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The Sirens of Suspense



Zombies: A Crash Course item1

This article originally published in the January 2012 issue of Suspense Magazine, get it HERE

Lately, I’ve found myself wondering which room is most defensible, how many 2 x 4s it would take to secure the windows (and where I should stack them), and which generator is the quietest. Apparently, I’m not the only one. You were probably as surprised as I was by the statement that the Center for Diseases Control and Prevention released on their website a couple months ago entitled “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse”. Until recently, I really never paid zombies much attention. Perhaps Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, is right in his belief that zombie tales experience a surge in popularity during times of economic crisis. That makes sense as the underlying subtext of zombie literature is the inherent fragility of civilization, and generally explores fears about the end of the world. However, as I sat brainstorming this article from a booth at Phoenix Comicon, surrounded by creatures of all kinds, I couldn’t help but feel some people have been prepared for a very long time. If the zombie apocalypse were to hit, I’d suggest running to your nearest sci-fi convention. My own obsession began when I picked up a copy of Sophie Littlefield’s recent post-apocalyptic zombie novel Aftertime. Honestly? If I didn’t know Sophie, I would have never picked it up. “Post-apocalyptic” and “zombie” were not on my list of keywords. They are now. This was no 70s horror film zombie fare, it had depth. It was zombie literature, and I couldn’t put it down. It started me on what I can only call a zombie-thon. So, after my a crash course on zombies, I’m condensing what I learned and passing it onto you.

Let’s begin at the beginning, what is a zombie?

That depends on what culture you ask, as they appear throughout the world, from West Africa to West India. Generally the term applies to a human who is able to coordinate movement and respond to outside stimuli, but is lacking in consciousness and self-awareness. Those of Voodou origin were usually live people hypnotized or subject to a curse where a sorcerer could take control of a person’s mind, and use their soul (which was kept inside a bottle) to enhance the sorcerer’s power. Under the influence of Haitian and New Orleans subcultures the definition was altered to apply to a human corpse which has returned to serve the undead.

Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist, studied zombies in Haiti in the 1980s, and found that two powders: tetrodotoxin (found in the flesh of the Pufferfish) and datura (or similar dissociative drugs) could together create a death or trance-like state, which could last for many years, and subsequent psychosis. These powders, in addition to societal and cultural expectations and reinforcements, could explain the origin of zombies in the voodoo cultures.

Seriously, you’re talking about zombies like they’re real. Are you insane?

Check your ant farm—you could have a few zombies in there already. David P. Hughes of Harvard University studied the way a fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis) turns carpenter ants into zombies. After being infected, the ant remains alive for a short time—but like the victim of a Voodoo sorcerer, the ant’s will is controlled by the fungus. Long story short, the fungus makes the ant to climb down from its nest high in the trees to small plants near the ground and clamp onto the underside of a low-hanging leaf just before it dies. There the ant remains while the fungus grows inside its body, finally sprouting from the ant’s head and raining spoors down on the forest floor below. Each falling spore can infect another anew. Though scientists have known about this fungus for years, Hughes was struck by the “amazingly precise control” the fungus has over its victim.

Ooh, zombie ants, really scary. If every culture has zombies, how about some real evidence?

Published in 2003, The Zombie Survival Guide, which reached the New York Times Bestseller list, was written by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks), and is an instruction manual for citizens to survive zombie uprisings. It also provides an overview of various historic “cases” of outbreaks. Brooks posited all kinds of helpful, and humorous, historical revisions in his Survival Guide, including zombie explanations for the vanishing population of Roanoke. However, one of his theories may not be too far off, for there are some strange findings at the archaeological site of Hierakonpolis in Egypt—Brooks’ site for the first verifiable instance of a zombie outbreak.

As we all know, decapitation is the only sure way to kill a zombie. In 1895 W.M. Flinders Petrie reported headless (but otherwise intact) burials at Naquada, and more were found at Gerzeh and other nearby sites. More headless corpses were uncovered between 1996 and 2004 at the cemetery in Hierakonpolis, as well as 21 bodies whose “cervical vertebrae bear cut marks indicative of complete decapitation”. According to archaeologists, there was no uniformity in the age of the victims (ranging from 16 to 65), and it appears that the heads were severed with greater that normal force. It is also certain that these are not war-related injuries. Obviously, any connection between the decapitations and a zombie related infection are only discussed sarcastically by archaeologists, but can you think of a better explanation?

What’s this apocalypse thing everyone’s talking about?

The term usually refers to an extensive rise of hostile zombies (usually global) who attack civilization. In such an event, victims may become infected, and thus the crisis spreads exponentially, overwhelming government and military forces. This generally results in the complete collapse of society, and the return to a pre-industrial state, with only isolated pockets of survivors.

And this apocalypse thing is likely?

