For well over a decade now, the zombie has been a major part of the pop culture conversation, lurching from its traditional place in the B-movie niche to become a household name in horror alongside the vampire.
Of course, every myth and folktale has a basis in reality. But what are the precedents for this lurching undead monster? You’d be surprised. All of the aspects of the zombie that we know and love have their foundation in real life: in contagion and disease, in the ravaging effects of narcotics, and in the bizarre and boundless diversity of nature itself.
And if that’s not enough, there are knock on effects of the zombie’s recent entry into popular culture’s top trending list. Drug epidemics and inexplicable, gruesome murder are linked back by the media to the ever present lurking undead figure of the mindless ravener, providing even more cases of the weirdest and most bizarre zombies real life has to offer…
15. The Real Life Zombification
Beginning with something topical; police in Manchester, England have only last month been dealing with a drug-related epidemic of epic proportions, as users of the illegal synthetic cannabinoid were rounded up by the carload over a fraught weekend involving two dozen ambulance calls and nearly as many dispersal orders to avoid threats to the public.
“Spice” is the innocent-sounding street name for the most notorious of a new breed of laboratory-created chemicals. Made to imitate the effects of THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana, it doesn’t quite work as advertised. In fact, Spice can be 100 times more potent, with markedly different effects depending on the particular chemical combination doing the rounds at any given time.
The consensus, however, is that a room full of people on Spice is like a scene from a zombie flick. Abusers of the drug seem like they’re brain dead, vacant-eyed, shuffling, leaden-limbed and disassociated from reality… and apparently that’s how it feels too, with users reporting their experience of the passage of time contracting, hours flying by like minutes and whole days like hours.
All par for the course and part of the experience for a certain kind of heavy drug user. But with reports of people being hospitalised with temporary paralysis, heart attacks and even strokes, and after effects including kidney and liver damage and psychosis, this is a zombie drug not worth the high.
14. The Real Life Zombie Compulsion
The killifish is a brightly coloured little freshwater fish found the length and breadth of the American continent, from Argentina to Ontario.
The killifish will usually steer well clear of the surface to avoid being snatched up by waiting predators. Let’s face it, it’s a good rule for life even if you’re not an inch long with no opposable thumbs. However, it’s not just birds they have to be wary of: the killifish can also fall victim to a particular kind of fluke, a parasitic flatworm of the “trematoda” class.
Somewhat inconveniently for them, these flukes live out their lifecycles in two radically different environments: possessing the killifish, and in the guts of birds. In order to travel from one to the other, the fluke must persuade the killifish to allow itself to be eaten by the avian host-to-be. The fluke inhibits the production of serotonin in the killifish’s brain, significantly altering the brain chemistry of this initial host.
Restless and agitated, the killifish loses all instinct for self-preservation; moving right to the top of the water column; flicking the surface of the water in their habitat; even swimming upside down and exposing their reflective bellies to invert their usual camouflage.
13. The Real Life Rage Virus
Rabies is one of those infamous yet misunderstood conditions that we think we know all about but don’t. For a start, it’s the name of both the rabies virus itself and the specific cluster of conditions and symptoms that the virus causes. These days, rabies vaccinations are the norm in the developed world, but around sixty thousand rabies-related deaths occur every year in the developing world, specifically in Africa and Asia.
The virus attacks the brain and nervous system and, once symptoms are recognisable, there’s very little way to treat it. Almost invariably, it will prove fatal to the host.
But the method of infection is what should concern us most. On the verge of killing whatever warm-blooded animal carries it, the virus agitates the victim into a highly confused, hyper-aggressive state and quickly migrates into the saliva. Rabies can be spread by a scratch, but is far more likely to be passed on by a lick or a bite, ensuring the survival of the virus past the point of the host’s death.
Practically any mammal can carry the virus, although these days rabies is more likely to be passed on by bats than it is dogs: spreading lethal, bestial, contagious rage from species to species with a simple bite.
12. The Real Life Medicine Behind Zombies
In 2014, neuroscientists Timothy Verstynen and Brad Voytek published a book entitled Do Zombies Dream Of Undead Sheep?, delving into the real life neuroscience behind the fictional zombie’s behaviour.
For example: the near-mindless obsession with consuming flesh could be due to damage to the hypothalamus, the area of the brain which controls appetite, leading to hyperphagia, an insatiable hunger. Not only that, but the hypothalamus controls the fight/flight reflex, which could explain the zombie’s lack of self-preservation instinct.
