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Does the Haitian Criminal Code Outlaw Making Zombies?

This is a guest post by Anne Guha, who was an intern with the Law Library’s Public Services Division this spring and is now working in Public Services, with expert assistance from Nicolas Boring, a foreign law specialist at the Law Library of Congress.

At this time of year (well, honestly, at all times of year), I very much enjoy scouring around for movies that are fun, interesting, and, above all, scary.  In so doing, I stumbled onto a number of documentaries on various spooky or Halloween-y topics, and selected “Doc of the Dead” (2014), a film about modern zombie culture and the zombie genre.  The film brings up the 1883 Haitian Criminal Code, and claims that people being turned into zombies was a real problem in Haiti, as evidenced by a statute which outlaws making zombies.  Given that the documentary’s focus was predominantly on modern American “zombie” films and culture, rather than law, I wondered whether this interpretation was entirely accurate.  I decided to look into this provision and consulted with Nicolas Boring, the foreign law specialist at the Law Library who covers France and other French-speaking countries.  He was gracious enough to lend some of his expertise to my research.

We quickly determined that an 1883 copy of the Haitian Criminal Code is not only available in the Library of Congress’ collection, but it also has been beautifully digitized.  This item is actually a copy of the Les Codes Haïtiens Annotés (Annotated Haitian Codes), which collects the Penal Code, along with several other sources of Haitian law at that time, such as the Civil Code and the Code of Civil Procedure.  In fact, the provision referred to in “Doc of the Dead” is on page 101 of the Criminal Code (page 567 of the digitized PDF, linked above):

Article 246 as it appears in Les Codes Haïtiens Annotés (Annotated Haitian Codes)

Article 246 as it appears in Les Codes Haïtiens Annotés (Annotated Haitian Codes)

This article also appears in our 2011 copy of the Haitian criminal code, Code Pénal, mis à jour et annoté (Penal Code, Updated and Annotated).  In English, the provision reads:

Is considered a poisoning any attempt on the life of a person through the use of substances which can cause death more or less cleanly, regardless of the manner in which these substances were used or administered, and regardless of the consequences.

Is also considered attempt on life by poisoning the use made against a person of substances which, without giving death, will cause a more-or-less prolonged state of lethargy, regardless of the manner in which these substances were used and regardless of the consequences.

If the person was buried as a consequence of this state of lethargy, the attempt will be considered a murder.[1]

How does this provision relate to the creatures we think of today as “zombies”?  Nicolas writes:

One must look at the original meaning of the term “zombie,” which is actually slightly different from the flesh-eating reanimated corpses that we see in modern horror fiction.  The word is derived from the Haitian creole “zonbi.”  According to Dr. Yves Saint-Gérard, author of Le Phénomène Zombi (The Zombie Phenomenon), this term designates a “living-dead,” or, figuratively, a person devoid of any will or character.  According to traditional Haitian beliefs, a person might be “zombified” by a bokor (the Voodoo equivalent of a sorcerer).  Through the use of dark magic, the bokor brings the victim into a state of near-death or deep coma.  The victim’s family and community bury him/her, thinking that he/she is dead.  But the bokor subsequently digs up and revives the victim as a zombie:  a state under which he/she is devoid of free will and does whatever the bokor tells him/her to do.

It is unclear how a bokor induces his victim’s near-death state, but it appears to be through the use of potions.  One theory is that zombification results from the ingestion of tetradotoxin, a chemical extracted from puffer fish (Dr. Saint- Gérard attributes this theory to American botanist Wade Davis).  In any case, it seems that zombification comes from ingesting, as stated by article 246 of the Haitian Criminal Code, “substances which, without giving death, will cause a more-or-less prolonged state of lethargy.”

According to The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti, by Kate Ramsey, Article 246 originally defined just the simple crime of “poisoning,” as you can see in the first paragraph of the law.  It was not until October of 1864 that the provision was expanded to include the second and third paragraphs, containing the language about “the use made against a person of substances which, without giving death, will cause a more-or-less prolonged state of lethargy” and burial thereafter.   These parts of the provision were added under General Fabre Nicolas Geffrard, a Catholic Haitian general who, having risen to power in 1859, sought to eradicate “old superstitions” in Haiti.[2]

Americans have had a fascination with Haiti and “voodoo” ever since the U.S. invasion and occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934, but how did Article 246 come to be taken as evidence in popular media as a statute which “outlaws the making of zombies”?  This perception seems to date back to the late 1920s, when American author William Buehler Seabrook published a popular (and rather sensationalized) “travelogue” about Haiti entitled The Magic Island (1929).  This book was apparently one of the first sources to introduce the concept of “zombies” to America.  Gary D. Rhodes writes:

