Originating in the Caribbean in “Voodoo” practice and moving on to film, videogames, and novels, zombies have undergone numerous transformations. Traditionally lacking in physical beauty, social skills, and intelligence, they do not evoke emotions of sympathy, but rather face repulsion – owing to their popular representation as “a humanoid creature with half a face, slavering over the intestines of a dismembered teenager” . This lack of appeal in society is antagonized by their growing use in studies of consciousness.
Recently, the representation of zombies in science fiction literature has shifted from monstrosity, primitivism, and superstition to modern beings that are products of science and technology. This is most exemplified in popular cinematic media by Danny Boyle’s
28 Days Later , in which the critical scene showed a group of animal activists discovering dead chimpanzees that were half-operated on fighting against glass cages amongst other living animals trapped within [1,2]. The scientist on duty warned the activists against freeing the animals, claiming that they were highly contagious with the bi-product of a human made horror: the Rage virus [1,2]. Ignoring this counsel, the gates were opened by the activists, releasing a frightening creature that bit its saviour’s neck. Instantaneously, the activist demonstrated behaviours such as growling, vomiting blood across the floor, and glazed red eyes [1,2]. She, in fact, turned into a zombie. Subsequently, the others were contaminated and the zombie apocalypse began. The Rage virus took over the humans’ minds to the extent of them being incapable of recognizing familiar faces or taking care of basic human needs [1,2]. This description of contamination, which causes a zombie transformation, suggests a pathological etymology and not a supernatural one. Kyle Bishop, author of American Zombie Gothic: the Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, argued that, “this kind of zombie is more frightening than the traditional fantasy monster [because] it crosses the genre into science fiction: it could happen” . The zombie’s personality, in this case, would be described as a form of post-human dualist such that a zombie’s body is no longer in control of the human brain, but rather a parasite or a magician, which directs the host human’s behaviour using physiological mechanisms . Death is attributed to the lack of fundamental brain functioning and social identity. Thus, the increasingly common definition of a zombie is “a human being who exhibits perfect natural alert, loquacious behaviour but is in fact not conscious at all, but rather some sort of automaton” .
The origin of real zombies leads us to the history of the island of Haiti, more specifically the religious culture of Haitian Vodoun, commonly known as “Voodoo” . Haitians define zombies as the following: “By magical or other unknown means a person may die and be transformed into a creature of living death called a zombi. This living dead entity is said to have no will of his own, but can be made to perform slave labour.”  The root cause for this transformation has been ascribed to various sources, including but not limited to, a magical explanation or poisoning by malevolent practitioners . The critical difference is that the Haitian Vodoun notion of the zombi is an amalgam of African and Christian religious ideas and practices based on Haitian slave population . The fear that stems from the Haitian zombi is not a fear of the zombis itself as it is in the Euro-American society, but rather of becoming a zombi – an individual lacking free will .
With due consideration being given to both traditional and modern definitions, new studies have emerged that demonstrate a scientific basis of zombie state, as observed in other forms of life. The Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a fungus that infects Camponotus leonardi ants habituated in tropical rainforests . Once the fungus spores attach to the ant, they enzymatically enter the body via the exoskeleton . The infection spreads, producing exogenous compounds affecting the ant’s hemocoel, the centralized fluid-filled body cavity, causing sporadic, intermittent full body convolutions, eventually resulting in their fall to the forest floor . During the climb back to their habitat, the latching on of their mandibles to a leaf vein triggers muscular atrophy which results in the ant losing their muscular relaxation ability and getting into a body position popularly known as the death grip . This death grip, examined in the light of geography, reveals a surprising specificity of the spatial positioning at which this grip occurs. This detailed positioning indicates that the fungus requires precise behaviors and physiological mechanisms to complete their lifecycle. Ultimately, the ants’ death triggers growth of the fungal hyphae inside the insect’s body, which then emerge from the exoskeleton at a precise location from the head . Rapidly developing, the hyphae soon being sexual reproduction and release spores within a field of approximately one square meter below the ant’s body that could infect other C. leonardi ants .
This behaviour was further examined in the Polyrhachis ants and revealed that the behaviors exhibited were different and not optimal for the development of the parasitic fungi suggesting that this fungus has evolved to specialize in this specific host . Thus, the zombie ants, directed by the needs of the fungus, serve their “masters” by providing a breeding place and suffering death at the optimal position for spreading infection. The ants’ own free will, consciousness, and survival instincts appear to be non-existent or insignificant in comparison to that of the fungus- the soul of the fungus resides in the body of a zombie ant.
This parasitic behaviour is replicated in nature in other species, with the parasites creating zombie-like hosts in a phenomenon known as “adaptive parasite manipulation.”  For example, in Central America, ants infected by a nematode parasite through consumption of avian eggs physically change to have bright red color and round bodies . These changes causes the ants to look similar to local berries consumed by the birds . Thus, the parasite infects another bird leading to a complete ‘cycle of life.’
The lack of free will of the host animals in these various parasitic infections renders them in a zombie-like status as per the definition discussed previously. Parasites serve as the Victor Frankensteins of the natural society that transform other species into mindless slaves .
- Wasson, Sara, and Emily Alder, eds. Gothic Science Fiction 1980-2010. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011.
- 28 Days Later. Dir. Danny Boyle. 2002. DVD. 20th Century Fox, 2004.
- Inglis, David. “The zombie from myth to reality: Wade Davis, academic scandal and the limits of the real.” SCRIPTed 7 (2010): 351-369. Accessed March 27, 2014.
- Wilcox, Christine. “Your average, everyday zombie.” Scientific American (2011). Accessed March 27, 2014.
Image Credit (Creative Commons): WarfyrdauzwaR. 2007. “28 Days Later Sketch.” deviantART, accessed March 27, 2014.
Image Credit (Creative Commons): Penn State. 2013. ” Zombie Ant Fungus.” Flickr, accessed March 27, 2014.