But where did this monster of an idea come from? Many would credit the creation of the first “zombie” to the experience of Haitian slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries. The inhumanity of this time period wasn’t due to the presence of shuffling, mindless, monsters, but rather to the horrors of forced subjugation of human life, the product of a different kind of monster. These slaves felt a very real imprisonment within their own bodies–owned and operated by French landowners, as it were–and believed that after death, they would finally be free in the afterlife. If, however, a slave were to take his own life, the belief was that the poor soul would be trapped to haunt the plantations forever, an undead, soulless, zombie. Over time, the myth shifted and became folklore. It is perhaps this subconscious fear that inspired Voodoo priests and acolytes to wrap the “zombie” into their own practices. It became widely accepted that Voodoo practitioners, shamans and sorcerers known as bokor known as bokor, could reanimate the dead to serve their own purposes.
The Haitian Voodoo zombie, as the tales go, is created when the bokor uses black magic and created when the bokor uses black magic and gia special concoction—-that takes control of the person’s body causing them to die, but revive so they can be later exhumed and their mindless body put to work. This belief has survived to the present day, and as implausible as it sounds, several verifiable accounts report the stories of seemingly real-life zombies; for example, take Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was declared dead in a hospital and buried in 1962, only to appear in a village marketplace 18 years later, calling out to his long-lost sister, Angelica Narcisse. He reported to her that he had been dug up from his grave and put to work on a plantation all those years, kept in a trance-like state with little to no control of his body.
Many people confirmed the identity of this man as well as claimed that they absolutely saw him in his coffin, buried and dead, 18 years previous. More creepy stories such as this one float through all zombie lore, but so far have not been successfully explained away.Over the years, there have been several explorations to uncover the truth of the Voodoo zombie. A large part of these studies has been examining the ingredients of the “zombification powder.” Besides an assortment of herbs, fish, animal parts, shells, and other objects, the main focus of study is tetrodotoxin (TTX), a lethal neurotoxin typically found in pufferfish, known for its lethality at low doses (as low as 1-4 mg a person) and for which there is no known antidote. This poison has been known to kill humans who ingest it, usually while partaking of that dangerous delicacy in Japan or other Asian countries.
TTX is a sodium channel inhibitor which supports its use as a possible analgesic. TTX binds to the pores of voltage-gated sodium channels in nerve cells which can block the action potentials and transmission. One outcome of this is a decrease in pain, which may have some analgesic use. But with decreased pain, we also see muscle inhibition, even paralysis, due to the interference of the transmission signals. Typical TTX poisoning begins with numbness, headache, salivation, nausea/vomiting, difficulty moving, weakness, and speech difficulties. (Sound like a zombie yet?) The second stage symptoms include increasing paralysis eventually of the respiratory system resulting in difficulty breathing, dysrhythmia of the heart, hypotension, fixed pupils, eventually leading to coma, seizures, and death.
Certainly, were one to put together the effects of this poison on a person–staggered walk (motor dysfunction), slurred speech, salivation, no sense of pain, etc–the modern image of the zombie might come to mind. Maybe this toxin could even make it seem like someone had died with full respiratory arrest, but then later come back, seemingly reanimated. Many scientists have studied this toxin for its effects and possible links to the zombie myth. Of all scientists who have studied this phenomenon, Wade Davis is arguably the most infamous. His published work, made famous by his book The Serpent and the Rainbow and the subsequent film, makes the argument that the presence of TTX in the “zombification powder” is a valid and complete explanation for the Haitian zombie. However, his work is widely discredited and considered inconclusive. In truth, it seems highly unlikely that untrained Voodoo witch doctors could prepare such a delicate toxin to produce the correct dosage for each “patient” and so far the TTX found in samples of the powder has not been deemed sufficient to support the claims that this would produce a “zombie.” However, the truth does not change the myth. The Voodoo zombie legend lives on, inhabiting the minds of Haitian natives and American media consumers alike.
Beyond the Haitian “undead”, there are many other zombie-related phenomena that have fed into the media subconscious. Let’s discuss some historical events and chemical realities that might have lead people to believe in the walking dead. Take a look at the “safety coffin” invented in England in the 18th century during a series of cholera epidemics. At this time, the fear of being buried alive spread even wider than the disease, and due to lack of sufficient medical knowledge, pronouncing someone dead wasn’t as sure a thing as it is today. Stories circulated of coffins re-opened to find bloody scratches along the inside walls or bodies later found outside of their coffins with mangled, broken, clawing hands. Authors of the time reflected this fear in their work; such as Edgar Allen Poe with The Cask of Amontillado and The Premature Burial, the latter being a collection of supposedly genuine experiences of people being buried alive, including one about the author himself. All these tales infected the collective consciousness.
Hence the invention of a series of coffins with various safety measures to save the unfortunate person from their premature burial. These precautions could include air tubes, glass panels to check for breathing, or, In the most well-known variation, the coffin was outfitted with a bell attached by a long string. If a person were to suddenly wake up and find themselves trapped underground, they could ring the bell to indicate to someone on the surface that they needed to be dug up and returned to the world of the living. It seems to me that I might be even more afraid of hearing the little bell suddenly ringing through the graveyard, singing to this wind that one who was laid to rest isn’t quite dead.
One of the easiest ways to tell if someone had truly passed on was to check for the signs of putrefaction. In some European countries, you could do this by interring the body in a “portable death chamber” with a bell and a glass window to check the body for decomposition. If indeed the body had begun to rot, a switch could be flipped which dumped the body through the floor and into the grave. Or, rather than looking at the body, one idea was to fit coffins with a long tube which could be used daily to listen for cries for help or even to smell for the decay of rotting flesh.
