Haiti Zombie Culture an Outcome of Government Control

Zombies, like vampires, are dominating the entertainment media lately. You can view these monsters in movies, TV, and read of their ghoulish exploits in penny-ante novels. But contrary to the popular idea that zombies are evil incarnate, in Haitian lore they are victims of maltreatment at the hands of witch doctors known as bokers. The Haiti government has used the specter of these re-enlivened corpses to instill fear in the Haitian people, particularly during the Duvalier dynasty, which lasted nearly 30 years.


Papa Doc Duvalier formed a death-squad, the Tonton Macoutes, a group of men clad in denim shirts, straw hats, and sunglasses, who carried machetes. They often killed people in broad daylight, or carried them away in the dead of night, never to be seen or heard from again. The unexplained disappearance of a member of the Haitian community gave rise to the idea these victims had been turned into zombies, the living dead. Fed by Tonton Macoutes' threats they would zombie-fy anyone, whom they perceived as a dissident of the Duvalier regime, the legend took hold in Haitian imaginations.

Within Haiti culture, zombies are part of the Voodoo religion's belief system, which immerses itself in superstition and witchery. Believers conduct rituals, in which they dance themselves into an intense frenzy, connecting with a mysterious force they believe gives them supernatural powers. A parallel exists between these adherents and American Fundamentalism, in which the preacher stirs up the congregants' passions to a fever pitch, and such things as speaking in tongues occur.

Outside the Haitian culture, zombies have only been considered an oddity of cultural lore, much like the Yeti, Loch Ness Monster, and the fairies and elves of Ireland. However, in the 80s, when an ethno botanist, Wade Davis, discovered a little-known substance called zombie powder, while conducting field research, the science world took notice. One of the key ingredients the powder contained was a neurotoxin, used to cause a coma-like state, from which the victims emerged altered, their brains non-functional.

Davis used his discovery of the neurotoxin to author a book The Serpent and the Rainbow, ultimately turned into a Wes Craven horror movie. Although The Serpent and the Rainbow enjoyed commercial success, much skepticism spread among scientists, who believed not enough of the neurotoxin was contained in the powder to render victims into a zombie-like state. It was an either-or supposition: too much of the poison could kill, or too little sustain only a temporary loss of brain function.

The unsustainability of brain function is central to the myth that Haitian sugar plantation owners drugged field laborers into inchoate states, so they could overwork them, a commodity of cheap labor. But the facts are that laborers, under the influence of the neurotoxin would have suffered.

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Read more: Voodoo, Zombie, myth, Voodoo

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