The Curious Case of Clairvius Narcisse, and Other Instances of Haitian “Zombies”

Written by Kat on Mar 12th 2012 | 17 Comments

A newspaper clipping of Clairvius Narcisse, showing him pointing to the grave where he had been buried.

Have you ever heard stories of strange things happening in Haiti?

Strange things…as in someone is buried, and they (some cemetery plot scavengers) unearth the body, bringing it back “to life” and using that person to slave off…in “zombie” form?

In 1981, Angelina Narcisse let out an attention-grabbing scream in an open market in the town of L’Estère. No, no one had grabbed her purse or anything. Just that her brother whom she had not, ahem, seen in a long time had approached her for some small talk. It would have been a most joyous reunion, except that, well, back in 1962 she and her whole family had buried this beloved brother.

Flashback to 1962! Clairvius Narcisse felt so sick that he checked himself into called Albert Schweitzer Hospital in the town of Deschapelles, miles away from his hometown. The doctors, one a doctor from the US, and the other trained in the US, diagnosed him with a combination of disorders including hypotension and pulmonary edema. Narcisse had a terrible fever, and was experiencing breathing problems, and would later say that he felt a strange sensation all over his body, something akin to bugs crawling all over his skin. Soon thereafter, he was pronounced dead by the doctors, and his sister Marie-Claire affixed her thumb print on the death certificate in lieu of signing.

Narcisse was buried. Throughout this, he (later) said, he could hear everything that was happening around him; he just couldn’t respond. He could hear his sister Angelina weeping at his bedside, and his whole funeral procession. He could feel the nail that went through his casket, and would later develop a scar on his forehead from it. A priest of the vodun religion, along with many others came to his grave site, took his body out of coffin, and beat him profusely, then tied him up, and carried him miles away from his home.

He was taken somewhere where he joined semi-stupefied people like him, and worked day and night on a large farm. There he was given some kind of concoction everyday, so that he could never regain his common sense. Eventually though, one of his fellow “zombies” beat the captor with hoe, and they all escaped. Narcisse, who had been on the plantation for two years, learned at one point that his brother was the one who had gotten him poisoned over a property dispute, so after his escape he avoided his hometown—fearing his brother—though apparently he kept close contact with people would keep him informed of the happenings in his town. In the meantime, he wandered around near the vicinity of his home, as a mandyan (a (sometimes) homeless person who begs passers-by for food and change), until he learned that his brother had died.

The fact that Narcisse was indeed the Narcisse that had died years ago, was confirmed by Lamarque Douyon, a Haitian psychiatrist. Douyon formulated a questionnaire series and Narcisse answered them all correctly to the letter. Douyon also got about 200 witnesses including friends and family members to confirm his identity. What’s more, when Narcisse had initially approached his sister in the open air market, he had used a nickname for himself that the family had for him, in his early childhood that only they would have known.

Narcisse’s case attracted a great deal of international media, including New Scientist magazine and Time magazine which both wrote feature stories in 1983. The BBC sent a crew to Haiti in 1981 to produce a documentary on his case, and ABC also sent reporters. Harvard University even sent a young ethnobotanist by the name of Wade Davis to do some studies on Narcisse. Davis’s trips to Haiti would later yield two books, one of which was The Serpent and the Rainbow, (a bestseller in the USA), the basis for a movie of the same name that was released in 1988.

Davis has said in interviews as well as in his book, that Narcisse and people like Narcisse, are somehow injected with a toxin that gives them the appearance of being dead–to the point where even the most competent medical professionals would declare them dead. After their burial, they are usually beaten (guess somehow the beating reverses the power of the toxin?), and/or then given an antidote. The toxin is reportedly made from a toad, the sapo fish, a poisonous fish in Haiti (also found in Japan, and interestingly enough is a delicacy…minus the poison), parts of human bones and skin, and poisonous plants.

Cases like that of Narcisse have been repeated over and over in Haiti, most recently that of a man name Adelin Seide in Fort Liberté. Adner had gone to a party with friends, and drunk some kleren, and felt some stomach pangs. He died that same night, and was buried. His father discovered men carrying away his body in the middle of the night, and upon seeing him, they fled, and left the body on the road.

In 2008, after a long illness, Eunide Lazare, a young woman was buried in a cemetery in Turgeau, a suburb near Port-au-Prince, only to be spotted by her family a few months later in Pétionville, her face and body in a deplorable state.

