An awful lot of ink -- and even quite a bit of fake movie blood -- has been spilled lately over the so-called "Zombie Apocalypse." It now seems clear that Zombies have firmly displaced vampires as this season's go-to monster. All of the breathless prophesying about the coming reign of a corps of flesh-eating fiends -- made all the more insistent by the disturbing real life account of a recent face-eating lunatic in Miami whose cheeky behavior was partially recorded on video -- might strike the teens whose viral behavior is helping this legend feverishly spiral into prominence as new and noteworthy. (Most of their parents are no doubt bemused, probably exchanging knowing smiles as they recall their own flirtation with the phenomenon's previous big wave, unleashed by George Romero's 1968 uber-zombie flick Night of the Living Dead. Zombies seemed a lot scarier when Nixon was in the White House. But never mind.)
As the current wave of crusty cretins crests, it might be instructive for the young at heart who enjoy being terrified by someone feasting on someone else's heart to check out the bizarre true story of a man named Clairvius Narcisse, who 50 years ago, on May 2, 1962, died and was buried and then -- to the astonishment of those who knew him -- rose from the grave to become perhaps the most notorious zombie in history.
Narcisse's story might sound familiar to those who've read 1985's non-fiction classic The Serpent and the Rainbow. The book, by Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis, was very loosely adapted into the 1988 Wes Craven film of the same name. Narcisse is at the heart of Davis's detective story, in which he explores firsthand the weird and worrisome world of Haiti's voodoo rituals. The book is really a record of Davis's attempts to reconcile science, mysticism, and arcane folk tradition, focusing on the case of Narcisse, who had been declared dead by Haitian medical officials only to turn up in his village several years later, alive -- though much, much worse for the wear.
As I detail in my recent book, Now A Terrifying Motion Picture: Twenty-Five Classic Works of Horror, Adapted from Book to Film, Davis uncovers a system of Haitian justice that operates in secret and appears to deal with certain "undesirables" by sentencing them to zombification. What this means is that these individuals who have violated the norms of their tribal communities are "sold" to a voodoo priest or priestess, who arranges to have them dusted with a neuro-toxic powder that creates a catatonic, death-like state after it is ingested or absorbed through the skin. Once they have been "marked" for selection by the voodoo practitioner, they become a pariah in their community, and as a result of their impending "death" the rest of the village wants them removed as quickly as possible so as not to anger the spirit world. The victim is buried immediately after the pronouncement of actual death by the medical establishment (Narcisse's sister identified his apparently lifeless body and placed her fingerprint on the death certificate by way of assent). But not being dead, actually, creates a real problem for the victim. In most cases of zombification the "resurrected" person is dug up by kidnappers at his gravesite, drugged again, and sold into indentured servitude in the hinterlands of rural Haiti, forced to live as a slave and a social pariah. Occasionally, these "zombies" escape and return to their villages, where they are greeted like the living dead -- with violent scorn and great trepidation.
This is exactly what happened to Narcisse, and if Davis is to be believed, he's not the only such victim of ritual, retaliatory zombification. Though some critics question whether Davis might have overplayed some of the events in his book for dramatic purposes, the whole of his account stands up as a testament of a horrifyingly creepy way of maintaining social order in the shadowy sub-strata of voodoo and black magic.
So as word of the "Zombie Apocalypse" spreads throughout cyberspace and spasms of faux fear grip the nation's goth underbelly, it's not that silly phrase that should be in people's minds but rather that overused chestnut "Truth is stranger than fiction." The case of Clairvius Narcisse is an example that breathes life -- more or less -- into that moribund cliché.
James F. Broderick is an associate professor of English and journalism at New Jersey City University in Jersey City and author of Now a Terrifying Motion Picture!: Twenty-Five Classic Works of Horror Adapted from Book to Film. He lives in Glen Ridge, New Jersey.