The Truth Behind Zombies

“What do you mean ‘what’s historical about zombies’?”

My title is that of a recent halloween special from the Discovery Channel. It’s the sort of semi-serious documentary that we’ve seen done countless times for the ever-popular vampire, but relatively rarely for my personal favourite, the zombie. “Fear File: Zombies” from the History Channel (2006) is the only other I’ve come across. Perhaps zombies are catching up with mainstream popularity – aside from Halloween theming, Discovery probably had an eye on the superb TV adaptation of “The Walking Dead” graphic novel series. Anyway, the show was pretty good overall. They got Max Brooks (who I was lucky enough to get to sign my copy of ‘The Zombie Survival Guide’) to contribute, and involved the ‘Zombie Research Society’, who seem to be ‘legitimate’ in the sense that they “study” zombie lore as an intellectual exercise – not because they think it will actually happen. I’m tempted to join.

As ever though, it fell short in a couple of areas. Brooks did factor in a virus-based origin for version of the zombie, but his inspiration is well known to be the slow, lumbering re-animated cannibalistic corpse created by director George Romero for his 1968 ‘Night of the Living Dead’. Brooks’ reply whenever asked about the eternal fast/slow zombies issue makes this very clear .

So its odd that the programme focused almost exclusively upon the ‘zombie as virus’ where fear of scientific research is the key idea, and “zombies” are created from living humans, turned in a matter of seconds and retaining their speed, co-ordination and strength (in some cases, more so – please don’t ever bother watching the “remake” of “Day of the Dead”). Not at all like the “living dead” first seen in the Romero films.  They used lots of clips from “28 Days Later” but none whatsoever from Romero films (despite the infamous lack of copyright that he has over ‘Night’). They didn’t even MENTION Romero.

They also conflated Romero “ghouls” (to use his original choice of name) with the Haitian zombie. I don’t have a problem with that (particularly as its likely origin as a slavery metaphor is briefly explored) – though many claim that Romero’s “Living Dead” have nothing to do with the Haitian zombie, the parallels and cinematic precedents are obvious. The zombies in 1932 movie ‘White Zombie‘ are even referred to as the “living dead” at one point in that movie. By 1975, TV Guide was referring to NotLD’s monsters as “zombies”.

There are important differences between the two, notably the notion of a puppetmaster magician behind it all, that make the Romero zombie and indeed the virus/plague zombie, much closer to the vampires of Matheson’s novel ‘I Am Legend’ (1954) – Romero’s acknowledged main inspiration. Another way to look at it is that Romero and post-Romero zombies are both part of the ‘survival horror’ sub-genre – movies featuring Haitian style zombies are more mainstream straight horror movies.

In any case, to completely ignore Romero’s role in reinventing the zombie as we know it, and skip from the Haitian zombie straight to the post-28 Days Later viral version, makes this a far from complete survey of the fictional roots of the modern zombie.

My other problem with the show is the uncritical acceptance of the “zombi powder”/Tetrodotoxin/puffer fish poison paralysis hypothesis pushed in the 1980s by Wade Davis, who makes facetime in this programme. Just as vampire fans had to put up for years with out-of-date ideas being presented as current by documentaries like this, so are we faced with Davis’ problematic findings given as fact.

Though a trained scientist, Davis seems to have fallen far short of the scientific method in the testing and peer review of his work. No data from his first supposedly positive test for the toxin in question, nor from a subsequent negative test were ever published. Instead he published anecdotal findings in an anthropological memoir entitled  “The Serpent and the Rainbow” (a movie was later made based upon it). Many refutations have been published, from an exchange of letters in New Scientist to a series of articles.

The definitive academic work on the Zombie in folklore and fiction (‘American Zombie Gothic’) also covers the controversy. Here’s the abtract from ‘The Ways and Nature of the Zombi’ byAckermann and Gauthier, published in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 414 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 466-494:

“This article presents a review of zombiism and our personal investigations on the hitherto little-known spirit zombi. The Haitian zombi is of African origin. Numerous references zombis or zombi-like entities are found in Equatorial and to Central Africa and in the Caribbean. There are two types of zombis, the zombi of the body, or living dead, and the zombi of the soul. Both are closely related to the Haitian concept of a dual soul, which is also of African origin. Properties of the spirit zombi are described. Zombi stories or sightings may be explained by the observation of vagrants or exploited mentally ill. The various “zombi powders” so far studied seem to belong to the domain of sympathetic magic, and their pharmacological effectiveness remains to beproved.”
Full article here (paywalled).