When Zora Neale Hurston visited Haiti in the 1930s, the book Tell My Horse, which she would eventually write about her journey, would include stories of a woman she had met who had been a “zombi” for 29 years.

In the late 1970s, a woman named Francina Illeus (spelled Ileus as well) was declared dead. Three years later, Illeus (nicknamed Ti Fanm) was found alive and wandering. Her mother recognized her by identifying a scar on her forehead. When her grave was dug, they found rocks in the coffin. The family said that a jealous husband had done Ti Fanm “in”.

In the book Roaming Through the West Indies, written in the 1920s, the author recounts how a young girl was buried, and years later came roaming to her family, by which time she had had three kids.

Recently, I overheard this story from this guy, concerning a man in his hometown in Haiti who had been in an auto accident. He had mild injuries and from the accident site, he was taken to the morgue. At the morgue, he whispered to the morgue owners that, “Mesye yo mwen pa mouri non”—Yo, guys, I ain’t dead. The morgue workers took a knife (hey I’m just relating a story here), and killed him. There is no way they were going to lose that funeral money! Now, when his family saw the body, and noticed the knife marks, they realized that he had still been alive when he was taken at the site of the accident.

I’ve heard other people relating similar stories. In another instance, this lady told my mother about this woman who had been “toudi” (er put in a comatose state), but at the morgue she woke up (apparently the poison wore off too early) and started talking at intervals. Not sure as to what the end story was on that one.

These are all curious cases indeed, but not so curious perhaps. Person gets slipped poisonous concoction. Declared dead, but in reality still alive. Family buries person. People who poisoned person arrive at grave, slip antidote, wakes person; takes person away.

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17 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Clairvius Narcisse, and Other Instances of Haitian “Zombies””

  1. “These are all curious cases indeed, but not so curious perhaps. Person gets slipped poisonous concoction. Declared dead, but in reality still alive. Family buries person. People who poisoned person arrive at grave, slip antidote, wakes person; takes person away.” I like your blog but when you write stuff like that I wonder how seriously you take your mission to inform and educate your readers. Haitians don’t bury their dead in a casual manner. They spend several days mourning the dead before burying them. Most funerals take place in the morning or afternoon and the bodies aren’t dug up until late at night, where would the “zombie” find the oxygen to keep his brain cells alive? I found Jacques Nicholas Leger’s arguments on this matter persuasive. You ought to read his pamphlet: “Haiti Her History and her detractors” there is a free copy of it on the internet. You mentioned Wade Davis’s
    claims but you failed to report that no other scientist has been able to duplicate his experiments. The Hurston story is my favorite: “In the book Roaming Through the West Indies, written in the 1920s, the author recounts how a young girl was buried, and years later came roaming to her family, by which time she had had three kids.” Apparently one can lead a full and productive life in that state. I’m baffled by the fact that Mr. Narcisse could remember what happened to him and why but waited until his brother died before making his presence known to his family. Why didn’t he have his brother and the guy who turned him into a “zombie” arrested. Did Mr. Narcisse at least identify the “zombie” maker? You ought to write something on zombies as Haitians see them and how Hollywood depicts them.

    1. In tetrodotoxin poisoning (pufferfish) a man can be in paralyzed state for 8 hours before death or recovering. So it’s quite possible to create a mixture that keeps someone in this coma-like state even for days, then after the funeral he can be stolen and then kept in slavery with mind-altering hallucinogens.

      1. Captain Fugu, I didn’t question tetrodotoxin poisoning’s efficacy. My question was how do you prevent brain death after more than 3 minutes without oxygen. Based on what I’ve read, brain death can be pushed past the 3 minutes barrier by drastically reducing the body temperature, thereby putting the body in suspended animation. In the heat and humidity of Haiti how is that achieved? If bokors could do this and Davis had found a way to pry that secret from them he would have gotten a Nobel prize in medicine for his theft of that knowledge. Why do we not hear of seemingly dead zombies waking up during the mourning period, are bokors able to figure out to the last minute how long the mourning period will last? How about apprentice bokors, don’t they make mistakes while learning the trade? Has Wade Davis come up with incontrovertible proof to silence his critics after the lapse of two decades? In my original post on this matter I misspelled The middle name of Mr. Leger it is Nicolas not “Nicholas”

