Clairvius Narcisse, born 1922, was a Haitian man allegedly turned into a zombie.
The Haitian Creole ‘Zonbi’, the origin of our term, is a little different from the familiar flesh-eating revenants we know today. The zombies of Haiti were corpses raised from the dead by voodoo sorcerers, or bokor – mindless slaves who would do only their master’s bidding.
Zombies were feared in rural Haitian society – superstitious families would even stab or decapitate loved ones in burial to prevent them from rising again. Narcisse is not the only case, merely the best documented.
On April 31st, 1962 40-year-old Clairvius Narcisse, suffering from intense bodily fever, checked in to Albert Schweizer Hospital. His American doctors noted Narcisse’s worsening condition – his lips were blue and blood dripped from his mouth. The patient felt insects crawling beneath his skin.
On May 2nd 1962 Narcisse was pronounced dead. His sisters Angelina and Marie Claire identified the body and buried him the following day.
Eighteen years later Angelina was at a marketplace in her hometown when a stranger called her name. What she saw made her scream. Though older and empty-eyed, the man had her brother’s face. He introduced himself by a childhood moniker only family would have known. Angelina and her village were convinced the man was Clairvius.
According to Narcisse, it began with an inheritance dispute. His brother had sold Narcisse’s soul to a bokor, who administered a sinister poison to induce his malaise. Clairvius claimed to be fully conscious during his burial; paralysed utterly, appearing dead, but still alive.
After a few days he was exhumed by his tormentor’s acolytes, beaten, bound and forced fed another potion that reduced him to a mindless trance. Giving regular dosages, the bokor subjected Narcisse to slavery at a sugar plantation.
Two years later the ‘zombies’ revolted and beat the sorcerer to death. Finally free from the bokor’s curse, Narcisse spent the next sixteen years on the street. Though his mental functions slowly recovered, he dared not return home until his brother too was dead.
Eminent Haitian psychiatrist Dr Lamarque Douyon, who had studied mental delirium closely, interviewed 200 witnesses and met with Narcisse to confirm his condition. In 1981 the BBC filmed a brief documentary.
Harvard educated ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who met with Douyon and Narcisse explained the case through science. According to Wade’s book ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow,’ the bokor’s original potion was a sinister concoction of tetrodotoxin – found in pufferfish venom, grounded human bones, millipedes and toad toxin. Tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin 160 times the power of cocaine, can leave its victims in weeklong comas – Wade claims resemble death.
The second ‘zombie’ potion contained datura – a deadly poison that induces widened pupils, intense delirium, suggestibility and severe amnesia. Datura has a long association with voodoo and bokors. Coupled with a full day buried alive the bokor’s potion deteriorated Narcisse’s brain to the extent he could neither speak nor act freely – only follow basic commands without question: the zombie of voodoo folklore.
Narcisse was not the only confirmed case. Like him, Francina ‘Ti Femme’ Ileus had ‘died’ in 1976 of a sudden sickness only to be rediscovered two years later. Police found her grave filled with rocks. Unwanted by her community, whom Davis suspected had plotted her zombification, Ileus passed into the care of Dr Douyon. He reported that Ileus, though able to communicate, was emotionless, had no perception of time and could not even remember her age.
Being a zombie in Haiti is akin to being a leper. Clairvius Narcisse was recognised, but as only a shell of his former self – a man without a soul. In first death he was a man in hospital, surrounded by loved ones, in his second, an impoverished outcast.