The Mistery of zombies 

Monica Valcarenghi

Translated by Yael Razzoli



Fig. 1


Haiti is a country full of natural charm and beauty, however it is also a land tortured by eternal power conflicts and by a disastrous economy. Haiti is also the background of a terrible slave trade.

The slaves have been imported by the Spanish to this wonderful Caribbean island since the sixteenth century. The slaves were used to replace the natives of the island, also known as Aruachi, who were exhausted and nearly extinguished. The Aruachi used to be strong and healthy people, but they’ve been destroyed by compulsory work, diseases imported by the conquerors and desperation. The new slaves mostly came from West Africa and from the Guinea Gulf, but some also originated from Central Africa.

We can start to talk about Voodoo in Haiti with the arrival of these new people and with the contact between the religion of the natives and Catholicism.

Voodoo is one of the so-called African-American syncretic religions that literature didn’t avoid to misrepresent and to transmit to the rest of the world as an horrible kind of superstition, like a repulsive mass of black magic rituals, practised by a large group of Negroes who were exalted and possessed by evil.

Among the dearest and best-known images about the Voodoo, we find Zombies: monstrous creatures, resuscitated corpses and decomposed bodies, risen from their graves to terrify people.

Actually, in Haiti Zombies are a reality. They aren’t simply a flight of fancy of some naive countryman or a scared reporter. So it’s necessary to start to face the Zombie phenomenon in its culture, setting it free from the wings of superstition.

For Voodoo believers, men have got two souls; one is the ti bon ange, the little good angel, and the other is the gros bon ange, the big good angel.

The latter represents vital strength and it enters the body during the moment of conception only to leave when death occurs. The little angel is the responsible for the personality and the will.

Even Haitian Zombies can be of two kinds; the astral zombi or the zombi ti bon_ange is a spirit, a part of the Voodoo soul (the ti bon ange) who has been sold out or captured by the bokor, the wizard.

The other kind of Zombi is the Jardin Zombie, or the zombie corps cadavre, the famous living dead, the main character of many horror movies. It’s what remains of a man whose ti bon ange has been taken away.

The astral zombie, once it has been captured, is put inside a pot and, at the right time, is transformed by the wizard into an insect  an animal or a man. Once he has been transformed he has to do whatever bad action the wizard orders him to do.

Zombies don’t scare Haitians, because they are creatures without any will, they’re tractable and they have a lifeless expression in their eyes. Haitians are afraid to be transformed in Zombies themselves because the Zombie is a slave who has to follow the unpleasant orders of his owner, without any chance to rise against the wizard. The Zombie will never have his little good angel again and his brain will remain damaged forever.

This kind of slavery terrifies Haitians because they have known in the past the real meaning of losing freedom.


This kind of slavery terrifies Haitians because they have known in the past the real meaning of losing freedom.

So Haitians aren’t afraid of Zombies by themselves, but they’re afraid of “zombification” because they risk to be reduced in a kind of slavery they can’t get rid of.

The fear is so strong that when someone dies, his family makes sure that the person is really dead and that the corpse isn’t interesting for the wizard. So they use several expedients. They can amputate head and limbs, or they can insert a sword in the heart or shoot a bullet into the temple.

Fig. 2

The dead person has to answer the wizard’s questions to be resurrected, so his family tries to find a remedy for this. Sometimes they stitch his lips or they put some sesame seeds or a needle in the coffin, just to distract the dead person, so that he keeps himself occupied and he can’t answer the questions.

A corpse can be resuscitated for three reasons.

The first is a kind of revenge, the second is a sacrifice to thank a spirit that has given some benefits, and the third is for someone who needs a body using it as a beast of burden.

Actually, Zombies aren’t resuscitated corpses, they just appear dead. What makes the victims look like Zombies is a powerful poison, a kind of magic dust. It’s administered to the victims in different ways, even if the most common is the topical one. The poison provokes a status of apparent death.

The responsibility of this status is not only the role played by the wizard, really important under a magical and cultural point of view, but even and above all a very powerful substance obtained by the puffer fish. This is called “tetrodoxina” and it can slacken the vital functions so much that even good doctors can be deceived and declare the person dead.

The most important question about the Zombie phenomenon is not the poison or the magical and cultural aspects, but it concerns the role of victims. Are they chosen by chance, so they’re innocent, or is there a standard to find the people who will become Zombies?

We can argue that zombification is a social process, not a causal or criminal activity. The victim is not someone innocent, but he who is chosen by the bokor with the agreement of the whole community. It’s a kind of social sanction and it is used to maintain the social order, not to destroy it.

So it’s now compulsory to introduce a digression about the Secret Societies and their role in the social control.

Haitians are afraid of going out during the night because they’re scared to meet particular people who are members of the Red Secta, also called Zobop, Bizango, Without Pelo and Vlandibindingue.

People think that these unsuspicious members, apparently docile and placid, meet each other secretly to join the sorcery, to make evil, to eat human flesh and to terrify people.

Their actions and their crimes are committed during the night, when they used to meet each other. During their meetings they wear long white dresses and crowns with lit candles. The membership to this fraternity is really selective, because you have to know the password and particular gestures to join them. Generally they meet each other in cemeteries where they invoke their God, called Baron Samedi, then they lay an ambush to the victim who is captured with cords made of dried bowels.

Actually, these Secret Societies, in Haiti, aren’t terrible or cruel, if they’re freed from fantasy. They’ve a political and social role and their function is to help poor people and their families and, when the members decide to punish someone, it is because this member hasn’t respected their ethical code.

Among the punishable behaviours there are the excessive enrichment at family’s or subordinates’ expense, the defamation of Bizango Society, the moral or material damage against someone and then to steal someone his woman.