The zombie’s singular focus is actually a lack of focus: a damaged parietal lobe could cause an inability to concentrate on anything not immediately in front of them. If you move slowly and out of its direct line of sight, a zombie will probably ignore you and shamble on… but if you present a moving, distracting target, the undead thing will lurch in your direction.
Oh, and that staggering gait? Damage to the cerebellum. This theory would posit that the traditional zombie has simply suffered more brain damage than the faster moving undead in films like World War Z or the Dawn Of The Dead remake. Loss of identity and personality? Damage to the hippocampus affects memory, and prosopagnosia would explain the inability to recognise family and friends, while a disruption in Papez’s circuits (the neural links that connect parts of the brain) would cause poor impulse control and anger management, which it can’t express because of a screwed up arcuate fasciculus, affecting the use and comprehension of language.
11. The Real Life Zombie Flesh
“Necrosis” simply means “death” in Greek. However, rather than being a disease in and of itself, the medical term refers to a condition where cells begin to die, often because blood fails to flow to living tissue.
Necrosis can be caused in a variety of ways: via cancer, poison, radiation, chemical exposure and infection, for example. The thing is, anyone with necrotic tissue can’t help but appear uncannily like popular culture’s usual representation of the zombie. There is more to it than simple appearances, however: necrotic tissue is technically dead, even if the person suffering is very much alive.
In necrosis, the affected tissue ceases sending information to the nervous system, and can emit harmful enzymes that damage neighbouring healthy cells. That means that, regardless of the source of the condition, necrosis can spread to other parts of the body. In extreme cases, necrosis will give rise to gangrene, which often proves fatal.
The only known treatment for necrosis as a condition is the cutting away of any and all necrotic tissue: what’s known as “debridement”. In extreme cases, amputation is the only alternative. However it presents itself, a case of necrosis resembles nothing so much as zombie flesh, rotting on the bone…
10. The Real Life Zombie Infestation
Spiders are, traditionally, one of the orders highest on the arthropod food chain. Nightmarish hell-beasts from the darkest corners of the id, they’re pretty much designed to prey on other, smaller creatures.
That’s why hymenoepimecis argyraphaga is such a monster. This parasitic wasp attacks a predator larger than itself, the orb weaver spider, and transforms it into its zombified slave. One sting paralyses the spider, allowing the wasp to lay an egg on its abdomen.
The wasp’s larva attaches itself to the spider when it hatches, hanging onto the abdomen. It leeches the spider’s juices to grow bigger and stronger until the next stage in the creature’s lifecycle. The spider becomes a placid babysitter, going about its business as if there was no tiny horror dementedly sucking the hemolymph from its living body.
Finally, the larva injects its host with a hormone that kicks it into life again. Its will co-opted, the zombie spider begins to spin a web, but not in a traditional spiral. Repeating the same steps over and over again, it creates an incredibly durable web with a kind of hammock in the middle, and then squats in the centre while the larva evolves one final time.
Killing, eviscerating and discarding the spider that looked after it for so long, the larva builds its cocoon on the super-strong web that it forced its doomed host to make, emerging a few weeks later as an adult wasp to begin the horrible cycle all over again.
9. The Real Life Mindless Raveners
The minuscule aquatic sacculina carcini larvae go one better. These barnacles take over the brains of their hosts, transforming them into mindless, insatiable eating machines.
Gifted with an incredible sense of smell, a female larva will sniff out an unsuspecting crab feeding at high tide and attach itself to the crustacean, burrowing inside. The kentrogon quickly grows to become a slug-like creature focused on total domination of the host, sending out questing tentacles that wind throughout the crab’s insides until they reach the eyes and brain. The kentrogon itself grows larger still, bulging out from the crab’s underside as a sac called an externa. A passing male sacculina carcini can then enter the crab via the externa to fertilize the female’s eggs.
The crab itself no longer has a will of its own. Driven by sacculina carcini’s imperatives, it can no longer mate, heal or grow. Constantly ravenously hungry, all it lives for is to feed and protect the parasites and the babies living inside it, a maternal obsessive. If male, the crab will actually be physically altered to appear and act like a female in breeding season.
When the parasite’s eggs are ready to hatch, the possessed crab will even act like an expectant mother, stirring the water to aid the flow as it shoots out clouds of newborn sacculina carcini. Since the crab and sacculina carcini are now permanently bound together, this process will repeat itself several times during the rest of the crab’s unfortunate “life”.
8. The Real Life Undeath
The symptoms of zombification in the movies actually have a real life equivalent in African trypanosomiasis, often called “sleeping sickness”.
Sleeping sickness is a sub-Saharan parasitic disease affecting humans and a few other animals. Usually transmitted by the bite of tsetse flies infected with Trypanosoma brucei, a single-celled parasite, at first the disease will cause fever, headaches and joint pains often mistaken for the common cold.