If I could get one wish for the apocalypse it would be to keep the zombies slow, and the vampires un-sparkly. These days, to be a zombie it isn’t necessary to be dead. Most scenarios involve a virus which shuts off the rational parts of the brain. Unfortunately, viruses that can produce zombie-like behavior already exist. Recently, the National Geographic Channel produced a documentary, The Truth Behind Zombies, which provided some details. For example, the rabies virus infects the central nervous system counts violence, aggressiveness and madness among its symptoms. If that virus were to mutate to reduce incubation time and was combined with a flu virus so it could spread quickly through the air, it would result in the perfect combination for a zombie apocalypse. Virologist Samita Andreansky, from the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, believes that a fast-mutating rabies virus is entirely plausible (and may already have occurred). Dr. Steven Schlozman , a psychiatrist a Harvard Medical School, has written The Zombie Autopsies, where he uses zombies as the framework to discuss current health issues, such as disease and global pandemic. He echoes Andreansky’s findings, believing many viruses, such as mad cow, if combined an unknown component which allowed them to become airborne, would create zombies. However, it’s completely implausible that a flu and rabies virus could hybridize naturally. Enter the possibility of an engineered virus. Andreansky believes such a thing is theoretically plausible, but very difficult, as nature doesn’t allow such viral combinations, and most likely the result would be a dead virus. Yeah, tell that to Dolly the cloned sheep.

Additionally, the CDC is not the first institution to treat zombie apocalypse as an actual possibility. In 2009 Carlton University and the University of Ottawa conducted an epidemiological analysis which concluded that such an outbreak would indeed lead to the collapse of civilization unless quickly eradicated. The study showed that an offensive strategy would be more successful than a quarantine, but that on a longer projections, all humans either turned into zombies or ended up dead. In fact, one zombie introduced into a city of 500,000 people would eliminate all human life in seven days. This depressing outlook was based primarily on zombie overpopulation. Humans would be focused on surviving, and would still provide food for zombie populations, which would continue to increase. Interestingly, the researchers note that this model could be applied to the spread of disease or political views.

Check your voter registration card, because your party comes with a zombie action plan.

Different political ideologies have different ways of dealing with a post-zombie world, says Drezner, who wrote International Politics and Zombies. Realists would not believe the world to be significantly changed if zombies attacked, world powers would remain strong, whereas weaker countries would “suffer devouring by reanimated ravenous corpses. Liberals, on the other hand would immediately form a body—perhaps the World Zombie Organization—to handle the “overlapping health, trade and security issues.” On the whole, Drezner believes the outlook to be bleak, as they are “state-centric” and zombie attacks would be “non-state” problem, in a similar way to other overarching political issues such as climate change and terrorism, which impact many nations simultaneously, and which current frameworks are not built to deal with. The most difficult issue, as pointed out by Schlozman, is that governments would need to discern how to deal with survivors and the infected, which raises distinct ethical issues.

The best way to learn about zombies is to get your education from popular culture.

Zombie apocalypse themes became prominent with George A. Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead which paralleled the turbulent social landscape of the United States in the 1960s. The Walking Dead, a new series on AMC, was amazingly popular in its first season (though I can’t predict future success, as rumor has it the special effects budget will be cut, and several of the writers let go). For those health conscious zombie fans, check out “The Vegan Zombie” webisodes (soon to be made into a feature film), which offers delicious recipes along with survival tips. Zombie literature did not appear as a distinct subgenre until a collection of short stories called Book of the Dead was published in 1990. Stephen King’s 2006 Cell and Max Brooks’ World War Z (currently being adapted to film) are the most popular in recent past.

So, now that you have some background on zombies, I’ve given you some of my favorite recent zombie reads for you to continue your education. Hopefully, you’ll never need it. Remember to stay vigilant and be prepared, for the next person you meet could be undead.


Recommended zombie-thon reading:

Justin Cronin, The Passage. Cronin’s first book, he sold the film rights to Ridley Scott prior to publication. Takes the zombie paradigm and applies it to vampires.

Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Currently being made into a film with Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) directing. Perfect place to start for those who spend their weekends watching (and re-watching) Colin Firth emerge from the pond.

Sophie Littlefield, Aftertime and Rebirth. For the more literary reader, zombie novels with depth of character and social commentary.

Isaac Marion, Warm Bodies. Reviewed in a prior issue of Suspense Magazine. A zombie novel told from the point of view of the zombie. Can you say meta?

A. Lee Martinez, Gil’s All Fright Diner. Ever driven through the desert in the Southwest? This is the type of place you see on the side of the road, and just know bad things will happen there. Tongue in cheek, great for fans of Shaun of the Dead.

Jesse Peterson, Married with Zombies, Flip this Zombie and Eat, Slay, Love. Think Stephanie Plum fighting zombies.

Articles Referenced Above:

“Parasite Causes Zombie Ants To Die In An Ideal Spot” ScienceDaily, 8/13/09

“Zombie Attack at Hierakonpolis” 10/6/07

Ker Than, National Geographic News, 10/27/10

“Inside Zombie Brains: Sci-fi teaches science” Elizabeth Landau, CNN, 4/25/11

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