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A zombie is an undead person in the Afro-Caribbean and Creole spiritual belief system of Vodou. These folkloric zombies are human bodies re-animated by supernatural means and shamanistic medicine to create dread among the living. Other more macabre versions of zombies have become a staple of modern horror fiction, where they usually engage in human cannibalism.

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Zombies in folklore

In the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed that the souls of the dead could return to earth and haunt the living. The belief in revenants (someone who has returned from the dead) are well documented by contemporary European writers of the time. According to the Encyclopedia of Things that Never Were, particularly in France during the Middle Ages, the revenant rises from the dead usually to avenge some crime committed against the entity, most likely a murder. The revenant usually took on the form of an emaciated corpse or skeletal human figure, and wandered around graveyards at night. The "draugr" of medieval Norse mythology were also believed to be the corpses of warriors returned from the dead to attack the living. The zombie appears in several other cultures worldwide, including China, Japan, the Pacific, India, and the Native Americans.

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Zombies in voodoo

According to the tenets of Vodou, a dead person can be revived by a bokor or mambo. Zombies remain under the control of the bokor or mambo since they have no will of their own. "Zombi" is also the name of the voodoo snake god of Niger-Congo origin; it is akin to the Kongo word nzambi, which means "god."

In 1937, while researching folklore in Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston encountered the case of Felicia Felix-Mentor, who had died and been buried in 1907 at the age of 29. Villagers believed they saw Felicia wandering the streets in a daze thirty years after her death, as well as claiming the same with several other people. Hurston pursued rumours that the affected persons were given powerful drugs, but she was unable to locate individuals willing to offer much information. She wrote:

"What is more, if science ever gets to the bottom of Voodoo in Haiti and Africa, it will be found that some important medical secrets, still unknown to medical science, give it its power, rather than gestures of ceremony." [1]

Several decades later, Wade Davis, a Canadian ethnobotanist, presented a pharmacological case for zombies in two books - The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988). Davis travelled to Haiti in 1982 and, as a result of his investigations, claimed that a living person can be turned into a zombie by the ingestion of two special powders. The first, coup de poudre (French: 'powder strike'), induced a 'death-like' state because of tetrodotoxin (TTX), its key ingredient. Tetrodotoxin is the same lethal toxin found in the Japanese delicacy fugu, or pufferfish. At near-lethal doses (LD50 of 1mg), it can leave a person in a state of near-death for several days, while the person continues to be conscious. The second powder, dissociative hallucinogens, put the person in a zombie-like state where they seem to have no will of their own. Davis also popularized the story of Clairvius Narcisse, who was claimed to have succumbed to this practice. There remains considerable skepticism about Davis's claims, and opinions remain divided as to the veracity of his work.

Others have discussed the contribution of the victim's own belief-system, possibly leading to compliance with the attacker's will, causing quasi-hysterical amnesia, catatonia, or other psychological disorders, which are later misinterpreted as a return from the dead. Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing further highlighted the link between social and cultural expectations and compulsion, in the context of schizophrenia and other mental illness, suggesting that schizogenesis may account for some of the psychological aspects of zombification.
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