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PASSAGE OF DARKNESS

PASSAGE OF DARKNESS

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Published by Alex
The article about the Haitian Zombie.
The article about the Haitian Zombie.

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Published by: Alex on Jun 09, 2008
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11/12/2012

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PASSAGE OF DARKNESS: THE ETHNOBIOLOGY OF THE HAITIAN ZOMBIEBy Wade Davis. Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press. 1988Review by Bob Corbett March, 1990In June, 1989 I attended a seminar in Port-au-Prince on zombification. During thediscussion I raised the question to the 40 or so people in attendance, had any one of them every seen a zombie "bab pou bab," the Haitian equivalent of face to face.Everyone had. So I randomly questioned one person about her experience. It turnedout it wasn't she herself who had seen the zombie, but her first cousin. The nextperson hadn't actually met a zombie, but his aunt had. Someone else's father,another's best friend and so on around the room. In the end not one single personwas able to tell a tale of having actually, personally been face to face with a zombie.Are there really zombies in Haiti? Wade Davis devotes two long sections to thisquestion. He first looks at the popular views and then explores cases where therehave been some attempts to carefully and more scientifically determine the status of suspected cases. His key candidate for zombiehood is Clairvius Narcisse. In spring,1962 Narcisse "died" at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, Haiti. Hisdeath was verified by the hospital staff. 18 years later Narcisse turned up alive andwell, and claimed to be an escaped zombie.Having thus satisfied himself that it is likely there are zombies in Haiti, PASSAGE OFDARKNESS is Davis' fascinating and provocative attempt to explain how zombies aremade.The extraordinary thesis he puts forward is, as the subtitle tells us, anethnobiological story. That is, on Davis' account, what makes zombies is the interplaybetween certain features of the culture of Haiti and the use of drugs. However,neither the cultural phenomena alone, nor the poisons alone can account forzombies. There are even larger historical issues at stake:"Evidence suggests that zombification is a form of social sanction imposed byrecognized corporate bodies--the poorly known and clandestine secret Bizangosocieties--as one means of maintaining order and control in local communities." (p.3.)The essence of Davis' claim is this:there are zombieshowever, there are actually very very few of themthey are created in part by a poisoned powderhowever, they are created in part by the effects of the culturezombies are created when a person first falls into a death-like trance which is bothdrug and culturally inducedthen is revived and kept under the control of the houngan by the use of other drugszombies are created by Voodoo priests who are members of the Bizango secretsocietiesBizango societies constitute a totally secret and hidden other government beneaththe surface of Haitian societyzombification is not random nor for profit or personal vendettazombification is the ultimate punishment to someone who has seriously violated thelaw of the Bizango societyThese ten propositions are the essence of his conclusions. They constitute a story
 
which has not been widely discussed before Davis (though Davis himself cites theimportant ground work done by the Haitian anthropologist Michel Laguerre on thesecret societies).Some are clearer than others, so I'll elucidate a few of the less clear:Davis claims there is a poisoned powder which causes the target person to fall into adeath-like trance. It was to seek this drug that originally got Davis the assignment totrack down the zombie poison. His sponsors reasoned that such a drug must exist,and if they could find it might have valuable pharmacological possibilities as analternative to currently popular but unsafe anesthetics.The great controversy which Davis' book has caused is mainly connected to his claimthat the chemical tetrodotoxin, gotten from the puffer fish, is the primary activeingredient in this "zombie powder."However, what seems to be universally missed by Davis' critics, or simply ignored, ishis claim that the powder alone cannot adequately account for nor make a zombie.Davis describes the "set and setting" which is required for the powder to work."...set, in these terms, is the individual's expectation of what the drug will do to himor her; setting is the environment--both physical and, in this case, social--in whichthe drug is taken." (p. 181.)Thus the poison in the powder, which is a psycho-active drug (one whose effect isrelated to specific personal psychological factors), will have different effectsdepending on who one is, what one's socialization and expectations are. In the caseof Haitian members of the Bizango sect, they have been socialized to recognize thepossibility and process of zombification and are psychologically attuned to theappropriate effects of the drug, i.e. zombification.Davis' book presents a strong hypothesis concerning the why of zombification. In acountry so drastically poor as Haiti, with labor costs for farm hands only being about$1.00 a day, one cannot account for zombification on the grounds of seeking cheaplabor. One might imagine zombification as a way to get at enemies, but the violenceof Haiti's history suggests much simpler ways of solving that problem. Davis'hypothesis is perhaps attractive simply because it is so grand! He tells the story of along history of secret societies stretching back into the earliest days of slavery.Escaped slaves, the maroons, living deep in the mountains, created an alternativesociety, more African than Western. These societies brought with them theremembered lore of Africa, including knowledge of the use of local poisons. Thepoisons were used as tools of social control within the maroon communities. Afterindependence and the radical split between the life in the rural areas and the cities,these maroon social organizations became the secret Bizango societies, andzombification is, effectively, their death sentence for serious violations of the code of conduct required in Bizango.Davis' thesis in PASSAGE OF DARKNESS is provocatively and persuasively argued.Unlike his more popular account, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, which Ireviewed a few issues ago, Davis' argument is careful and measured. Gone is theIndiana Jones bravado of the earlier work; gone is the "I've done it all alone"arrogance. Davis' use of sources and his excellent bibliography are themselves aloneworth the price of the book!But the critics don't think too much of Davis' work. Nearly all reviewers of his twobooks have been quite cool towards them. More seriously, important figures in thescholarly circles of pharmacological literature have taken Davis to task. In an articlein Science magazine, April 15, 1988 called: "Voodoo Science," William Booth reportson the widespread criticism which has been heaped on Davis.Critics argue that Davis grossly exaggerated what he had found in the powder and
 
