West African Vodou
From Haitian voodoo to popular movies to recent reports of zombie attacks throughout the world, zombies have a rich history. Originally zombies were created by West African Vodou rituals. Vodou, or Voodoo as we know it now, began in the areas of Benin, Togo, and Ghana (West Africa) and is still practiced by nearly thirty million people there. In Vodou rituals, it was said that a dead person could be revived by a bokor, or sorceror. The person would then be a "zombi" who would be under the control of the bokor, since they no longer had a will of their own.
vodou chiefs in Africa, January 2013
Haiti, and Harvard Science
Eventually, West African beliefs and rituals made their way to the New World, and Voodoo became popular in Haiti. A certain voodoo ritual coud turn a dead person into an undead, mindless thing, a zombie. In the 1980's, a Harvard ethnobotanist, Wade Davis, attempted to track down practitioners of the ritual and study it. What he found was startling. By using a combination of two special powders, a voodoo holy man could turn the dead into zombies. One powder, Coup de Poudre, contained tetrodotoxin, a powerful neurotoxin from the flesh of the pufferfish. The second powder would consist of powerful dissociative drugs. The neurotoxin would cause a person to be paralyzed, heart rate and pulse rates would be so low and weak that they couldn't be detected. By all accounts, a person would appear dead, and they would often be buried. When they were dug up, they appeared mindless, but alive. It was Wade's belief that the trauma of being buried alive, when combined with the powerful drugs, would cause a person to believe thay had come back from the dead. They were zombies, partially, because they believed they were. Of course, the drugs were a big part of it. Watch a serious drug addict on a major high and tell me they're not zombies. Anyway, Wade's research was the first official, scientific investigation that gave some creedence to the concept that zombies could, in fact, be real.
Zombies shambled into popular culture in 1929 in a book named The Magic Island, by William Seabrook. It was about traveling in Haiti, and it introduced the word 'zombi' into the American lexicon. The first zombie film, White Zombie, followed in 1932. It was about a woman in Haiti who is turned into a zombie by a voodoo witch doctor. Haitian zombies were mindless beings, alive but not alive, who were controlled and used as slaves by voodoo witch doctors.
In 1968 George Romero introduced a new kind of zombie to the world. Night of The Living Dead showed mobs of undead creatures intent on attacking people and feasting on their remains. Though the word 'zombie' was never used in the movie, a new kind of zombie was born: clumsy, aggressive, and ravenous. Zombies struck a chord in the American subconscious and the world hasn't been the same since. Romero made several more zombie movies, and so did a lot of other people. Zombies became the slow, stumbling, undead horrors we've all come to know and love, and they wanted brains, human brains. Zombies were in movies, on tv, and even in songs. In 1988, Wes Craven made The Serpent and The Rainbow based on the work of Wade Davis. The zombie craze idled along for decades until it took off in the last few years. More movies were made, as well as bestselling books (World War Z, the Zombie Survival Guide), video games, and hit tv shows (The Walking Dead).
Where do zombies come from?
So, where do zombies come from? Well, typically a zombie apocalypse starts with some sort of fast spreading virus. The virus would have to attack a certain still from "Night of The Living Dead" 1968area of people's brains, destroying their higher functions such as reasoning, coordination, and complex thinking. What is left of the brain would be the primitive part: the hunger, the aggression, the lack of impulse control. There are a few known viruses that do this to some extent. Creutzfeldt-Jakobs Disease is one that causes dementia or delirium along with a loss of coordination, stiffness of limbs, and difficulty walking. Sound familiar? If someone were to tweak one of these viruses slightly, we might find all the elements needed to create zombies. Makes you wonder what's going on in those government labs, right?
Another way that zombies could come about is by brain parasites. No really, stick with me here. There's a parasite called toxoplasmosa gondii that lives in the brain of rats, but the parasite can only reproduce in the intestines of a cat. So, this wily parasite overrides the rats natural survival instincts and makes the rat go toward a cat instead of running away from it. But wait there's more! Scientists estimate that possibly up to 50% of all humans are infected by toxoplasmosa. It can cause personality changes and mental problems. All that would be needed to start a full-on Brain Parasite Necropocalypse is a more potent version of toxoplasmosa that would affect humans the way it does rats. Humans running around with no instinct for self-preservation, with compromised brains and no ability for rational thought? Sounds like zombies to me.
Neurogenesis is another possible way zombies could come about. Because of recent research into stem cell research, scientists can now re-grow dead brain tissue. The problem is that the stem, or base of the brain tends to control only basic functions necessary to keep the body alive. Higher functions are in other, more distant portions of the brain, and those portions die off over time. So, a brain that's only capable of low-level, basic functions like survival and feeding? I'm hearing the z word. But one or two patients doesn't make a zombie apocalypse. It would take some ruthless government or corporation trying to build a mass of subservient, unintelligent people to serve their evil purposes to get a real zombie outbreak going.
Last, but not least, we have nanobots. these are tiny, microscopic machines that can be implanted into the human brain (or anywhere else). These little machines can be programmed to repair or destroy anything. They are working now on being able to use nanobots to repair neural connections in the human brain. In addition, they've found that these little nanobots can live long after the host is dead. Bingo. Zombies with nanobots in their heads that go on repairing their brains even after the body dies. Or what if these little bots go haywire in a living person's brain and destroy the wrong parts? Worse yet, if these bots are programmed for survival, how far will they go to keep their host body moving, even after it's dead? Will it re-program the host's brain to attack someone else so it can find a new host? Oh no, zombie apoc. here we come!
Real Life Zombies?
Warning: The following is real-life gruesome. You may NOT want to read further if you have a weak stomach.
So, maybe you still think zombies are far fetched, but a lot of people are beginning to believe that zombies are real. Last Memorial Day a homeless man in Miami was attacked in a 'zombie-like' fashion. A naked, growling man rushed up to him and began biting his face off. Officers on the scene shot the attacker, but said the attacking man continued to feed on the other, even after being shot. The growling attacker was killed on the scene after sustaining multiple gunshot wounds. After many rounds of surgery the victim, Ronald Poppo is recovering in a Miami hospital, though he lost both eyes and most of his nose in the attack. See the CNN story on the attack here:
Nanobots? Brain Parasites? Neurogenesis? Neurotoxins? The Rage Virus? Could zombies be real? It doesn't seem too far fetched. We've gone from witch doctors and sorcerers to science labs and clips on CNN. What's next in the evolution of zombies in our culture? I'm not sure I want to know.