Cursed Movies II, a documentary series airing on the Shudder streaming service, recently concluded its second season by exploring the many myths and mysteries surrounding the famous film franchises. I was somewhat surprised to see Wes Craven’s lesser known film, The Serpent and the Rainbowmake the cut for season 2.
Released in 1988, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a chilling adaptation of a 1985 book of the same name, published by Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis. In the film, Bill Pullman’s character, Harvard anthropologist Dennis Allen, is hired by pharmaceutical company Boston Biocorp, to research a drug believed to be used in Haitian Voudu rituals and used to turn people into zombies.
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The Serpent and the Rainbow, the movie, is entertaining enough, with some genuinely scary moments, but not much else. The book, as an account of real events, is much more interesting. The central claim is that the zombies are real corpses, although they are not reanimated – the sleepwalking, staggering state is produced by a complex interplay of the neurotoxin tetrodoxin, hallucinogenic plants of the genus Datura, and the power of suggestion. While Davis’s hypothesis certainly seems plausible, does it actually have more merit than Craven’s film?
Although there is some disagreement over the etymology of the word “zombie”, the most popular account and that given by the Encyclopedia Brittanica is that it derives from the word zombies in Haitian voodoo, a “deceased person who is resuscitated after burial and forced to do the resuscitator’s bidding, including criminal acts and heavy manual labor”. Unlike many popular depictions of zombies where the cause of resuscitation is a pathogen such as a virus or fungus, Haitian zombies are the product of witchcraft.
To create a zombie, the practitioner of witchcraft known as boko (also translated as boukor) or caplata (respectively male or female sorcerer) prevents the soul of a recently deceased person from being taken to the afterlife by the loah (God) Baron Samedi, and enslaves the dead to do their bidding. The main fear of Haitians is therefore not that the dead return to feast on the flesh of the living, but that one may be denied peace in the afterlife and be forced to work hard on Earth.
Documented cases of zombies are rare, with the subject of The Serpent and the Rainbow being the best known. The story goes that on April 30, 1962, a 42-year-old Haitian, Clairvius Narcisse, entered Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles with a fever, complaining of fatigue and body aches, and coughing up blood. According to Davis, “His condition deteriorated rapidly and at 1:15 p.m. on May 2, he was pronounced dead by two attending physicians, including an American.” Narcissus was placed in a cold room for 24 hours, then he was buried on May 3.
In 1980 (18 years later), a man approached Narcisse’s sister, Angela, in the central Haitian village of L’Estère, claiming to be Clairvius. The man convinced Angelina he was her brother after revealing intimate family details only the real Clairvius could have known, and told how the night he was buried a voodoo priest pulled him from the grave , beat him with a sisal. whip, and took him to a sugar cane plantation, where he was forced to work with other zombies until the wizard’s eventual death set them free.
Davis was instructed by Dr. Nathan S. Kline, a psychiatrist and psychopharmacologist, “to travel to Haiti, find the voodoo sorcerers responsible, and obtain samples of the poison and antidote.” Kline claimed that a voodoo priest explained to him “that the poison was sprinkled on the doorstep of the intended victim and absorbed through the skin of the feet. He claimed that during the resurrection ceremony, the victim was given a second drug as an antidote.
Davis allegedly obtained the ingredients used to brew the potion and brought them back to Harvard for study. Two of the ingredients have been identified as Diodon hystrixor the spotted-finned porcupine, and Sphoeroides testudineusor checkered pufferfish, both of which contain the deadly tetrodotoxin.
Davis’ hypothesis that zombies were created by such poisons was later apparently confirmed by an ancient boko– turned evangelical Christian, Brother Dodo, who claimed that a powder derived from puffer fish was used in the preparation of the zombie potion, which is applied to the victim topically so that the tetrodotxine is absorbed through the skin. The effects of the neurotoxin slow a person’s metabolic rate to such an extent that the effect could easily be mistaken for death.
But how can we explain the zombie’s state of din and bewilderment? Mathematician Costas Efthimiou and engineer Sohang Gandhi have proposed that oxygen deprivation, resulting from being buried alive, permanently damages the brain – a finding reportedly confirmed by neuropsychiatrist Roger Mallory after an MRI scan of a Haitian schoolboy who had been “zombified”.
Naturally, not everyone was convinced by the tetrodotoxin hypothesis. Psychologist Terence Hines noted several problems with Efthiiou and Gandhi’s article, saying that:
“The amount of TTX (tetrodotoxin) in the flesh of puffer fish varies with the sex of the fish, the species and the time of year, as well as the anatomical location… In addition, the he effect of any drug on an individual will vary depending on the individual’s age, gender, medical condition, body weight, experience with related drugs and many other variables… Sorcerers could not simply not produce such precise effects with such poor quality hardware.
Hines’ criticisms notwithstanding, it is an established fact that while many ancient remedies do not hold up to rigorous scientific study, in some cases the medical knowledge of indigenous cultures is comparable to modern medicine. Shamans inherit knowledge accumulated over generations, so it’s not unreasonable that through their own process of trial, experimentation, and observation, they were able to come up with a zombie potion. More detrimental to Davis’ hypothesis is the work of CY Kao and Takeshi Yasumoto, who found “insignificant traces of tetrodotoxin” in his samples (although perhaps more samples should be tested).
There is also a problem with Efthiiou and Gandhi’s hypothesis of oxygen deprivation. Brain damage could explain zombie trance behavior, but the threshold for cerebral hypoxia and death is short. So that the boko to resurrect his zombie, he would have to dig them up within 10 minutes of his burial. How likely is this to happen without anyone noticing? Even if the zombie could be exhumed before it died, is it really plausible that someone with that much brain damage could work as a slave on a plantation, let alone remember facts about their life?
At the end of the day, The Serpent and the Rainbow is an exciting read and a decent movie, but the truth behind the magic is a question that has yet to be answered.
AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.
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