Research and the Science of Zombies

Taking the Subject Off Target to Get Back on Target

To most myths there is always an element of truth, and zombies are no exception. To make my point I will travel back to ancient Greece and the mythical description of a great battle between an army of Cyclopes and the gods. So horrific was this battle that the bones of dead Cyclopes littered a valley. As additional evidence, there had been so much blood that the mud of the valley had been dyed red.

For generations stories had been handed down about the battle. For proof that the battle had taken place, the weaver of the story would show the valley with the ground that had been dyed red with the blood of the dead and wounded. Then to add additional proof the teller of tales pointer land littered with the bones of the cyclopes, the giant one-eyed monsters.

Of course, today we know the truth, the clay in the valley floor
contains large quantities of iron which makes it red. As for the bones that littered the ground ... Mammoths. The skull of a mammoth has a single orifice that seems to be that of an eye is really where the trunk of the creature protruded from its head.

The myth of this enormous battle is still a part of our culture and the imagination still yearns for the story of gods and cyclopes. The truth is just as fascinating though it is a little like looking behind the curtain and discovering that the Great and Powerful Oz is just a man.

The Mythology of Zombies

Zombies go way back to the mythology of the Greeks, Romans, and the Vikings. It started with the walking dead, or undead because they decided to take a stroll. Within the Gilgamesh epic, Ishtar threatens to raise up the dead and send them to devour the living. Pretty much the prediction of a zombie apocalypse. Greeks and Romans had their share of the undead raising havoc on the living. The ancient Greeks believed that some of the dead could reanimate, and that to keep them in their graves, they had to be trapped within their graves by pinning the body down with amphora fragments or large stones.

In the land of the Norse, there were the Draugar, the undead who lived in their graves and protected treasure buried with them. They didn't do much wandering though they would kill anyone who attempted to take the treasure. They were not immortal and could be killed.

Zombie Lore wasn't just a quirk of the European culture. Jiang Shr and Kuang Shi are zombies from Chinese mythology. They have physical bodies, but they are of the undead who have no thought or will of their own. Within zombie mythology, they are closer to Haitian zombies than to those from European folklore.

There are Chinese who say they have seen the Kuang Shi. It is said the dead still walk the roads of rural China in parades heading to their ancestral villages. Those who were buried away from the family have no feasts, no paper clothes, slaves, boats, food, or incense burnt to them. These things are in the hands of their descendants. This is the spiritual importance of the Chinese ancestral village. When one dies away from home, there are several ways to return their bodies to native earth. The less-than-rich, the rural Chinese used this form of an underground railway. A Taoist priest who had toiled in a specialized apprenticeship would be hired by the village to bring their dead home, walking them along the roads, as one might herd geese.

Spells are a part in this ritual in controlling the dead when they are being made to walk. A wide variety of spells, usually written out on red paper, can be bought at any Chinese paper-goods store that has not been cleaned out by the Chinese government. People have been punished severely for participation in superstition under modern Chinese law. Nevertheless, the Kuang Shi or Jiang Shr remains a tangible, commonly believed myth of old China.

Zombies and Hollywood

Last Man on Earth
starring Vicent Price
Hollywood has provided us with a whole new mythology of the Zombie Apocalypse if you can have a mythology based upon something that has yet to happen. Between "The Last Man on Earth" and "World War Z" we go from a worldwide biological disaster to another world-wide biological disaster. In "I am Legend" the last man on earth is the salvation of earth. "World War Z" is an ongoing battle to deal with the undead.

There have been a plethora of Zombie movies that have expanded the genre to infinity and beyond. Everyone seems to have zombie fever but have we any real cases of reported zombies that have been verified. While the tabloids can come up with sterling examples of zombies they try for sensationalism rather than look for reality. My interest is in zombies that have actually existed. Before you go looking for a butterfly net, a straight jacket, or a rubber room for me, let me explain.

The Reality of Voodoo and Zombies

                      Baron Samedi, 
         a prominent character in Voodoo

Voodoo is an earth religion, born in West Africa where it was known as Vodun. It has a hierarchy that begins with the major deities governing the forces of nature and human society. Believers also practice ancestor worship. They believe that the spirits of the dead live side by side with the world of the living. Each spiritual family has its own female priesthood, which passes heroically from mother to daughter.

Maman Brigitte
The religion holds beliefs of the spirits of individual streams, trees, and rocks, as well as dozens of ethnic Vodun. Vodun is the center of religious life, similar to doctrines of the intercession of saints and angels that made Vodun appear compatible with Catholicism, and produced syncretic religions such as Haitian Vodou, Dominican Vudu, and Lousiana Voodoo also known as New Orleans Voodoo.

