The man that Wade Davis was to meet in Haiti has a scar on the right side of his cheek. The man told Davis it was made by the nail in his coffin.
The man told Davis he was a zombie.
"Once you accept that it could happen," says Davis, "once you're cracking your disbelief, then you start asking much more provocative and much more interesting questions: Why is it going on? And how could it be going on?"
Wade Davis, a 32-year-old ethnobotanist, didn't go to Haiti to find zombies. Clairvius Narcisse, the man with the scar, had already been found by much of the world -- a Haitian psychiatrist, journalists, the man's own family (who would just as soon have not found him).
Davis went to find the mysterious "zombie" poison and came back with the substance. But he also got a glimpse of a voodoo religion far removed from the zombie-genre movie image of reawakened dead men roaming the countryside in a catatonic state. He spells it vodoun in the book "to draw a distinction from pins and needles and dolls."
"You can't imagine how the word 'zombie' has been co-opted," says Davis, "not just by popular western society but by academics . . . This is a completely legitimate religion and any of our inclinations to put it down are really unjust."
However, just as Davis' book, "The Serpent and the Rainbow," is coming out in stores, a zombie renaissance of sorts appears to be under way. No lesser bellwethers of social trends than "Miami Vice" and Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" have taken up the topic. In Trudeau's cartoon strip last week Duke was pronounced dead in Haiti and memorialized only to awaken this week to the blackness of his coffin with the thought, "This has got to be the worst hangover of my entire life."
"I know he's read the book, and I hear he likes it," Davis says of Trudeau. Davis recently taped an appearance on the "Today" show and, afterwards, host Jane Pauley, who is married to Trudeau, told Davis that her husband enjoyed the book. "In fact, I think he liked it too much," she quipped, according to Davis.
"I think it's absolutely wonderful, hilarious," Davis says. "I'm waiting with bated breath to see if Duke rises."
The book's title comes from the images conjured up by the Saut d'Eau waterfall, a sacred voodoo pilgrimage site in Haiti: the serpent, father of the falling waters, and rainbow, his wife. It has been optioned by a film company.
"I sold to the people I thought were the most serious," says Davis, "and more importantly I think if they were just going to make another tacky zombie movie they wouldn't have bothered to pay money to the rights of this book."
Davis, who earned his undergraduate degree in anthropology from Harvard and has been working on his PhD there, was in Washington several weeks ago to talk about his book and back again Wednesday, giving interviews and speaking to students at Howard University in the afternoon.
He is tall and rangy with tousled blond hair, a Canadian by birth, a child of the '60s -- his book is dedicated to John Lennon -- who managed to find something as unyuppie to do as ethnobotany, a hybrid of anthropology and botany.
"I'm extremely curious," says Davis. "And I love people and I love the way people live on the planet and I love the planet itself and I love the way the plants and animals grow on the planet. I want to continue to explore things and I want to see everything I possibly can."
In 1982, Davis made three trips to Haiti (ranging in length from five days to six weeks) with the backing of pioneer psychopharmacologist Nathan Kline and Kline's friend, David Merrick, the theatrical producer. In 1984, after Kline had died and Merrick had suffered a stroke, Davis returned for four months, this time backed by an advance from his publisher, Simon and Schuster.
On his first night in Haiti, he says he saw women possessed by spirits hold hot coals in their mouths -- a voodoo ceremony for tourists held every night at the home of Max Beauvoir, a Haitian intellectual and a voodoo priest. Beauvoir and his teen-age daughter, Rachel, would become valuable guides and companions to Davis.
The next day, Davis set out in search of Marcel Pierre, a voodoo priest of questionable reputation who had supplied the BBC with a sample of the reputed "zombie" poison. It had long been speculated that a poison was responsible for the deathlike state of so-called zombies. The black ethnographer, Zora Neale Hurston -- whom Davis calls the "unsung hero" of this field of research -- had written in the late '30s that a poison caused zombie states.
Davis found Marcel Pierre at the Eagle Bar, the sleepy little bar he owned, which had tiny back rooms for men to go with their prostitutes.
For a fee, Pierre whipped up some poison for Davis: "I left . . . certain that he knew how to make the zombie poison," Davis wrote. "I was equally convinced that what he had made me was worthless."
It was, and several weeks later, accompanied by Beauvoir, Davis confronted Pierre and called him a charlatan. Furious at the affront, Pierre produced a jar of another powder, which Davis pretended to sprinkle on his hand. Pierre, stunned, told him he was a dead man. (The poison acts topically.)
"You have to remember that I had absolutely no bias when I went down there," says Davis. "I didn't know anything about Africa. I had worked all my life with Amer-Indians. I knew nothing about Haiti and I had no value judgments."
Within a few days, Davis says Pierre agreed to let him watch the preparation of the real poison. The ingredients seemed lifted out a tale about witches' brew: two freshly killed lizards, the carcass of a large toad, and a puffer fish -- all roasted to an oily consistency -- several plants, the ground tip of a human tibia, and human bones grilled until they were charcoaled.