And some of the main issues:

“Davis’s thesis is problematic in several respects: (1) many characteristics of the flesh-and-blood zombi can be explained by mental disorders, notably amnesia and catatonic schizophrenia (Bourguignon 1959; Dewisme 1957:138; Mars 1945, 1947; Metraux 1968:249; Simpson 1954); (2) one of his eight zombi powders did not contain any puffer fish; (3) only two zombi powders contained small, apparently innocuous, amounts of tetrodotoxin (Booth 1988; Davis 1988a:194, 1988b); (4) it is not clear which samples were studied in which laboratories and what the exact results were; (5) most samples contained human remains and a confusing variety of ingredients of weak or uncertain effect (Davis 1984, 1988a:107); and (6) the poison was administered in a seemingly ineffective way: in at least three instances, the powder was to be strewn on the ground in the path of the intended victim or on its doorstep, over a buried magic candle.”

Essentially, whilst the Haitians involved believe in the power of the powder, the actual toxin content is low to non-existent in all samples tested. Thus the “hypnotic” hypothesis also offered in this documentary is closer to the mark, though the actual active hypnosis aspect is overplayed. See Derren Brown’s “Tricks of the Mind” for a good explanation of the more mundane reality of hypnosis, of which a substantial component is make-believe and playing along.

As the article puts it;

“Zombification thus appears as a case of sympathetic magic, a kind of perverse homeopathy.”

Some go even further;

“The controversy involves the role of a powerful poison called tetrodotoxin in the creation of zombies. Davis’ critics say there is either no tetrododoxin or little in the samples of zombie powder brought back by Davis to support his hypothesis. But there is more to it than that. The pharmacologists are accusing Davis of not playing by the rules by suppressing information that fails to bolster his case, while playing up a number of unconfirmed experiments that are repeatedly cited in his work as “personal communications.” Some of the critics seem especially irked because Davis sought out their assistance but allegedly refuses to listen when told his conclusions are not supported by the evidence. “I feel like I’ve been taken for a ride,” says [C.Y.] Kao [of State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, who is also quoted in the article as saying ‘”I actually feel this is an issue of fraud in science.”
‘Voodoo Science’, Science, New Series, Vol. 240, No. 4850 (Apr. 15, 1988), pp. 274-277

There’s more where that came from (thanks to JREF forum posters for some of these);

  1. ‘Zombie fish eaters?’, Garlaschelli, Chemistry in Britain, Nov. 2002 – also available online (though with an horrific background).
  2. ‘Clinical findings in three cases of zombification’, Littlewood and Douyon, The Lancet, Volume 350, Issue 9084 , 11 October 1997, Pages 1094-1096 (online here).
  3. ‘Tetrodotoxin and the Haitian zombie’, Yasumoto and Kao, Toxicon Volume 24, Issue 8 , 1986, Pages 747-749
  4. ‘Tetrodotoxin in “zombie powder”‘, Yasumoto and Kao, Toxicon Volume 28, Issue 2 , 1990, Pages 129-132 (NB that Kao and Yasumoto concluded that “’the widely circulated claim in the lay press to the effect that tetrodotoxin is the causal agent in the initial zombification process is without factual foundation’.)
  5. ‘Evidence for the presence of tetrodotoxin in a powder used in Haiti for zombification’, Benedek and Rivier, Toxicon Volume 27, Issue 4 , 1989, Pages 473-480
  6. ‘Tetrodotoxin and the zombi phenomenon’, Anderson, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 23, Issue 1 , May-June 1988, Pages 121-126
  7. ‘Zombies and Tetrodotoxin’, Hines, Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.3, May / June 2008

All are critical in tone. Even those who laud Davis’ contribution to the anthropology of zombification acknowledge that he fell short with the actual science behind the process.

I can’t be too hard on Discovery however, since even the sceptical organisation CSI (formerly CSICOP) has endorsed Davis’ hypothesis without reservation. Unfortunately the rebuttal to this piece from that organisation’s own journal, is not accessible online (see Hines above).

It’s also the standard journalistic method as applied to many documentary programmes, as I’ve commented before. A sort faux neutrality based on the idea that all viewpoints may be valid. Hence rival beliefs and opinions are presented with equal weight without any real analysis of either. Fictional aspects of the zombie may be a matter of opinion (personally I favour slow ones), but the reality need not be.

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3 Responses to “The Truth Behind Zombies”

  1. Zombie Survival Says:

    Most of the items from this special seemed to be cut out of other specials I have seen on the subject. This was more a cut and paste job than an actual new event.

    • bshistorian Says:

      I’m sure you’re right. That’s certainly been done in other subject areas – and is probably in part why we see old science and debunked myths being trotted out repeatedly.

  2. close up magician uk Says:

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