Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Two articles on zombification

While I was doing research for my first book, I read a lot of articles on zombies.  Not the brain-eating type that are often found in movies, but real reports of zombies.  It was sometimes difficult to differentiate a true case from an urban legend ("I swear I saw a zombie walk right into that bar!") or a case of mistaken identity ("I thought it was a zombie, but it turned out to be just my mother-in-law...").  However, I ran across a very interesting article published in 1997 in the Lancet, a highly respected medical journal, on clinical findings from several reported zombies (here's the reference... a search will turn up the pdf elsewhere).  The paper, published by Roland Littlewood, from University College, London and Chavannes Douyon, a Haitian doctor, makes a fairly shocking claim. Although the process of zombification has been attributed to both poisoning or sorcery, the empirical data from Haiti suggest that people demonstrating behaviors consistent with a zombie are on the order of a thousand cases per year.  This is truly staggering, if accurate.

The Lancet article studies three reported cases of zombies during 1996-1997.  Patients FI and WD, although described by relatives as becoming ill and dying prior to their return months or even years later, were probably not dead to begin with.  Both patients suffered from mental illness and it seems more likely that they had simply wandered away from their homes and were taken in by other families.  For FI, the Lancet study concluded that she suffered from catatonic schizophrenia, a syndrome that could be considered zombie-like by locals.  WD likely suffered from organic brain syndrome and epilepsy.  The Lancet article speculated that these conditions were due to an unspecified period of anoxia.  Perhaps WD had been buried alive?  Unlike FI's coffin, which was filled with stones, WD's family refused to open the grave to Littlewood and Douyon.

Patient MM was a 31-year old female who had disappeared at age 18 after attending a service for a friend who had been zombified.  She fell ill shortly after and died.  Thirteen years later, she reappeared in the town and claimed to have been a zombie slave at a distant farm.  Littlewood and Douyon found her to be of very low intelligence but were unable to diagnose a more specific mental illness.  Upon return to the town near her captivity, locals recognized her as a zombie and several people argued over their claim to her.  Interestingly, she had a round, 1cm scar on her back, similar to a scar found on patient WD.  What were these scars from?

Unfortunately, they ultimately state that none of the three were true zombies, and that much of their behavior could be explained by mental illness.  However, one of the references they cite is the now classic paper by Wade Davis, published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 1983, titled "The ethnobiology of the Haitian zombi" (abstract).  Is that a cool title or what! In this little gem, he provides a pretty detailed 'zombie protocol' and this forms the basis for Davis' book The Serpent and the Rainbow.  In my next post, I'll discuss his findings and several other classic zombie manuscripts...