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I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.

Monday, July 9, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 40

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

I planned to stay a month in Haiti to finish my book, a black comedy modeled after one of my favorites, Waugh’s Black Mischief. In the denouement, my heroine brings her willful love slave to heel by removing his will. Much like Nurse Ratched has McMurphy lobotomized, my character bribes a Haitian witch doctor, or bokor, to turn her young man into a zombie.

I don’t remember now where I read about the medical doctor in Port-Au-Prince who had actually treated a zombie or two. (It was some five years before Wade Davis published The Serpent and the Rainbow, which revealed the secrets of the bokors in transforming healthy civilians into zombies.) I wanted to interview the doctor to find out if it was indeed possible to turn the living into the undead. No way did I want to hunt up a bokor or attend voodoo ceremonies. I’d acquired a healthy horror of sorcery in Morocco. I considered myself lucky to have left that buzzing hive of demonic spirits behind in Africa. Here in Haiti I could get some sleep, for God’s sake.

I unpacked my typewriter at the Grand Hotel Oloffson, a legendary funky retreat for freewheeling artists and celebrities. Fighting off the bronchitis I’d caught in Casablanca, I should have gone straight to bed, but first the bar beckoned. There, at any hour, one could find intriguing people as well as actual intrigue.

It wasn’t long before I met Aubelin Jolicoeur. Natty and suave, this small Haitian man flitted everywhere and knew everyone’s business. Whatever he did with that information somehow ensured his personal safety throughout the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier. Jolicoeur frequented the Oloffson to schmooze, to pry, to overhear, and afterwards, perhaps, to report. (Graham Greene immortalized him in The Comedians as Petit Pierre, the charming snitch.)

Still, for my purposes, Jolicoeur did know everyone. When I asked him about the zombie M.D., he offered to put us in contact.

I came away from my interview with the doctor with a fascinating account of how legend, fact, and popular belief converged to create a classic monster. The Haitians believed in zombies because sometimes it happened that a grave was found open and the corpse disappeared, as if it had woken up and wandered off. It was said that the bokors’ magic summoned these bodies to half-life, taking them to their compounds for use as servants, or as dumb animals to work the fields.

The facts aren’t far off. Consider: someone slips a substance (in theory a neurotoxin, possibly from the puffer fish) into a man’s food, with the result that the victim descends into a coma; his metabolism becomes so slowed that his vital signs seem to cease. Believing him to be dead, his folks rush him to bury him before sundown (in a tropical country, corpses get stinky fast).

Now imagine the unfortunate man’s point of view. He is intermittently conscious but unable to move or speak; the drug has paralyzed him. He witnesses his familiars’ weeping and wailing around him, he feels the touch of fingertips closing his eyelids, he hears the coffin lid nailed shut over his face; he feels the impact of his pine box landing at the bottom of the grave; he hears the thump of dirt on the lid as his burial is completed, and the mourners’ fading voices as they return home to dinner.

Everyone thinks he is dead. And so does he believe he has passed away, waiting in the dark for the angels to come and take him away.

But the angels are no-shows; it’s the bokor’s assistants who retrieve the poor man. Earlier they had arranged for a small hole to be drilled in the coffin and a long reed inserted to bring oxygen from aboveground, so that their victim will not suffocate. In the dead of night they dig up the box, leaving it empty as they transport the hapless half-dead man to the sorcerer’s compound in the mountains.

By now he is probably brain-damaged from lack of oxygen, permanently slow-witted, with a depressed metabolism. Because he shares his fellow Haitians’ belief in zombies, he understands he has become one. That belief itself clinches his fate: rather than trying to escape, he accepts that he is now in the sorcerer’s spell. Further, the bokor keeps his slaves docile by feeding them a hallucinogenic fruit (concombre zombi, or datura), and a diet without salt resulting in hyponatremia: hence the zombie-like lethargy and glazed-over confusion (and hence the Creole saying, “If you feed salt to a zombie, he runs away.”)

The doctor told me that the patient he’d treated had wandered off the deserted compound after the bokor died. The refugee found his way home, but his family refused to accept that he was alive: he was a zombie, and they were afraid of him. The doctor concluded the poor man was mentally retarded, sending him off to an asylum where presumably he got some salt at last.

I remembered this story some 30 years later when, on vacation in Mexico, I got ciguatera poisoning. I’d unknowingly eaten a piece of fish containing a neurotoxin from algae that the fish had ingested off a certain reef. I lost my balance, then became mute and paralyzed while still conscious. My husband couldn’t get me to respond, though my eyes were open and staring. I had no way to signal I was conscious and alive. If I’d been Haitian, and sincerely believed the zombie legend, I’d have been certain I’d entered the ranks of the undead.

Back to the Grand Hotel Oloffson: having gotten the information I’d sought for my book, I took to my bed for several days, succumbing to the lung infection I’d brought with me from Morocco. The fever slowly passed. After eating my first full breakfast poolside under the palms, I returned to my room for a leisurely nap.

My sleep was broken by the sensation of claw-like fingers jabbing my ribs. Curled up on my side, I couldn’t see the inhuman body forming behind my back and pressing close. As it spooned me, I could feel its erection against my spine.

I was appalled. It turned out bronchitis wasn’t the only souvenir I’d brought from North Africa. The jinnoon posse had followed me into the Western hemisphere. I wasn’t rid of them after all.

A man’s voice laughed softly in my ear.

(To be continued.)

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