Well it’s October, the month stereotypically associated with ghosts, goblins, and other assorted spooky and creatures. So it makes sense that I use this month to talk about some of the most popular monsters in Western Culture, along with the origins and evolution.
Let’s start with an old but popular favorite: ZOMBIES. However we’re not going to talk about the flesh eating rotting corpses you see in George Romero films. Instead we’re going to look at REAL zombies. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, real zombies have been well documented and accepted by science for several decades, and in fact the monstrous Hollywood Zombie was in fact inspired by the real thing.
The word zombie comes from the African Congo word, nzambi. Nzambi literally means, “The spirit of a dead person.” Real zombies are not undead however. Instead zombies are people who have been assaulted and/or poisoned by a Vodoun/Voodoo practioner, often referred to as a bokor. These zombies receive massive brain damage from being in a state that resembles death, before being revived and forced to serve the bokor.
One becomes a zombie by having very particular poisons injected into them, sprayed or poured into open wounds, or having their food and drinks drugged. The end result is the person in question is mistaken for dead and buried alive. The bokor then uncovers them, and administers an anti-toxin or a counter poison that brings them back from their near-death state, albeit with impaired physical and mental capabilities. The bokor then subjects the zombie(s) to constant physical and mental abuse to ensure his control over them.
So what does this poison consist of, and how does simulate death and yet keep the person alive? Let’s take a look. I should point out this recipe comes from several sources, chief of which is enthobiologist Wade Davis who wrote The Serpent & The Rainbow, which is an excellent non fiction book on Voodoo, but then was turned into a craptacular horror film that has little to nothing in common with the book.
The poison is generally a fine power made up of various natural toxins from plants and animals. Bokors also tend to have human bone or grave dirt or other things to the powder that have no actual effect on the eventual poison, but make for an intimidating show.
Step 1: The bokor buries two animals together in a glass jar. These animals are a sea snake and the bouga toad. Although most of you have probably seen or know what a sea snake is, the bouga toad is probably not an animal you’ve heard of. The bouga or bufo marinus if we want to break out the Latin, is one of the most poisonous animal on earth. The toad secretes two kinds of poisons, bufogenin and bufotoxin, both with are 50 and 100 times more deadly than digitalis respectively. The poisons causes death by rapid heart beat which leads to abrupt heart failure. The frog also contains a third chemical compound called bufotenine, which is a power hallucinogen.
Now the toad and sea snake basically freak out from being buried together in a sealed jar with little air. Due to the stress, both animals are secreting concentrated doses of their poisons and will continue to do so until they die. What’s left is a mixture of pure liquid gooey death waiting to happen.
Step 2: The bokor ground up millipedes and tarantulas and adds them to four plant extracts. These extracts are
a) Tcha-tcha seeds from a tree known as Albizzia Lebbeck. The Lebbeck is a poisonous plant known to cause pulmonary edema.
b) Consigne seeds from a Mahogany tree. these have no known poisonous effects.
c) Pomme Cajou leaves, aka the common Cashew Tree leaves. Cashew plants are actually related to Poison Ivy and can cause skin irritation.
d) Bresillet tree leaves, which is again a cousin to Poison Ivy and has the same effect as Cashew leaves.
All of these ingredients are ground into a fine powder, and like the animals, are buried for two days.
Step 3: After disinterment, the bokor adds two plants known as Tremblador and Desmembre, but which can’t seem to be identified botanically. If you want these bits for your army of zombies, I suggest flying to Haiti or New Orleans with a big sack of money. Next four more plants are added to the mixture. The first two, Maman Guepes (also known as Urera baccifera) and Mashasa (aka Dalechampia scandens), belong to the Stinging Nettle family. These plants contain tiny hair-like protrusions that inject something akin to formic acid into the skin.
The third plant is Dieffenbachia sequine. Diffenbachia is also known as dumbcane in the vernacular, and it contains oxalate needles. Eating these is the equivalent to chewing in ground up glass. In other words, your insides are going to be slowly and subtly shredded. This is of course where the name “dumbcane” came from.
The final ingredient at this step is Bwa pine, whose needles have very sharp spines.
Step 4: Now it’s time to add some more poisonous animals. The bokor now grounds up the skins of white tree frogs known as Osteopilus dominicencis along with two types of tarantulas. Added to this mixtures is yet another bouga toad. Finally we put in four different types of puffer fish, specifically of the genus Fugu. You know, the sushi that nearly killed Homer Simpson. Sphoeroides tesudineus, Sphoeroides spengleri, Diodon hystrix, and Diodon holacanthus.
Since most of you have only had experience with Fugu from a 10 year old cartoon episode, this is the point where I side to go on a rambling tangent to explain to you why the puffer fish is so feared the world over.
