The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Zombie Poison


“My first impression of the three ‘zombies,’ who apathetically continued with their work, was that there was something unnatural and strange about them. They appeared to do their work completely automatically, like robots, and held their heads so low that I would have had to bend down to see into their faces. . . . The worst thing was the eyes. No, it had nothing to do with my imagination. They were in truth the eyes of a corpse, not blind, but gazing rigidly into emptiness, without expression, lifeless, nonseeing. The entire face was like that, saying nothing, slack and empty. It appeared not just to be without expression, but to not even be capable of any expression at all. . . . These ‘zombies’ were nothing more than pitiable insane people, idiots, that were forced to perform heavy work in the fields.”




(1931, 107, 108)


Other Names


Zombie powder, zombi poison


The voodoo cult (also called vodouvodun, or wodu) is a syncretic system composed of elements of traditional Yoruba religion, early-modern-era Catholicism, and various influences from the magic of India, Native American concepts, and occult practices. The voodoo cult is practiced almost exclusively by the descendants of slaves brought to the New World from Africa and is centered in Haiti. Voodoo and other similar cults are also practiced on other Caribbean islands, in the southeastern United States, and in the northern areas of South America. Voodoo is a possession cult in which the participants individually or collectively enter into trance in order to have spiritual experiences, to heal, or to perform divinations (Planson 1975). Whether psychoactive substances play a significant part in this remains an open question (cf. madzoka medicine).

Although the zombie phenomenon is concentrated in Haiti, it is also known in Guadeloupe. Zombies, the “living dead,” were long regarded as the stuff of legend and dismissed as mere folklore (Metraux 1972). The fact that zombies have nothing to do with folklore but are a real phenomenon with a sociocultural background was first reported by Seabrook (1931), who even claimed to have encountered zombies.487 Zombies are not the resurrected dead but people who have been turned into the living dead (the process is known as zombification) by a poison known as zombie poison. Zombies are “in reality certainly individuals who have been artificially placed into a state of apparent death, buried, and then awakened and dug up, and are consequently as obedient as beasts of burden, as they must assume in good faith that they are dead” (Leiris 1978, 9). The earliest assumption was that the bokors,490 the voodoo sorcerers, used Datura stramonium to poison their victims. In Haiti and other Caribbean islands (e.g., Guadeloupe), Datura is called concombre zombi, “zombie cucumber.” In the Dominican Republic, the fruit of Passiflora rubra (cf. Passiflora spp.) is known as pomme de liane zombie, “the potato of the zombie liana” (von Reis and Lipp 1982, 197*). Other psychoactive substances have also been associated with zombification. One of the popular street names for PCP (= “angel dust”) is zombie weed (Linder et al. 1981, 10).



Ingredients in the Zombie Poison


(from Davis 1983b, 1988)





Guaiac wood (Guaiacum officinale) is regarded as an ingredient in the antidotes for zombie poison. Because of its resin content, the very hard and heavy wood is also used as an incense.


“If work was beautiful, then the rich would not have left it for the poor to do.”




“The plantation and landowners had more or less smiled about it and claimed that zombies had simply been invented by the Danes, so that the fieldworkers would remain in their huts after the break of night and in this way would preserve the nocturnal peace and also minimize the damage from plundering the ripening harvest.”






In the early 1980s, the American ethnobiologist Wade Davis was able to obtain in Haiti numerous samples of as well as the corresponding recipes for zombie poisons that were purportedly used for the zombification of humans (Davis 1983a, 1983b). The bokors prepare the poison and use it when a payment has been made. Surprisingly, the main ingredients of the recipes are plants and animals that produce psychoactive effects (see table, page 806). If possible, the zombie poison must be administered to the chosen victim through skin contact. Moreover, one “treatment” is usually not enough. Instead, the victim must come into repeated contact with the poison, often over a period of weeks, so that he will fall into a state of apparent death and can be buried and then dug up (Davis 1986). When the apparently “dead” victim is dug up, he is given an antidote that, so to speak, restores him to life. The antidote can also be used to protect a person from the poison (Davis 1983b).

The Effects of Zombie Poison


Davis has assumed that the primary active constituent in zombie poison is tetrodotoxin, a substance derived from the porcupine fish (Diodon hystrix). Although this substance can elicit states of apparent death, in higher concentrations it can induce actual death (Davis 1988). Tetrodotoxin (C11H17N3O3) is a neurotoxin and is one of the most poisonous, nonproteinaceous substances known, inducing complete neuromuscular paralysis. It is sixty times more potent than strychnine or D-tubocurarine (the active constituent in curare), and some five hundred to one thousand times more potent than hydrocyanic acid. For a man weighing 70 kilos, 0.5 mg of the pure substance can be fatal, and 20 g of the fish’s skin is lethal (Davis 1988, 145; Gage 1971). One piquant effect of tetrodotoxin is the occasional induction of apparent death with full consciousness, a condition that cannot be physiologically distinguished from true death, or only with extreme difficulty. As a result, many victims have been buried alive (Davis 1986, 1988).