that he had exaggerated, if not lied, about the chemically active properties of thepowders he brought back.Certainly Davis was indiscreet in celebrating his victory of discover before adequatescientific evidence was published to support his findings. However, two things mustbe said in Davis' defense.First, he was very careful in PASSAGE OF DARKNESS to respond to Kao andYasumoto's criticisms of him. In a footnote on p. 194 he answers their primaryobjection. Their objection was two fold. First, that Davis reported as evidence a"personal communication" from researcher Rivier, which Rivier now claims was neverintended as an official opinion. Secondly, they charge that the sample didn't haveenough tetrodotoxin to do anything to humans.Davis certainly should not have reported the preliminary oral confirmation (whichlater turned out to be false), as scientific fact. This was an error without doubt. But,Davis argues in the text that to study the powder alone, to study the amounts of tetrodotoxin alone is a mistake. This for several reasons:These powders are made as magical portions by the houngans (Voodoo priests).They are not made according to any exact formula. Any given portion may not work.They do them by trial and error. Some are too strong and kill the victim outright.Others are too weak and have no effect. A few work. Davis is quite explicit aboutthis: "All that the formula of the powder suggests is a means by which an individualmight, under rare circumstances, be made to appear dead." (p. 181.)Davis devotes a huge portion of the book to argue the psychobiological hypothesisthat the power/poison is only one ingredient, albeit a necessary part of zombification.Davis' critics completely ignore this whole thesis and pounce on the tetrodotoxinsamples as the only issue to be considered.In response to the criticism of Yasumoto and Kao that in the infamous "sample D,"the only one of his eight powders which contained tetrodotoxin, that the amount wasinsignificant, Davis replies:"Critically, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Of greater interest is theempirical observation that the bokor {houngans who are doing the zombification}recognize the toxicity of these fish {puffer fish} and include them in the powders,and that at certain times of the year these fish contain a toxin known to haveinduced apparent death."My argument is not that Davis has indeed found the zombie poison. I don't know thatone way or the other. But, the vehemence with which he has been attacked seems tobelie something deeper going on. There are several hypotheses which suggest otherexplanations for the heat he has taken.Davis puts forward a psychobiological hypothesis. The subtitle of the book is quite upfront about this (The ethnobiology of the Haitian zombie). His critics are mainlybiologists and pharmacologists. Ethnobiology is a suspicious field to them. The wholeperspective of ethnobiology, as the name indicates, is that cultural factors, notmerely biological ones, account for many responses to psychoactive drugs (drugswhose effects are tied to the psychological state of the subject). Thus it would seemthat some of the critics' vehemence is related to their distrust of the entire field of science which Davis represents.There is no question that Davis' popular book THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW isan arrogant and aggravating book. Davis postures as the great explorer invadingHaiti's secret societies in just a very few visits to Haiti. The whole story, as told inthat book, stretches the credulity of most readers. What is especially suspicious asboth books detail, but which the much more carefully documented PASSAGE OFDARKNESS makes so clear, is that virtually all that Davis claims can be learned fromhis impressive use of existing sources. Davis is, indeed, a masterful researcher. But,

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