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The Serpent and the Rainbow

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  3,733 ratings  ·  344 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
Paperback, 304 pages
Published August 5th 1997 by Simon Schuster (first published 1985)
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Jenni This one probably doesn't have as much variety as "tell my horse" might have I don't think? This book is more focused on the zombification practices,…moreThis one probably doesn't have as much variety as "tell my horse" might have I don't think? This book is more focused on the zombification practices, and the author's experiences with that. He is sort of fictional in some of the book as well I think...(less)
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Average rating 3.91  · 
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Nov 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Wade Davis's renowned investigation into Haitian zombies has the benefit of featuring a hero who is fearless, rugged and insightful. It has the drawback that the hero is also the author, and so his presentation of himself as a latter-day Indiana Jones (an inevitable comparison that comes up in every review ever printed of this book; I will shamefacedly join the queue) is tinged with more than a little self-aggrandisement.

Still, if you can't find a Boswell to write this stuff about you, you might
Graeme Rodaughan
Just got reminded that I've read this book, and never spoken about it.

Tetrodotoxin - it's a word to live and die by. But is it death, if you comeback as a zombie.

Read this book and find out. It's a classic if you would like to know more about Voudoun and Haitian culture. (Note - this is not the movie by Wes Craven...) this is the real stuff.
Hank Stuever
Pool read, zombied out and slathered in Coppertone. Can't remember much else about it.
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.

Oct 19, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 02, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  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 ...more
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.
Jun 23, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Apr 12, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
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
Apr 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Sep 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Initially, I was really into this book, and I was impressed by the author’s descriptive talent. One of my favorite passages was a description he wrote early in the book about riding a train.
Still, the rhythm of the rails is always seductive, and the passing frames race by like so many childhood fantasies, alive in color and light.

My interest waxed and waned the further I got into the book. His sections about the history of poisoning and the fear of being buried alive were fascinating. I wasn’t
The Serpent and the Rainbow, while controversial now, is still regarded as one of the classics of anthropology. Or at least I think it is still considered that from how often I have heard it referenced. This is the book that purported to have discovered the chemical ingredient that rendered zombi powder effective - and more importantly, the reason why zombis exist within Hatian Vodoun culture. The why of it and the cultural importance of it I found far more interesting than any ethnobiological ...more
Mar 26, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Sep 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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.... ...more
Peter Landau
Nov 27, 2017 rated it liked it
When I bought THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW by Wade Davis I was on a horror kick, a quest to find a genuinely scary book. I’m glad I didn’t read this then, because the book is nothing like the movie of the same name, from which it was adapted by Wes Craven in 1988. The movie was bad, the book is good, but it’s not a horror story. It starts as a scientific adventure to discover the chemical makeup of the formula used to create zombis in Haiti. From that start Wade delves into the Haitian culture, ...more
Nov 10, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: latin-america
Interesting but dated and marred by the incessant fetishization of Haiti and Haitian people. If you didn’t know she was a “whore” then would her hips have “sugary movements”? If the point was to demonstrate the validity of the Haitian culture and their religious tradition, it succeeded to some extent, but not without relying on tired colonial tropes and sexualization.
May 09, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I originally bought this book because my father told me it was a ‘classic’ of anthropological literature. I don’t know how true that statement is as I never came upon the book in my undergraduate anthropology classes but I didn’t take many cultural classes.

I have very mixed feelings of this book as it oscillated between outdated and ahead of its time. Much of Davis’ anthropological perspective of deeply situating his research and interest in plants within the cultural world of Haiti is
Vishnu Kumar
Oct 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
Sensationalized subtitle aside, this book taught me a lot about Haitian religion, culture, and history. Davis starts out as a botanist looking for the secrets of a certain poison said to be able to raise zombies but in his quest to fully understand the zombie phenomenon, he turns into quite the dedicated cultural anthropologist. Turns out that the poison, in the correct dosage, works to essentially turn one comatose until the antidote is administered. Ok, but why is this even a practice? Well, ...more
Melissa Symanczyk
Jun 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I'm not sure what I was expecting - maybe something fairly dry and academic, but I got sucked into Davis' story and thoroughly enjoyed reading about his adventures in Haiti. Do you have to take his Indiana-Jones-style narrative with a grain of salt? Heck, yeah. Does he do some ethically dubious things? Yuppers. But at the same time, Davis clearly took the time to try to understand the cultural underpinnings of the zombi phenomenon, and kept digging even after the specific poisons had been ...more
Sam Roos
Feb 11, 2019 rated it liked it
Parts of this book feel like the death knell of colonial romanticism. Definitely Davis wants to be Earnest Hemingway, and sometimes he gets there. I will give high marks for explaining the practice of zombism in the context of voodoo, which is why I was reading. But if you're not super interested in voodoo I'm not sure you need to read this.
Kobe Bryant
Jul 29, 2019 rated it liked it
Good stuff on Haiti and history of poisons
Cooper Cooper
Aug 14, 2009 rated it it was amazing
In 1982 Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis ventured to Haiti to learn if and how voodoo sorcerers turn people into zombies. His motive? Their poisons, he thought, might be medically valuable—the way curare, an arrow poison discovered by Harvard ethnobotanist Schultes, had proved valuable as a muscle relaxant for surgery. Assisted by local contacts, Davis penetrated the society of houngans (vodoo priests) and bokors (voodoo sorcerers), attended voodoo ceremonies, and after a false start or two ...more
Hessa AlAtawi
May 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I watched the movie based on this story sometime in the 80’s. I expected this book to be similar to the movie, but to my shock it was much better than it. I’m not exaggerating if I say that Hollywood had ruined this book!
Patick Kyteler
Sep 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

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
Dec 14, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  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
Aug 01, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Nov 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Sean Huff
Sep 21, 2010 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
J.M. Hushour
Davis' account of his research in Haiti into the zombi phenomenon and its potential pharmaceutical basis is just as fun as you'd imagine it to be, and just as ultimately unsatisfying as you might imagine it to be. Of course, the years have shown that the toxin hypothesis might not stand up so well (the matter is still unsettled between Davis and his detractors) but Davis makes a convincing early argument for the chemical basis for the fake death and "reanimation" as blathering servant of Haiti's ...more
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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
“Risk discomfort and solitude for understanding.” 13 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.” 8 likes
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