Davis was not fazed. "Nothing could do that to me, I don't think," he says. "I just don't think it's that weird . . . It's not that I don't notice. I just don't pass judgment. I wouldn't judge a Catholic priest who tells me the wafer is the body of Christ."
Eventually, Davis was able to obtain other poison samples from other voodoo priests. What they all had in common was the puffer fish -- which contains tetradotoxin, one of the most toxic substances known in nature. The genius of the sorcerers, Davis says, is finding the exact dosage that will paralyze but not kill.
The human bones were just for show.
"But from their point of view," Davis says of voodoo bokors or sorcerers, "the human bones are the most potent. They say the fish is the most impotent."
Davis suggests that voodoo sorcerers don't really think they are poisoning their victims. "I think they probably see this poison as a support for what is essentially a magical belief," he says. "In a funny kind of way it does." A Haitian, Davis says, "is not made a zombie by a poison. He's made a zombie by a bokor capturing his soul."
Davis also found evidence that part of the so-called raising ceremony he heard about -- but never witnessed -- included the administration of a dose of a natural hallucinogen called datura. If the experience of being buried alive didn't traumatize you for life, the datura would certainly contribute confusion and disorientation for a while longer.
"I don't think you'd probably need datura to persuade me that I was crazy or that someone had control over me," says Davis.
What made the case of Clairvius Narcisse seem credible, Davis writes, was that he was pronounced dead at an American-directed philanthropic institution called the Albert Schweitzer Hospital. He was admitted, he complained of fever and body aches. According to Davis, Narcisse died two days later, May 2, 1962. His body was placed in cold storage and the next day buried.
In 1980, a man calling himself Clairvius Narcisse found one of his sisters and introduced himself by a nickname only intimate family members knew.
He said he remembered family members crying over him at his deathbed and being summoned from his grave by the sound of his name and singing and drumming. Once pulled out of the ground, he says, he was beaten, bound, and led away by men who took him to a sugar plantation where he was forced to work as a slave.
Eventually Narcisse found refuge in the Port-au-Prince clinic of a Western-trained Haitian psychiatrist, Lamarque Douyon, who has long been interested in the zombie phenomenon.
"Just being buried alive is a universal horror," says Davis, " . . . but in Haiti, the critical thing is that the belief system is such that . . . Narcisse can't say, 'I've just gotten a poison.' He believes that someone has taken his soul."
Can a person be mistaken for dead?
"I think it's impossible with careful medical analysis to be fooled," says David Perry, a George Washington University neuropharmacologist. "You can't slow a person down beyond a certain point, because then they are dead."
"It's hard to imagine if someone looked closely that they wouldn't be able to document the presence of life," says Dr. Robert Silverman, chief of the diabetes program within the division of diabetes, endocrinology and metabolic diseases at the National Institutes of Health. "The heart's got to beat, there's got to be some brain wave activity . . . and there has to be some blood flow. It's hard to believe that anyone in a modern hospital wouldn't be able to make that distinction between life and death."
But, notes Silverman, sophisticated tests to determine the presence of life are no good unless you actually use them -- and conceivably, a physician might not.
Tetradotoxin suppresses the entire autonomic nervous system, which controls basic body functions, Perry says. "It's a very terrifying feeling if you're conscious, because you can't move," he says.
And under the conditions of a substantially slowed down system, your body doesn't need much. "You certainly don't need much oxygen," Perry says.
But as for the zombification process, Perry concludes, "It's a pretty big stretch of the imagination but it's not out of the realm of possibility."
Who controls the process? Davis speculates it is the work of the mysterious secret societies of Haiti, which trace their roots to the successful rebel slave organizations of the 18th century.
These societies serve as extrajudicial tribunals, Davis hypothesizes, sitting in judgment on members of the community. For instance, at the time of his "death," Narcisse was notorious for disputes with family members and others.
Davis says he was allowed access to a society ceremony. "The societies have been completely clandestine. The public face of the societies was always one of extreme evil . . . The only time I was scared was before I went to the secret society ceremony."
In actuality, Davis believes, zombification is "extremely rare. I don't know to what extent it goes on." And he believes the zombie poison is often not used to poison people but simply used in symbolic but not deadly ways -- like sprinkling it on the ground.
"I'm not posing as a Haitian ethnographer," Davis says. "To really test some of these ideas, someone's going to have to go into one of those villages and spend eight months or a year and really see very quietly how (a secret society) affects behavior -- whether it's symbolic or really has an executive function."
In the end, he's more folklorist than scientist. "I would hope this book would force people to take another look at African culture, the richness of it, and certainly curb all our sensational notions of what voodoo is and the fear of voodoo," he says.
Today, Clairvius Narcisse lives in a Protestant mission away from his home village. "Everyone from the National Enquirer to me has gone down there to see him," says Davis. Narcisse is pictured on the cover of this month's Harvard Magazine.
Davis reports that Narcisse has seen a voodoo priest and now considers himself treated.
He just lives a normal life," says Davis.