April 07, 1986 12:00 PM

The merciless Haitian sun illuminated a deep scar on the face of Clairvius Narcisse as he walked into his boyhood village six years ago. Entering the marketplace, he approached his sister and whispered his childhood nickname. Angelina Narcisse stared in disbelief. Eighteen years earlier she had watched while two doctors, one American, had declared Clairvius dead. Later she had stood by as grave diggers threw dirt on his coffin. Yes, Narcisse nodded, he remembered the funeral. He bore the scar where a coffin nail had punctured his cheek. Buried alive, Narcisse rose from his grave to join the living dead; a body without a soul, without will, he walked the hard Haitian earth…as a zombie.

Zombies. Voodoo. The words conjure up grade-B horror movies, but not to ethnobotanist Wade Davis. Not only does Davis find Narcisse’s bizarre tale credible, he explains how it could have happened in a fascinating book, The Serpent and the Rainbow (Simon and Schuster, $17.95).

Using his Harvard training (he has degrees in anthropology and biology), Davis, 32, claims that there are indeed drugs capable of turning humans into the “undead.” In the course of his research, the Canadian-born scientist penetrated Haitian culture as few white men have. He returned profoundly impressed. “Voodoo is a legitimate religion,” he says. “I’m trying to deglamorize a myth that has been used to malign a culture.”

When Davis made his first trip to Haiti in 1982, his reasons did not stop at science. “The weather was awful in Boston, and someone offered me two free weeks in Haiti at the best hotels,” Davis reports. Then a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in ethnobotany (the study of how cultures use plants), Davis was hired by a group of scientists to look into Narcisse’s story. If a zombie “poison” actually existed, the scientists reasoned, it could revolutionize the practice of anesthesia.

Davis was dispatched with a “sizeable” chunk of cash—he refuses to say how much—to buy a sample of the zombie powder. Over the next two years he pursued a perplexing study of voodooism, which Davis calls vodoun society. He found it a complex weaving of herbal medicine, religious passion and strict social codes. Zombification is a weapon wielded by the secret societies that govern village life. Narcisse apparently became a zombie as punishment for stealing family land and letting his children starve.

On his very first night in Port-au-Prince, Davis observed an open vodoun ceremony in which initiates whipped themselves into a frenzy and experienced spirit possession. Driven by the throbbing drumbeat, a white-robed woman licked flaming embers but developed no blisters on her tongue. She snapped the head off a live dove with her teeth and also bit through a glass and swallowed the shards, but her lips did not bleed. At this point in his life Davis had lived with 15 Indian tribes in eight countries. Still, he writes, “Never had I witnessed a phenomenon as raw or powerful as the spectacle of vodoun possession.”

It was just the beginning. Aided by the 16-year-old daughter of a vodoun priest, Davis walked with Narcisse through the cemetery where he claims to have been buried, and became initiated into a secret society. One night he watched the body of a baby girl being taken from a grave. Recalling that grisly sight, Davis says, “I had crossed the line, an ethical line, that I wouldn’t cross again.” The baby’s bones were grilled over a fire, and what remained was grated into “zombie powder” by adding lizards, toads and a blowfish. The last ingredient provided Davis with a revelation: Blowfish contain tetrodotoxin, a well-known nerve toxin at least 500 times more lethal than cyanide; this poison, says Davis, may be “critical to the zombie phenomenon.” In four trips to Haiti, Davis did not observe the actual creation of a zombie, nor did he observe one being raised from the grave.

Davis’ own face develops a zombie-like expression when people compare him to Indiana Jones. “I’m reluctant to be cast as a great explorer,” he says. “It’s never as romantic as people think.” The son of a Vancouver bank officer, Davis developed a passion for the wilderness during a high school trip to South America. Having worked summers as a surveyor, foreman, logger and forest ranger, Davis decided to become an ethnobotanist because, he jokes, “I couldn’t believe you could cut flowers and get paid for it.” At 20, he navigated the Darien Gap, 250 miles of rain forest between Colombia and Panama, with “no plans, no maps and no supplies.” Shy about discussing his adventures, the unassuming author nonetheless will admit that he has dined on a live termite nest in the rain forest. A bachelor, Davis lived in Virginia until recently. Now in France finishing his dissertation on zombification, Davis would like to settle down but confesses, “The question isn’t the city, it’s deciding on which continent.”

The publication of The Serpent and the Rainbow has brought a variety of responses. Garry Trudeau enjoyed the book so much that he incorporated his newfound knowledge into Doonesbury. Duke, who supposedly died from a drug overdose, is actually a zombie. He recently woke up in a coffin, his first words being: “This has got to be the worst hangover of my entire life.” From a more serious viewpoint, Davis sees his book as an attempt to strip away the racist attitudes that have turned a legitimate religion into a Hollywood joke. “Everybody asks me how a white person got this information,” he said recently. “To ask that question means you don’t understand Haitians—they don’t judge you by the color of your skin.”

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