By Wade Davis 1985

Comments by Bob Corbett
Oct. 1987 (With one addition in 1999)

This is a strange book which purports to be a search for the putative poisons used in zombification. The reputed purpose of this search is to use these drugs in Western medicine for anesthetic purposes.

What actually goes on is much more complex. Among them:

  1. Wade Davis paints a picture of himself as a sort of demi-god Indiana Jones who breaks into the circle of Haitian secret societies never before penetrated by a foreigner.
  2. He presents a fascinating account of zombification which, while relying on drugs and poisons, requires a sort of faith healing, a near magic or spirituality to make it successful. To the question is it voodoo or drugs which makes zombis, Davis replies, both at the same time.
  3. He describes a different version of Haitian history than I've ever read. Particularly, he places the maroons at the center of ancient and even modern Haiti. Particularly, he claims:
    1. Maroons from the 1640s on formed unique groups:
      1. They escaped French socialization.
      2. They were temperamentally rebels.
      3. They were formed to operate in carefully protected secret bands.
      4. They kept alive their ancient African roots more than any others, especially:
        1. kept religions of Africa
        2. kept tradition of control via poisons and drugs
        3. controlled an African-type culture beneath the dominant western Haitian one
    2. This marronage broke with Toussaint (or visa versa) in 1793 when Toussaint attacked them. They joined in the final revolution against the French, but always remained aloof from Frenchified Haitian governments and culture.
    3. They kept their secret societies, secret religious rites and controlled a whole rural social world.
    4. With Francois Duvalier they merged more closely with the Haitian government as the Tonton Macoute.
    1. I really don't trust much of Davis' account of his own personal role in all this search in Haiti. There are several reasons:
      1. I have a hard time believing that the secret societies would be so easily penetrated as Davis describes.
      2. As he cites the literature of the past (his research is quite impressive), it seems one could piece together virtually his whole story--medical and historical--from those sources alone without ever leaving Cambridge!
      3. Max Beauvoir, his key connection in Haiti for making all these contacts, does not at all seem a reliable contact to me. Beauvoir's representing himself as an important Voodoo leader during the period of Duvalier's fall, was evidence of his unreliability, his illusions of grandeur.

        [CAUTION: Added December 2001: Max Beauvoir has certainly emerged today as a highly respected scholar and houngan. My comments of 1985 may well be unfair and misguided. Nonetheless I leave them to reflect my honest concerns of the time. Mr. Beauvoir at that time had a reputation rooted in his nightclub which offered "show" Voodoo for tourists and I was then and remain a bit suspicious of any person who follows the lwa yet would offer such "entertainment." Nonetheless, I want readers to know that my view as stated above is simply NOT the general view I see toward him in the current time. He is now highly regarded by most. I have no good reason to doubt the quality of his work at this time.]

        [CAUTION: Added in 1999: Davis has himself assured me that I am mistaken and that he did all that he claims he did in Haiti. I continue to find the personal parts of the story to be very difficult to accept, but I do want to note Wade Davis' protestation that my claims are unfounded and without sufficient evidence. I don't claim to have any further evidence than I cited above.]

  1. Despite my suspicions about Davis' personal role in the search, the book is certainly informative, interesting, and well written. It should be read by any students of Haitian Voodoo.


Art, Music, & Dance Book Reviews Film History Library Literature
Mailing List Miscellaneous Topics Notes on Books People to People Voodoo


Bob Corbett