Zombies have become iconic figures in popular culture. We are experiencing a real invasion. They are found everywhere in films, series and comics, in ever richer and more varied forms and contexts. But are there also real cases of zombies ? What is the probability that a human will become undead? 🧟
Whether you’re a zombie fanatic or just passing through for a more scientific answer, welcome to the skull world. Anything involving death, skulls, zombies and anything related to this sometimes spooky and often weird world is our expertise. And today you will have understood, we will ask the legitimate question « Do zombies exist ? » respond.
After reading this article you will be able to perfectly distinguish between an « undead », a zombie, a reanimated corpse and many other terms that are sometimes confused. You’ll also learn why zombies exist (sort of) and how to protect yourself from them!
Let’s get straight to the heart of the matter 😉
Origin of Zombies
The word zombie (originally written as zombi) appeared in the English language in the 1800s when the poet Robert Southey mentioned it in his « History of Brazil ». According to the dictionary, the word comes from Louisiana Creole or Haitian Creole zonbi and is related to the term nzúmbe, meaning spirit. 👻
The word refers to creatures of Haitian folklore that were originally little more than spooks. Gradually, however, the term evolved to refer to a person who has been rendered unconscious by a sorcerer, enters a death- like state while still alive, and thus becomes the sorcerer’s slave.
Today, people use the word « zombie » much more freely, and often metaphorically, to refer to any person or object that behaves « strangely, » moves slowly, and is unaware of their surroundings.
But do zombies or beings that look like the walking dead really exist in nature? And if so, what are they and how do they get into this state of « neither dead nor alive »? And can humans also become zombies?
Definition of « Zombie »
First, let’s think for a moment about what we’re talking about. The meaning of « zombie » has changed over the years and has been associated with many terms. These include slavery, voodoo, reincarnation, ghosts, the plague, and sometimes even radiation and infection. 🩸
They can be revived dead people , completely unconscious people or completely supernatural (i.e. invented) beings. In modern zombie fiction, they tend to be more of the reanimated type. And the vast majority of them are slow, volatile, and uncontrollable. They may retain some semblance of memory, personality, or even intelligence, or none of that and just seem totally dumb, often having only one goal: human flesh. 🔪
Not all are driven to eat human brains , not all transmit their diseases through bites (sometimes through airborne viruses or disease-carrying insects), and not all were once human (zombie dogs are a good example).
Yes, zombies really exist! But not in the way we know. We’re talking zombie ants here . That is a beginning!
With tiny brains and immune systems, small animals tend to be easier targets for parasites that force their victims to » lose control . » But don’t be so reassured… more complex animals, including humans, are not immune to parasitic mind control. Because the mechanism that causes the ants we are talking about to be transformed is also part of us. 🧐
How does it work?
As an ant, this animal can eat parts of a parasitic fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis eat. The ant then quickly walks around as if intoxicated and—unusually for unaffected ants—moves away from its fellows by climbing up a tree or a blade of grass and then falling off it. The fungus acts on the ant from within. He transforms her to alter her behavior and actions, eventually killing her. 🐜
How is it made?
By chemical substances! More specifically, through chemical substances that interact with the ant’s nervous system (which includes the brain). We all have a nervous system with chemical receptors, so all a parasite has to do to control us is create the right chemical cocktail and plant it in our body. This is more difficult with larger and more complex creatures (like us humans), but this phenomenon may not even spare zombie ants .
There is a world full of plants and animals that are taking control of other species and turning them into mindless slaves…
See our zombie ant infographic.
Higher up in complexity, let’s deal with the worms that kidnap crickets. The « Gordian worms » live for months in the cuddly body of a cricket. Then, persuaded by these worms, the crickets search for water and dive – a dangerous activity for the cricket, which then abandons its habitat. The worms burrow and lay their eggs. When the eggs hatch, they sometimes migrate to an intermediate host—insects, like mosquitoes, who eat the larvae—until they are in turn eaten by a cricket, and so on. As with the ant, the mechanism by which the worm controls its host is by producing chemical substances that affect the cricket’s central nervous system.
