Zombies! From television shows to movies to video games, they’re everywhere in popular culture. But could they actually exist? The answer to that question depends on your definition of what a zombie is and how it’s created.
Most often the term ‘zombie’ is associated with a reanimated rotting corpse whose only goal is to consume the flesh of the living. This is often triggered by an unknown mutation or infection of the brain which is passed on through the bites of those who are already infected. And everybody knows that these zombies don’t really exist; they are simply the outcome of the evolutionary mix of science fiction and the supernatural. But as science and medicine advance, so do diseases…so what’s stopping a zombie apocalypse from one day becoming a reality?
In countries such as Haiti zombies have been a reality for decades, though they are known as zombis and are not what Western culture would generally imagine when confronted by the idea. A Haitian zombi is a slave whose corps cadavre (physical body) is separated from its ti-bon anj (agency, awareness, and memory) by a boko (sorcerer)².
Local interpretation is that either by poisoning or sorcery, a young person suddenly and inexplicably becomes ill, is subsequently recognised by their family as dead, placed in a tomb, stolen by a boko (sorcerer) in the next few days, and secretly returned to life and activity but not to full awareness and agency.
[Littlewood & Douyon 1997, p.1094]
This particular type of zombie, however, has more to do with spirituality and sorcery than physiology. Does this mean then that zombies seen on TV shows such as The Walking Dead (2010-) or movies like Dawn of the Dead (2004) are an impossibility? To even attempt to answer that question, first we’d have to consider what might cause an epidemic such as zombiism.
The vaguely mentioned ‘zombie virus’ is the most common cause of zombification in most fiction. Currently, the disease that presents symptoms closest to those portrayed by zombies is the deadly rabies virus. An article³ found in Emerging Infectious Diseases displays the following table showing just how similar the characteristics between rabies and the ‘zombie virus’ are:
The main difference between being infected with rabies and being infected by the ‘zombie virus’ is pretty obvious: people bitten by zombies don’t ‘die’ but rather become undead, doomed to roam the world eating the flesh of the living and spreading their contagion with every bite.
Succeeding blog posts will go into detail on whether or not an apocalypse of the flesh-devouring undead might actually one day be possible.