A zombie walks into a bar . . . OK, maybe not. Or maybe not yet. Are zombies real? The answer really depends on who you ask. What follows is the scientific truth on the undead.
One definition of zombie: “A snake-deity of or deriving from West Africa and Haiti.” Zombies are also described as “A soulless corpse said to be revived by witchcraft, esp. in certain African and Caribbean religions.”
We all know a person or two that might fit the last description, but what constitutes a true zombie? The crazed, brain-noshing zombies of “Night of the Living Dead,” “The Walking Dead,” and “Shaun of the Dead,” are nothing like the zombies embedded in Caribbean and African religions.
Take Haiti for example. Please. Zombies and Haiti go together like apple pie and ice cream. Zombies are real — in a religious sense, at least — in these cultures.
The practice of the voodoo religion is common in Haiti and a few other countries. Zombies are “created” as part of voodoo (and witchcraft) practice. Their zombies, however, are victims and not out for blood.
Haiti’s real life zombie stories center around the dead who have been in a sense, assaulted, via voodoo magic, in order to (most commonly) be used as slave labor. Hey, why waste a perfectly good corpse?
Although zombies themselves were not considered violent in voodoo culture, the mere threat of believing that one could be turned into a zombie was enough to keep the general population under control.
You didn’t want a witch doctor (bokor) to have your name on their “zombify” list. Bokors were thought to be part of the Tonton Macoute, a violent secret police force that disbanded in 1984. If you didn’t adhere to the Tonton Macoute rules and regulations, your punishment could be a zombie existence.
Is it possible to create a real zombie; one that is not fashioned with witchcraft and/or the devil’s hand? Hollywood seems to think so, but their zombie-villes are often created via the spread of a virus, a scientific impossibility.
Viruses (that we know of, at least) do not ramp up the physical make-up of the body it inhabits. In other words, one does not battle the flu and end up morphing into the Hulk and/or Betty White.
Fungi-infestation, scientifically speaking, is an entirely different matter.
Think of the forest as a world that is able to transport signals from one plant to another through what is called the mycorrhizal network – which, by the way, would make a great name for a zombie cable channel.
Now transfer that concept to the human world. If an individual has specific types of contact with specific fungi, then that fungi can be dispersed throughout the body and might be able to activate the neural and vascular capacities in the body on its own.
Once that person kicks the bucket, then the process initiates. Spores are charged up, grow, and the fungal system in the body is able to feed nutrients to the muscles without requiring lung involvement. Voila! You might be dead, but your inner zombie is A-LIVE!
The result: You will not be dancing gracefully like Usher. Instead, the electrochemical signals in your body will be erratic and sloth-like, making all your movements slow and jerky.
As for achieving any sort of longevity in this scenario, the fungi would somehow have to evolve and convert the meat they eat (Uncle Jim, for example) into useable fuel and energy without a working digestive system. (Bonus Zombie facts: No gas or any bathroom breaks ever again!)
Like the Swine Flu, the zombie infection could first be contracted by, and spread via pigs. We know that is not out of the realm of possibility. Much, much more would need to fall into place for this scenario to actually unfold, but it’s interesting to ponder.
Scientist Wade Davis made news in the 1980s when he declared he’d discovered a powder that could create a zombie. It should be noted that Davis did not believe in zombie magic.
Instead, Davis believed that a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin (found in puffer fish and other animals) could poison people and transport them into a zombie-esque state. He claimed he’d been able to work his way into the secret communities that bokors inhabit and garnered samples of tetrodotoxin from them.
These samples were analyzed and Davis’ book, “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” was written about his discovery. A horror movie followed.
At first many believed Davis had truly uncovered the zombie-making secret, but other scientists analyzed Davis’ findings and found them highly inconsistent.
The neurotoxin in the dosages used by the bokors was not enough to transform an individual into a zombie and even if it did, the effects would not be long-lasting.
Also, if the bokors used too much tetrodotoxin, the person ingesting it would die. The dosing was too difficult to achieve any kind of zombie-making success.
Davis admitted as much in his next book, “Passage of Darkness: The Ethno biology of the Haitian Zombie.” He also claimed that there were some cases, albeit very few, where an individual was given tetrodotoxin and died, only to awaken in their coffin and have to be removed from their grave.
Speaking of dead – Hollywood, or at least a good share of its filmmakers, have decreed that the only way to “kill” a zombie (since they are technically already dead) is to pluck off their head and/or shoot the zombie in the head.
Voodoo religion does not follow this protocol. Voodoo practitioners believe that murdering a zombie is not the answer; releasing the person from their zombie prison is. This is accomplished by having the zombie ingest salt or in some sects by bringing the creature to the ocean.
According to this theory, the sea brings back the human mind and memories and the zombie will attempt to go back from hence it came; namely, their grave.
Zombies are fun to watch on-screen, and the fact that tetrodotoxin exists at all is intriguing (and creepy). Will zombies be rising up from their graves anytime soon? Never say never. . .