In 1988, horror movie legend Wes Craven brought THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW to the big screen. It is the story of Anthropologist, Dennis Alan, who travels to Haiti to seek out a drug used in voodoo rituals to turn men into zombies. Once in Haiti, he finds a man called Christophe who had mysteriously died, only to return days after being buried. The story line comes from the book of the same name by ethnobotanist Wade Davis who traveled to Haiti to research the real case of Clairvius Narcisse, a supposedly real zombie.
Feeling under the weather, Clairvius checked into a local hospital way back in 1962. Upon arrival, Clairvius began experiencing a host of ailments including a fever, trouble breathing, and what he claimed were bugs crawling all over his skin. It wasn’t too long after that doctors pronounced him dead. Clairvius was buried a few days later. Everyone would have thought that to be the end of the story, until one day in 1981 when Angelina Narcisse, Clairvius’ sister, saw him walking down the street. A bizarre task considering not one, but two American doctors had declared him dead back in 1962.
Wade Davis’ real journey through Haiti introduced him to a type of black magic priest called a bucor. These bucors are said to possess the unique power of bringing the dead back as zombie slaves. In Clairvius’ case, it was believed that a bucor placed him into a trance that fooled doctors into believing that he was dead. Once buried, the bucor dug up his body and sold him to a sugar plantation as zombie slave labor.
Through his research, Davis believed that Clairvius was given tetrodotoxin powder through an abrasion on his skin. This powerful toxin from the pufferfish would have sent Clairvius into a comatose state which would have fooled doctors into believing he was dead.
In addition to the pufferfish toxin, Davis also found that Datura, a powerful hallucinogen (along with ground up human bone), were also common ingredients in zombie powder. Davis concluded that tetrodotoxin was key in causing a victim’s initial death, but it was Datura which produced the amnesia and delirium which maintained them as zombies for decades.
This real life story became the basis for Wes Craven’s magnificent voodoo movie.