Hamilton Morris, a pioneering young pharmacologist, has hacked through the Amazon looking for ayahuasca and hunkered down in a missile silo with an LSD kingpin; one of his most recent adventures involved death.
He traveled deep into the Haitian countryside in search of the elusive drugs capable of turning people into zombies. “The first thing to do when you want to know about zombies is put aside all preconceived notions,” says legendary anthropologist Wade Davis at the beginning of Morris’ riveting film Nzambi. Digital Dying recently sat down with Morris at a lively Brooklyn café to discuss the undead.
Is the idea of death different in Haiti?
It is almost like a Philip K. Dick idea, to be dead and not know it, or be alive and actually be dead. It is unclear how often zombification happens, and it is unclear how it is perceived by the people who actually go through the ordeal. There have been scientifically verified cases. When Clairvius Narcissus was being poisoned and turned into a zombie, he was completely conscious. He was nailed into a coffin and buried alive, one nail pierced his cheek and it left a wound, which he was proud of showing to people later. Despite the fact he was completely conscious he still truly thought he had died. When he was resurrected he truly thought he had been resurrected.
How do American zombies differ from Haitian zombies?
There’s a lot of confusion between the American interpretation of why a zombie is scary and the Haitian interpretation. Americans are afraid of being attacked by zombies and having them eat their brains or claw them to death, but Haitians are afraid of becoming zombies, not of zombies themselves. If you become a zombie you lose your life force, your ability to work. But almost the opposite is true in terms of slave beliefs, which is where the idea of a zombie originally comes from; zombie slaves were put to work. So it seems like a contradiction but there is definitely an evolution in the way the zombie behaves. For example, they say that zombies now use computers.
You interviewed the famous voodoo priest Max Beauvoir, who had an interesting take on zombies?
He had this potentially whitewashed version of zombification, in that it is a way to deal with societies’ criminal element. Every society has to do something with prisoners and from his perspective not only is it cheaper and more humane to turn them into zombies it is a service to everyone involved. In his eyes, the bokur, or voodoo sorcerer, is not a slave master but more like a nurse who takes care of someone who has been mentally ill then lobotomized chemically.
I understand you visited a Haitian morgue looking for voodoo?
Rumors were that they buried people with weapons so they can attack quickly upon resurrection. I also heard that corpses’ heads were cut off or that bodies were cut in half, or coffins were filled with cement to prevent resurrection. I was hoping I would see something like that but it was actually a really modern morgue, there certainly wasn’t any decapitation. It was completely normal except when they were washing the mouth. There is a belief that the mouth fills with poison which can be hidden in food and used to kill someone. The guy’s mouth did fill with fluid, but there was nothing supernatural about it, because they were pouring water over his face and it collected in his mouth. But my fixer, Alex, a massive man who had been shot in the face 14 times over the course of his life, including twice in the eye, was deathly afraid of this liquid.
Does the voodoo view on death differ from the American view?
Voodoo revolves around death much more so than other religions. The Haitians understand death is a part of life, and there is also an element of poking fun at death. Like with Baron Samedi, one of voodoos main spirits of the dead, his purpose is to ridicule death and emphasize the absurdity of being alive. At a funeral there is also a very dramatic theatrical element in the way people cry for the dead. The more you were loved while alive the more people are supposed to scream and cry, this practice happens in many places around the world but it’s taken to new heights in Haiti. Death is more out in the open in general in Haiti. There was a lot of being blocked by funeral processions; we had to wait for hours and hours and hours. The funerals were somber, people dressed in white. We also met a lot of coffin makers. In New York you would never see a coffin maker on the street pounding nails into a coffin for hours but in Haiti that’s not unusual at all.
In the end you give a huge sum of cash to a voodoo sorcerer deep in the countryside in return for the Haitian zombie powder but when you test it at a lab back in the US it is inactive; were you scammed?
That’s what people don’t understand in America. A lot of smart open-minded people are willing to instantaneously dismiss everything that happens in a place like Haiti as a scam. They say, ‘Oh, how arrogant of you to have gone to Haiti with money and think they would have given you their greatest secrets.’ But that’s what anthropologists have always done. Everything is very ambiguous in Haiti, it’s possible they simultaneously scammed us and believed the scam themselves. But it certainly wasn’t like they were scamming us and counting the money afterwards and laughing. I think what happened was truly somewhere in between, some grey area.
What are your thoughts on the magical Haitian worldview?
I’ve never loved science so much after leaving Haiti. I really understand science as the greatest liberating force in the world, because without it people live their lives in constant fear. In one way I don’t want to devalue the Haitian traditions and say a magical way of thinking is wrong but the problem is people are constantly afraid of being cursed. And then you must give all your money to have the curse reversed. Once you abandon a scientific way of thinking the world becomes a lot scarier. If someone was bothering us on the street our fixer Alex would threaten to turn them into a goat and that was a very serious threat. You’d think after how many years of threating to turn people into goats and it not happening they would stop believing it, but you can’t even imagine how deep the magical thinking goes.
So is it possible that Haiti actually is this magical place where the dead can somehow come back to life?
In Haiti it is very possible to be hit by a bus and then be resurrected. As far as I can tell there is nothing that they did not think was possible; flying , being revived from the dead, being turned into a werewolf, invisibility, these things are all very much within the realm of possibility. Then there’s the fact that belief itself can fuel physical phenomenon. If you believe enough it can allow you to swallow eggs hole without breaking the shell, or eat burning coals or plunge your face into a pot of boiling water, I saw some of these things happen at a ceremony called God of the Graveyard. It definitely taught me the power of being immersed in the voodoo religion and living in Haiti, you do start to acknowledge the power of believing. You can only spend so long there without people telling you that you have been poisoned or your dreams have been cursed until you actually start having nightmares.
Did you have nightmares?
Yes, after taking the zombie poison I had a pretty overwhelming hypnagogic hallucination. I was falling asleep and looked at my forearm and saw a giant volcano of foaming puss coming out at the site where the poison had been.
In light of Haiti, how do you view the American way of death?
I don’t think we are doing it wrong but it is not especially interesting. A student of Durkheim talks about all these different practices surrounding death around the world, one is putting the coffin on a tilted platform, drilling a hole in the bottom and putting a rice bowl under it. All the bodies’ fluids drain in, and the family takes turns eating the rice, until no liquid is left. I suppose that is more interesting than what we do but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to necessarily participate in that ceremony.