Zombies and Toxoplasma
If you’ve ever owned a cat or been exposed to undercooked meat, you may be carrying a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii . If that’s the case, you’re not alone as it’s estimated that a third of all humans are carriers of this parasite. This parasite can cause an infection known as toxoplasmosis, which is generally thought to have only mild effects in most people. However, if you are pregnant, the infection can lead to complications.
Additionally, some data suggests that adults afflicted by the parasite may exhibit personality changes by means of greater carelessness, which can lead to a higher probability of unconscious risk and therefore death. The extent of human personality changes caused by toxoplasmosis is still being researched, but we do know that the infection can be devastating to mice. Infected mice and rats lose their fear of cats and are therefore more likely to be eaten. 🐁
The fact that single-celled toxoplasma can alter the minds of mammals suggests that we are more susceptible to parasitic personality changes than we think. It is not impossible to imagine that parasites could lead us to aggression, perhaps our aversion to cannibalism or give us a slower pace and a totally blank stare . . 🧟♂️
Human Zombies and Diseases
Let us now turn to the diseases whose human symptoms are more visible. What about coordination problems, tremors and twitching of the limbs? The symptoms of kuru (an incurable disease found in the tribal areas of Papua New Guinea) can resemble those of zombies. However, it is sort of a reverse zombie disease. It is human cannibalism that causes it, not the disease that causes cannibalism. (So if you’re going through an apocalypse, think twice before you decide to eat other survivors… it might turn you into a zombie…).
Kuru deserves to be mentioned in connection with zombies. Not only because of its connection to cannibalism and its zombie symptoms, but also because it was the first known prion disease (diseases that attack the nervous system) in humans. Other prion diseases include the better-known variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJKV), which causes rapid degeneration of the brain. 🧠 Dementia, memory loss, personality changes, psychosis, jerky movements, difficulty walking, involuntary movements… These symptoms are frightening and a little bit like those of a zombie!
Prion diseases work by affecting the nervous system. The prions themselves are small, distorted proteins that metabolize other proteins and spread throughout the body. It can take decades for the symptoms of these diseases to appear, but eventually they emerge in catastrophic conditions that, to this day, have no cure. And you don’t necessarily have to eat another human being to contract a prion disease. It can also be transmitted by eating contaminated meat, receiving contaminated blood, or using unsterilized medical equipment. 💉
Zombies and the Rage Virus
Looking for potentially aggressive zombies in the real world, we come across the « rabies virus, » which some claim is the virus that breeds modern zombies. Rabies affects mammals such as cats, dogs, cows and… humans. 😵
Rabies works by – also – infecting the nervous system. Violence, the inability to move certain parts of the body, confusion, unconsciousness… These symptoms closely reflect modern zombie incarnations. And like Kuru and VMCJ, rabies leads to death. It is an unsustainable strategy for zombie global dominance. Regardless, maybe one day rabies could turn into something else. If it spreads faster or results in slower death (or no death at all), then we’re dealing with a disease quite similar to that of zombies!
Are Human Zombies Possible?
The above examples answer the question of whether it is possible to lose self-control to the point where zombification occurs. Most of the time it is « contagious » and some give those affected a form of aggressiveness. However, it can be argued that none of these examples really resemble the state of undead as the images in zombie movies can show.
The zombie ant can keep walking until it dies, but without the goal of killing or harming others. Mice altered by Toxoplasma may have lost part of their former essence forever, but they’re still alive (until eaten by their feline companions). And when people sick with kuru or rabies succumb to the virus , they don’t come back from the grave…
Medical advances have lengthened our lives and changed our definition of death: resuscitation, defibrillation, surgery, waking people from coma… But even these medical interventions have nothing to do with whether or not you come back from death. And while near-death trauma can change us, no one who has been revived has come back as a zombie.
Therefore, after all this information, we can say with ease: NO , there are no (human) zombies!
Become the zombie of your dreams
You now know all the secrets behind the fact of being a zombie or not. You know that there are « undead », but not among humans. And you also learned how a simple virus can turn the entire population into an army of people who want to eat each other… 😈
To counteract this, we suggest you to be one step ahead and transform yourself now. Scare all your friends at fancy dress parties with this ultra spooky mask! Just click on the image below to discover them.