Investigating the Haitian Zombie - VICE - 4 of 6

Uploaded by vice on Jan 25, 2012


DAVE: I did what one would do, is you take all this stuff
back for taxanomic identification.
You look in the literature to see if there's any reports on
what it might have.
It was a mix of a plethora of ingredients.
Everything from snakes, dried toads, and various plants, and
then these curious fish.
HAMILTON: While Alex arranges a meeting with the new bokor,
I decide to see if I can find the ingredients Dave has
described on my own.
DAVE: I Identified the plants and the amphibians.
And I finally went around to the fish guys.
I found this ichthyologist, literally with his head inside
this big jaw of some massive fish he was counting the teeth
of or something.
And he literally reached up and pulled from his shelf,
between these dusty volumes of the Journal of Ichthyology, a
copy of Ian Fleming's James Bond book
From Russia With Love.
One of those early books in the James Bond saga.
007 gets kicked in the shin and he dies, and then he turns
back alive in the next book.
That's how the guy in the lab introduced me to the fact that
I'd really landed on something.

HAMILTON: The puffer fish is a marvel of evolution and
Its internal organs contain one of the most potent
neurotoxins ever discovered.
It is the TTX in the pufferfish which induces the
total body flaccid paralysis, almost
indistinguishable from death.
DAVE: The simple identification of the fish
suddenly took the whole zombie investigation from the realm
of the phantasmagoric into the realm of the conceivable.

The fish that were used in the poisons had a very interesting
molecule in their viscera, in their liver, in their ovaries,
and on the surface of the skin.
And this was a neurotoxin called Tetrodotoxin, which is
a complex molecule.
It's about 160,000 times more potent than cocaine as an
It's about 1,000 times more toxic than potassium cyanide.
A lethal dose of the pure molecule would balance on the
head of a pin.
But more interesting than the sheer toxicity was the way
that it killed.
And we knew the poison could do just what was necessary.
It mechanically blocks sodium channels in the nerves which
brought on peripheral paralysis, dramatically low
metabolic rates, and yet consciousness was retained
until the moment of death.

HAMILTON: Oh wow, he got it.
And it's all puffed up.
Oh my God.
The fish is shot with a speargun and
pulled out of the water.
The entry wound is close to the brain, with an exit wound
in the stomach.

HAMILTON: oh wow, look at it, it's puffing up.
Much to my astonishment, when it's pulled out of the water
it begins to inflate itself despite the two gaping holes
in its body.
How is this possible?
I tentatively identified the fish as Diodon Hystrix, a
species so poisonous that people have been hospitalized
for merely touching the spines.
DAVE: The fish that I found in Haiti being used in these
preparations were members of a pantropical order of fish
called a Tetra Odontiformes, which also include the famous
Fugu fish of Japan, the culinary delicacy.
For centuries, or certainly for generations,
specially-trained chefs have been
preparing these toxic fish.
They carefully eliminate the toxin so that the person can
enjoy the nontoxic fillets of the fish.
The real role of the Fugu chef is not to eliminate the toxin
altogether, but to reduce it.
To the extent that the connoisseur still enjoys the
effects of the mild intoxication, which include
waves of euphoria, tingling sensations.
It's one of the few substances that walks a fine line between
food and drug.

HAMILTON: It sounds like there's sort of a biphasic
thing where it starts out with the TTX poisoning, and then
after, then they're given Scopolomine or Atropine.
DAVE: So we've talked, for example, about the
But then what's fascinating is that by all accounts as the
zombie comes back around, he is fed the paste of concombre
zombie, the zombie's cucumber.
Now this is based on Datura, and it includes, of course,
these propane alkaloids Propylamine and Atropine.

HAMILTON: Dave has hypothesized that the
chemicals in the zombie cucumber were used to keep the
zombie in a state of submissive confusion.
There's one right there.

But I'm not so sure that this is Datura Stramonium.
Oh, it has to be older?

DAVE: This would be the perfect drug to kind of
socialize the individual into a new state of
psychosis, if you will.
These are powerfully active drugs.
They bring on a state of induced psychotic delirium,
visions of hell fire, a burning thirst, a
sensation of flight.
These are the drugs of choice of every black magician and
sorcerer throughout the world.
And they create a kind of a psychic dislocation that is
described invariably by anyone who takes the drug as being
incredibly terrifying.

HAMILTON: After the preparation, which consists of
a despining and crude hepatectomy, the remaining
organ meat is scrambled, salted, and
served on a silver dish.
ALEX: There was this enormous literature on just what these
fish could do to you.
It turns out, by folk custom in Japan, if you succumb to
Fugu fish you're laid on the ground for several days to
make sure you're really dead.
And there are case, after case, after case in the
literature and in the newspapers of Japan of people
nailed into their coffins by mistake.
HAMILTON: On this dish is a species of puffer, which is
known to be poisonous.
In October, a season where the fish is known to contain
deadly quantities of TTX.
Yet nobody around me seems concerned in the slightest.

The meat is chewy, and I'm delighted to say, tastes
almost indistinguishable from chicken.
DAVE: At the time, no one really understood the
biogenesis of the toxin within the fish.
There was a tremendous amount of variability, and we knew
that 50% of the time these fish were not toxic at all.
But what was fascinating is that this meant that at least
50% of the time these toxins would be ineffective,
So what's going on here?
Well, that really turned out to be the key to the puzzle.
Every drug, in a sense, particularly hallucinogenic
drugs, they have absolutely neutral potential for good or
evil-- an ambivalent potential.
And that everything depends on the cultural matrix in which
the drug is used.