The puffer fish get their common name from the fact they inflate their bodies to scare off attackers. And in case that doesn’t work, the puffer fish still has the last laugh. You see puffer fish contain within them the toxin known as TETRODOTOXIN. Doesn’t sound very impressive, does it? But in fact, it is quite possibly the world’s most powerful poison. It is 500 times stronger than cyanide, and 150,000 times stronger than cocaine. Let me repeat that last bit so it sets in. Snort one hundred and fifty THOUSAND lines of coke, and you’ve had one tiny bit of tertrodotoxin. One single drop is enough to kill a large adult human being. And so of course the Japanese have made Fugu into a culinary delicacy. But not to worry, as the tetrodotoxin only occurs in very specific parts of the puffer fish’s body. Still, even with highly trained and licensed fugu chefs, over 100 people die a year from eating fugu.
So what exactly does tetrodotoxin to do the human body? Well a lot. And all of it’s bloody awful. The first symptoms include malaise, a deathly pallor, vertigo, and a tingling sensation in the lips that eventually spreads to the victim’s four limbs, eventually leaving them completely numb.
From here the person in question begins to sweat quite profusely, becomes exceptionally physically weak, suffers from a great headache, and their body temperature plummets. Blood pressure also drops rapidly and their pulse becomes weak.
Next up, the victim begins to feel nauseous, which leads to uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea and sever gastric pain. The eyes constrict, then dilate, and then all corneal and pupillary reflexes are lost. The lungs begins to fail from respiratory distress, and then the entire body turns blue, starting with the lips.
Oh, and we’re not done YET. Now the body started twitching uncontrollably, and then it becomes rigid with the victim becoming completely paralyzed. The eyes become glassy and here the victim sometimes, but not always, slips into a coma. More often the victim is completely awake through this all, especially at this last point where they seem to be dead, even when looked at by a medical professional. This means they can see and hear themselves being pronounced dead and watch their friends mourning them. And then if they’re really unlucky, they get to see their own funeral and get buried alive. YAY!
There is no antidote for tetrodotoxin, but a rare few have survived the poison going through their system. They describe the experience as hell and terror itself and are worried constantly about being buried alive. Which in the hands of a skilled bokor, is exactly what happens…
Thanks to a bokor’s knowledge of fugu poisons, he is able to distill the venom of the puffer fish through the reagents and other chemicals I listed above. Now as I am no chemist I have to guess here that the poisons all act as like antitoxins to each other and although the victim goes through massive pain and trauma from the zombie mixture, they somehow manage to survive. But not always. Some zombies don’t get to come back from the dead.
The bokor lets the zombie to be sit in the grave for a day or two before disinterring them. here they are fed a powerful hallucinogen made of sweet potatoes, cane sugar and the “zombie cucumber,” a plant also known as Datura stramonium.
Zombies are often used for cheap manual labour. You can find them in fields or bakeries, working as shop clerks or in a library. Supposedly these voodoo made zombies require little to eat, but are not to be given salt as that returns the zombie’s sense of taste and ability to speak. I’m not sure if that’s Haitian myth creeping in or if salt really does negate the poison somewhat.
Zombification is equally parts chemistry and showmanship. One part Marie Curie and one part PT Barnum. The poison is just as important as making people believe in magic and that these zombies are undead beings of whom the bokor has stolen the souls of. the bokor and houngans used the concept of becoming a zombie to rule over people in a more superstitious time, and was used as capital punishment for those that did not follow the bokor’s laws. Nowadays, you can still find people who believe the zombies who the bokor creates are undead and not poisoned and abused victims. However medical science and forensic pathology as shown they are just alive as you or I.
Now please, if you do get the crazy notion to make zombie powder, remember to sue Widro once you get arrested, not me. It’s his website after all.
Well since we’ve been talking voodoo, I’m doing a slight shift from that quasi francophone culture and going to go full blown French for today’s recipe. It’s by far one of my favorite desserts to make, as it’s healthy and amazingly delicious. It’s also simple and easy to make.
Poires au Gingembre aka Ginger Baked Pears
4 large pears
1 1/4th cups heavy cream
1/4 cup superfine sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of ground nutmeg
1 tsp grated gingerroot
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly butter a shallow baking dish.
2. Peel the pears, then cut them in half lengthwise and use a sharp knife to remove the cores. Arrange, cut-sides down, in a single layer in the baking dish.
3. Mix together the cream, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger and pour over the pears.
4. Bake for 30 minutes, basting from time to time, until the pears are tender and browned on top. The cream will also be thick and bubbly. Cool slightly and serve.
What’s Worth Reading?
My Pump It Up: Exceed review!
Lee Baxley’s Mid Boss News Report.
Rachael’s fashion column thingy.
Mark Schmidt’s Biblophilia
Carla Lee’s Paper Cuts
Spike’s Cooking Column
Madolan’s Wine Column
Bat’s Virulent Disease Column
Eric S’s Short Form Report
Kaye’s Botcon Report!
McCullar’s hhg2tg Review.
That’s it for this week. I’ll be back next week talking about more Things That Should Not Be. Remember Count Duckula comes out on DVD this week.
Good night out there…whatever you are.