Could a zombie apocalypse be in our future? As we battle the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of a global zombie outbreak seems less like a fun thought experiment than ever before. But we are nothing if not thorough at Lurking Beyond, so we wanted to know once and for all if zombies are scientifically possible.
Here’s what we found out.
A 1997 study in the scientific journal “The Lancet” described three cases of real life zombies from Haiti. Or at least people who claimed to be zombies. All three were pronounced dead and then buried, only to reemerge years later. However, all of them suffered from verified illnesses that could explain their behavior.
“People with a chronic schizophrenic illness, brain damage, or learning disability are not uncommonly met with wandering in Haiti, and they would be particularly likely to be identified as lacking volition and memory which are characteristics of a zombi,” the researchers concluded.
About ten years ago, we were all terrified of the Russian drug Krokodil (desomorphine) that made addicts’ skin rot off even as they continued to chase their next high. The injectible opioid was described by news outlets and medical experts as a “zombie drug.” However, desomorphine didn’t catch on in America the way it did in Russia and Ukraine.
For a different take on the zombie question, there is Cotard delusion. People suffering from this extremely rare condition believe that they are dead or dying. Some people might think that just one body part is rotting away, or they might believe that they are a walking corpse.
Another disorder known as Klüver-Bucy Syndrome sounds similar to the mindless, shambling zombies of pop culture. It is caused by damage to the temporal lobes of the brain. People with this disorder become obsessed with food and putting things in their mouths. They may also suffer from memory loss, dementia, and the inability to feel fear or anger.
Human zombies are rare–although, apparently, not impossible. But in the animal kingdom, zombies are horrifyingly common.
Zombified ants are a well-known phenomenon. The ants are infected by a type of fungus called Ophiocordyceps. It feeds on–and grows out of–the ants’ bodies, controlling their motor functions. Researchers found that the zombified ants would be forced to climb to tall grass or other plants and stay there so that the fungal spores could be distributed in a wider radius.
If you feel like being deeply disturbed, check out this National Geographic video on zombie ants:
Researchers recently discovered zombie spiders, too. These spiders become mind-controlled by a type of parasitic wasp that forces them to build cocoon-nests for the wasp larva. The larva devours their spider host and emerge to start the cycle anew.
Even certain plants can be turned into “zombies” by bacteria. Spread by insects, this bacteria changes the type of foliage grown by plants such as goldenrod. The new foliage attracts more insects, allowing the bacteria to spread.
The closest thing to zombification found in mammals is chronic wasting disease, or CWD. This illness has been found among deer, moose, and elk throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and South Korea.
The disease turns the brains of these creatures into Swiss cheese. The infected elk or deer stops eating and behaves strangely, even aggressively, as prions slowly eat its brain tissue. They may also develop sores and swellings. If that sounds familiar, it’s because prions also cause “mad cow disease.”
The concern is that cross-species contamination could spread chronic wasting disease to humans through tainted meat. If that happened, we could be looking at a horde of aggressive, slowly starving people with impaired brain function.
That sounds a lot like a zombie to me.
The term “zombie” was coined by the poet Robert Southey in the 19th century. However, Southey was likely mixing up the Haitian Creole word zonbi or the Kimbundu nzúmbe, meaning “ghost” or “soul.”
In the Hatian Voudon tradition, the concept evolved into a person trapped in a mindless, deathless state by a witch-doctor, or bokor. There’s evidence that these practitioners may have actually used the naturally occurring neurotoxin found in pufferfish to induce a zombie-like state.
However, the idea of reanimated corpses forced to do the bidding of a dark master isn’t limited to Haiti. Zombies of a sort are found in Welsh folklore, too. In the Mabinogion, the great compendium of Welsh legends that inspired “Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Prydain,” the Cauldron of Life could turn corpses into deathless warriors.
Zombies are a staple of pop culture at this point. “The Walking Dead” has been on TV for what feels like forever. The TV show “iZombie” turned the genre into a lighthearted crime procedural–think “CSI” but with more brain eating–and the movie “Warm Bodies” experimented with a “zom-rom-com” teen romance. And, of course, there are the zombie comedies like “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland.”
Zombies even pop up in music. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is the obvious example. However, a personal favorite is Sufjan Stevens’ song “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!”
But all that begs the question: Why are we so obsessed with zombies? What deep-seated fears–or perhaps longings–do these creatures represent?