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Wade Davis on Haitian zombies

Do zombies exist? If so, how can they be explained scientifically? Those are some questions ethnobotanist Wade Davis set out to answer when he began his field work in Haiti in the early 1980s. This research led to his fascinating 1985 book, The Serpent and the Rainbow. In this 1986 interview with CBC's Peter Gzowski, Davis explains how certain drugs, combined with Haiti's cultural beliefs, can create what appears to be a zombie -- someone who rises from the dead and walks around in a trance-like state.
• Wade Davis was born in West Vancouver in 1953 but grew up in Pointe Claire, Que.
  • He was educated at Harvard University, earning degrees in anthropology and biology as well as a Ph.D. in ethnobotany.

• When The Serpent and the Rainbow was published in 1985, it created quite a stir. The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Davis's subject alone is tantalizingly exotic, and he plays to the reader's interest in the bizarre by italicizing the melodramatic aspects of his story." While the book had many fans, it had its critics too, with some people questioning the accuracy of his scientific findings. For instance, many scientists had trouble believing his claim that Haitian witchdoctors could keep the "zombies" in a drug-induced trance for years at a time.

• In 1988, director Wes Craven made a horror movie loosely based on Davis's book, also titled The Serpent and the Rainbow. Davis wasn't impressed with the film adaptation, calling it "one of the worst Hollywood movies in history."

• After the success of The Serpent and the Rainbow, his first book, Davis went on to write many others. These include: Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988), Penan Voice for the Borneo Rain Forest (1990), The Art of Shamanic Healing (1991), One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest (1996), The Clouded Leopard: A Book of Travels (1998), Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing (2001), and The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schultes (2004).

• Davis was chosen to deliver the Massey Lecture for 2009. The Massey Lectures have been broadcast on CBC Radio since 1961, and they typically feature a distinguished speaker addressing a political, cultural or philosophical topic in an in-depth manner. Davis's 2009 Massey Lecture is titled "The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World." 

Medium: Radio
Program: Morningside
Broadcast Date: Jan. 24, 1986
Guest(s): Wade Davis
Host: Peter Gzowski
Duration: 18:00

Last updated: February 23, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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