An Anthropological Investigation of the Living Dead

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Philippe Charlier
Richard J. Gray, III
  • Gainsville, FL: 
    University Press of Florida
    , September
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


If Philippe Charlier’s text were a physical body, it would not resemble its eponymous subject as much as it would Frankenstein’s monster. Focusing on the many possible meanings of the zombie within the context of contemporary Haitian Vodou, this book is a series of richly described though eclectic vignettes rather than a unified scholarly narrative, which is refreshing at times and disorienting at others. It is a pastiche of case studies of zombified people along with interviews with a Haitian sociologist, a psychiatrist, and a Vodou priest, among others. These profiles are then interspersed with Charlier’s analyses and other historical background. Chapters are not always clearly linked to one another, are sometimes just one or two pages long, and themes appear in high relief only to recede unexpectedly against a backdrop of thick description. 

Quarrels with this book’s format aside, its content is fascinating. Charlier begins from the perspective that zombification is a complex phenomenon that cannot be explained through just one interpretive lens. Trained as a forensic pathologist, he builds upon the work of Wade Davis, an American ethnobotanist who famously wrote in 1985 about the effect of tetrodotoxin and jimsonweed on humans to cause altered states of consciousness and zombie-like symptoms (paleness, drooling, significant fatigue, cyanosis of the lips and extremities, and so forth). Later scholars have criticized Davis for scientific inaccuracies and for reducing zombification to a physiological process. Charlier, however, tries to weigh all disciplinary perspectives equally, situating the meaning of zombies “at the convergence of toxicology, medicine, magic, and religion” (31). He also describes various kinds of zombification processes with a degree of concrete detail which, to my knowledge, has thus far been lacking in existing zombie scholarship. 

In order to give the reader a sense of these convergences, Charlier develops several different lenses through which one might understand this phenomenon. First is a socio-cultural lens. He argues that the zombie is a fully fleshed-out category of Haitian cultural vocabulary that can explain conditions other societies might identify as mental illness. Charlier compares zombies to individuals with Cotard’s Disease, who believe themselves to be missing vital organs or to be dead. In the Haitian context, he argues, these people are not patients whose condition is pathologized medically. Instead, “the zombie is already structured by society. The subject enters the established structure and has almost no choice regarding symptoms or grievances. He identifies himself with a pre-existing zombie category, with all of its mythological cavalcade” (12). Laënnec Hurbon, a sociologist and director of the National Center for Scientific Research in Port au Prince, tells him, “I believe that people, because they are schizophrenic, can return at a certain time to the structure of the mythology of zombification, and that they declare themselves ‘zombies.’ I believe that that is what happens most often” (16). 

Second, Charlier elaborates on the pharmacological lens in which a Vodou priest/healer (houngan) or one practicing “evil magic” (bokor) can use botanical and other toxins to zombify someone. According to testimonies he collected from houngans and undertakers, a bokor can raise a recently buried corpse by making it “swallow a potion made of concombre zombi leaves [Datura stramonium or jimsonweed] soaked in clarion (a strong alcohol) or they make him breathe the smoke of the same leaves that they burn at his feet. Next, they spray the zombie with icy water to finish awakening his senses, then violent lashes are administered to him with a whip to stimulate his nervous, peripheral, sensitive, and motor systems” (10). The zombie is then enslaved, put to work for the one who zombified him. Repeated administration of the jimsonweed “throughout the period of bondage could produce a state of extreme passivity within the individual” (11). The zombie is controlled remotely by a bottle containing a portion of his soul, or ti-bon-anj, captured prior to the zombification. Charlier provides quite a lot of data about such practices but refrains from coming to definitive conclusions about their meaning.

Why zombify someone? Charlier cites vengeance as one reason, profiling a man slowly poisoned by his ex-mother-in-law, who applied tetrodotoxin to the armrests of his office chair. The more interesting reason, though, is what I will call “zombie justice.” If a person poses some threat to the social order (Charlier claims the main infractions are “excessive ambition, fighting over inheritance, taking a woman from another man, and defamation”), their zombification is seen to be an appropriate corrective action to take (109). The logic here is that they have proven themselves irresponsible in exercising their volition, so it must be confiscated. As Charlier argues, “the destruction of an active life is replaced by the survival of an individual deprived of all decision-making power (a ‘vegetable’). It is a solution against those who act badly” (31). Chapter 12 is an interesting discussion of the ensuing complex legal status of zombies. 

One point needing elaboration is Charlier’s argument that Haitian Vodou cannot be understood apart from a history of bodily enslavement. The Haitian body is always already a stolen body and begins life with the task of recovering itself. He uses this understanding of the body to explain the importance of the cult of the dead within Vodou, making the following equivalence: to die is to return to Africa and, by extension, to the realm of ancestors and gods. It is not clear, however, that Haitians themselves view the body this way and this theory seems to neglect the indigenous Taíno identity to which many Haitians ascribe, in part or in full. Aside from this issue, though, this work uses the practice of zombification to complicate our understanding of categories like “religion,” “magic,” and “consciousness.” It would be a captivating way to introduce students to the complexities of religious phenomena.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mayumi Kodani is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philippe Charlier, a researcher at Raymond Poincare University Hospital and researcher-teacher at Paris Descartes University, is a forensic medical examiner, anatomopathologist, and paleopathologist, specializing in the study of ancient human remains and mummies. He is the author of When Science Sheds Light on History: Forensic Science and Anthropology.


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