However, neither the cultural phenomena alone, nor the poisons alone can account for zombies. There are even larger historical issues at stake:

"Evidence suggests that zombification is a form of social sanction imposed by recognized corporate bodies--the poorly known and clandestine secret Bizango societies--as one means of maintaining order and control in local communities." (p. 3.)

The essence of Davis' claim is this:

These ten propositions are the essence of his conclusions. They constitute a story which has not been widely discussed before Davis (though Davis himself cites the important ground work done by the Haitian anthropologist Michel Laguerre on the secret societies).

Some are clearer than others, so I'll elucidate a few of the less clear:

Davis claims there is a poisoned powder which causes the target person to fall into a death-like trance. It was to seek this drug that originally got Davis the assignment to track down the zombie poison. His sponsors reasoned that such a drug must exist, and if they could find it might have valuable pharmacological possibilities as an alternative to currently popular but unsafe anesthetics.
The great controversy which Davis' book has caused is mainly connected to his claim that the chemical tetrodotoxin, gotten from the puffer fish, is the primary active ingredient in this "zombie powder."
However, what seems to be universally missed by Davis' critics, or simply ignored, is his claim that the powder alone cannot adequately account for nor make a zombie. Davis describes the "set and setting" which is required for the powder to work. "...set, in these terms, is the individual's expectation of what the drug will do to him or her; setting is the environment--both physical and, in this case, social--in which the drug is taken." (p. 181.)
Thus the poison in the powder, which is a psycho-active drug (one whose effect is related to specific personal psychological factors), will have different effects depending on who one is, what one's socialization and expectations are. In the case of Haitian members of the Bizango sect, they have been socialized to recognize the possibility and process of zombification and are psychologically attuned to the appropriate effects of the drug, i.e. zombification.
Davis' book presents a strong hypothesis concerning the why of zombification. In a country so drastically poor as Haiti, with labor costs for farm hands only being about $1.00 a day, one cannot account for zombification on the grounds of seeking cheap labor. One might imagine zombification as a way to get at enemies, but the violence of Haiti's history suggests much simpler ways of solving that problem. Davis' hypothesis is perhaps attractive simply because it is so grand! He tells the story of a long history of secret societies stretching back into the earliest days of slavery. Escaped slaves, the maroons, living deep in the mountains, created an alternative society, more African than Western. These societies brought with them the remembered lore of Africa, including knowledge of the use of local poisons. The poisons were used as tools of social control within the maroon communities. After independence and the radical split between the life in the rural areas and the cities, these maroon social organizations became the secret Bizango societies, and zombification is, effectively, their death sentence for serious violations of the code of conduct required in Bizango.
Davis' thesis in PASSAGE OF DARKNESS is provocatively and persuasively argued. Unlike his more popular account, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, which I reviewed a few issues ago, Davis' argument is careful and measured. Gone is the Indiana Jones bravado of the earlier work; gone is the "I've done it all alone" arrogance. Davis' use of sources and his excellent bibliography are themselves alone worth the price of the book!
But the critics don't think too much of Davis' work. Nearly all reviewers of his two books have been quite cool towards them. More seriously, important figures in the scholarly circles of pharmacological literature have taken Davis to task. In an article in Science magazine, April 15, 1988 called: "Voodoo Science," William Booth reports on the widespread criticism which has been heaped on Davis.
Critics argue that Davis grossly exaggerated what he had found in the powder and that he had exaggerated, if not lied, about the chemically active properties of the powders he brought back.
Certainly Davis was indiscreet in celebrating his victory of discover before adequate scientific evidence was published to support his findings. However, two things must be said in Davis' defense.
First, he was very careful in PASSAGE OF DARKNESS to respond to Kao and Yasumoto's criticisms of him. In a footnote on p. 194 he answers their primary objection. Their objection was two fold. First, that Davis reported as evidence a "personal communication" from researcher Rivier, which Rivier now claims was never intended as an official opinion. Secondly, they charge that the sample didn't have enough tetrodotoxin to do anything to humans.
Davis certainly should not have reported the preliminary oral confirmation (which later turned out to be false), as scientific fact. This was an error without doubt. But, Davis argues in the text that to study the powder alone, to study the amounts of tetrodotoxin alone is a mistake. This for several reasons:
  1. These powders are made as magical portions by the houngans (Voodoo priests). They are not made according to any exact formula. Any given portion may not work. They do them by trial and error. Some are too strong and kill the victim outright. Others are too weak and have no effect. A few work. Davis is quite explicit about this: "All that the formula of the powder suggests is a means by which an individual might, under rare circumstances, be made to appear dead." (p. 181.)
  2. Davis devotes a huge portion of the book to argue the psychobiological hypothesis that the power/poison is only one ingredient, albeit a necessary part of zombification. Davis' critics completely ignore this whole thesis and pounce on the tetrodotoxin samples as the only issue to be considered.
  3. In response to the criticism of Yasumoto and Kao that in the infamous "sample D," the only one of his eight powders which contained tetrodotoxin, that the amount was insignificant, Davis replies:
    "Critically, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Of greater interest is the empirical observation that the bokor {houngans who are doing the zombification} recognize the toxicity of these fish {puffer fish} and include them in the powders, and that at certain times of the year these fish contain a toxin known to have induced apparent death."

My argument is not that Davis has indeed found the zombie poison. I don't know that one way or the other. But, the vehemence with which he has been attacked seems to belie something deeper going on. There are several hypotheses which suggest other explanations for the heat he has taken.

Davis addresses these objections head on, even in somewhat angry terms.

"To be sure, it cost money, and there is an odd and unwarranted sense among some ethnographic fieldworkers that data obtained by financial remuneration is somehow tainted. This is, in general, an arrogant proposition, as it assumes that the informant has nothing better to do than provide free information to a foreign investigator. In Haiti, such an attitude is not only unjust but counterproductive, for within the Vodoun society to do something for nothing is generally seen as 'less a manifestation of generosity than as a sign of gullibility, is less a virtue than a weakness' (Murray). The Haitians themselves pay the bokor for his knowledge and powders, and so should the ethnobiologist." (p. 5.)

But none of these sources of aggravation have anything to do with the primary thesis of Davis' book. He presents an utterly fascinating hypothesis, clothed in brilliant research and challenges the reader to critical participation. At least one of his books should be read by all people seriously interested in Haiti. I think PASSAGE OF DARKNESS is far and away a better book that THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW Gone is the giant ego of the first person narrative, and the measured and careful development of the thesis is much clearer. His impressive use of sources and the gigantic and useful bibliography are thrown in for good measure. Read one of the Davis books and join the fray!



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