A video essay about the drug Burundanga reminds me of the (much more authoritative) work Wade Davis did regarding "Ethonobiology of the Haitian Zombie" (subtitle) in Passage of Darkness.1 Zombification in Haiti involves the use of a powerful neurotoxin that places subjects in a death-like state, though these people maintain full awareness. The houngan who administers the potion (according to Haitian folklore tradition) gains power over the person(s) so enthralled. In his introduction, Davis notes
The peasant knows that the fate of the zombie is enslavement. Yet given the availability of cheap labor and the debilitated physical condition of the zombies, there is obviously no economic incentive to create a workforce of indentured labor. Instead, the concept of slavery implies that the victim of zombification suffers a a fate worse than deaththe loss of individual freedom implied by enslavement, and the sacrifice of individual identity and autonomy implied by the loss of the ti bon ange. It must be emphasized that the fear in Haiti is not of zombies, but rather of becoming a zombie. (9)
At the start of the report on Burundanga, Ryan Duffy explains that the drug (whose main ingredient is scopalamine) is
basically like the worst roofie you can ever imagine, times a million. You're at the whim of suggestions like 'Hey, take me to your ATM,' 'Hey, take me to your hotel room,' while you're completely conscious and articulate.
I can't help but wonder if Duffy is himself under the influence of Burundanga (minus the articulate part), as he proceeds to tell "campfire horror stories" about the drug, such as
waking up in a bathtub with an organ cut out and a sign saying you have five hours to get to a hospital. [Duffy and his colleagues have], of course, also heard that it's used as a date rape drug.
For Duffy, the possibility of losing an organ or being raped is nothing compared to "one particularly chilling story" about someone who
woke up the next morning in [an] empty apartment, completely confused as to what happened. [He] Went down and said to his doorman, "Why is my apartment empty? What happened?" and the doorman said "Well, you brought it out with two of your friends last night. All your stuff. You loaded it into a van." The guy was like, "Why in the hell would you let me do that?" And he was like, "Cause you told me to."2
These stories about the loss of free will and of zombification are powerful to the North American imagination precisely because they are about the appropriation of one's labor against one's will. In such scenarios, one has no choice but to work for the benefit of others at the expense of one's own self. It's no coincidence that one source of continued anxiety in North America is about the enslavement of Africans, even as the historical circumstances of this enslavement are cinematically distorted in films such as Victor Halperin's White Zombie and Jean Yarbrough's King of the Zombies. The difference is that where early North American zombie cinema imagines the appropriation of black labor by white colonizers, early twenty-first century web journalism imagines the zombification of yuppies by Burundanga-wielding burglar rings, the site of zombification moved from the Caribbean to Any City, USA.
Speaking of displacement and distortion, when Duffy explains
Apparently there's a lot of different parts of the plant that are a bit dangerous, possibly a bit fun, depending on what you're into. So we're going to be looking for the tree, talking to people who've had experience with it and seeing if we can find some of the actual drug ourselves,
he sounds as if he's talking not about "the most dangerous drug in the world, Burundanga," but about another drug young white North American males are known to search for in Bogota, Colombia.
Note the lack of horror the "victim" has regarding the suggestibility of the doorman, presumably not under the influence of Burundanga but of North American capitalism. ↩
Davis, Wade. Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
King of the Zombies. Dir. Jean Yarbrough. 1941.
White Zombie. Dir. Victor Halperin. 1932.
"Shopping for Pure Evil." Colombian Devil's Breath. Part 1 of 9. 23 July 2007. VBS.TV. 27 August 2007. <http://www.vbs.tv/player.php?bctid=1119242704&bccl=MTExOTE3NDYwNF9fTkVXUw==>.