Movies, books, and graphic novels depict zombies as undead abominations, hungry and carnivorous for human flesh. According to the tenets of Haitian Vodou, however, zombies are not dead, stalking husks that spread the zombie disease via biological contamination. Instead, zombies are revived by a bokor, or sorcerer, who controls and uses the zombies to complete tasks.
As strange and unbelievable as that may sound, there is an infamous medical case that delved into the reality of a bokor and its ability to turn people into zombies.
On April 30, 1962, Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man, checked himself into the Albert Schweitzer Hospital, complaining of body aches, fever, and a general malaise. Soon after checking himself in, though, Narcisse began coughing up blood. Physicians assigned to monitor Narcisse noted that he suffered from “digestive disorders, pulmonary edema, hypothermia, respiratory difficulties, and hypotension.” Over the next few days, his lips became cyanotic, or the color of blue, and he complained of tingling sensations all over his body.
Come the morning of May 2, two physicians pronounced Narcisse dead. Marie Claire, Narcisse’ oldest sister, identified his body and signed off on the death certificate.
Narcisse was buried the next day.
Eighteen years later, Narcisse’s sister found him walking through a village marketplace, as healthy and vibrant as any other living individual. Narcisse explained that shortly before his “death” he felt a burning sensation all over his skin, like insects were crawling beneath it. He heard the doctors pronounce him dead and felt the sheet pulled up over his face, but he could not speak or move. He even had a scar from when one of the coffin nails was driven through the wood and into his face.
Bleeding, motionless, Narcisse remained within the coffin, buried alive, until he heard digging and the coffin was lifted out of the ground. Men opened the top, grabbed Narcisse, beat him, gagged him, and dragged his lifeless body to a sugar plantation. There, Narcisse was introduced to the plantation’s owner, a bokor (sorcerer), who had poisoned Narcisse with a heavy combination of tetrodotoxin (pufferfish venom) and bufotoxin (toad venom). The alleged individual who administered the bokor’s poison was Narcisse’s brother, who had a grudge against Narcisse over land ownership.
Once Narcisse was in the bokor’s possession, the bokor gave him doses of Datura stramonium, a plant with effects that have been likened to “sleepwalking, a fugue state or psychotic episodes (particularly in that the subject has minimal control over their actions and little to no recall of the experience).”
Narcisse existed in this condition for two years, working on the bokor’s plantation, where others just like Narcisse were working, too. Each one had been poisoned, pronounced dead, buried, dug up, and then poisoned for prolonged periods of time, so as to function like that of a zombie. The workers toiled for hours, each and every day, until one of the zombie workers fought back and killed the bokor.
The zombie workers simply walked off the plantation, all of them free, including Narcisse, who wandered Haiti for the next sixteen years. He wrote letters to his family, but none of them believed they were real – how do you believe a dead man to be alive after two years of silence? It was only after Narcisse’s brother died, the one who poisoned Narcisse, when he returned to his family’s village, which is when his sister found him walking through the market.