Rise of the Undead: The science of zombies
What is it about zombies that fascinate people? The latest zombie movie, “World War Z” (WWZ), opened to nearly USD 112 million in total ticket sales worldwide. WWZ is another addition to the long list of zombie movies that includes the first zombie movie in 1919.
What is a common feature in perhaps all zombie movies is zombie infection is not limited to just a few people. Instead, the infection spreads quickly, soon overwhelming an entire city, nation, and even the whole world. Zombies have an inherent predisposition to spread their infection, and they do this by going on a nationwide spree of mass killings. Always attacking in numbers. Never resting unless after exhausting all supplies of fresh meat in the immediate vicinity.
In the beginning, zombies moved painfully slow and clumsily. We could run circles around these lumbering idiots. Zombies were deadly only in packs or when they sneaked up behind you (because they creep up slowly and thus quietly). But zombies soon evolved by getting a major adrenaline boost ever since the movie “28 Days Later”, where zombies now ran at you like a runaway train. Today, zombies not only moved fast but also have a killing tenacity and ferocity of herds of amok wildebeests on steroids. Bullets and bombs could decimate these zombies but only to be replaced by seemingly endless supply of more zombies. Armies and police are soon overrun by hordes of zombies, as so well depicted in WWZ.
Zombies are not limited just in movies. They appear in books, comics, and computer games (heard of “Plants vs. Zombies”?). There is even now a successful TV series on zombies, “The Walking Dead”.
There is now talk by sociologists about the rise of the zombie culture. For instance, in some cities like Tokyo, Paris, Prague, Berlin, Sydney, and Tel Aviv, people perform the “Zombie Walk” where they make up and dress up like zombies and walk en masse along the streets, much to the surprise and amusement of the normal, non-zombie people.
But why is the zombie culture gaining popularity? Asst. Prof. Sarah Lauro from Clemson University, South Carolina suggests that people who like zombies are those who are dissatisfied over the government and life in general. Lauro exerts that in times of economic crises when the vast population is feeling disempowered, people either play dead themselves or watch a show like “Walking Dead” which provide an outlet for people. Zombies could be a form an escapism for some people, but zombies could also denote larger problems in a society.
It is in Haiti where stories about the walking undead originate. Voodoo is widely practised in Haiti, and the voodoo practice for zombification (the process of turning someone into a zombie) is sometimes practised as a way to keep a “problematic” person in order. Zombification can be regarded as a revenge or punishment method against your enemies, so instead of killing your enemies, you turn them into zombies.
But can the dead really rise? Is there any scientific basis on zombies? In what is the most well documented evidence of zombies is the case about a Haitian man named Clairvius Narcisse.
In May 1962, Clairvius was declared dead by doctors in an American hospital in Haiti. Clairvius had arrived at the hospital, complaining about severe fever, body aches, and vomiting. Upon hearing his death, Clairvius’s sister collected his body and had him buried. But in 1981, a man approached this sister and introduced himself as the woman’s brother, Clairvius, using a name that only she and a few of her family members knew. The man said he had been made into a zombie and forced to work in a plantation until his zombie master died. Extensive psychiatric tests later confirmed that this man was indeed the woman’s brother, Clairvius Narcisse. Perhaps something Clairvius had contracted made him appear to be dead. What could it be?
In 1982, Canadian anthropologist, Wade Davis, travelled to Haiti to learn more about the zombification process. There he learned that zombification involved several steps. One of which is subtly feeding someone, through the skin, a very powerful potion made up of several toxins such as that extracted from puffer fish, Bufo marinus (a toad species), and Albizia lebbeck (a plant species). This so-called zombie potion is given to the intended victim to induce hallucinations and ultimately, enter into a pseudo-death state.
But pseudo-death by poisoning is only one step of the zombification process. The buried victim would have to be dug up and psychologically and physically tortured into submission. Some believe intense hypnosis is used as one way to convert a person into mindless submission of a docile zombie. But the power of hypnosis is limited. Using hypnosis to order someone who is law-abiding (or strongly religious) to commit murder, for instance, would fail because murder would be in strong opposition to the person’s beliefs or moral principles. In other words, the pre-requisite of turning someone into a zombie is the victims must themselves first believe that zombies can be created. Thus, in Haiti, where there already exists an environment of voodoo and supernatural belief, including the belief of zombies, it is easier to use hypnosis as a body and mind control method for convincing a victim that he-or-she is now a zombie.
Mind control is not as far fetched as some might think. Charismatic leaders in politics and religious cults, such as Adolf Hitler and Reverend Jim Jones, are well known to be able to exert their influence over hundreds of people and even over the entire country. Rev. Jim Jones, for instance, had such powerful control over his followers that upon his demand, over 900 of his followers committed mass suicide in Guyana in 1978.
The dead do not just rise in Haiti. In Columbia, a woman who had been declared dead (due to a heart attack) suddenly awoke during her funeral service. Lazarus syndrome is a condition given to describe patients who have been declared dead but, for some unknown reason even until today, awake. Since 1982, at least 25 incidences have been reported on Lazarus syndrome. One possible explanation given is the delay in adrenaline administered by medical staff reaching the heart.
The zombie outbreak we typically witness in mass media is actually a metaphor of anthropogenic global disasters. The zombies represent our fears, our worst-case scenario that our cities, way of life, and civilization could collapse so abruptly and colossally.
Our world has already experienced mass disease epidemics. In the 14th century, Black Death (or the Bubonic Plague) wiped out 30% of Europe’s population, and the Spanish Flu in 1918 decimated over 50 million people worldwide in just a year.
Every 100 years a new disease emerges that could potentially decimate vast numbers of people. SARS outbreak in 2003 killed 15% of the infected – a high mortality rate. It took only a few weeks for SARS to spread from China and Hong Kong to around the world. In the last 30 years, 40 new human pathogens have emerged such as HIV, avian flu, and SARS. And all these human pathogens came from animal pathogens.
Consequently, could a zombie virus emerge one day from a mutated rabies virus? Some scientists think it could potentially happen. Rabies is found in over 150 countries, and it kills about 55,000 people each year. Rabies destroys the brain, rendering human victims into coma and eventually, death. But if there is to be a zombie virus, the rabies virus would have to mutate to dramatically increase its virulence and to spread much more easily, preferably by air. Rabies virus has an incubation period of 1-3 months which is too long. The minimum incubation period for some virus today is only 2-3 days.
At the end, zombies do have an important message to us. They tell us that we humans may have progressed much since modern humans appeared 100,000 years ago, but in many ways, our existence are becoming increasingly tenuous. Half of the world’s population currently lives in cities, and this proportion is expected to increase to 70% by 2050. We are increasingly interlinked to one another by air, land, and sea. It takes one highly infectious and deadly disease, mixed with political and social chaos, to demolish our civilization. Anthropogenic climate change, loss of biodiversity and natural resources, and environmental degradation are some ways we humans can become extinct.