More Raising the Dead: Making Zombies

22 Apr

Let’s talk about Zombie Powder. Yes, Zombie Powder. Yes, it’s real. Yes, it will create a Zombie. Of sorts. Not really the living dead but something like it.

Zombie Powder is the toxin of the Pufferfish (Arothron meleagris), also called the Blowfish. The toxin is called Tetrodotoxin or TTX.  It is in the family of toxins that we call Paralytic Shellfish Poisons or PSPs. TTX can also be found in the California Newt and the Blue-ringed Octopus. Other PSPs would include Saxitoxin, found in shellfish such as muscles and clams, and Ciguatoxin, found in tropical fish such and groupers, snappers, and sea bass. Similar intoxications can follow the growth of certain algae during “red tides.

These toxins are classified as neurotoxins in that they alter the neurological system of the body. They interfere with electrical transmission to the muscles and this results in weakness and paralysis, numbness and tingling, slow and shallow respiration, an inability to speak, and a slow and weak pulse. Under these circumstances the victim can indeed appear dead. With the respirations so slow and the pulse is so weak and the skin taking on a dusky color due to very low blood flow, it is easy to see that the victim would appear dead even though he was not.

But this condition does some fairly bad things to the brain. The low blood pressure and low respiration decrease the amount of oxygen going to the brain and this can result in permanent brain damage. We call this anoxic encephalopathy, which is a big word that means brain damage due to lack of oxygen supply. The results are almost a chemical frontal lobotomy. The victim can manifest all types of neurologic problems down the road but commonly the victim will have a flattening of the personality and a loss of cognitive ability. In other words he moves and talks very slowly and appears almost zombie-like. The surgical version of this happened to Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

The Japanese delicacy “fugu” derives its kick from TTX. Eating it is basically mild PSP poisoning. It gives the diner a flushed and tingly feeling. The fish must be prepared to perfection or it can be deadly. Kind of like gastronomic Russian Roulette. The chefs that do this are specially trained and licensed and even these guys screw up from time to time. You’ll rad about it int he paper every now and then when group of fugu enthusiasts die in a restaurant.

In Haiti, the toxin is used in certain VooDoo religious rituals and is also used in the “Zombification” of field workers. It can be sprinkled into the shoes of the victim or added to his food and takes effect in a few minutes or up to an hour or so. It absorbs through the skin or the GI tract.

Dr. Wade Davis is an expert in this. He was involved with the controversial movie “The Serpent and The Rainbow.” Rent it and watch it. Not a great movie but it might help you understand this powerful drug.

How to make a Zombie? you ask. Simple. Sprinkle some of the powder in the victim’s shoes. When he slips them on the next morning he will become dizzy, short of breath, weak, and collapse. Then, lay him in a shallow ditch, cover him with leaves, and come back in three days and “resurrect” him. He will be calm, controllable, and a good field worker. That’s often what an anoxic encephalopathy will do.

In the late 1980’s this happened to one of my patients, JIm (not his real name). Jim owned a truck axle factory in Haiti. Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier wanted it but Jim refused to sell. So, Baby Doc had some of his Tonton Macoute goons Zombie-ize–is that a word?–Jim and took the factory. It took the US State Dept a month to get him out of Haiti. He later appeared on NBC News and on Nightline to discuss his experiences with Baby Doc. One of his most vivid memories of that time was awakening on the hard cold floor of a 300-year-old prison, stretched out on the mat, with a rat chewing on one of his numbed feet. He later was so brain-damaged that he could not keep a job. He could walk and talk and perform daily activities normally but he could not think things through and running a business was out of the question. He was however a gifted artist and drew some wonderful pen and ink drawings of his ordeal.

So if you want to use TTX in one of your stories, where would your bad guy get it? Haiti for sure. Or perhaps in the Algiers area of New Orleans where VooDoo is still practiced.


5 responses to “More Raising the Dead: Making Zombies

  1. LG Bloom

    April 22, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    It may be just a function of comma placement, but Ciguetera (from Ciguatoxin) does not occur during red tides. It is from the dinoflaggelatte Gambierdiscus toxicus while red tide is caused by Karenia brevis. Except for Karenia brevis and Pfiesteria piscicida (estuary syndrome), they cause a whole lot of vomiting before the other symptoms show. Ciguatera is known for its profound temperature reversal sensations too.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      April 22, 2010 at 1:36 pm

      Thanks. It wasn’t well written so I fixed it and hopefully made it more clear. PSP and Red Tides are distinctly different but both can lead to marine intoxication. Thanks for your input.


  2. Teresa Reasor

    April 22, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    As always a good blog. I’ve seen the movie Serpent and the Rainbow. And it was creepy. It’s amazing what people will do for power or property.

    I’ve never ever had the desire to try blow fish. Just the thought of anything that numbs you or makes your tongue tingle makes me nausious.

    The things people will do.
    Teresa R.


  3. Teresa Reasor

    April 22, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    By the way I have your Forensics for Writers and your second book. I’ll have to get the latest.
    Good luck with it.
    Teresa R.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      April 22, 2010 at 8:33 pm

      Glad you like the forensic books and I hope you enjoy Stress Fracture.



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