Grave Slavery: The Real-Life Zombie

It’s almost Halloween, so let’s talk about monsters. Specifically, let’s talk about the trendiest, hippest monster of the zeitgeist, the zombie.

Of all the classic monsters, I find zombies the least interesting. For starters, they’re mindless, which means that, despite endless fantasies to the contrary, they’re no plausible, long-term threat to a technical civilization. Their mindlessness also makes them uninteresting. A zombie cannot be a compelling villain because he has no personality, no intellect, nothing that deserves to be called a will. If he’s got that, then he’s not a zombie, but a ghoul or lich or something. And they’re also the most implausible. Zombies are dead. Not half-way dead, not under an illusion of death, but actually dead. Yet they move around and eat. They’re decomposing–nay, they’re disintegrating before your very eyes–yet we’re supposed to be frightened of them. A real zombie infestation would blow over in a few days just due to natural decomposition processes. Their essential attributes make them weaker, not more formidable, than normal humans.

So much for the zombie of modern western horror. You (probably) won’t be seeing them in Ascension Epoch. But there is a type of zombie that I find fascinating. The original zombie.

Produced from curses and unidentified poisons (essentially the same thing, in a certain worldview), the Haitian zombie is a tool of revenge, social control, and most novel of all, cheap labor. A typical story may begin when an embittered sibling or local rival contracts a voodoo sorcerer (bokor) to turn you into a zombie. You are cursed/poisoned in any number of insidious ways: toxic powder sprinkled across your doorway and absorbed through the skin of your bare feet, a tainted well, a slanderous mambo, after which you begin to suffer unexplained illness. Your skin turns pale and clammy, you lose all energy, you bleed from your orifices. And then, when even modern medicine is at a loss at how to treat you, you die and are laid in your grave. Later that night, the Bokor and his aides beat drums above your grave and command you to rise. The next thing you know, you are out of the grave, senseless but aware, being bound and driven to some far off corner of the country where you will live as the perfect slave: tireless, uncomplaining, with no desires other than your master’s command.

With the real-life zombie we have a far more restrained–and therefore plausible–horror concept, and yet one that is infinitely more fertile for storytelling than the played out tropes of the mobile dead.

Did I say “real life?” Why yes, I did. I have been reading Passage of Darkness, an investigation into the reality of the Haitian zombie and an attempt to identify the enigmatic toxin responsible for the zombification process, written by ethnobiologist Wade Davis. Anyone who’s seen the Wes Craven horror movie The Serpent and the Rainbow has already heard the basics of the story, but the non-fiction account is just as thrilling in its own way. It is eminently readable and endlessly interesting, easily ranking among the best scholarly sources of story fertilizer I’ve ever read.

Davis covers the relatively well-known story of Clairvius Narcisse, a zombification survivor who had the distinction of being treated and ‘dying’ in an American-run hospital, where proper records were kept. The supposedly dead Narcisse popped up in his old hometown 18 years later, after two years of mindless slavery on a sugar plantation and 16 years of hiding from his vindictive brother, who had allegedly taken out the zombie “hit” on him. Many of you are probably already familiar with the story, so I will not belabor it, except to say that the long investigation into Narcisse’s claims is well worth the full reading.

Now I invite you to go beyond the motives of petty grudges and spurned lovers. Imagine what a boon it would be to the international black market in sex and labor slavery if the zombification process could be duplicated reliably and consistently. A chosen victim could be poisoned, “die” of bizarre but seemingly natural causes, only to be recovered and revived after burial with no one the wiser. What if this poison gave the military, intelligence agencies, guerrillas, or terrorists the means to capture high-level enemies, suppress their wills, and force them to work for the other side? If it could be produced on an industrial scale, a totalitarian state might taint their water supply with the drug to make their subjects more docile. In full potency, it might also be used to make an example out of the most invidious dissidents, the local equivalent of a lobotomy or a trip to the Siberian gulags. It could be used as part of a “rehabilitation” program for prisoners. Perhaps zombification is the only reliable way to hold powerful metahumans in prison.

More benignly, imagine how such a drug could transform medicine as particularly potent anaesthesia. Perhaps it could open the door to full-blown suspended animation without the need of ice boxes and bulky life support equipment: indeed, Narcisse had to survive at least several hours in a sealed coffin underground, not to mention fool the doctors for several days at the hospital.

Intriguing as those ideas are, they’re still fairly mundane. Even more interesting is the possibility that something beyond pharmacology is at work here. Narcisse mentioned that he felt himself floating above his grave, ready to depart to the next world, before the Bokor forced his soul back into his body and reanimated him. Perhaps the zombie poison is only one half of a supernatural process that actually transcends death. Maybe it is more than just a toxin, but a means of binding the spirit in an intermediate state between life and death.

Davis argues the plausibility of skilled doctors mistaking a living man for a dead one with dozens of examples throughout history, and documents the difficulty in ascertaining any foolproof sign of death (other than putrefaction). But what if there’s more to the mystery than human frailty and lack of the requisite medical knowledge? What if those “cases in which consciousness returned to a ‘corpse’ during the process of embalming” were not mere misdiagnoses, but genuine cases of resurrection? How would anyone know the difference? Even the most advanced medical science would not be able to test it, and a sworn materialist would never even consider to ask the question.

If you ask me, that’s way more interesting than shambling corpses with an appetite for gray matter pâté. If this gives you good ideas for a story, or you come up with some other novel uses for a zombie potion, I’d sure like to know about it.

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