The queen mother is the first daughter within the patriarchal lineage of a family. She leads the ceremonies within the tribal group: marriages, baptisms, and funerals. She leads the women of a village when her family the ruling one. When the men of the villages would go to war, the Queen Mother would lead prayer services that the women attended each morning to ensure the safe return of the men to the village.

Her role has been confused with that of a High Priestess. The High Priestess takes part in organizing and running the markets. She is also responsible for their upkeep. Marketplaces are the focal points and social centers in the communities. The High priestess is chosen by the oracle to care for the convent.

Priestesses, like priests, receive a calling from the oracle. They will join their tribal convent to pursue spiritual instruction. The oracle will designate the high priest and high priestess among the recruits, establishing an order of succession within the convent. Only hereditary relatives are allowed in the family convent. Today, some of the rules have been changed, enabling non-family members to enter the first circle of worship.

There has been a lot of sensational speculation about Voodoo, mostly because of western misunderstanding of the religion. Additionally, Voodoo has been vilified because it is not a traditional Christian religion and any religion that hasn't paid homage to Rome has been demonized in the name of power and the fear that it might increase in popularity, thereby competing for that power. (Okay, I'm off my soapbox.)

Like all religions, Voodoo is also about power and when the masses cannot be controlled by faith, then fear is utilized. Many of the various versions of Voodoo are mostly about helping the faithful and providing succor in times of need. Like all religions Voodoo also has a dark side and it is the use of the undead that that brings me to my research for the fifth book in the Jonas Watcher series, "The Case of Laveau Curse".

Marie Catherine Laveau was a Queen Mother who was known to practice the dark ceremonies of Voodoo. She was the daughter of a free creole woman and a Mayor of New Orleans, Charles Laveau.

While I want to weave a story involving a curse with her name on it, I know of no such curse, so this will be a truly fictitious journey. In creating the story, I need to make it as authentic as possible so I continue my research into 1930s New Orleans while investigating what I can find out about Marie Laveau, Voodoo, and Zombies.

In Haiti in 1962 Clairvius Narcisse was sold to a zombie master by his brothers, because he refused to sell his share of the family land. Clairvius "officially" died and was buried. Later he was dug up and turned into a zombie slave working on a sugar plantation with many others in his same condition. The man who “owned” him died and he wandered across the island in a psychotic daze for sixteen years. The drugs that turned him into a mindless soul only capable of taking commands were slowly working their way out of his system. In 1980, he accidentally stumbled across his sister in a marketplace and recognized her. She didn't recognize him, but he identified himself to her by telling her early childhood experiences that only he would know.

An ethnobiologist went to Haiti to research the above story. He discovered the process and the players in creating a zombie. The victim needs to become officially dead. That requires a doctor, clerk, or some other civil servant willing to provide a fake death certificate. The victim is then incapacitated with a mixture of toad skin and puffer fish. There are other drugs that can be used to simulate death while leaving a person aware of their surroundings but incapable of doing anything about it. If the chosen person is a believer it is even easier because of their inbred susceptibility of their beliefs. The victim soon appears to be dead, In Haiti, people are buried very soon after death, because of the heat and humidity. This suits the zombie-making process.

The “corpse” must be dug up within eight hours of the burial, or they will die of asphyxiation.
From this point on, the practitioner continues to keep the victim drugged and in a zombie state where they are docile and manipulative state and easy to command. Most of the “zombies” are sold to plantations as slaves.

Usually, priests or priestesses that practice this kind of voodoo care little for the community when they randomly create zombies for profit. However, there have been cases where some pretty bad people have been thus enslaved that they may pay penance for their sins. This kind zombie making is used instead of incarceration to carry out a kind of poetic justice while strengthening the position of the practitioner.

Angela Bassett as Marie Laveau
As with all mythology with Zombies and Voodoo, there is always an element of truth. The challenge is to separate the myth from the truth. As for me the Detective Adventure Mystery writer, I get to pick and choose and use what delivers for me the best story while using a framework that will give the story some authenticity.

I look forward to returning to New Orleans with Jonas Watcher and throw him into the deep end of the bayou with the curse of a Voodoo Queen, Zombies who may not be quite so docile, and for added adventure I'll toss in a murder mystery for laughs. Book five, "Jonas Watcher: The Case of the Laveau Curse".

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