Movie posters for the 1932 horror film White Zombie featured an excerpt from the Haitian Criminal Code as proof that the country "recognizes the existence of Zombies" and punishes practitioners of this "necromancy" with the death penalty. Other films and books have said the same, but the truth is more complicated.
Indeed, as recently as 2014, a documentary about the zombie genre mentions Haiti's 1883 criminal code and claims that people being turned into zombies was such a widespread problem that a new law — "Article 246" — was enacted to put an end to it.
Intrigued by the true origin and meaning of Article 246, a team of researchers at the Library of Congress, which has an original copy of the legal document (below), decided to take a closer at the law.
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.
As one of the researchers, a foreign law specialist named Nicolas Boring, explains:
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."
Further research revealed that Article 246 originally defined just the simple crime of "poisoning." It wasn't until 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.
Article 246 — and zombies — became part of U.S. pop-culture in 1929, when author William Buehler Seabrook published a sensationalized travelogue about Haiti titled The Magic Island:
It was Seabrook who confronted zombies for the first time in an overt way in an English-language text…the 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
In The Magic Island, Seabrook quoted Article 246 (actually, he mistakenly referred to it as Article 249) to strengthen the credibility of claims in his book that "zombies" did, in fact, exist.
Seabrook's writings inspired the Bela Lugosi film, White Zombie. And together, they helped shape the popular concept of zombies, which Seabrook described as "a soulless human corpse" with "a mechanical semblance of life."