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Monday, November 24, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Research Finds `Zombies' Had Mental Illness

The Washington Post

Researchers who studied the cases of three Haitian "zombies" concluded that all three individuals had psychiatric or brain disorders but added that they could not rule out the possibility that local sorcerers may have used poisons to cause the abnormal behavior.

In Haitian culture, a zombi is a person whose spirit is believed to have been stolen by a local sorcerer - before or just after death - so that the body can be brought back to life as the magician's slave. People in Haiti recognize zombies by their fixed stare, clumsy movements and nasal, repetitive speech. In recent years, some medical investigators have raised the possibility that the "sorcerers" may use a nerve poison from the puffer fish to induce deathlike paralysis, followed by another plant-derived drug to revive the victim and keep him in their thrall.

British psychiatrist-anthropologist Roland Littlewood and Haitian researcher Chavannes Douyon examined and performed medical tests on three alleged zombies. One was a young woman who had reportedly died at age 30 only to reappear three years later - thin, nearly mute, slow-moving and unable to feed herself. The tomb where she had supposedly been buried was found to be full of stones. Based on her behavior, the researchers concluded she was schizophrenic.

The second case, a 26-year-old man, had allegedly died but had been "recognized" by relatives at a cock fight 19 months later. His uncle was imprisoned for zombifying him. He was a thin, scowling man who spoke rarely, spent most of his time lying in one position and had occasional seizures when he slept. He was diagnosed with brain damage and epilepsy, possibly caused by oxygen deprivation that could have been produced by poisoning. DNA tests showed he was unrelated to the people who claimed to be his parents.

The third person, a 31-year-old woman, was said to have died at age 18 and to have reappeared 13 years later, telling people she had been released from imprisonment as a zombie in a far-off town. Unusually outgoing for a zombie, she asked questions spontaneously but appeared to be mentally retarded and often laughed at inappropriate times. Two men claimed her as their sister, but DNA tests showed she was related to neither. The researchers concluded she had a learning disability, possibly caused by fetal alcohol syndrome.

Two sorcerers interviewed by Littlewood and Douyon identified puffer fish and various other plant and animal products as ingredients used in their craft. The authors suggest that local acceptance of zombies is Haitian society's traditional way of caring for people with brain disorders or mental illness. However, they add, "we cannot exclude the use of a neuromuscular toxin . . . by a boko (sorcerer) to induce catalepsy followed by secret retrieval of the poisoned individual."

The study appeared last month in Lancet.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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