Everyone knows that a dead body going through the stages of decomposition smells BAD. If not from personal experience, we’ve all seen a tv show or read a book where some character has the unfortunate experience of being in the presence of a body with significant signs of decay, and one of the main descriptions of that scene will include the characteristic scent of death. But what causes that strong, horrible odor? We find the answer through a chemical examination of the decomposition process.
A body enters the first stage of decay when the heart is no longer pumping blood, and so organs and tissues no longer receive oxygen to maintain essential processes. Waste and carbon dioxide build up in the tissues which results in cell breakdown, called autolysis, caused by enzymatic proteins. The fresh body doesn’t show any signs of rot yet, but as autolysis progresses, the skin may begin to blister and slough off. No significant smells here though.
The second stage is the result of the action of tons of tiny microorganisms, such as those living in the digestive tract, which continue to break down tissue. Many of these undergo anaerobic processes that can produce sulfur-containing compounds or other gases that build up in the body causing bloating and swelling and even discoloration, giving the corpse a greenish hue. Of course, with all this pressure building up under the skin, this will force internal bodily fluids to seep through already open orifices or may cause bursting or ruptures where the foul-smelling gases can escape.
Several of the other main volatile compounds released to the air during this stage have been named specifically for their origination from a corpse. First, cadaverine, or pentane-1,5-diamine, produces some of this rotting smell. Cadaverine is produced through the decarboxylation of the amino acid, lysine, and can be found in the central nervous system of mammals as well as in bad breath (halitosis), semen, and urine, especially in cases with dysfunctional lysine metabolism. Second, putrescine, or butane-1,4-diamine. This is also produced by the decarboxylation of an amino acid, specifically arginine which can be converted to putrescine through two biochemical pathways requiring different decarboxylase enzymes. This molecule can be found in semen or in cases of halitosis and bacterial vaginosis.
Interestingly, both of these diamines have extremely low odor thresholds, meaning that only a very small amount is required to cause a strong, bad-smelling odor.Other major perpetrators of the death smell include indole, an aromatic heterocyclic molecule, and skatole (3-methylindole), a very closely related molecule. Indole is typically found as a result of the breakdown of amino acid tryptophan. As both of these molecules are often found in feces, they have a very strong fecal or musty smell, but strangely, in small doses, these compounds are known to have a flowery, sweet scent which is often used in perfumes or even ice cream flavors. The sulfur compounds that contribute to the odor of rot include methanethiol, hydrogen sulfide, dimethyl disulfide, and dimethyl trisulfide. These are known to smell like rotting eggs, rotting vegetables, or have a foul garlic-like odor.
Moving on to the next stage, the corpse enters active decay, where the microorganisms and maggots–from insects laying their eggs in the ruptured flesh to feast on–continue their work breaking the tissues down which results in a persistence of the smell and liquefaction of organic matter. Once most of the mass of the body is gone, we enter the fourth stage, skeletonization, where the remainder of the tissue is broken down, leaving the calcium-rich bones behind to rest in peace.
The natural “Eau de Corpse” odor produced through the majority of the decomposition process would probably have been notable even through the long air tube to the body beneath the ground, and of course, watching the body going through these stages would have been horrifying, but possibly relieving to know that the person you buried is, indeed, dead. However, though people may have used these signs of decay to confirm death, in some cases, even rotting flesh isn’t a sure indicator. There are several medical conditions and diseases which make the walking dead myth seem more real than ever. First, look at one of the most infamous diseases of all time which has long tormented the collective psyche–with cases reported as far back at 1500 BC.
This condition was long thought to be the effect of a hereditary dysfunction or even a curse from God. Those with the symptoms were made to wear special clothes, maybe wear bells to warn people of their approach, and most famously, live in separated colonies away from people who did not want to associate with the cursed, sick individuals. You’ve probably guessed we’re talking about leprosy, a condition incorrectly notorious for causing flesh to rot and body parts to fall off. In actuality, the various levels of leprosy are caused by a microorganism, Mycobacterium leprae, which multiplies and attacks the peripheral Schwann cells of the nervous system. This does not directly cause the loss of tissue, but it can create a significant loss of sensation. Then, the cellular reaction continues into the main body of the nerve cell, dampening or completely cancelling the nerve transmissions which decreases circulation, sensation, and motor function, mainly in the extremities.
This leads to the clawed hands or deformed feet. After this occurs, small injuries go unnoticed without the sensation of pain. These lead to widening ulcers which can erode as the tissue dies from secondary infections and neglect, and this is what gives us the characteristic image of the leper with missing fingers and toes or with large sections of stinking, decomposing flesh. In other forms of the disease, the bacilli multiply in the mucous membranes, especially of the nose, and eventually can erode into facial sores and destruction of the septum bones and palate, which results in a sunken-in nose.
Certainly, in the modern day, with the exception of a few places around the world where lepers are still treated as pariahs, we understand that leprosy is not a curse, and though we still don’t understand the transmission of the disease, patients can be treated while remaining a part of society. However, it seems likely that the image of the leper–a man or woman, considered cursed, separated from others, with missing limbs and open sores–might have contributed to our idea of the modern zombie.
Along the same lines, necrosis of tissue, or cell death, is still seen often in medical clinics, rest homes, and hospitals everywhere. In my own experience in health care, I’ve seen countless decubitus ulcers or cases of tenacious necrotizing fasciitis. With these and similar conditions, the smell of death and the image of rotting flesh can be very real. Necrosis is caused by external factors, often by the very organisms that live on our skin naturally. Depending on the type of infection or condition, there are innumerable cellular signaling pathways which can result in the passive cell death; in general, various receptors in the lipid bilayer on the cells are triggered and the cell membrane is compromised resulting in uncontrolled release of cell contents into the extracellular fluid. So, the body responds to the expulsion with different immunological cells to clean up the mess.