[A] lengthy intellectual history precedes Seabrook […], sculpting U.S. attitudes towards Haiti, constructing a knowledge base of voodooism, and introducing the idea of zombiism.  However, it was Seabrook who confronted zombies for the first time in an overt way in an English-language text.  […]  [T]he word zombie/zombi had appeared in English print before The Magic Island, but as a term for other voodoo concepts, such as the snake god.  The concept of zombies as the living dead had also appeared in English print prior to The Magic Island, but Seabrook was the first major English-language author to publish the word zombie as the term for the living dead.[3]

In The Magic Island, Seabrook quoted Article 246 (actually, he mis-cited the provision, referring to it as Article 249) to strengthen the credibility of claims in his book that “zombies” (as he described them) did, in fact, exist.  As Ramsey explains, “the penal pursuit and prosecution of le vaudoux [voodoo] by the Geffrard government paradoxically drew more international publicity to such practices (or, rather, fantasies thereof) than to the fact of their prohibition and repression.  […]  In imperial writing during the [U.S.] occupation, much was made of the positivism of the law, which seemed to provide undeniable proof in both its text and its application that ‘voodoo’ flourished in Haiti.   W.B. Seabrook capitalized on both of these evidentiary regimes in The Magic Island.”

Victor Haperin’s 1932 classic American horror film White Zombie [4], starring Bela Lugosi, would later draw from Seabrook’s book in its “attempt to build a narrative around a creature other than a vampire, ghost, or Frankensteinian monster.”[5]  The film included references to the mis-cited “Article 249” both in its script as well as integrated into various press releases and advertisements for the film:

White Zombie advertisement in Variety, July 26, 1932, with Article "249" displayed in the lower left-hand corner.

White Zombie advertisement in Variety, July 26, 1932, with Article “249” displayed in the lower left-hand corner.

Cover of the 1932 Pressbook, with Article "249"displayed in the lower left-hand corner.

Cover of the 1932 Pressbook, with Article “249” displayed in the lower left-hand corner.

Advertising materials for the film “played up the apparent recognition of zombies by the Haitian Penal Code, encouraging theater owners to place in their lobbies blow-ups of ‘Article 249′”[6]:

From the White Zombie British Pressbook

From the White Zombie British Pressbook

Though the law’s translation in these materials seems to  come primarily from Seabrook’s book, it seems that “the bracketed word ‘zombie’ was strictly a Hollywood inclusion, inserted to lend a supernatural air to Article 249’s medical/legal emphasis” and to connect the law to the title of the film.[7]

In ingesting all this information about the background of Article 246 and the history of its use in American books and film, I wondered whether “Doc of the Dead” was perhaps ultimately drawing from Seabrook and the White Zombie film in making its claims that the Haitian Criminal code “outlaws making zombies.”  It’s difficult to say whether this is the case.  What does seem clear, however, is that Seabrook’s characterization of a “zombie”–as “a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life”-does not seem to match up with the Haitian concepts from which he purported to draw.[8]   In the opening pages of The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985), Wade Davis emphasizes that, “as a result of the sensational and inaccurate interpretations in the media, Hollywood in particular, the word voodoo has come to represent a fantasy of black magic and sorcery.”[9]  He continues, “what we have come to know as ‘voodoo’ bears little resemblance” to “the rich religion of the Haitian traditional society.”[10]

Although it was the film White Zombie –drawing its definition of “zombies” from Seabrook–which, in large part, “induced a widespread interest in voodoo and zombies throughout U.S. culture” and helped to shape our modern concept of “zombies,”[11] even popular titles such as Matt Mogk’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies  seem to recognize that there is an important distinction between original Haitian concepts and the modern popular culture notion of a “zombie.”  Mogk writes:

[O]ther than their shared name, there is no connection between the voodoo zombie and the modern zombie.  […]  From a factual, anthropological, religious, or historic standpoint, there is no connection between the voodoo zombie and the modern zombie. […] [V]oodoo zombies aren’t dead.  The lack of connection between the voodoo zombie and the modern zombie cannot be overstated.[12]


[1] Translation of Nicolas Boring.

[2] See Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (2011), p. 81.

[3] Gary D. Rhodes, White Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film (2001), p.30, 81

[4] It appears that the White Zombie (1932) film is now in the public domain.  See Copyright Search Report: White Zombie (1932); see also Rhodes, pp 188-189.

[5] Rhodes, p. 30.

[7] Senn, p. 88.  See also Rhodes, p. 125.

[8] W.B. Seabrook, The Magic Island (1929) p 93; (quoted also in Rhodes, p 32)

[9] Wade Davis, The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985), p. 11.

[10] Davis, p. 11.

[11] Rhodes, p. 183.

[12] Matt Mogk, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies (2011), p. 9, 10, 12.


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