Zombies on television, zombies in the movies, zombie-themed apparel and miscellaneous objects, even zombie romances—Jeanmaire Lafayette has seen it all. Now, she’d like to see a revived interest in the origin of the zombie and its place in modern culture.
According to Lafayette, there’s nothing cool about real zombies—which, she affirms, can certainly exist. Lafayette is a lifelong devotee of Vodou, the religion and faith practice better known as Voodoo. “It is a system of approaching the divine, just as any other religion,” she says, hands gently folded in her lap. “My parents were Voodoo, their parents were Voodoo, and it keeps going back into the family history.”
Voodoo is not found in every family, not even in the bayous of eastern Louisiana, where Lafayette was born and raised. “Voodoo chooses you. You do not choose it. You join the Voodoo because the Loa—our version of what you might call gods—have chosen you to serve them on earth. They are you and you are the Loa and the combination is exhilarating and magical.”
On the point of magic, zombies enter the conversation. “People want to believe in the undead, that zombies are the departed returned to a very horrible kind of life. And the truth is that zombies, or what the Voodoo call zombies, do in fact exist. But this truth has been twisted.”
Lafayette went on to describe something quite different from The Walking Dead, something perhaps even more terrifying. “I have never witnessed this for myself, but I have heard of the coup de poudre, which is blowing a powder which is a very dangerous blend of ingredients into the face of the chosen victim. The powder enters the victim’s body through the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the skin, and in very little time the victim appears to have died.”
Knowing the folk version of this powder, Lafayette set out to uncover the components that could cause such a fast and seemingly final reaction. Her research took her along a similar path as what author Wade Davis describes in his classic The Serpent and the Rainbow (a rather terrible horror film was made loosely based on this book and should not be confused with the book). One example is tetrodotoxin, an extremely potent neurotoxin that can be found in a number of fish species—Davis mentions the puffer fish. A little of this combined with some other ingredients can go a long way to making an individual appear to be dying—or even dead.
“I don’t mean to give a chemistry lecture, but what I have found are compounds which can give a normal adult human being all of the telltale signs of being dead, without actually being dead.” Lafayette shrugged at this point. “The legends tell of evil sorcerers called bokors using the coup de poudre to collect slaves for themselves, as the powder also somehow binds the victim to the bokor’s will. This abuse of victims could be taken as the dead returning to life, and then from there we can leap into contemporary zombie lore.”
While the chemistry is sound and the appearance of death is possible, Lafayette does not believe there are malefactors creeping around Voodoo-rich areas in search of fresh prey. “This does not mean I do not respect the tales or that I doubt the existence of truly evil people in search of magical power,” she adds. “The zombie had to originate somewhere, and I find the use and abuse of natural toxins far more plausible than brain binges or, in reality, reanimation after death. For all of that, the zombie is part of the Voodoo tapestry, a part that has been exploited. The actual legends are scary enough.”