Zombification Process

How does a victim turn into a zombie? Who carries out the ritual and how is vodou involved in zombification? What happens after one becomes a zombie both physically and psychologically?

A bokor with dried specimens of Diodon hystrix (puffer fish)
A bokor with dried specimens of Diodon hystrix (puffer fish)

One of the most fascinating and intricate processes in Haitian Vodou is zombification, which revives the recently dead into mindless, soulless zombies. As part of the vodou religion, the bokors (Haitian vodou sorcerers) have the power to create and control zombies. The exact methods and concoctions used vary among bokors, but the process believed by the Haitain people describes the following general pattern. Some zombification processes use blood and hair from their victims in addition to using vodou dolls, while others involve a carefully prepared mixture called “coup de poudre” (“powder strike”) made of mystical herbs, human remains, and animal parts. Administrating this mixture can also vary from ingestion, injection, or even a blow dart (“The Bokor and Magic Powder”).

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Left – Bokor grating human bones/ cemetery materials
Right – Bokor preparing the poison: the mortar and pestle
The houngan supervising the preparation of the contra poudre in the inner sanctum of the hounfour
The houngan supervising the preparation of the contra poudre in the inner sanctum of the hounfour
The final preparation ready to be bottled
The final preparation ready to be bottled

Once the mixture has been made by the bokor and administered to the victim, it starts to take effect on the body. The victim becomes immobile, has an incredibly faint heartbeat, and his or her breathing is drastically reduced within a few minutes so that the victim appears dead. While in this death-resembling state, the victim is still fully aware of the surroundings but cannot express himself. Once taken to the hospital and declared dead by the doctor, the seemingly lifeless body is buried in a grave soon after death (since the heat and lack of refrigeration generally in Haiti makes the bodies decay rapidly).

Poison maker. Note the protective garb and cotton nose plugs
Poison maker. Note the protective garb and cotton nose plugs
The prepared poison is buried, along with the corpse, in the bokor's courtyard for two days
The prepared poison is buried, along with the corpse, in the bokor’s courtyard for two days

After the body is buried, the bokor enters the grave and digs up the body. This happens within eight hours of the burial because otherwise the victim will die of asphyxiation. Next, the bokor performs an ancient vodou rite where he or she captures the victim’s ti bon ange, which is the part of the soul directly connected to an individual. He or she can do this by capturing it within seven days immediately following the death of the corps cadavre, while it is still hovering over the corpse, or by spreading poisons in the form of a cross on the threshold of the victim’s doorway. Either way, this effects a split in the spiritual parts of the victim and produces two complementary types of zombies: the spirit zombi (the zombie of the ti bon ange alone) and the zombi cadavre (the zombi of the flesh, which is composed of the n’ame, the gros bon ange, and the z’etoile) (“The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombi” 99). Then he traps the spirit zombi part of the soul (or zombi astral) in a small clay jar or some other commonplace container, and replaces it with the loa that the bokor controls. This container is hidden in a secret place known only to the bokor and is finally wrapped in a piece of the victim’s clothing or some other personal possession.

After a day or two, the bokor then administers a hallucinogenic mixture called the “zombi’s cucumber” that revives the victim and is used to keep the zombie in a state of submissive confusion (“The Bokor and Magic Powder”). In this state, the zombi cannot speak, has no memory, and no longer resembles its past human personality. As a result, the zombi is easy to control and the bokor can use the zombi as a slave for farm labor and construction work. The zombies are completely under the rule of the bokor that made them and consequently work as slaves until the bokor dies. Once they are released from their slave labor, the zombies can finally return to their home village or place of burial and die.

A major concern in Haitian folklore concerning zombies is the act of feeding salt to a zombie. While zombies are usually not particularly dangerous, giving them salt will return their senses and restore their personality. This will lead the zombies to attack the bokor who created them or to return to their place of burial for their final death. 

While zombification seems at first to be a strictly physical experience, there is additionally a psychological aspect in the ritual and is a spiritual process. A psychological or cultural predisposition is imperative in order for the victims to become a zombi. After being buried alive, the victim’s reawakening as a zombi follows a psychotic state. The victim is able to reconstruct their identity as a zombi due to a combination of the psychosis induced by the drugs, the psychological trauma of being buried alive, and the strong beliefs of zombies in their culture. This all contributes to the psychological aspect that controls the victim’s perception and actions. Living in Haiti and the social reinforcement of their beliefs in zombies further contribute to their zombie identity and experience. Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing emphasized the connection between social and cultural expectations and compulsion, in the context of schizophrenia and other mental illness (“Haitian Vodun or Voodoo Zombie”). He observed that schizogenesis may contribute to the psychological aspects of zombification.

The following six part video titled “Investigating the Haitian Zombie” is Hamilton Morris’s quest in Haiti to discover the secrets of zombification and the poison’s formula to do a formal chemical analysis. Hamilton Morris is a journalist and science editor for Vice magazine where he travels around the world to investigate unusual psychoactive drugs. Check out these interesting videos for a visual of his adventures while trying to understand the process of zombification in Haiti:

Investigating the Haitian Zombie (Part 1/6)

Investigating the Haitian Zombie (Part 2/6)

Investigating the Haitian Zombie (Part 3/6)

Investigating the Haitian Zombie (Part 4/6)

Investigating the Haitian Zombie (Part 5/6)

Investigating the Haitian Zombie (Part 6/6)

8 thoughts on “Zombification Process

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