The word “zombie” is derived from the Kongo word “nzambi,” meaning “spirit of a dead person.” Myths and legends, popular television shows, movies, and books on how to survive a zombie apocalypse continue to fascinate people with the possibility of the walking dead.
One of the most famous cases of zombification is that of Clairvius Narcisse. In the spring of 1980, a man entered the L’Estere marketplace in Haiti. Bystanders reported he had a heavy gait and a vacant stare. He introduced himself to a local woman, Angelina Narcisse, as her brother Clairvius, citing a nickname only known to family members. However, Clairvius had died and was buried in 1962. Prior to his death, he had entered the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti with complaints of fever, body aches, and general malaise, and he was coughing up blood. His attending physicians noted he was suffering from pulmonary edema, respiratory problems, hypothermia, hypotension, and digestive issues. On May 2, 1962, Clairvius was pronounced dead at the hospital. He was buried, and later stated although he remained lucid in the coffin, he was unable to move or speak through the entire ordeal. He recalled that his skin felt as if it were on fire and infested with insects. He remained buried alive until the coffin was raised and opened by a plantation owner and other men. He was beaten and drugged into submission for the next 2 years until the plantation owner died and he and the other zombies were able to escape. He stayed away from home for another 16 years until the death of his older brother, who he suspected of being the evildoer who had put him through the entire nightmare.
Researchers believe that Clairvius and the others were made into zombies through a combination of drugs, including tetrodotoxin (pufferfish venom) and bufotoxin (toad venom), which induced coma and made it appear as though they were dead. Wade Davis, a Canadian ethnobotanist and a researcher of these toxins, explained that Narcisse was probably exposed to the chemical solution through the skin. After exposure, he returned home and fell into a very deep coma that simulated death, and was buried alive. After his body was recovered, he was given doses of Datura stramonium (Jimson weed) to simulate a zombie-like state of existence, including memory loss, and was made to work on the plantation like a slave. Two years later, after the plantation owner died, and the regular doses of the hallucinogen stopped, Narcisse luckily regained his sanity.
These island voodoo witch doctors are capable of crazy things, and chemical combinations can cause zombie-like effects, but the victims were never truly dead. So do those cases qualify?
Let’s talk about viruses and the possibility of a true zombie apocalypse. Could a virus mutate and attack human behaviors, and turn mankind into a variation of the walking dead? Let’s presume that the dead cannot come back to life in this scenario; however, the living could be as good as, or worse than, dead if they begin exhibiting zombie-like behaviors. In the National Geographic Channel documentary The Truth Behind Zombies, it is proposed that rabies, which can lead to violent mad behavior, could actually combine with a flu virus and spread as quickly as the common cold and cause a zombie pandemic or “rage virus.” The virus could be spread like rabies, typically via a bite, or through the air like the influenza virus.
Hopefully, zombies will remain the fictional undead creatures that populate blockbuster books, movies, games, and nothing more. As an aside, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a zombie preparedness Web site. You can view it at http://www.cdc.gov/phpr/zombies.htm. The rationale is that if you are prepared for zombies, you are prepared for “a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake, or terrorist attack.” It’s a fun way to get people prepared for emergencies, and in the event of a zombie apocalypse, it could come in handy.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Zombie preparedness. CDC Web site. http://www.cdc.gov/phpr/zombies.htm.
- Hahn PD. Dead man walking. Biology Online Web site. September 4, 2007. http://www.biology-online.org/articles/dead_man_walking.html.
- Than K. “Zombie virus” possible via rabies-flu hybrid? National Geographic Web site. October 27, 2010. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/10/1001027-rabies-influenza-zombie-virus-science/.
- Wells C. Medicine: zombies: do they exist? Time Magazine Web site. October 17, 1983. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,952208,00.html.