Popular culture has appropriated the words zombie and voodoo. They are often used light-heartedly to conjure up images of the undead walking with their arms outstretched, their skin dripping from their faces, or witches sticking pins malevolently into dolls of their enemies.
In Wade Davis’ 1988 book, Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie, these misappropriations are given a thorough shaking as he travels to Haiti and discovers the complex cultural belief system that makes up zombification.
As an ethnobotonist and anthropologist, Davis was tasked with finding the poison that allows what are called hongouns to turn people into slaves by bringing them back from the dead. Or so it seems. But this isn’t a travel tale in search of a compelling narrative – this thoroughly researched book examines what death is (and the criteria in western medicine for pronouncing it), how it’s possible to stop some “essential” bodily functions like breathing without being dead, and the natural poisons that are able to do this. There is no story needed, as the research proves sufficiently enthralling.
Saying that, plenty of anecdotal stories are included about firsthand experiences with zombies, as well as documentation directly from Davis’ field notebooks. For all the interesting research, it’s the anecdotes that tend to bring the examinations into the most easily digestible format.
Beyond the ethnobiological work surrounding his research for the poison, Davis delves into the secret societies of West Africa and their new incarnations in Haiti, their political and judicial functions, and the members’ extraordinary knowledge and use of toxic plants and animals. Davis is able to gain entry into a secret society, which leads him to key new findings in the study of zombification and the voudon religion.
Although Passage of Darkness is a scientific look at the zombie phenomenon, it never strays into language that only scientists can decipher. If the subtitle piques your interest, you will be swept up in the astonishing voudon religion as Davis fleshes out the magic and sorcery that makes zombification possible.
Passage of Darkness is a mind-bending read, page by astounding page.
(The Serpent and the Rainbow is Davis’ more narrative book, which was made into a movie of the same name.)