Haitian Voodoo (or Voodou) is a religion unlike any other. And while zombies are not necessarily a mainstay of Haitian Voodoo, many practitioners believe that (like many other Voodoo stories) these tales of zombies are real - and there's even evidence to suggest that there is some truth to the Haitian zombie mythology.
The history of zombies existing in Haiti began when the first slaves were brought over from Africa by French colonialists. The origins of these zombies began as a manifestation of the anxieties brought on by slavery, and over generations have evolved into something much more. Here is the truth behind Haitian zombies - without all the sensationalism often found in movies.
The process of zombification begins when a bokor selects a victim and administers the zombie powder to them. This administration can vary from ingestion to injection, or even a blow dart. Once the powder takes effect, the victim enters a state of death-like paralysis in which they are still conscious. After being pronounced dead, they then bear witness to their own burial.
To prevent asphyxiation, the bokor must dig up the body within eight hours of the burial. It is at this point that the zombie ritual begins. The bokor starts by capturing the ti bon ange of the victim, which puts the gros bon ange and the body under his control. He then keeps the ti bon ange in a small clay jar or some other container, wraps it in a piece of the person's clothes, and stores it for safe keeping.
A day or two later, the bokor revives their now-zombie using another powder mixture called "zombie cucumber." This hallucinogenic concoction is used periodically to keep the victim in a state of submissive confusion. The bokor can then easily control the zombie, and usually puts them to work farming and laboring. Only when the bokor dies (or voluntarily relinquishes control) can the zombie return to their place of burial to rest in peace.
Distinct from the reanimated corpses found in George A. Romero lore (think Night of the Living Dead), the Haitian voodoo zombie is not actively rotting, nor does it feel compelled to consume the flesh of the living. Basically, in the Haitian Voodoo religion, a bokor (or sorcerer) can capture the soul of a recently deceased person and reanimate their body. This mindless, soulless body is usually then given menial tasks to perform for the bokor.
During the zombification ritual, a bokor uses a complex powder referred to as “coup de poudre,” or powder strike, made from a variety of ingredients usually including a species of puffer fish, a marine toad, a hyla tree frog, and human remains. The inclusion of the puffer fish is particularly important because it produces a deadly neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin. This toxin creates paralysis and death, and the victims usually remain conscious until right before the moment of death. Additionally, there have been documented cases where people who have ingested tetrodotoxin appeared dead, but went on to make a full recovery.
The roots of the zombie mythology began with the experiences of African slaves being transported to the French colony of Saint-Domingue in modern Haiti. Life on the sugar plantations there wasn't good, to say the least, and half of the slaves ended up being worked to death within a few years of their arrival, which created a perpetual need for fresh bodies. So, it isn't surprising that, within the Voodoo religion, a version of Hell would be created that involved continuing this toil after death into eternity: enter the zombie.
Slaves brought with them the roots of voodoo tradition, the origins of which can be traced back to nearly 6,000 years ago in West Africa. The French then forced them to convert to Christianity, causing the interesting combination of Catholicism and pagan tradition that is associated with Voodoo today. The horrors of slavery and the anxieties held by a group of people under constant threat of death were woven into the Voodoo religion, including the zombie belief itself.