A few weeks, perhaps even months later, the parasites cross the blood-brain barrier, and the second, neurological phase of the illness begins. The patient begins to suffer from insomnia, chronic fatigue and numbness of the extremities, showing signs of clumsiness, poor coordination and confusion… stumbling around like the walking dead, until the illness eventually proves actually fatal.
There have been three epidemics of sleeping sickness in Africa within the last century or so, the most recent of which continued well into the 1990s. However, with careful, focused management, the number of reported cases has dropped a vast amount in the twenty-first century. The World Health Organisation considers it likely that African trypanosomiasis will have been eliminated as a public health problem by 2020.
7. The Real Life Living Dead
The Social Security Death Master File is a record of every American death reported to federal agencies since 1962. Available publicly since 1980, it contains information on 86 million deaths… and every single month, around a thousand living Americans are added to the DMF in error.
Since the index receives around 2.5 million death records a year, the error rate is only about half of 1%: but that comforting figure doesn’t help the 12,000 law-abiding US citizens every year who find that their bank accounts, passports, benefits, insurance and credit cards have been cancelled or frozen.
You see, because the Index is a public document, it can be purchased via the Freedom Of Information Act and used by financial and credit firms and government agencies to match records and, theoretically, prevent identity fraud by preventing the social security details of the deceased from being used to obtain money, goods and services.
In today’s data driven society, being declared dead can be a literal death sentence, as Alabama native Judy Rivers found when, despite having an impeccable financial record and CV, she was unable to find work, keep a home or access any funds and was forced to live in her car and work menial jobs – a far cry from the six figures she was used to earning. It took Rivers five years to resolve the issue – but, at any time, any company working from old data could declare her dead all over again….
6. The Real Life Zombie Victim
As reported by controversial Canadian ethnobotanist Wade Davis in his 1985 book The Serpent And The Rainbow (later adapted into a film of the same name by renowned horror auteur Wes Craven), the case of Haitian man Clairvius Narcisse may have been one of actual, real life zombification.
The story goes that Narcisse checked himself into hospital in April 1962 with a high fever. Despite all efforts to save him, Narcisse grew weaker, his lips turning blue, and finally passed away. He was buried a day later, the coffin nailed shut and lowered into the ground. However, in 1980, Angelina Narcisse was confronted by her long-deceased brother while out walking. He told her that he had actually been alive and awake throughout the funeral process, unable to move or react even as one of the nails driven into the coffin had pierced his face.
Narcisse had been given a cocktail of poisons including tetrodotoxin and bufotoxin, respectively derived from pufferfish and toads, that together would induce a coma. He’d then returned home, where he’d collapsed and seemingly died.
It was speculated that the man who’d done this to him had then simply recovered Narcisse after his live burial and dosed him with Datura stramonium, an hallucinogenic herb known as “the Devil’s snare”, reducing him to a docile, obedient zombie servant and putting him to work in the fields. When the wannabe bokor was murdered by one of his zombie slaves, Narcisse was finally free to return home.
5. The Real Life Zombie Cannibalism
The idea of cannibalism is as old as humanity. There have been whole cultures that practiced it as a way of life, whether to honour the dead or as a religious observance. And then there are the anomalies: the dysfunctional few like Jeffrey Dahmer, Surender Koli and Zhang Yongming, who’ve carried out appalling acts of cannibalistic serial murder to the tune of horrified retching from the general public.
Well, whether due to mental illnesses like schizophrenia or the abuse of bargain basement street drugs, it turns out that there are more instances of zombie cannibalism than you’d think: one off meltdowns that lead way, way off the reservation.
Only in the last few years, there are stories like that of Tyree Lincoln Smith of Lynn Haven, Florida, who hacked a homeless man to death in January 2012 while in a fugue state, supposedly eating his brains and one of his eyes. Five months later, Miami resident Rudy Eugene was shot and killed by police after refusing to halt an animalistic, naked public assault on an elderly homeless man, in which he had chewed off most of his victim’s face. Last August, Florida teenager Austin Harrouff (why is it always Florida?!) inexplicably murdered a couple of strangers, ripping at one with his teeth and requiring repeated taser shots and the combined efforts of several police officers before he was finally subdued.
4. The Real Life Return From The Grave
One of the most likely inspirations for the enduring myth of the undead is the genuine phenomenon of the deceased “coming back to life”. This was far more prevalent back in the dark ages of medicine, when doctors were still prescribing bloodletting as a cure for insanity and indigestion. However, even in the twenty-first century, medical professionals still get it wrong, declaring people dead when in fact they’re in a coma, unconscious or even just asleep.