        1. Gro Jo, again, I don’t feel like you read this article thoroughly, or that you’ve read others on this story.
          Tetrodotoxin,, basically suspends your body functions. That’s why people are PRONOUNCED dead, it makes the body’s functions so slow, they’re barely noticeable, so it’s feasible that if someone took one or two breaths every hour, they could survive in a coffin for some time. And yes, obviously apprentices have made mistakes, I’d be shocked if they didn’t. The author even said that there was a case of a man being carried away from his grave, but the father saw the men carrying the son, so the perpurtrators fled. Pretty sure that’s a big mistake. In the plantation case, it is said some never regained sanity as they DID receive some brain damage after being buried(as they came out of the state sooner, I’m assuming). The biggest ‘cure’ they have for these ‘zombis’ is a dose of specific alkaloids, or something of the sort. So, depending on the amount of brain damage, if there’s little to none the person probably COULD leave a full life. I’d say, slightly less than a coma-recovery patient(of whom, many many go back to normal). Mentally-handicapped people have kids, in fact I met a women who was pretty blind, and had an obvious brain defect, with her husband who was partially deaf and a bit more handicapped than his wife, with a seemingly normal child. Her brother even was blind too, trust me, these things aren’t unheard of, and it’s no where near impossible.
          You wanted the author to talk more about Haitian culture. Well, from what I’ve read about Haitian culture regarding zombies is that that is a PUNISHMENT, and zombies will basically be shamed and cast out of their community, whether it’s because their a zombie, or their past offenses to the community. So 1, going to the cops saying “hey I’m a zombie, can you arrest my brother?” would probably lead to loads of laughter, 2, if they did believe him, he’d probably be cast out and said that no help could be given and 3(unlikely) but what if his brother was a powerful man and perhaps new the cops or was one himself? that would be very bad and dangerous.

          1. Annie, did you read the following paragraph from the wikipedia article you referred to in your comment?
            “TTX is roughly 100 times more poisonous than potassium cyanide.[23] Fish poisoning by consumption of members of the order Tetraodontiformes is extremely serious. The organs (e.g. liver) of the pufferfish can contain levels of tetrodotoxin sufficient to produce paralysis of the diaphragm and, through this mechanism, death due to respiratory failure.[24] Toxicity varies between species and at different seasons and geographic localities, and the flesh of many pufferfish may not be dangerously toxic. It is not always fatal; but at near-lethal doses, it can leave a person in a state of near-death for several days, while the person remains conscious. For this reason, TTX has been alleged an ingredient in Haitian Vodou and the closest approximation of zombieism, an idea popularized by Harvard-trained ethnobotanist Wade Davis in a 1983 paper, and in his 1985 book, The Serpent and the Rainbow. This idea was dismissed by the scientific community in the 1980s, as the descriptions of voodoo zombies do not match the symptoms displayed by victims of tetrodotoxin poisoning, and the alleged incidents of zombies created in this manner could not be substantiated.[25]” Wade Davis hasn’t substantiated his claims after a lapse of 29 years, what’s taking him so long? I did not deny that a woman who is brain dead could give birth, what I contest is the notion that she could be a mother ( a care giver) to her children while in that state. The Adelin Seide claim is interesting, unfortunately all the people interviewed were believers. His father claims that the perpetrators who dug up his son shot at him. The investigators and reporters would have been more convincing if they had recovered the bullets fired. How did the father know that his son wasn’t really dead? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence as Carl Sagan used to say. There are too many could in your argument for me to find it convincing.

        2. mr jo, please do not try to be silly…tetrodotoxin slows down the breathing rate(that’s why the victim does not move) the heart rate which will obviously slow down the rate at which blood is pumped. you see, when we feel a pulse it is actually the pressure of the blood moving through the vessel. The pressure will be unnoticeable! One more thing, if you want to know more about the haitian culture please google it like you did this article…and i’m guessing the antidote would be adrenaline, which narrows the vessels and opens airways…than again i’m just a 14yr old.

          1. I thought this was a great article and am walking away with more knowledge than I came with. Nathan lol 14 years old really? I *hope* you plan to be a doctor when you grow up if you aren’t already. =]

  2. I saw “The Serpent and the Rainbow” as a kid and it scared the life out of me. That movie used to give me nightmares and I didn’t even realize at the time that it was based on real events.

  3. I have no idea why I can’t turn caps lock off on this website….. anyways, i’m more concerned about the lady who hadn’t seen her daughter in only 3 years and needed to identify a scar on her to recognize. how are you not able to identify your own child without recognizing a scar… only 3 years after you last saw her? most people can recognize their own kids a decade later without needing to see a scar or any other proof.

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