The truth behind Haitian Vodoun (Voodoo) is every bit as bizarre as the Hollywood fiction. Zombies are sometimes buried alive, ethnobiologist Wade Davis reports, then taken from the grave and restored to a twilight life. "Zombie powder," a neurotoxin that helps lower the metabolism to simulate death, is a wizardly blend of toads, lizards, tarantulas and human bone. And the secret "Bizango" societies of the night, which orchestrate all of this, are modeled after a strange mix of monarchies, democracies and fairyland: An emperor oversees a "directing queen," a "flying queen/werewolf," a lawyer, president and brigadier general.
Unlike many academic texts, "Passages of Darkness" captures the color as well as the context of the culture. Davis is, nevertheless, a serious scholar, disturbed by the fact that Vodoun has been used to confirm racist stereotypes in the West, such as the notion that "primitive" people are lulled by the phantasmagoric. Vodoun has gotten an especially bad name recently because the Tontons Macoutes, a Vodoun sect ("houngan") allied with the government of Francois Duvalier, committed widespread violence in the early 1980s.
Davis' defense of Vodoun is somewhat undermined by his failure to explore the reasons for the rise of Tonton Macoute violence. Otherwise, though, his profile is richly detailed, one of the first Western studies to demonstrate the many ways in which Vodoun oversees the island's spiritual and political life through sophisticated symbolism and powerful lobbying. Haitians don't fear Zombies, Davis writes, invalidating a particularly damaging stereotype, they fear becoming a Zombie. "Zombiefication," a punishment sometimes accorded to those who "harm the public good for private gain," both symbolizes the importance of being free--preserving one's unique mind and soul--and encourages social obedience. In the past, this fear of becoming a Zombie has mobilized the Haitians to fight successfully against colonization, "the ultimate form of Zombiefication," even though Haiti's native population fell by 90% after Spain's Queen Isabella took the island under her "protection." Today, Davis reports, the Vodoun movement continues to hold significant sway over politics as well as religion on the island republic.