September 13, 1999
The theme of Myth, Ritual, and Magic is addressed in “the Secrets of Haiti’s Living Dead” through a scientific explanation of what is interculturally regarded as magic: zombies! Del Guercio first retells the slightly implausible, yet nonetheless true account of a man pronounced dead, and even buried, but who returned to his hometown eighteen years later, purporting to have been a zombie. The work’s author debunks many legends about zombification and voodoun religions through a factual and informative retelling of the scientific explanation for the Haitian zombie phenomenon. This work explains that the occasionally occurring incidences of what appear to be zombies are actually caused by a voodoo-priest induced case of Fugu fish poisoning. Although most people living in Haiti still believe in zombification, the author tells of how the zombification ‘victims’ are really only given an extract from a certain type of oceanic pufferfish, which makes them very ill, and eventually forces their bodies into a coma-like state essentially indistinguishable from death. “The Secrets of Haiti’s Living Dead,” therefore, basically disproves an existence of magic or ritual. Its main message is that everything seems to have a logical scientific or physiological cause, and there is no such thing as magic. However, it should be noted that this work also makes it clear that the effects of mere Fugu poisoning are not equal to those of alleged Haitian zombie victims. It is apparent that Haitian societal and religious beliefs greatly accentuate the outcome of the poisoning. The author notes, “Tetrodotoxin and Datura [active ingredients in zombification powder] are only templates on which cultural forces and beliefs may
be amplified a thousand times,” -(594.) Magical things, such as zombies, have a way of becoming much truer if they’re believed in. While there may still be a physiological explanation for seemingly magical or supernatural occurrences, it’s also clear that these occurrences (i.e. losing and later regaining consciousness) would be nothing special if not backed up by traditional religions or beliefs, which add substantial credibility to otherwise unbelievable events, such as coming back from the dead. In other words, societal and religious beliefs add magical explanations to otherwise scientifically explainable occurrences.
David Abram takes a similar stance about the existence of Myth, Ritual, and Magic in his writing “Making Magic.” As a college grad student and part-time magician travelling in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, he witnesses firsthand the amazing power that belief in magic can have on people. While he’s performing various common magic tricks in Asia, many people begin to believe that he genuinely has powers. One fisherman, named Gede, asks him to clear a demon that is thought to be hiding in his fishing boat. The fisherman was having extremely poor catches, which he attributes to a supernatural curse. Gede believes that only a magic man, like David Abram, can clear this curse out of his boat and thereby restore prosperity. Abram, however, is understandably reluctant. He, like most Americans, believes that all magic tricks are merely quick illusions and, well, tricks, that there’s no such thing as real magic. But, Gede is persistent, so Abram soon gives in and performs a few ‘exorcism’ tricks aboard the fishing boat to purge it of the demon. The fisherman is overjoyed, and it is later revealed that the fisherman is truly experiencing great prosperity since the exorcism was performed. In part because of this fact, Abram begins to have second thoughts about the hollowness of magic, and even begins to believe that there may be some real magic behind his tricks. When a woman asks him how he’s creating a certain illusion, he replies, “I really don’t know,” –(521.) He begins to believe in magic!
Like “The Secrets of Haiti’s Living Dead,” “Making Magic” concludes with the idea that belief in magic makes it real. The power of suggestion should never be underestimated. On a relevant tangent, it has been proven that genuinely believing that something will happen has a tendency to make that thing actually happen, and that is why magical things, such as zombies and demons, indeed seem to exist in cultures or religions which believe in magic.
“The Secrets of Haiti’s Living Dead” and “Making Magic” both admit that, while there appears to be a scientific explanation for all supernatural phenomena, a cultural or religious component also is a major factor that contributes to the authenticity of supernatural or magical occurrences. For example, because people may believe that what a psychic tells them will happen, it has a tendency to actually happen. But the psychic’s prediction probably wouldn’t seem to come true if the people were skeptical; often there are multiple interpretations of occurrences, which are usually incited by superstition of some kind, including religion, culture, or simply entertainment purposes.
Of course, differences also exist between the two aforementioned literary works. “Haiti’s Living Dead” begins with supernatural occurrences being understood to be real, and then offers a veritable scientific explanation. On the other hand, “Making Magic” begins by telling how magic is mere slight-of-hand tricks and illusions, later noting that there is really some truth to belief in magic. Another difference is that, in “Haiti’s Living Dead,” a western man travels to the magic-believing island of Haiti and leaves triumphantly confident in the correctness of science. In “Making Magic,” Abram leaves the island of Bali, Indonesia actually believing in magic.
Regardless, the conclusion that both works reach in the end is that “magic can really possess powers, if it is believed in.”
* Including selected exerts from literary works contained within the textbook “Making Contact”, the latter of which has been authored by Ms. Carol J. Verburg.