The Science of Zombies

Are zombies real? Technically... yes, actually.

We're talking about the etymology of the zombie in this one. This is a preview of a premium episode, please become a patron if you like our content and want more premium content like this! You will get our two bonus episodes every month, plus our public episodes ad-free.

While the so-called "magic" things we've talked about in other episodes were mostly self-promotion and social engineering (mixed with a little shock value, of course), it turns out that you can actually create a zombie, scientifically speaking. Back in the 1980s, a Harvard biology PhD named Wade Davis went to Haiti to investigate the stories of voodoo priests turning people into zombies with a poison, and it turned out that the poison was real. 1

Voodoo priests in Haiti make a poison concocted of human remains, snakes, frogs, sea worms, and most importantly... the venom of a puffer fish. The puffer fish venom is sort of the inverse of an anesthetic. Instead of dulling the pain, it dulls your ability to react to it. A person poisoned by the zombie powder is aware and conscious, but unable to move. Their metabolic rate slows to a crawl and they show signs of death, such as bluing of the extremities and lack of response to stimulus. And then when they're presumed dead and buried, the voodoo priest digs them up and tells them when they regain their freedom of movement that he has captured their soul, and they must serve him. This is a form of capital punishment in Haiti; a throwback to the colonial days when the only escape from bondage was death. But what if you can't die? What if you are resurrected and put back into bondage? This is the threat of the zombie poison: a fate worse than death, and it happened to the subject of Wade Davis' study. Clairvius Narcisse was pronounced dead and buried after he was poisoned by the zombie powder for the accused crime of stealing property from his brother after his parents died. The voodoo priest who poisoned him dug him up and sent him to work as a slave on a sugar plantation. 2

Not to be outdone, if you want to risk death from the zombie poison you can also get it by eating a puffer fish in Japan. In mild doses you get high and a little tingly, in extreme cases of eating too much puffer fish in Japan you might wind up like the man who was stuck in the morgue for 7 days, with everyone thinking he was dead. He woke up before being disemboweled and embalmed, thankfully... 3

All of this is still with us because of the late, great Wes Craven's movie about Wade Davis's trip to Haiti to study the zombie powder, called The Serpent and the Rainbow, it's one of the better 1980s horror genre films, check it out if you haven't seen it! The film and book also inspired the Godsmack song "Voodoo" over a decade later. 4, 5, 6

1. Gino Del Guerico. The Secrets of Haiti’s Living Dead. Harvard Magazine. October 2017. 

2. Lakshmi Gandhi. Zoinks! Tracing The History Of 'Zombie' From Haiti To The CDC. NPR. December 2013. 

3. Patrick D. Hahn. Dead Man Walking. Biology Online. September 2007. 

4. Wade Davis. The Serpent and the Rainbow. Touchstone Publishers. 1997. 

5. Wes Craven, director. The Serpent and the Rainbow. Universal Pictures. 1988. 

6. Sully Erna, writer. Godsmack - Voodoo. Universal Music. 1999. 

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