Don's Diary

April 4, 1997


8pm. Haiti. Biting a cock's head off is not an experience like eating fried Creole chicken. It's not just one's mouthful of warm blood and small feathers: the fowl goes into a most extraordinary spasm and flaps about dreadfully. Voodoo is hardly an animal-friendly religion, I realise, looking at the remains of various goats around Altesse Paul'sounfour (temple). Altesse, who is overseeing my preliminary initiation as his hunsi, cracks his bull whip and grins at me sympathetically as two of his followers pound astringent leaves in a large mortar in rhythm with the Petro drums for the ceremony of pilay fey: protection for future sorcery.


4am. Only large quantities of five-star Barbancourt rum forcibly poured down my throat by Altesse have kept me going. Veronique, an initiate possessed by the Dahomeyean snake deity Dumballah, writhes at my feet, her tongue flicking in and out of her teeth. A live hen has now been added into the mortar, with two bottles of rum which are ignited, and the whole flaming mass is plastered on to our bellies - if we have pulled our shirts up in time. The burning is pleasantly invigorating, recalling Chinese moxibustion or massage therapy. Altesse has become possessed again, swinging from the temple cross-beams as he vigorously puffs at a local cigar. I am struck by just how controlled spirit possession is: an old lady who has fallen to the ground spirit-struck is carefully protected from striking her head against the central pole of the temple.

8am. The goat, cooked at last, certainly tastes better than a live chicken. Altesse's weary group disband for daily work in their millet gardens, and we continue our conversation in Creole on the reason for my stay in Haiti. When asked by Channel4 to make a film on zombies, the sheer B-movie exoticism of the project made me doubtful of perpetuating the colonial horror story of "the living dead" which entered Western cinema during the occupation of Haiti by the United States Marines in the 1920s. I have been somewhat reassured by the local acceptance of my Cockney film crew. Altesse is sheer B-movie material himself. Zombification is a serious crime here (prohibited under Article 246 of the Penal Code) but accepted by everybody.


A well-regarded sorcerer as well as a priest, Altesse Paul shows me the bottles under his altar which contain the ti-bon-anjs (spirits) of his zombies. No, I cannot see the re-animated bodies working on his slave plantation in the mountains, it would be too dangerous for him and for me: not until I am fully initiated.


Back to Wilfred D, my first zombie, whom I had already concluded is now mentally handicapped. At the age of 18, recalls his father, an alleged former tonton macoute, Wilfred developed a fever, died and was buried in the family tomb. A year later he was found alive at a nearby cock-fight and returned to his family after implicating his father's elder brother. I study the local court records: the uncle confessed and was sentenced to life imprisonment but escaped from prison during the coup against President Aristide. Today Wilfred and I return to the tomb from which he had been extracted. He leans against it wearily without much interest. Is he really a father's son? Sorcerer-like myself, I take blood from Wilfred and his parents for DNA testing.


More problems. We take another zombie, Marie, back to visit the slave plantation from which she escaped. It turns out to be a normal village, and Marie is recognised as a simple-minded young woman who was abducted during the carnival earlier in the year. I and her brother, who found her miles away, are ourselves held by the police under Section 246. I promise to send them the results of my blood tests and am allowed to leave with Marie and her brother. Is she really related to the family?


Wilfred's uncle has been traced; he says the whole case was a put-up job but doesn't know how Wilfred survived burial.


How could an anthropologist have taken any of this zombie business as empirical reality? Zombification seems an allegory of racism, an emblem of Haitian identity, the republic of former slaves continuing to face the ever-present threat of dependency, external intervention and the loss of self-determination, economic and spiritual servitude.


London. All the same, I await with interest the laboratory results of the genetic fingerprinting of Wilfred, Marie and their families. Channel 4 tells me my film on bodily resurrection is scheduled for Easter Day. I don't really believe that either.

Roland Littlewood, professor of anthropology and psychiatry, University College London.

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