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The Serpent and the Rainbow

3.89 of 5 stars 3.89  ·  rating details  ·  2,685 ratings  ·  251 reviews
A scientific investigation and personal adventure story about zombis and the voudoun culture of Haiti by a Harvard scientist.

In April 1982, ethnobotanist Wade Davis arrived in Haiti to investigate two documented cases of zombis—people who had reappeared in Haitian society years after they had been officially declared dead and had been buried. Drawn into a netherworld of ri
Paperback, 304 pages
Published August 5th 1997 by Simon & Schuster (first published 1985)
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Community Reviews

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Wade Davis is a dedicated scientist and a very brave man. He dared to venture into deepest Haiti and consort with dangerous characters in his search for the chemical used to change an ordinary person into a mindless (non-flesh eating) zombie.

Too bad he's not a more compelling storyteller. He misses almost every opportunity to build suspense. I know his aim was to strip away the mystery surrounding his subject, but a little atmosphere wouldn't have hurt. This is the stuff of legends after all.

Nov 13, 2007 Chloe rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: ethnobotany and anthropology lovers
I have a deep and abiding fear of zombies. I spend more time thinking about what to do in the event of a zombie outbreak than is probably good for one's mental health. But then I also a good amount of time worrying about giant squid attacks as well, so perhaps my fears aren't the most rational. Regardless, some wise person whose name I have long forgotten once said that if you faced you fears you would realize how foolish they were. I tried this with sharks once and ended up far more afraid than ...more
Erik Graff
Feb 22, 2015 Erik Graff rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Haiti fans
Recommended to Erik by: Erik Badger
Shelves: psychology
After graduating from Shimer College, my youngest stepbrother, Erik Badger, sponsored by an undergraduate mentor long active in Haiti, went to the island to work on education projects. The first step in the process was total immersion in the culture in order to learn, among other things, Creole. He was deposited, alone, in a village where no one spoke English and lived there for several months. It worked and he worked in Haiti for several years, educating educators offering classes to the (mostl ...more
Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist"
Everything you think you know about voodoo is probably wrong. Voodoo dolls were never part of the religion, and zombies are not the living dead. "Voodoo" simply means "god" or "spirit" in the Dahomey language. The beliefs and practices are every bit as logical as those of any other religion when viewed as a means of providing social structure and maintaining order in the community.
Too bad they made this wonderful book into a horror flick. The book is about a Harvard trained ethnobotanist who goes to Haiti to learn about some of the naturally occuring compounds used in the voudoun culture. The hope is that some of the active compounds may provide a safer alternative to general anaesthesia. What I found remarkable about the book was Wade Davis' ability to embrace and respect the voudoun culture (and it is a culture in the full sense of the word) without making western value ...more
Thomas Runyon
Aug 15, 2014 Thomas Runyon rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anthropologists, zombie enthusiasts, vodoun enthusiasts
Recommended to Thomas by: The Internet
A book that starts off with the taste of sterile laboratory text. And grows throughout to ensnare and hold you, till your sitting next to this man, feeling the mists from this massive waterfall caress your face. Hearing the great roaring crash of the water. Seeing the rainbow, and knowing serenity as the light falls upon your face. He shows you the deep well from whence the the people draw life from, and he shows you the purpose and rite of zombification. A really thorough description of a mans ...more
I wonder how many great biographies are ruined by autobiography - not so much because the content must inevitably differ but because it is so different to read “Look at him, he is great, look at what he can do” than it is “Look at me, I am great, look at what I can do.”

It’d be a tricky thing for Indiana Jones to write his own autobiography. He could play it jocky or nerdy or self-deprecating but he absolutely could not play it straight down the middle. That scene when he shoots the dude with the
I would highly recommend reading this in conjunction with Mountains Beyond Mountains so that you can compare the different appearances of the Ton Ton Macoute. I believe this book is very good for 'blancs' to read, because Western society just doesn't engender the capacity to understand Haitian culture, or for that matter any culture that is highly spiritual outside of Judeo-Christian religions. Just from an anthropological standpoint, this book is highly interesting, but combined with all of the ...more
I noticed most of the poor reviews of this book come from people who were expecting to read about zombies and then the odd person who really dislikes Wade Davis.

