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‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’: based on a true zombie story?

Come on, zombies can’t be real … right?

Cursed Films II, a documentary series airing on the streaming service Shudder, recently concluded its second season exploring the many myths and mysteries surrounding famous movie franchises. I was somewhat surprised to see the lesser-known Wes Craven movie, The Serpent and the Rainbow, make the cut for season 2.

Released in 1988, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a chilling adaption of a 1985 book of the same name, published by Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis. In the film, Bill Pullman’s character, Harvard anthropologist Dennis Allen, is hired by pharmaceutical corporation Boston Biocorp,to search for a drug believed to be used in Haitian Voudu rituals  that’s used to turn people into zombies.

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The Serpent and the Rainbow, the movie, is entertaining enough, with some genuinely creepy moments, but not much else. The book, as an account of real events, is much more interesting. The central claim is zombies are real, albeit not reanimated corpses — the shambling, somnambulistic state is produced by a complex interaction of the neurotoxin tetrodoxotin, hallucinogenic plants in the genus Datura, and the power of suggestion. While Davis’ hypothesis certainly sounds plausible, is it any more grounded in fact than Craven’s movie?

'The Serpent and the Rainbow' book cover

While there’s some disagreement on the etymology of the word “zombie,” the most popular account and the one given by Encyclopedia Brittanica is that it derives from the word zombi in Haitian Vodou, a “dead person who is revived after burial and compelled to do the bidding of the reviver, including criminal acts and heavy manual labor.” Unlike many popular depictions of zombies where the cause for reanimation is a pathogen like a virus or a fungus, Haitian zombies are the product of witchcraft.

To create a zombie, the practitioner of sorcery known as a boko (also translated as bokor) or caplata (male or female sorcerer, respectively) prevents the soul of a recently deceased person from being taken to the afterlife by the loa (God) Baron Samedi, and enslaves the dead to do their bidding. The primary fear among Haitians is therefore not that the dead will return to feast on the flesh of the living, but that one may be denied peace in the afterlife and forced to toil on Earth.

Documented cases of zombies are rare, with the subject of The Serpent and the Rainbow being the most well-known. The story goes that on April 30, 1962, a 42-year-old Haitian man, Clairvius Narcisse, walked into the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles with a fever, complaining of fatigue and aches, and spitting up blood. According to Davis, “his condition deteriorated rapidly, and at 1:15 PM on May 2 he was pronounced dead by two attendant physicians, one of them an American.” Narcisse was placed in cold storage for 24 hours, and then he was buried on May 3.

In 1980 (18 years later), a man approached Narcisse’s sister Angela, in the central Haitian village of L’Estère, claiming to be Clairvius. The man convinced Angelina that he was her brother after disclosing intimate family details that supposedly only the real Clairvius could have known, and proceeded to recount how on the night he was buried, a Vodou priest raised him from the grave, beat him with a sisal whip, and took him to a sugar plantation, where he was forced to work with other zombies until the eventual death of the sorcerer freed them.

Davis was tasked by Dr. Nathan S. Kline, psychiatrist and psychopharmacologist, “to travel to Haiti, find the voodoo sorcerers responsible, and obtain samples of the poison and antidote.” Kline claimed a voodoo priest had explained to him “that the poison was sprinkled across the threshold of the intended victim’s doorway and absorbed through the skin of the feet. He claimed that at the resurrection ceremony the victim was administered a second drug as an antidote.”

Davis allegedly obtained the ingredients used to prepare the potion and brought them back to Harvard for study. Two of the ingredients were identified as Diodon hystrix, or the spot-fin porcupinefish, and Sphoeroides testudineus, or checkered pufferfish, both of which contain the deadly tetrodotoxin.

Davis’ hypothesis that zombies were created by such poisons was later seemingly confirmed by a former boko-turned-evangelical Christian, Frère Dodo, who claimed that a powder derived from pufferfish was used in preparing the zombi potion, which is applied to the victim topically so the tetrodotxin is absorbed through the skin. The effects of the neurotoxin slow a person’s metabolic rate to such a degree that the effect could be easily mistaken for death.

But how can we explain the shambling, mindless state of the zombie? Mathematician Costas Efthimiou and engineer Sohang Gandhi have proposed that oxygen deprivation, resulting from being buried alive, permanently damages the brain — a finding that was allegedly confirmed by neuropsychiatrist Roger Mallory after an MRI of a Haitian schoolboy who’d been “zombified.”

Naturally, not everyone has been convinced by the tetrodotoxin hypothesis. Psychologist Terence Hines noted several problems with Efthiiou and Gandhi’s article, saying that:

“the amount of TTX (tetrodotoxin) in pufferfish flesh varies as a function of fish sex, species, and time of year, as well as the anatomical location … Further, the effect of any drug on an individual varies as a function of the individual’s age, sex, state of health, body weight, experience with related drugs, and numerous other variables … Witch doctors simply could not produce such fine-tuned effects with such poor-quality material to work with.”

Hines’ criticisms notwithstanding, it’s an established fact that while many ancient remedies don’t stand up to rigorous scientific study, in some cases, the medical knowledge of indigenous cultures is comparable to modern medicine. Shamans inherit the accumulated knowledge of generations, so it’s not unreasonable that through their own process of trial, experimentation, and observation, they could’ve figured out a zombi potion. More damaging to Davis’ hypothesis is the work of C.Y. Kao and Takeshi Yasumoto, who found “insignificant traces of tetrodotoxin” in his samples (though perhaps more samples should be tested).

'The Serpent and the Rainbow': based on a true zombie story?

There’s a problem with Efthiiou and Gandhi’s hypothesis of oxygen deprivation, too. Brain damage might account for the trance-like behavior of zombies, but the threshold for cerebral hypoxia and death is short. In order for the boko to resurrect his zombie, he would have to dig them up within 10 minutes of being buried. How likely is this without someone noticing? Even if the zombie could be exhumed before death, is it really plausible that someone with that much brain damage could work as a slave on a plantation, let alone recall facts about their life?

At the end of the day, The Serpent and the Rainbow is an exciting read and an okay movie, but the truth behind the magic is a matter that’s yet to be laid to rest.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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