A plastic surgeon in Virginia is on a mission to rescue zombies from pop culture’s “walking dead” fantasy. “As I have said in other places,” Glenn Shepard says from his medical practice in Newport News, “zombies are people to be pitied rather than feared.” According to Shepard, being “undead” is the effect of mind-altering drugs and physical conditioning, a process the doctor dissects in detail in his new book, The Zombie Game (Mystery House).
Shepard has spent years studying the zombie phenomenon and its origin in Vodoun, a
religion that evolved in Haiti during the time of slavery and still survives to this day. “In reality, you make a person into a zombie through the use of drugs, and the process itself is a punishment, administered by a Vodoun priest. The person who is to be zombified is someone who has committed a serious crime.”
That view is at odds with the current trend. The portrayal of zombies and the undead has drifted away from reality over the years, beginning with comic books and pulp fiction in the 1930s and 40s, when zombies were portrayed as bloodthirsty predators. An even greater leap of fantasy was made, famously, in Night of the Living Dead, the 1968 film about zombie-like people who terrorize the inhabitants of an isolated farmhouse. That trend has continued until it has reached its current incarnation, Rage Zombies and Post Apocalyptic Zombies. These are whole groups of undead who carry a “pathogen,” one that induces them to eat the living.
When asked about the idea of zombies attacking people, as depicted in The Walking Dead, Shepard laughs. “That’s just Hollywood. Zombies have been maligned for years and I guess they make good monsters.”
Shepard has spent years researching the drugs used in making zombies. According to him, tetrodotoxin, which is extracted from puffer fish, is used in the zombie rendering to produce the undead effect. “It causes paralysis,” Shepard points out, “and it can sometimes make the victim appear dead.” After administrating the toxin, the Vodoun practitioner can perform a simulated reanimation. “You can make it seem as though you’ve killed someone, and then they can come back from the dead.”
Another drug used is scopolamine, elsewhere described as the “drug from Hell.” Once under the influence, victims enter a fugue state and are easily manipulated. Scopolomine is extracted from jimson weed, sometimes referred to as the zombie cucumber.
Then there is the physical conditioning, which can include locking the drugged person in a coffin overnight, and even burial. Asphyxiation, in this case, causes further dementia.
Shepard, a long-time novelist, faced bucking the trend in writing The Zombie Game, which chronicles the continuing adventures of “Dr. Scott James,” his Fugitive-like action-hero. “Most people have no idea that zombies are real, so I decided to make my protagonist, Dr. Scott James, into a zombie. I wanted to give a behind-the-scenes look at the reality of the Vodoun societies and the real zombies.