It all started -- as things often do among my group of friends -- with a movie. There were about a dozen of us who were all big horror buffs and we tried to see every horror film that came to town regardless of its age, quality or reputation. As a result we saw a lot of garbage -- especially when it came to first-run releases -- but we were also surprised by the occasional creaky classic that crept up on us and genuinely creeped us out. Such was the case when the Val Lewton film festival came to town.
There were some of us who were skeptical -- Mark, for one, couldn't imagine being frightened by any film that had reached what he called "retirement age" -- but we all attended the first night's double feature of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie anyway. The first was well known to us, even if it was only from the '80s remake, but none of us had ever heard of the second (although the program informed us that both were directed by the same man, Jacques Tourneur). Thanks to the low budgets they had to work with, Lewton and Tourneur had to rely more on atmosphere and the power of suggestion to build tension rather than fancy special effects, but we got plenty caught up in the stories anyway. Well, most of us did.
Mark giggled and commented his way through most of Cat People, earning pointed glares from the people sitting around us, so I wasn't surprised to find that they had moved away from us during the intermission. This suited Mark just fine, but I worried about being ejected from the theater and possibly being barred from future screenings.
Once I Walked with a Zombie started, Mark was back on form. In response to the title card, he said, "All right! Bring on the flesh eaters!" Then, whenever the action got too slow for him -- which was often -- he would cry out "Brains!" in his best Return of the Living Dead voice until I nearly strangled him. After that he shut up, either out of respect for the film or fear for his life. He was also uncharacteristically quiet at the diner where we always went to compare notes on what we had seen. Both films got high marks from everyone else, though, and we made plans to see the rest of the series -- provided Mark stayed home.
"That's fine with me," he said, breaking his silence. "Those weren't real zombies anyway."
We tried our best to explain to him that the zombies in I Walked with a Zombie were traditional zombies created by voodoo and that the flesh-eating variety was a more modern construct, but he was having none of it.
"All I know is if the zombies aren't lurching around biting people, then it's not a real zombie movie," he declared.
"Hey, if you think it's no big deal, then maybe you wouldn't mind being turned into a voodoo zombie yourself," I challenged.
"Yeah, right," he sneered. "Like that'll happen."
That was all we heard on the subject until a couple days later, when I received a call from Mark at work.
"Hey, I found a guy!" he exclaimed.
"To do what?" I asked incredulously.
"Why, to turn me into a zombie, of course." He said the "of course" like becoming a zombie was the most natural thing in the world.
"You know, I wasn't really serious about that," I said.
"Neither was I, but I checked around and I found a Haitian voodoo priest who would be willing to do it."
"Can't tonight. We've got a screening to go to."
"Another double snooze-fest?"
"You actually missed a good one last night. The Leopard Man and--"
"I don't care. I just want somebody else there as proof that I went through with it -- and that it's all a bunch of hooey."
"It's not because you're scared of what might happen, is it?"
"Not at all! Look, will you come by after work or not?"
"Oh, all right," I relented, "but I'm not missing my movie."
"You won't. I'll make sure we're ready to go when you get here."
True to his word, everything was set up when I arrived at Mark's place. I was expecting some kind of a put-on, but it appeared to be on the up-and-up. There were candles set up all around the apartment as well as a small altar in the middle of the floor. Then I met the voodoo priest. He looked to be in his late sixties, although he could have been older. He said he worked as a cook in a Haitian restaurant in town and was rarely called upon to do his priestly duties anymore -- let alone turn anyone into a zombie -- so Mark's call had been like a bolt out of the blue.
"Yeah, can you beat that?" Mark said. "One Haitian place in the area and they actually have a voodoo priest working in the kitchen. Wild."
The priest excused himself so he could change and I pulled Mark aside.
"You know, you don't have to go through with this," I told him. "You can say it was all a joke at my expense and send him home."
"Send him home? But I've already given him $50. And we bought all these candles and stuff. No, man, we're going ahead with this."
"How do you know that guy's not putting you on?"
"I don't. He might be. There's only one way to find out."
When the priest emerged from Mark's bedroom he was wearing some sort of ceremonial headdress and a cloak that looked suspiciously like an old bathrobe. He had Mark kneel on the floor in front of the altar and smear his face with ashes, but before he would continue he made me leave the room. I looked at Mark and he nodded his assent, so I retired to his bedroom and waited it out. The ceremony was apparently quite short and simple for within minutes the priest called me back in.
When I saw Mark I could hardly believe it. He was standing perfectly still with a faraway look in his eyes. I passed my hand in front of his face and he didn't so much as blink. I turned to the priest, who was removing his headdress.
"Is he really a zombie?" I asked.
"No, I have merely hypnotized him into thinking he is one," said the priest.
"So, you're not really a voodoo priest?"
"Oh, I am, but not the kind you or he was thinking of."
"So why go through all this?"
The priest gave me a hard look. "Forgive me for saying this, young man, but your friend here is a real ass."
"That's not much of a surprise to me. What did he do?"
"He called my restaurant and asked if there were any 'witch doctors' working there. When he told me what he wanted one for, I was more than happy to play the role for him -- and maybe teach him a lesson."
"If he's hypnotized, does that mean he'll follow instructions?"
"Try him out," the priest said and started blowing out the candles.
Taking a few steps back, I said in my most commanding voice, "Mark, raise your right arm."
Mark raised his right arm.
"Mark, raise your left arm."
Mark raised his left arm.
"Now, put your left foot in."
Mark did not move. I looked to the priest for help.
"You need to address him by name to get him to do what you want, but do you really need him to do the Hokey Pokey to know that it works?"
"No, I guess not. How long will he be like this?"
"Until you tell him to put his arms down."
"No, I mean how long will he believe he's a zombie?"
"That's up to you. Whenever you want him to snap out of it, all you have to do is say these words." The priest handed me a slip of paper, which I pocketed. He was mostly packed up at that point, so I helped him carry his altar and other things out to his car.
"And in the meantime?" I asked.
"Do what you like with him. He won't remember a thing."
"And he won't act up?"
"Not unless you tell him to," said the priest as he drove away.
So it was that Mark joined the rest of the group for The Ghost Ship and Curse of the Cat People that night. He was the perfect gentleman.