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Clairvius Narcisse and His Haitian Zombie Experience

by Les Hewitt

The late George Romero did more than most to bring the Zombie into mainstream pop culture. Night of the Living Dead emerged in the late 1960s and transformed the zombie into the iconic film and television monster that viewers know all about today. Is it possible that George Romero was influenced by events in 1962? Ask Clairvius Narcisse.

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Narcisse at the site where he was buried in may 1962 in Haiti.

Who Was Clairvius Narcisse?

On April 30, 1962, a man by the name of Clairvius Narcisse checked into the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti. He had a fever and complained of a sensation described as bugs crawling on his skin. The staff gave him a room at the hospital when his condition quickly deteriorated. Two days later, doctors pronounced him dead. An official death certificate confirmed the end of his life. His immediate family held a funeral and interred the body at the local cemetery in L’Estere. They sealed the coffin with nails and buried him in a traditional manner. For most people, death is the end. Ask Clairvius Narcisse.

The Resurrection

At some point after his funeral, someone disturbed Narcisse’s grave. During the night, a Bokor, or Haitian voodoo sorcerer, dug him up and removed him. Narcisse was beaten, bound, and forced to drink a potion before being taken to a sugar plantation. Once there, he encountered others in a state similar to his own. Narcisse had to work in the fields, and the Bokor constantly gave him additional injections of the same potion to maintain his zombie-like state of mind. For the next two years, Narcisse remained on the plantation until the Bokor that recruited him died. Even though he was now nothing more than a lifeless husk, Narcisse took this chance to wander off unseen. Eighteen years afterward, Narcisse returned to his home village where he sought out his sister.

Angelina was in a village market when Clairvius approached and identified himself. As proof of his claim that he was her brother, he added a childhood nickname that only the two of them were aware of. Understandably Angelina was shocked to her very core, but she did assist in an investigation with help from the rest of the family. This investigation showed that Narcisse was who he appeared to be. He really was Angelina’s brother.

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Narcisse with his large family in the native village of Ester. A scar on his right cheek shows where a nail had hit him while being buried.

The Zombie Story

Narcisse’s story made for some sensational headlines. Everything that happened to him from the moments prior to admitting himself to the hospital, to tracking down his sister almost two decades later was all done while he was conscious in a near vegetative state. Narcisse could fully recall the doctors declaring him dead and being buried alive. He also claimed to be conscious when the Bokor dug him up shortly afterward. The memory of his two years as a slave still haunted him, and he remembered working the plantation every waking moment from dawn to dusk. This very long day was only interrupted once for a quick meal break.

According to Narcisse, conditions proved too much for one of the other workers, who took matters into his own hands by killing their Bokor overlord. Now that their thraldom came to an end, the remaining ‘zombies’ took this chance to escape the plantation. Narcisse also explained his reasoning for not finding his way back home sooner. He had quarreled with his brother prior to the day Narcisse became ill, and he outright blamed his brother for what happened to him and only returned once the brother had passed away.

Nzombi Religion From Africa to Haiti

The belief in the Zombie religion goes back hundreds of year in Haiti, even longer in Africa. The anglicized term Zombie comes from Nzombi – meaning ‘spirit of a dead person’. It is easy to see how and why zombies have become a staple of horror fiction down the years. When plantation owners plundered Africa for slaves, they brought over more than just able bodies from the African continent. Many of their religious and personal beliefs made the voyage as well. The religious practices continued in Haiti and grew into the much-feared and misunderstood Voodoo religion. Unfortunately, as with Wicca, some people use this culture for their own ends.

In 1804, a revolution took place in Haiti which drove the French out of the country. Even though slavery officially came to an end, it really didn’t. Bokor priests took on a much more active role in Haitian culture. Despite the revolution, there is still a heavy French influence in Haiti even today. Perhaps the public face of Voodoo is a certain Baron Samedi; maybe exposure in Roger Moore’s initial outing as 007 in Live and Let Die can explain that.

What Really Happened to Narcisse?

Like virtually all Haitian people, Clairvius Narcisse was undoubtedly fully aware of the zombie legend. Part of this surrounds the admission of declaring oneself to be a zombie in the first place. Just to do so without authenticity would only end up in humiliation. Friends and family would disown anyone that would simply admit to being a zombie without proper proof to back up any assertion. For this reason alone, it is not likely that Narcisse would simply say that a Bokor transformed him into a zombie. No Haitian would. Could he have been mistaken instead?

Tetrodotoxin and Bufotoxin

When mixed together in certain quantities and in a certain manner, narcotics can easily simulate a death-like state that would sufficiently fool most people. Any such potion would have to be of extremely good quality to get past a medical professional. Researchers such as Wade Davis (more about him below) that have studied Narcisse’s claims believe that they have identified the ingredients used in the potion that could have placed him into a deep coma. Tetrodotoxin and Bufotoxin (puffer fish and toad) administered through an abrasion might have put Narcisse into a coma, while doses of Datura could have kept him there.

Bufotoxin has anesthetic properties while Tetrodotoxin can cause paralysis and is potent enough to simulate death itself. Put these two toxins together and supplement them with Datura Stramonium, a powerful and potentially toxic deliriant, and the cocktail might have robbed Narcisse of 18 years of life.

The Line Between Truth and Fiction

Not everyone that has heard this well-documented report believes it. Those that don’t insist that other factors are at play. There is little doubt that the zombie religion and beliefs are powerful concepts for the Haitian populace. Skeptics say that these very beliefs may have had some kind of placebo effect and a callous power of suggestion that convinced Narcisse that he had his soul removed.

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Clairvius and Francina Illeus (aka Ti Femme) who was declared dead in February 1976. She too was back from the dead in Haiti in March, 1982.
Whether or not you believe Clairvius Narcisse was the victim of a Voodoo ritual, became an unwilling stooge in an underground criminal enterprise, or even simply lied on his part, the story he told us is quite a remarkable one and even inspired Wade Davis’ famous book and fictionalized movie, The Serpent and the Rainbow.

Wade Davis is an anthropologist and ethnobotanist from Canada. He authored The Serpent and the Rainbow, published in 1985, based on his research and theory about the ‘zombie powder’ that may have caused some Haitians to go into a trance-like state. Davis’ research involved the Voodoo culture and religion, the Haitian processes of making a ‘zombie’, and the potions (zombie powders) they used to bring on the initial death-state. He worked with Bokors to investigate substances they may have used to keep the ‘zombies’ mentally incapacitated for years. Although Davis’ work evoked criticism for various scientific reasons, he did provide a possible causation of Clairvius Narcisse’s experience.

A Basis for Zombies?

While it is scientific fact that symptoms of tetrodotoxin poisoning may include hypothermia, asystole (flatline) and a coma-like state that allows the victim full awareness, Davis’ claims that these toxins were administered by Bokor and resulted in zombified individuals in Haiti are not accepted by the scientific community today.

The man who became famous for being a zombie was born in 1922 and died in 1964. His curious case has been retold numerous times in the last five decades in the form of books, movies, and continuing posts on the Internet. And perhaps the story of Clairvius Narcisse also inspired George Romero who, in turn, spawned an entire pop culture craze dedicated to the cult of zombies.

You May Also Like to Read:
History of Zombies from Ancient Times to Pop Culture
Premature Burial: The Horror of Being Buried Alive

Stranger Dimensions
Oddly Historical
I, Science Magazine

Sites pulled: 30 July 2017

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