Ever since Dawn of the Dead in 1978, we’ve had a national obsession with zombies. This obsession is only intensifying and we’ve seen a surge in zombie movies, TV series, and Halloween costumes. While part of the obsession is just fun and games, another part of it is rooted in something much deeper. If you get scared at the thought of a zombie apocalypse, don’t feel foolish. Science shows that a zombie apocalypse could really happen.
What is a Zombie?
Before we can answer whether there will be a zombie apocalypse, we’ve got to define what a zombie is. Most of us would probably define a zombie as “the undead” and give characteristics such as that they like to feed on brains and have decaying flesh.
The idea of a zombie actually originated long before the Dawn of the Dead movie. The word zombie originates from the Kongo word for “soul,” nzambi. When African slaves were brought over to Haiti, the African beliefs combined with the local Voodoo beliefs and led to the idea of zombies.
It was thought that a Voodoo god would take the dead slaves from their graves and bring them to a heaven-like afterlife in Africa. But, if the slaves had offended the god in some way, then they would be doomed to serve as a soulless slave forever even after death — a zombie. This belief makes sense considering the brutal lives the slaves had to endure. It was also believed that zombies were created when a Voodoo witch had sex with a dead body. The witch captured the dead person’s soul, and the body was brought back to life as the “undead.”
Harvard Researcher Finds Real Zombies in Haiti
Even after slavery was abolished, the idea of zombies continued in Voodooism. This led one Harvard ethnobotanist named Wade Davis went to Haiti to study zombies. In his controversial book The Serpent and the Rainbow, he gave proof that zombies do exist.
He gives reports of Voodoo priests using a “zombie powder” containing the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin (which is found in pufferfish and some other animals) to poison victims. The victims went into a death-like coma. They were then buried, but could be revived later – making people think they had turned into zombies. Since they had suffered from oxygen deprivation while buried, they likely also suffered brain damage which made them seem like zombies.
Davis also gives examples, most notably the man Clairvius Narcisse who was turned into a “mental zombie” by being poisoned with repeated doses of Datura stramonium which made him compliant. The man claimed to be held captive as a zombie for 2 decades while forced to work on a plantation.
Wade’s discoveries were very controversial, but they prove one scary fact:
A person could be turned into a zombie.
No, not in the sense of someone brought back from the dead. But, if we define “zombie” as someone who lacks brain function but continues to be mobile, then there are definitely ways the zombie apocalypse could be brought on.
What Could Cause a Zombie Apocalypse
The neurotoxins that Wade Davis found in Haitian “zombie powder” aren’t the only things which could turn people into mental zombies. Anything which damaged the brain could turn us into zombies. The parts of the brain which would need to be affected are:
- Prefrontal Cortex: Controls decision-making and behavior
- Amygdala: Controls the fear response
- Wernicke’s Area: Involved in understand speech (in popular culture, zombies do not understand human language)
Under no circumstances (that we are aware of) would anything give zombies super-human abilities, such as being able to withstand serious injuries or staying “alive” even after all their flesh has rotted off. Even a zombie still has to have intact body parts to keep sending neural signals from the brain to the body parts or else it wouldn’t be able to chase you down anymore.
But the following 3 things could very well cause a (mental) zombie apocalypse!
1. Viruses Causing the Zombie Apocalypse
If you don’t believe that a virus could cause a zombie apocalypse, just look at the virus rabies. People who get infested with rabies (which usually occurs from getting bitten by an infected animal – very zombie like!) have symptoms like extreme aggressiveness, hallucinations, excessive salivation, and inability to think clearly. Basically, rabies makes you go nuts.
Viruses which affect the brain and cause aggressive or bizarre are called neurotropic viruses, and there are many of these viruses.
Will there be a zombie apocalypse by viruses? Right now, we don’t know of any viruses which could turn us into zombies and bring on the apocalypse – but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. Viruses can mutate, and the next mutation might bring on a super strain that wipes us all out. Another possibility is that two viruses can come together to make a hybrid virus, which actually happens quite frequently. It is just a matter of time before we get a zombie virus.
2. Bacteria Causing the Zombie Apocalypse
We used to think that bacteria were very simple and that they caused disease simply by attaching to a cell and dumping their toxins (as opposed to viruses which hijack cells). But now, we have come to realize that bacteria are much more powerful than we ever imagined.
To start with, bacteria can communicate with each other. For example, researchers just figured out that your gut bacteria talks to your brain! Consider that you’ve got more bacteria in your body than cells. If your normal bacteria mutated, it could be devastating.
Just like viruses, bacteria has shown to hijack cells and reprogram normal cellular response. Will a zombie apocalypse occur by bacteria? Probably not. Or at least by one single bacteria strain. However, it is possible that various strains of bacteria could mutate together to make zombie-like symptoms.
3. Parasites Causing the Zombie Apocalypse
We already know of many parasites that want to invade the brain. They are quite adept at getting into the brain too. For example, parasites can enter through the stomach (such as from infected food) and make their way through the blood stream and into the brain tissue.
An interesting thing about parasites is that they often don’t eat up their entire host. This would be self-defeating: kill the host and you’ve got nothing left to live in. In order to survive, many parasites cause mild-altering effects in their hosts. These effects are beneficial to the parasite. For example, the hairworm parasite, which lives inside grasshoppers, will alter the grasshopper’s central nervous system so they kill themselves in pools of water. The hairworms can swim, and then leave the host to continue with their life cycle.
There aren’t any parasites (that we know of) which turn us into zombies? But, a parasite could evolve to get into our brains and cause zombie-like effects.
Will There Be a Zombie Apocalypse?
We’ve established that (while unlikely) zombie apocalypse could occur. But, by focusing on the possibility of zombie-like creatures, we are missing the more important lesson here.
The zombie apocalypse is a metaphor for what will happen when SHTF. People might not eat brains, but they will be so hungry that they will turn on their friends and family. People might not be undead, but they will become so ruthless that they will seem soul-less. Considering that there is a very real risk of a major disaster from EMP, bioterrorism, and natural disaster, we’ve got every reason to fear the zombie apocalypse!