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7410: Re: 7383: and 7409: zombies: Corbett replies to Sarah and Caroline

On Tue, 20 Mar 2001, Sarah S Ventres wrote:

> 2. Some of your questions regarding zombies (perceived or actual) may be
> answered in Wade Davis' book Passage of Darknes: The Ethnobiology of the
> Haitian Zombie, Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988 (available through
> Amazon.com in paperback).  A scholarly study not to be confused with his
> popular Serpent and the Rainbow.

and Caroline writes:

Do zombies exist?
> Yes.  Someone who "dies" but is actually in a kind of coma and who comes
> back with no spirit and serves as a slave.  Of all of these, I believe
> one more than any of the others... mainly because it is physically
> and the zombi powder has been found and identified... l


Corbett replies:  I think the question of the existence of zombies, and
especially the status of the powders is not as clear as Caroline and 
Sarah suggest.

There are several famous cases of "recovered" zombies and Wade
Davis details two of those in his PASSAGE OF DARKNESS, which
as Sarah suggests is a much more serious book than his
SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW.  Clairvius Narcisse is probably the
most famous and most studied case, but there have been others. The few
cases of recovered of zombies, or alleged zombies is just not strong
enough evidence to tell us much of their general status.

Davis' work and that of many anthropologists before him give us enough
evidence to conclude with a significant degree of confidence that
zombification is *TRIED* with some frequency.  Davis himself argues (with
a great influence from the work of Jean Fouchard and Michel Laguerre) that
many attempts at zombification end in the death of the intended zombie --
murder rather than zombification.

I think when most people ask the question of "are there zombies?"
they don't really mean, has there ever been a single zombie.
Rather, they wonder if zombification is a religious or magical,
or social process which is practiced in some sort of wide-spread
manner in Haiti.  Even Davis' work suggests a strong NO to
that question.

The second issue I want to address is the famous zombie powder.
Davis announced the finding of the powder in SERPENT AND THE
RAINBOW, and I think he did this in good faith.  He did purchase
an alleged powder, actually several, in Haiti and sent them off to
one of the Scandinavian countries for chemical analysis.  The book
was ready to go to print; the publisher wanted to move and thus
Davis called and claims to have gotten confused about the telephone
reply which did claim the existence of tetrodotoxin, a drug
extracted from the puffer fish and which is claimed to be the key
chemically active substance in creating the first stage of
zombification:  the appearance of death.

However, what the powered really showed were traces of tetrodotoxin 
but not enough to .... I believe the quote was ... to zombify
a fly.  The scholarly community rose up in arms and in Science
Magazine Davis was denounced and taken to be a fraud.

I actually defended Davis against those charges in my review of
his book and we have had extensive discussions of this issue
on the list in past years.  My review may be seen on my web
site at:  http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/haiti/bookreviews/davis1.htm

Like Sarah, I think that we do know the basic formula used in
attempting zombification, but have no reliable idea of to what
extent it works, if at all.  As Davis argues, it is a hit and miss
procedure and misses more than it hits (thus the murders).  And,
while Wade Davis dug up lots of the key and important information and
presented it in both his published books (I've not seen or read his
doctoral dissertation on the subject), the information he presented and
which is the most solid has nothing to do with his field research, but
with the research he did presumably in Harvard's library where he was
working on this project as his dissertation in ethno-botany,
his field of expertise.  He is an excellent researcher.

The question of zombies reminds me of various claimed supernatural
phenomena in many religions.  We of the western scientific
and relatively skeptical culture (but not very skeptical about
the magic and myths of science) like to name it all in scientific
explanations.  Me too, though I really don't like that about
myself.  Yet the philosophical side of me is deeply sympathetic
to the famous argument of 18th century philosopher David Hume,
"On Miracles" (whose essay in on my philosophy web site), in which he
argues it is always more rational to disbelieve any alleged
contravention of the laws of nature than to believe in a miracle.
The attractive thing about the Davis-like analysis of zombification
is that it doesn't rely on a contravention of laws of nature,
but provides for us a ethno-botanical explanation.  (The
ethnological part comes in the second phase of the alleged zombification,
the "resurrection.")  

Were I to really give over to the belief in zombies I would prefer
the view I've gotten over and over from peasants who "sviv lwa"
a sort of mix of powders, magic and religious faith in the
supernatural.  I just don't seem able to bring such beliefs off
in my skeptical brain.

I just caution that we not go too far beyond solid evidence into
any belief in the PHYSICAL REALITY of zombies.  It's like people
in Christianity who have visions or even the physical signs like
the stigmata and such.  Maybe so, maybe not, but seriously hard
data that so many of us (rightly) require before giving assent of
belief -- no, we just don't have the evidence .

Bob Corbett