How Zombies Work

The Zombie Controversy

At first glance, Davis's research seems promising. Tetrodotoxin definitely causes paralysis and death, and researchers have documented cases in which people have recovered from near-fatal tetrodotoxin poisoning. Some of the samples Davis brought back to the United States also produced dramatic results when applied to the shaved skin of rats and a rhesus monkey. The subjects became lethargic and then immobile, but they eventually recovered completely.

Other researchers, however, have raised questions about the legitimacy of Davis's research and the actual components of the samples he brought back from Haiti. Scientists have:


  • Questioned Davis's ethics, since he observed the desecration of graves when gathering ingredients for the powder
  • Questioned whether the initial experiments with the powder were scientific or controlled and whether other substances had been added to the powder being tested
  • Alleged that samples of powder contained little to no tetrodotoxin. Davis counters that putting the powder into solution for testing may have destroyed the active ingredients
  • Revealed that Davis repeated his topical applications of the powder using rats and saw absolutely no effect
  • Studied several alleged zombies and discovered clear cases of mental illness and mistaken identity

A lot of people view Davis's work as the only possible explanation for the Haitian zombie phenomenon. Others dismiss it as unscientific or even fraudulent. You can learn more about the controversies regarding Haitian zombies and Davis's research in the April 15, 1988 issue of the journal Science or the October 11, 1997 issue of The Lancet.

Haitian zombies have been the inspiration for movies, books and video games. Next, we'll look at portrayals of zombies in popular culture.