So movie style zombies aren't real and I happen to have a mad author crush on Wade Davis so I feel free to enjoy this book. He's an anthropologist, he's an ethnobotonist...kind of a sexy geek, which isn't what some people were expecting. I love his TED talk on the destruction of cultures and my guess is that he is better at speaking than
I really don't understand most of the reviews for this book. I guess most of you saw the movie first and expected that. This book offered much more than just a zombie story. You actually learn. And not just about voodoo and "zombies". I completely understand how and why Haiti has evolved to where it is today because of this book. I've read this book 3 times. Will read it again. The most interesting and unique non-fiction book I have ever read. The Haitian history, voodoo, cultures, people.... Sc ...more
I am completely disinterested in the popular culture variant of zombies, so my interest in this book comes from Wade Davis's reputation as an ethnobotanist. This book went well beyond the exploration of the physiological effects of plants (and other ingredients) used to elicit the near death state of the zombi, and dove into the religious, political, historical and sociocultural roots that gave rise to the phenomenon. Davis's writing style is engrossing and perfectly paced, combining scientific ...more
Dec 14, 2014 Michael rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anthropology students, Caribbean historians, cultural pharmacologists
Recommended to Michael by: Michael A Aquino
I have very mixed feelings about this book. Part of me would like to like it more than I do, and another part wants to hate it, but I can’t commit to either one or the other. There’s definitely some very interesting information in here, and the author deserves credit for taking a sober and serious attitude towards what is a sensationalist topic in the United States, but somehow the fact that it’s written (as a review on the back cover comments) as “a corker of a read” undermines its credibility ...more
Zombies exist. Not in the form we think of. But they are real. Davis proves it in this wonderful sociological/anthropological/botanical book.

Davis arrives in Haiti with a theory and a grant to uncover a drug that would cause zombieism. His theory is proven incorrect, but through the progress of the book, he does discover a combination of drugs used to create death-like symptoms in a person and one that can be used to keep a person stupified, in a "zombie" state.

The drugs are not the important pa
Sean Huff
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
I can tell Wade Davis is going to become a favourite of mine. This book was exceptionally well written and researched. Davis takes you on an interesting and unique journey with him during his travels to Haiti to discover the secrets behind the voodoo zombi poison rumours. Throughout the main story of his quest for the poison there is all sorts of interesting information on Haitian culture and biology. Some cool things I learned:

- Anesthesia is more dangerous and experimental than most people rea
Patick Kyteler

First off forget anything you saw in the film, which bears little resemblance to the book. THE SERPENT & THE RAINBOW is a fascinating anthropological study that reads like fiction; capable of holding a reader’s interest from start to finish.

It is the early 1980’s and Harvard educated ethnobotantist (one who scientifically studies the relationship between people and plants) Wade Davis is sent to Haiti to investigate the validity of two reported cases of zombification. The theory being the rea
This book blew my MIND - don't see the movie, it's total bunk, but this book is bad ass. Basically, this story starts with somebody who a doctor in Port Au Prince, using up-to-date medical technologies, diagnoses as dead and leaves them to be buried. Decades later, this person is found, alive but incoherent, and all the people know this person to now be a Zombie.

The best part about this book is that the "Zombie" that we think of, walking slowly in large packs and calling monotonously for brains,
Aug 01, 2007 Nick rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: anyone interested in history, religion, science, or just good old fashioned storytelling
Shelves: favorites
A fascinating true life account of four years spent in the Voudoun culture by Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist sent on a mission to explore the mysteries of "zombis." Not pure sci-fi, the phenomenon is given real attention, both as cultural myth and actual occurance (the events are set off by the appearance of two people, in their Haitian villages, who were declared dead in an American hospital and buried with witnesses). The resulting exploration covers a great deal of fascinating ground, from Ha ...more
Wade Davis's The Serpent and the Rainbow is, of course, nothing like the movie. Thank god. Davis, an ethnobotanist, travels to Haiti to learn the medical truths about zombification and becomes enamored of voodoo society and its practitioners. No one attacks him, no one kills his pals, and he isn't, as far as we know, in a sexual relationship with the young Rachel, his young Haitian escort. I'm not a biologist, so I won't critique Davis's explanation of the chemicals that make up the zombie powde ...more
Off The Shelf
Gail Gonzales reviewed The Serpent and the Rainbow on

