Real zombies were allegedly created from the zombie powder of the bokors.
The powder refers to three different powders: the tetrodotoxin, from the pufferfish, bufotoxin, which is toad venom, and datura stramonium, which comes from the datura plant, also known as jimson weed.
Anthropologist Wade Davis published his research on these powders back in 1985, with his book, The Serpent and the Rainbow. He details the account of Clairvius Narcisse, who claimed to have been turned into a zombie by this method.
Bokors used tetrodotoxin and bufotoxin, as well as crushed human bones, various plant and animal ingredients, and sometimes other random ingredients, to create a powder that they applied to the skin.
The other ingredients were usually irritating to the skin, creating small breaks in the skin that allowed the tetrodotoxin to seep in.
Tetrodotoxin and bufotoxin cause the victim to go into paralysis or a coma-like state within hours or days, making him to appear dead. Plus, with the medical knowledge back then, it was a lot easier for people to mistake it as a death.
The victim would be buried, and would be in this state for a few days, giving the bokor enough time to dig up the person and transport him.
After that, the bokor would give the victim regular doses of datura stramonium, which causes hallucinations, amnesia, and suggestibility.
Haitians already knew of zombies and of the bokor's "magical" abilities, and combined with the datura, it was easy for them to think that they had actually become zombies.
The main problem with this process actually working is that tetrodotoxin is very difficult to administer at the correct dose. It can do nothing, or it can be very lethal, and for a bokor, who is basically a witch doctor, to be able to know the exact dose needed, is really, really difficult.
When Davis bought these zombie powders from bokors, they all had varying amounts of the poisons, and when he used them on rats, they didn't have any effect.
You could say the bokor make a fake because they didn't want to give away the real thing, or you could say the stuff doesn't actually work. It is folk medicine, after all.
Ultimately nobody can really say, but they did make a movie out of his book, with the same name, which every zombie aficionado should watch.
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