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Mention the word “zombie” and most of us think of either the potent alcoholic drink or the drooling, decomposing creatures seen shambling through the movie, “Night of the Living Dead” and its various sequels. But while the Hollywood image of a zombie is exaggerated, these creatures do actually bear similarities to the real walking dead.

The word zombie (also spelled zombi) is derived from the Congo word, nzambi, which means, “spirit of a dead person”. The first references to zombies were discovered in Haiti. This tiny Caribbean island won its independence from France in 1804 and began creating its own unique culture and way of life: a diverse mix of African, West Indian, and European influences.

Ceremonial religion is an important aspect of the Haitian culture. Voodoo, or “vodoun,” is widely practiced and while the basis of the religion has little or nothing to do with “black magic,” the art of creating zombies is the exception.

Haitians believe that relatives or friends who have annoyed others or are lazy, slovenly, or dishonest are in danger of being turned into zombies. A Bokor, (a voudon priest who practices black magic) is contacted and then begins the task of turning the “undesirable” into a zombie.

Until recently, it was believed that a Bokor had the power to control the living and the dead. But Wade Davis, a noted ethnobiologist, disproved the theory. He interviewed two “zombie” victims and concluded that each had been given a powerful poison, administered either through open wounds or in their food. He was also allowed to be present during the actual preparation of the potent zombie powder (the “poudre zombi”). This drug is a mix of various toxic plants, animals, fish, and sometimes even human remains. Two of the main ingredients come from the porcupine fish and the puffer fish. Each species contains a potent nerve toxin, known as tetrodotoxin. More than half the victims of puffer fish poisoning die within a very short time. There is no known antidote.

Once the zombie poison is administered, symptoms appear quickly: headache, rabid pulse, diarrhea, respiratory distress, then coma or death. Those who slip into a coma appear dead. A doctor’s examination will find no heartbeat or breathing, and muscles and skin become become stiff and cold. The "deceased" is then prepared for burial. Caught in a body that can't move or speak, the unfortunate is trapped, yet still aware, and in many cases actually a "witness" to their own funeral.

A day or two later, the Bokor returns to the cemetery and raises the “deceased” by administering another potent mix of drugs, commonly known as “a zombie cucumber”. After being poisoned and buried alive, the victim is almost always completely traumatized, mentally and physically. Very little persuasion is needed to convince the newly created zombie to follow a life of glassy-eyed slavery.

Vodoun sorcerers can also create zombies another way: by capturing the soul, the “ti bon ange” (little good angel) of the dead. This “zombie astral” then wanders the earth, and all its deeds are the specific command of the Bokor who created it.

Traditionally, Haitians don’t fear harm from zombies as much as being turned into one. To make sure this doesn’t happen, relatives attend to the deceased by stabbing the body in the heart or removing the head. This second death ensures that the soul is truly gone and can never be controlled by a Bokor.

Researchers have shown us that in some parts of the world zombies exist and that the dead do indeed walk among us.