The phenomenon of zombies, the living dead, is one of the most popular aspects of Haitian voodoo that has created a morbid interest and has inspired myriads of movies. Voodoo is more than the sorcery or magic that is portrayed in movies or literature; voodoo is a religion, cult, healing process, and body of magical practice.
In voodoo practice, the Bokor is a sorcerer who uses evil forces to bewitch, and he can change a human being into a zombie. Essentially every Hougan, who is at the same time a voodoo priest, a doctor, and the intermediary between the community and the spirit world, is more or less a Bokor. In fact, the major difference between a Hougan and a Bokor is the nature of the bewitchment he or she performs.
To better understand the concept of zombies, one must first understand the Haitian conception of the duality of the soul. The n'âmm (soul) is principally divided into two distinctive parts: the gro bonanj ("big guardian angel") and the ti bonanj ("little guardian angel"). The gro bonanj, which represents the consciousness and the personality, is a spiritual substance connected with the world of living. When the individual passes away, the gro bonanj survives and joins the world of lwa (spirit) to eventually become a lwa himself. The second part of the soul, the ti bonanj, is the conscience or the spiritual energy of the person. This corresponds to the individuality of each human being and also corresponds to the individual will.
The most popular and well-documented hypothesis concerning how a person is changed into a zombie state is that of poison. The Bokor "work of the left hand" possesses the knowledge to constitute a powerful poison with a mixture of venom like tetradoxine, which is found in several puffer fishes. The victims sink into a state of catalepsy and passes for dead; however, it seems that the person is still aware of what occurs around him or her. The person is then buried alive.
At night the Bokor comes to help the person get out of the grave and captures the ti bonanj. He then administers an antidote that enslaves him. The Bokor can use the services of the zombie to carry out work in the fields or he can sell or rent his slave's services. This kind of zombie is the soulless body and the victim is "deprived of will, memory, and consciousness, speaks with a nasal voice and is recognized chiefly by dull, glazed eyes and an absent air" (Ackerman 1991, p. 474). The ethnobotanist Wade Davis suggests that zombie laborers were created to install order against antisocial individuals.
There exists a type of zombie of the soul, a disembodied soul of a dead person. In this case, the sorcerer uses the gro bonanj or the ti bonanj of the victims for magical purposes. The soul may belong to an individual who died in an accident or the sorcerer may use the soul of a sterile woman or even a soul that has been captured by a magical process and is enslaved. In any case, the soul must be stored in a bottle or jar and then the Bokor can either use it or sell it.
Whether myth or reality, zombies inspire an intense fear among the peasant Haitian population. The terror that is engendered by zombies is not the fear that they can be evil, but the fear that one might become one of them. In Haiti, a country that has known a long period of slavery with the Spanish and French colonizations until their independence in 1804, the fear of becoming enslaved has remained a part of their collective consciousness. The fear of being changed into a slave for the rest of one's life is a fear of being constrained to live without individuality, will, and conscience.
Ackermann, Hans W., and Jeanine Gauthier. "The Ways and Nature of the Zombi." Journal of American Folklore 104 (1991):466–494.
Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.