So the Secret Societies are safe but filled with fear: he who doesn’t respect the rules is judged, then punished with zombification.

In the end, the Zombie is not a poor victim, but a person who hasn’t followed the rules that guarantee order and justice. For this reason he has been punished.

It’s clear that the Haitian Secret Societies come straight from the Secret Societies we find in West Africa, the land from where the most of the slaves arrived.

We know these fraternities have magic and religious powers, but they also have social, political and economic purposes. Some of their characteristics are found in Bizango’s societies too: for example the initiation rites; a secret knowledge that separates them from others, like the password or the gestures; cyclic rituals that make the collective solidarity stronger; sanctions against individuals which betray the common code; public and periodical manifestations made to show their power and independence and suspected cannibalistic rites, etc…

Fig. 3

They form a society inside the society and their purposes can be social or anti-social. The power of these sects can be bigger than the power owned by the official politicians and it can be used to overcome the power of the legal authorities when they aren’t connected with the societies or, at least influenced by them.

An example can be the Poro living in Sierra Leone and Liberia, who used to have not only the control on ritual and ethic aspects, but on war and peace and it had power on the law and on the secular leaders and their legislative activity.


Even among Yoruba there are often Secret Societies connected with the cult for the dead and with the funeral rituals, but they have a lot of power on the social affairs of the society.

Among these groups we can remember the Ogboni society, that shows similar aspects with the Poros and the Bizagos.

They believe that the members have a secret from which they derive their power; everyone who joins the sect has to help the other members; they know each other with particular gestures and passwords. During their meetings they discuss problems that are common to the whole society and nothing can be decided or made without their consent; he who betrays their secret is punished with death; their purpose is to keep their religion alive but they are connected with the civil power and with any public problem. They seem to have even a judicial function and they seem to be executioners of the criminals.

So their society is a religious, political and social one.

Therefore, we can say that the role of secret societies is more social than cruel. It’s useful to report the words of a witness, Lukamba, who has been a member of the Anyota, the famous secret society of the Leopard men, from central Africa “ Anyota…. they told me it was a terrible thing, but a good one. It was good because without Anyota, our people couldn’t have survived, but it was terrible because sometimes you had to kill… Sometimes there are big fights between our people and they never end the way they should. When this happens our tribe is divided in two factions, one who supports one side and the other the other side. This way we become weak so our enemies take advantage of the situation. This kind of fight is so terrible that no man can find a solution, so, we the Anyota, visit our ancestors. As men we can’t talk with them, not they with us. So we become one thing with the leopard who is the master of the death…Becoming one only thing with the leopard we become masters of death too so we can talk with our ancestors. They talk with us and they tell us what to do to settle things with our people. The ancestors give us the power and the wisdom of the leopard, its speed, its strength and its desire of flesh…. after we’ve killed, we eat a part of the victim’s body and, again as the leopard, we leave the rest so that it can be found and people can know that ancestors are angry and they’ve ordered Anyota to kill…we know, as the whole village does, that ancestors are annoyed and they’ve given Anyota the order to kill and we know that the murders will continue till the fights between us won’t have ended”[1].

It’s clear that, inside these kinds of societies, the use of the murder and, generally, the use of the violence has got a function of control over the society while the victims, most of all, represent the transgressors of the rules or, like the Leopard men, the power to restore them.

So we should abandon any eurocentric and folkloristic explanation of the Zombie phenomenon and we should frame it in Haitian cultural and religious paradigm. Zombies are people who haven’t respected the code of behaviour established by the Secret Societies. They are, clearly or not, recognised by the whole society and they have a religious origin, but they have a big importance for the political and social life of the country.



BIANCHI U., Società Segrete. In GAION R. e ZARDI L. (a cura di), Popoli Diversi. Saie, Torino, 1979, pp.192-201.

BOURGUIGNON E.,The Persistence of Folk Belief: Some Notes on Cannibalism and Zombis in Haiti. in  Journal of American Folklore. American Folklore Society, vol. 72, Philadelphia, 1959.

DAVIS W., Passage of darkness. The University of North Carolina Press, London, 1988.

DAVIS W., The Serpent and the Rainbow. Collins, London, 1986.

DEWISME C. H., Les zombis. Grasset, Paris, 1957.

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ELLIS A. B., The Yoruba Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa. Anthropological Publication, The Netherlands, 1966.

GROTTANELLI V. L.(a cura di), Ethnologica. Labor, Milano, 1965, passim.

HURSTON Z. N., Tell my Horse. J. B. Lippincott Company. Philadelphia, New York, London, Toronto, 1990.

HUXLEY F., The Invisibles. Rupert Hart Davis, 1966.

METRAUX A., Croyances et Pratiques Magiques dans la Vallèe de Marbial, Haiti. Journal de la Société des Americanistes. Nouvelle Serie, T. XLII, 1953, pp.135-198.

METRAUX A., Haiti, la Terre, les Hommes et les Dieux. Beconnière, Neuchatel, 1957.

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PADEN J. N., SOJA E. W., The African Experience. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1970.

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SALVOLDI V., Il Banchetto Sacro. Editrice Missionaria Italiana, 1981.

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Fig 1 - Probably Zombies represent the most famous but less known Haitian traditional element. The collective imagination of contemporary culture inglobated such reality, emphasizing its morbid and esotic characteristics, but overlooking its complex metaphysical and cultural texture that legitimized it 

Fig. 2 - Many horror and splatter movies are based on the myth of the living dead. This is original billboard of the most famous Zombie movie: "Night of the  Living Dead" by George Romero.

Fig. 3 - The Zombie Felicia Felix Mentor.




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