Monster Sunday 6: Zombies Redux

A few months ago, I read a story about voodoo, zombies, and puffer fish in a magazine. I am not sure what magazine it was, because we subscribe to and buy single issues of a lot of science-related rags at my house. But a Google search showed that this, like Zombie Jesus, is not a rare topic. I’m out of town this weekend and I don’t have time to write up a thorough post on voodoo zombies, but here are some links to check out. Enjoy!

Two interesting posts from Neurophilosophy at

In Haiti, zombification is a punishment for severe crimes. Coupe poudre is the powder used by a bokur to induce zombification. The active ingredient of coupe poudre is tetradotoxin (TTX), produced in the liver and ovaries of some species of puffer fish (e.g. Fugu rubripes). TTX is a neurotoxin 500 times more potent than cyanide. It acts by blocking the sodium ion channels which enable nerve and heart cells to produce electrical impulses. In miniscule doses TTX causes a near-death state in which metabolic functions are depressed, so that breathing and pulse rate are undetectable. Total paralysis follows, although the brain and senses remain intact. The victim is thought to be dead and is buried alive.

A few days after being buried, the ‘zombie’ is disinterred and given another powder containing atropine and scopolamine. These are toxic and hallucinogenic compounds from the plants Datura metel and Datura stramonium (both known as the ‘zombie cucumber’). This powder, when administered, puts the victim into a permanent state of delirium and disorientation in which they experience delusions and hallucinations. He or she can then be made to do menial work for those against which the crime was committed.

From Jennifer Ouellette at Cocktail Party Physics: 

One day in 1980, a man claiming to be called Clairvius Narcisse showed up in a rural Haitian village. This came as something of a surprise to the villagers, since Narcisse had supposedly died in 1962, and was subsequently buried. The new arrival claiming to be Narcisse said he’d been turned into a zombie after his “death,” forced with other zombie slaves to work on a sugar plantation at the behest of his “master,” a voodoo priest. He claimed his own brother had put the plan in motion, since the two had quarreled over land ownership. The brother had since died, so the sudden reappearance of Narcisse to claim the inheritance raised a few suspicions, to say the least. Yet the newcomer knew certain facts of the dead man’s life that only Narcisse himself, it seemed, could have known. He claimed he’d been drugged into submission, and when the master died, and the drugs wore off, he regained his memory and sanity.

From the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (with bonus info on ghosts and vampires):

The zombie legends portrayed in movies such as Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later follow a similar pattern to the vampire legends. Once you are bitten by zombies, while you may manage to escape immediate death, you will eventually die and turn into a zombie, yourself. Thus, this particular type of zombie legend suffers the same flaw that we previously pointed out for the vampire legend. We still have some more work to do, however. There exists a second sort of zombie legend that pops its head up throughout the western hemisphere—the legend of “voodoo zombiefication.” This myth is somewhat different from the one just described, in that zombies do not multiply by feeding on humans but come about by a voodoo hex being placed by a sorcerer on one of his enemies. The myth presents an additional problem for us: one can witness for himself very convincing examples of zombiefication by traveling to Haiti or any number of other regions in the world where voodoo is practiced.

And a few more links for your Sunday entertainment:



Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. The first account is a somewhat jumbled account of Wade Davis hypothesis as explained in his book The Serpent and the Rainbox.

    Note that for a science blog it’s really not too accurate. It’s tetrodotoxin, not “tetra”. (It has nothing to do with “four”.) And it’s not hard to be a more potent neurotoxin than cyanide. Cyanide is not a neurotoxin at all, it binds to hemoglobin and blocks oxygen transport.

    I don’t read that particular blog: is the poster claiming to be a scientist?

  2. Er, the first account is a somewhat jumbled VERSION of …

    When you use the name “nitpicking” you feel obligated to nitpick your own postings.

  3. Dammit. And it’s Wade “Davis’s” account, and I mean meant “Rainbow”, not “Rainbox”. I wish this software let me edit my own postings.

  4. Cyanide does not bind to hemoglobin.

    From Wikipedia

    Cyanide is an inhibitor of the enzyme cytochrome c oxidase (also known as aa3) in the fourth complex of the electron transport chain (found in the membrane of the mitochondria of eukaryotic cells.) It attaches to the iron within this protein. The binding of cyanide to this cytochrome prevents transport of electrons from cytochrome c oxidase to oxygen. As a result, the electron transport chain is disrupted, meaning that the cell can no longer aerobically produce ATP for energy. Tissues that mainly depend on aerobic respiration, such as the central nervous system and the heart, are particularly affected.

  5. And Tetrodotoxin binds to the sodium gate on an axon, temporarily preventing the nerve from firing and possibly inducing a fugu buzz, paralysis, or death.

  6. Apparently I was thinking of carbon monoxide for some reason. However, I don’t claim to be a scientist!

    However, my point that CN is not a neurotoxin stands.

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