The Secret Lives of the Haitian Undead by Gail Gonzales

Imagine adventure-ridden exploits reminiscent of #1 New York Times bestseller Lost City of Z mixed with the zombies of AMC’s The Walking Dead. This is exactly what Wade Davis delivers to readers in The Serpent And The Rainbow. Davis, a Harvard graduate, ethnobotanist, and anthropologist, delves deep into the ancient ceremonies and traditions of Haitian voodoo culture whil
Michael Schmidt
Long one of the favourites on my real-world bookshelf (or it would be, if it hadn't been stolen, which is as great a compliment as a writer can get), Wade Davis' unique metacultural exploration of the pharmacological roots of zombieism takes him to the crossroads at midnight in Haiti where three lines of enquiry intersect: the fascinating history of the land of Haiti; the cultural enablers of belief in zombieism, in particular vodoun; and Davis' search for the topically active poison that create ...more
Megan Stolz
This was assigned as a textbook in an ethnobotany class I took in college called "Plants and People." It was advertised as a 'science class for non-science majors' and very popular with creative writing students who needed to fulfill a gen ed (like me).

Overall, I appreciated that Davis attempts to cut through the myth and legend and get to the true story: that these beliefs are real and that they're not exactly like the horror movies we see. But I wasn't really fond of the book overall. I hated
Zombis! (Sic) Real-life, non-fiction walking dead, perfect for this Season-of-the-Witch time of year.The Serpent and the Rainbow is a classic, if not THE classic work of ethnobotanic anthropology, referenced in countless other works I've read, and written in a thrilling narrative style, of one more white man penetrating the mysterious and mystical depths of another--in this case, Haitian--culture of "otherness," where: "Only in Haiti, I realized, is it possible to drink rum and haggle with a god ...more
While I readily admit to loving a good zombie story, I did not pick up this book solely because of its connection to those undead creatures of myth. I first heard about it while reading “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” the biography of Dr. Paul Farmer, by Tracy Kidder. A good part of that book takes place in Haiti, and made me want to learn more about it.

“From the outside Haiti may appear to be like any other forlorn child of the Third World struggling hopelessly to become a modern Western nation.
A- Really interesting book. Someone asked me what I was reading, and I said, "A book abt zombis. Not zombies, but like, real zombis, like in Haiti w voodoo and stuff." Of course I sounded like a moron. Anyway, this ethnobotanist heads to Haiti to discover how people are made into zombis. It's really interesting, the levels he goes into, the religion, why it happens.
*reading for ANTH-A460 Anthropology of Zombies (yes, that is the real name of the class)*
I wanted to like this book so much, but I could not get into it. I read only half of this book, and had to stop. I was just thoroughly bored and although this topic and journal should be interesting, it was hard to read and not fall asleep. I never quit on a book, but I had to this time.
Don't worry, this book has very little to do with the laughably shitty movie with the same name. It's just a fascinating book about Haitian culture, politics, folklore and botany (and zombies) that reads like a novel. Highly recommended if you have any interest in Haiti. Or zombies.
Aug 20, 2012 Anne added it
Loved it, a great thinker.
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Edmund Wade Davis has been described as "a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet, and passionate defender of all of life's diversity."

An ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker, he holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. Mostly through the Harvard Botanical Museum, he spent more than three years in the Amazon an
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“Risk discomfort and solitude for understanding.” 9 likes
“In the West we cling to the past like limpets. In Haiti the present is the axis of all life. As in Africa, past and future are but distant measures of the present, and memories are as meaningless as promises.” 6 likes
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