The news regularly reports cases of people awakening at their own funerals – like Brighton Dama Zanthe, the “deceased” Zimbabwean man who was spotted twitching and moving around in his coffin as mourners paid their respects in 2013, or Hamdi Hafez al-Nubi, the Egyptian waiter a year earlier who was found to be warm and still breathing while lying in his coffin, and was revived and nursed back to health.
Then there’s the extraordinary story of Li Xiufeng, the ninety-five-year-old Chinese grandmother who came back to life in her own coffin as it lay at rest in a friend’s house, pried the lid off and returned home to cook herself lunch while her neighbours turned the community upside down searching for her “corpse”.
There are so many similar stories – more than you’d probably believe – but none more heartwarming than the toddler in the Philippines, who was pronounced clinically dead after days of fever, only to begin moving and breathing again in her tiny coffin while being arranged for her funeral.
3. The Real Life Walking Dead
Another real life zombification oddity with its own major motion picture attached to it (last year’s The Girl With All The Gifts, adapted from the brilliant novel by M.R. Carey), Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a fungus that specifically affects ants of the Camponotini tribe of ants, a taxonomic rank that includes carpenter ants.
Upon attaching to the ant, the O. unilateralis spore germinates and enters its exoskeleton, growing within the unfortunate insect and absorbing unnecessary soft tissue. Everything vital, however, is left intact. The fungus needs the ant alive, although it doesn’t leave mushroom inside it for anything inessential (boom-TISH).
When O. unilateralis is prepared to seed the next generation, it unravels long tendrils that burrow into the brain of its poor host, secreting hormones that bring the ant under the direction of the fungus’ imperative to reproduce. Unable to control itself, the ant climbs to the top of a nearby plant and clamps down hard with its mandibles on the tough “vein” of an uppermost leaf.
At this point, the death grip firmly in place, O. unilateralis kills its host and works to fill the entire inside with its own flesh, eventually bursting through the top of the corpse’s head, the fungal stalk flowering and eventually rupturing to release spores out into the world and begin the whole nightmarish cycle all over again.
2. The Real Life Undead Abomination
Named after nineteenth century neurologist Jules Cotard, who first described the condition, Cotard’s syndrome – also known as “walking corpse syndrome” – describes a range of delusions varying from the patient’s belief that various body parts, organs or vital fluids are missing from their body, to the insistence that their soul or anima has been taken and that they are dead people walking the earth.
In an 1880 case report, Cotard described his patient Ms X’s delusion as follows:
“Ms X confirms that she has no brain, no nerves, no chest, no stomach, no intestines; there’s only the skin and bones of a decomposing body… She has no soul, God does not exist, and neither does the Devil. Nothing more than a decomposing body, she has no need to eat for living, she cannot die naturally and will live eternally if she isn’t burned – the fire is the only end for her.”
Cotard’s is thought to stem from a combination of two distinct forms of damage to the temporal lobe of the brain. The malfunctioning fusiform gyrus (the area that allows us to recognise faces) and amygdala (which controls the processing of emotion) cooperate to convince the sufferer that they aren’t real, are missing vital pieces or are actually dead – decaying and falling to pieces.
1. The Real Life Zombie Horde
The worst and most disturbing narcotic plague to sweep Russia over the last decade, desomorphine – better known by its street name “krokodil” – is often used as a bargain basement version of heroin by addicts unable to find or afford the real deal.
A vile, unbearably addictive homemade cocktail of codeine, paint thinner, gasoline, iodine, lighter fluid, red phosphorus (from matches) and hydrochloric acid, krokodil is so named because of the horrifying effect it has on a habitual user’s flesh.
Horribly caustic, the liquid causes the addict’s skin to become scaly – like a crocodile’s – when injected. Worse, if accidentally injected into flesh, krokodil causes the development of abscesses, which quickly become gangrenous. Remember necrosis? That’s what we’re talking about here: the living death of healthy tissue, requiring cutting out or even amputation before it can spread to vital areas.
The krokodil user’s high only lasts a couple of hours, and the process of cooking up takes a good thirty minutes. Obtaining them all, while easier and cheaper than scoring heroin, can be a time-consuming process: all of which means that the addict does little else, thinks about little else but hunting for the ingredients, making more and getting high again.
Imagine skeletal gangs of decaying, lost souls roaming the back alleys of Russia, rendered amoral and criminal by addiction, consumed by the thought of the very thing that’s consuming them. If that’s not a real life description of a zombie horde, I don’t know what is.