On Puffer Fish and Zombies

By Alli Lindquist

In 2013 I traveled to Haiti with one of my heroes: Dr. Baker. Known to us kids as just Walt, he had an air of wisdom and mystery. Living full-time in Haiti with his wife and kids for most of their lives, Walt knew the subtleties of the Haitian culture. As a sophomore in high school, the understanding and grace through which he composed his words were enthralling. One sticky night, sitting out on the front porch, Walt began telling us about Haitian vodou rituals. Describing one particularly harrowing encounter, Walt lowers his voice and begins telling us the story of how a bokor—a voodoo shaman—maintains control. If a member of the community fails the doctor in some way—perhaps in missing a payment or in executing a crime—one of the most vicious forms of punishment is to be turned into a zombie. Walt smiled slightly at our gaping mouths. The shaman would poison the unsuspecting soul with a mixture of various supposed ingredients: dried marine toad, hyla tree frog, human remains, and one or more species of puffer fish mixed with various plants and herbs.

Walt explained that upon ingestion, the subject would fall into a trance-like state, with all of their relatives thinking they had died. The paralyzed victim would be buried in a Haitian above-ground grave, only to be stolen by the witch doctor for their own uses. The zombie-state would was maintained through other sedative and hallucinogenic drugs made from Haitian-native plants (jimsonweed, devil’s trumpet, and the beach apple) until their debt had been repaid. Walt’s story was so interesting to me I think—even as a 16 year old— because it presented an equally scientific- and culturally-driven phenomenon. As interested as I was, I soon found out that this zombie powder has had much deeper implications than I had even realized.

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First was the epic controversy of Dr. Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist and anthropologist, who traveled to Haiti in the 1980s. Davis’ goal on his trip was to learn about the importance of traditional knowledge and customs in terms of psychoactive plants and their effects. This goal led him to the stories of a few “cured” zombies who spilled their stories to him. Davis went on to collect samples of zombie powder, the varied vodou knowledge of locals and a potential pharmacological effect for the zombie-like behavior: tetrodotoxin.

Textrodotoxin is not as unfamiliar as it might sound. In fact, the infamous daredevil Japanese dish fugu is a (miniscule!) source of this toxin as well. Meticulously trained chefs prepare the puffer fish meat to get rid of the poisonous bits—the liver, ovaries and intestines—and people chew on a delicacy said to numb the tongue and lips and even produce a euphoric effect. Interestingly, the poison is not actually produced by the fish itself, but by a strain of bacteria inside the puffer’s gut. This toxin can cross the blood brain barrier and affect the brain almost immediately after ingestion, often leading to severe reactions and even death. Its particular potency comes from the ability to bind to sodium channels in the brain, blocking neurons from firing, and causing issues with motor and cognitive function. It was this same toxin that was found by Davis and a few others in the zombie powder in Haiti, and Davis immediately latched onto this idea as the foundation of zombie manufacturing.

Davis’ book inspired the horror flick The Serpent and the Rainbow and various other pop-culture zombie portrayals, and his work was lauded as a fascinating addition to the world of science. However, shortly after this, his work began to fall under scrutiny. More researchers wanted to test these effects, and learn just how the witch doctors were able to poison their victims with just the right amount to render them inert, but not quite dead. The debate surrounding his work continues even to this day.

Most interesting to this story is the implications that this phenomenon has had for the Haitian culture. Even if there are alternate explanations for the zombie sightings and experiences, many people certainly do believe that zombies exist—which reinforces the work being done in vodou rituals. I hope that more research will be done in the future on the cultural and even religious impacts that the phenomenon zombie creation have had on Haitian cultures, most specifically whether or not tetrodotoxin is the drug behind their catalyst.

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The effects of this phenomenon have now extended even further than “The Walking Dead” or the bashing of anthropological fieldwork failures. Because of its powerful effect, tetrodotoxin-containing compounds are currently in preclinical trials for extended pain-relieving effects. It seems that adding some amounts of this toxin to anesthesia compounds have had success in palliative care situations, where prolonged pain relief is the main goal. The lowly puffer fish has had quite an impact on the brain, and culture, and even medicine. I, for one, will never mess with a vodou shaman—there’s no sense risking zombification.

Further Recommended Readings:

The Passage of Darkness and The Serpent and The Rainbow by Wade Davis

Kao, C.Y., and T. Yasumoto. 1986. Tetrodotoxin and the Haitian zombie. Toxicon, 24, 747–749.

Voodoo, Zombies & The Puffer Fish: https://neurophilosophy.wordpress.com/2006/05/24/voodoo-zombies-the-puffer-fish/

Zombie Project, Duke University: https://sites.duke.edu/ginalisgh323/zombie-project/

How Haitian Slave Culture Gave Life to Zombies: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-haitian-slave-culture-gave-life-to-zombies

Alli Lindquist is a Staff Writer from Colorado. She currently attends Hope College.

(Photos from Duke University’s Zombie Project)