Stuff You Should Know: Zombies

Zombie GirlIt’s already been a good couple of years for zombies thanks to the recent success of films like 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and Zombieland. But things took a turn for the even better this week when the season finale of the AMC series The Walking Dead scaled new heights in basic cable dominance by attracting an unprecedented four million viewers. That showing was strong enough to take the crown as the most watched drama series in basic cable history for the much sought after adult 19-49 demographic.

To celebrate the public’s ever increasing fascination with all things undead, we decided to delve a little deeper into the subject. Here are some things you should know about the world’s preferred method of apocalypse, the zombie.

1. Zombies: Scaring the Shit Out of Us Since the 1920′s

Zombie NewspaperAuthor Willie Seabrook gets the credit for bringing the word “zombie” into the public eye in his 1929 novel The Magic Island. Back then, it was spelled “zombi”. The superfluous “e” was added to the end some years later because the English language adores letters that add absolutely nothing significant to the word in question.

2. Zombies are Undead, But the Undead Aren’t Necessarily Zombies

vampirePeople use the terms “undead” and “zombie” interchangeably, but much like the often confused samurai and ninja, the two words actually have different meanings. Undead can refer to just about anything that is deceased but acts as if it’s alive. So vampires, ghosts and Larry King can all proudly count themselves among the undead.

But purists know that to earn a zombie badge, the deceased has to have been brought back by way of a curse or mutation. Furthermore, a loss of impulse and motor skill control is essential. Anything less than that, and you’re just another bullshit Twilight character waiting to happen.

3. In the Beginning…It Was All About Voodoo

voodooThe origins of the zombie as we know it can be traced to Haiti and the tenets of voodoo. According to mythology, a sorcerer or “bokor” is able to revive the dead and control them. That’s where the “no control over anything” requirement for entrance to the zombiehood comes from.

In his 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow, Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis made a case that not only are these creepy voodoo shenanigans possible, but all it takes to make it happen are a few chemicals.

  • Tetrodotoxin – a powerful neurotoxin found in pufferfish, which explains why eating that is a horrible idea.
  • Datura – a dissociative drug

Together, these two chemicals invoke a death like state where the victim is completely at the mercy of the controlling ways of evil voodoo doctors. Clairvius Narcisse, the subject of Davis’s book, claimed to have fallen victim to this very fate…for two goddamn years!

4. Old Timey Zombies are Hella Easy to Defeat

ramen noodlesAccording to those same voodoo legends, feeding a zombie salt will make it return to the grave. As creepy as the idea of some voodoo sorcerer whipping up a batch of zombie minions using drug laced pufferfish may be, it’s at least comforting to know we can fight them off with a few packs of Ramen noodles or whatever other sodium laden food product you may have lying around.

5. Unfortunately, They’ve Evolving
zombie evolutionIn movies and books they are, anyway. A horde of invading flesh eaters that can be stopped with salt doesn’t make for much of a Hollywood ending, so as zombies have evolved in popular culture, all sorts of events have been blamed for bringing about the inevitable zombie apocalypse…

  • Scientific Experiments
  • Radiation
  • Demonic Possession
  • Aliens

We’re speaking of aliens of the space variety, not illegal immigrants. But rest assured, a movie about illegal immigrants turned zombies is probably in the works somewhere, because…

6. As Society Goes, So Go Zombies

protestThroughout history, zombie movies and the prevailing social issue of the day have gone hand in hand. That all started with George Romero’s classic 1968 flick Night of the Living Dead, where the bad times were a result of a space probe that blew up in the Earth’s atmosphere, a situation that spoke directly to society’s ever growing fears about out of control technology. Writers and directors have gone back to that well time and again ever since. Some notable examples:

  • C.H.U.D. – zombies caused by nuclear waste, a reaction to the Three Mile Island disaster.
  • 28 Days Later – zombies caused by viral outbreak. H1N1 anyone?
  • Cell – a Stephen King book about a zombie outbreak caused by an electronic pulse transmitted through cell phones that doubled as a warning about our increasing dependence on communication technology.

Can a zombie story tied to our ever growing love of/disdain for reality television be next? We certainly hope so.

zombie housewives

7. But It’s Parasites We Should Really Be Worried About

parasiteZombiefication by way of nuclear disaster or cell phone use makes for great science fiction, but parasites are the real deal. Take the The Dicrocoelium dendriticum, for example. This nasty bugger can only complete its life cycle inside the stomach of a grazing mammal. That’s heinous enough, but how it gets into the stomach is the real story. The parasite infects the brain of ants and literally forces them to crawl to the tip of a blade of grass, where it clamps on and waits for a passing mammal to eat it. The ant has no control whatsoever over what it’s doing. Just like a zombie.

Another parasite, Euhaplorchis californiensis, works in a similar way by infecting the brains of unsuspecting fish and forcing them to wiggle uncontrollably near the surface of the water. That makes them an easy target for the birds of prey that the parasite is hoping to one day call home.

funny owlBut none of that holds a candle to the Toxoplasma gondii, which certainly has a peaceful sounding last name (like Ghandi, you see) but is completely built for destruction. This microscopic agent of horror infects the brain of rats and removes their fear of cats, which exponentially increases the rodent’s chances of being eaten by said felines. At that point, the circle of life is in full force in the most disgusting way imaginable. Basically, the parasite lays tons of eggs in the cat’s stomach. Those eggs are excreted through the cat’s fecal matter. That fecal matter is then eaten by…you guessed it…rats.

Are you comforted by the thought that this biological hellfire is reserved for the rodents and fish of the world? Don’t be.

8. Because It Could Totally Happen to You

zombie apocalypseHere’s a fun fact to share with your happy hour friends. Scientists estimate HALF THE GODDAMN HUMAN POPULATION is infected by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite also.

Fortunately, the feces and death loving parasite doesn’t harm humans. Yet. But all that means is we’re one genetic mutation away from HALF THE GODDAMN HUMAN POPULATION (a fact we can’t possibly type in bold enough print) turning into zombies. Keep in mind, this is the parasite that makes rats way too comfortable with the one predator most looking forward to devouring them. All those well laid zombie escape plans of yours won’t matter much when you’re infected by a parasite that makes you fearless of the damn things.

This may sound horrifying, but there is at least one bit of good news.

9. Science Knows Who You Should Kill First to Save Yourself

suspiciousKind of. Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague conducted tests on humans infected with Toxoplasma gondii and found that infected women were friendlier and more outgoing than uninfected ladies. So that girl who gave up her phone number a little too easy last weekend? She probably just has designs on eating your brain someday.

As for dudes, the study showed that infected males tended to be more suspicious and jealous. So whoever that person in your inner circle is, you’ve probably wanted to end their shit for years anyway. Now, you have every reason to take action.

Okay, this time, we really do have good news…

10. Zombie Parasites are Older than Jesus

jesusRemember the sad tale of the zombie ants? Turns out, that’s been happening for years. About 48 million years, as far as we know. Researchers at Exeter University found evidence of the macabre dance of zombie ant death in a fossilized leaf that dates back to the days of dinosaurs. So take comfort in knowing that brain infecting parasites have been around this long and haven’t turned on us yet.

That, or maybe a change is just long overdue and the zombie apocalypse we all hope and pray for is right around the corner.