However, Davis’s assumption that tetrodotoxin is the primary active constituent has been the subject of some contention (Anderson 1988). Though tetrodotoxin has been found to be present in the liver of the Caribbean porcupine fish, it was not detected in any of the samples of zombie poison that Davis was able to obtain (Yasumoto and Kao 1986).

Tetrodotoxin, a Potentially Psychoactive Substance


Japanese waters are home to a genus of pufferfish (Fugu spp.), known as fugu, that is prized in Japanese cuisine. Fugu, however, has one small drawback: it contains tetrodotoxin. Fugu was mentioned in the oldest Chinese herbal, the Pênts’ao Ching. As early as the Han dynasty (202 B.C.E.–220 C.E.), the poison was known to be present in fugu liver. The poison is also present in the fish’s skin, ovaries, and viscera. The poison immediately attacks the tongue and the viscera. Fugu poisoning was regarded as a disease for which there is no cure. Nevertheless, since at least 1596, these fish have been regarded as one of the most refined, expensive, and prized delicacies of Japanese cuisine. Fugu is “considered one of those rare delicacies that straddles the border between food and drug” (Davis 1986, 162). The following species are eaten in Japan:


Fugu rubripes rubripes Temminck et Schlegel

Fugu paradalis Temminck et Schlegel

Fugu vermicularis prophyreus Temminck et Schlegel

Fugu vermicularis vermicularis Temminck et Schlegel


The art of preparing fugu, which in Japan requires an examination and a license, does not entail removing the poison from the fish but, rather, leaving a trace of the poison in the food. Usually only well-to-do businessmen and the women they have hired for the night are present in fugu restaurants. There are approximately two thousand licensed chefs and a similar number of specialty restaurants. A fugu dinner is expensive and can cost as much as $300 to $600 per person. The erotic meal is also risky. For fugu patrons, playing with death has an almost erotic allure, and a meal of fugu is the ultimate aesthetic experience. Fugu is extremely delicious and produces an incredible effect!

Chiri is fugu meat that has been cooked in a soup containing the poisonous viscera. As a result, it is impregnated with the poison and has become an inebriating, euphoric, and aphrodisiac drug (Davis 1988, 152). The effects are phenomenal. At first, a pleasant tingling runs up one’s back and head and hairs seem to vibrate where they meet the skin. One becomes mentally alert, awake, and libidinous. The effects of the alcohol in beer or sake are suppressed (in a manner similar to the effect of cocaine). Slowly, all of one’s muscles become filled with an enormous tension and erotic prickling. Streams of energy swirl around the spinal column. One feels completely electrified. The effects on the sacral ganglia are very clear. In a male, this stimulation quickly becomes noticeable as a hard erection. Sexual desires are amazingly heightened. After my own experience, I understand all too well that it is best to have a fugu dinner with a romantic companion. I have personally found fugu to be a powerful psychoactive aphrodisiac.

And thus, in the repressive and otherwise “drug-hostile” society of Japan (where possession of 1 g of hashish can be punishable by five years of prison), fugu is the only legal psychotropic substance apart from tea (Camellia sinensis), coffee (Coffea arabica), alcohol, and nicotine. Although fugu is clearly an inebriating drug, it has been spared the negative connotations normally associated with drugs because it is regarded as a food (and a delicacy).



Anderson, William H. 1988. Tetrodotoxin and the zombi phenomenon. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 23:121–26.


Davis, E. Wade. 1983a. The ethnobiology of the Haitian zombi. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 9:85–104.


———. 1983b. Preparation of the Haitian zombi poison. Botanical Museum Leaflets 29 (2): 139–49.


———. 1986. Die Toten kommen zurück: Die Erforschung der Voodoo-Kultur und ihrer geheimen Drogen. Munich: Droemer Knaur.


———. 1988. Passages of darkness: The ethnobiology of the Haitian zombie. Chapel Hill, N.C., and London: University of North Carolina Press.


Gage, P. W. 1971. Tetrodotoxin and saxitoxin as pharmaceutical tools. In Neuropoisons: Their pharmacological actions, ed. L. L. Simpson, 187–212. New York and London: Plenum Press.


Leiris, Michel. 1978. Das Auge des Ethnographen. Frankfurt/M.: Syndikat.


Linder, Ronald L., Steven E. Lerner, and R. Stanley Burns. 1981. PCP: The Devil’s Dust. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Co.


Metraux, Alfred. 1972. Voodoo in Haiti. New York: Schocken Books Edition.


Planson, Claude. 1975. Vaudou: rituels et possessions. Paris: Pierre Horay Editeur.


Seabrook, W. B. 1929. The magic island. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co.


———. 1931. Geheimnisvolles Haiti: Rätsel und Symbolik des Wodu-Kultes. Berlin: R. Mosse.


Simpson, George Eaton. 1942. Loup garou and loa tales from northern Haiti. Journal of American Folklore 55:219–27.


Whitehead, Henry S. 1986. Der Zombie. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp.


Yasumoto, Takashi, and C. Y. Kao. 1986. Tetrodotoxin and the Haitian zombie. Toxicon 24:747–49.