Science of Games is a twice-monthly column that digs deep into the coolest science fiction elements of videogame universes, and tries to separate fact from fiction. Whenever possible, we’ll even bring in scientists, scholars, and experts to help us get at the truth of what’s really going on. Got a game you want to see investigated? Let us know in the comments!
A couple weeks ago, we began a crusade to understand the truth behind zombie science, and this week, we’re continuing that journey as we investigate the veracity of zombie mainstays like neurotoxins and rage viruses. To help us along on our way, we’ve enlisted the help of Dr. Steven Schlozman – a professor at Harvard Medical School and author of The Zombie Autopsies – to help us tie fun zombie theories to (often sobering) real medical science.
Above: We neglected to ask Dr. Schlozman whether he was planning to actually create the zombie virus he thought up. That was probably a missed opportunity
The first subject we’ll dig into is one of the most popular modern theories for zombification, and it’s been exhibited very recently in games like Dead Island (and more famously, films like 28 Days Later). The idea behind this theory is to alter the standard zombie theory and remove the fantastical elements. Most people aren’t scared of things coming back from the dead, because it’s simply not possible, but anybody who ever passed a crazy guy on the street knows how scary an unhinged person can seem.
In this theory, the “zombies” (some purists don’t consider rage zombies to be canonical zombies, since there’s no resurrection) contract a virus that drastically increases both their anger levels and their instinctual need to feed.
“There are all sorts of creepy contagions that can change behavior,” said Schlozman. “Most often, these diseases (viruses, fungi, bacteria and parasites) cause delirium. That's a fancy word for waxing and waning states of consciousness, and most often looks like severe confusion.“
That’s not a bad analogue for traditional zombies, but for rage zombies, you need to toss in some aggression. “Rabies is another good example. You only get rabies once (that is, it’s about 100 percent fatal if it is allowed to reproduce inside you). It's a virus transmitted from the bites of other mammals, and it fits the zombie trope, in that those who are infected (dogs, bats, humans, etc.) have their brains changed such that they seek out and become aggressive towards and bite others.”
As with all promising zombie theories, however, there’s a catch (because, y’know, if they were too promising, we’d have zombies by now). “If we're going to be purists, then rabies can't work for zombies. People with rabies experience such severe swelling in their throats that the mere sight of water terrifies them – they aren't much up for eating anything.”
For these reasons, there’s sufficient evidence to believe rabies could one day lead to the dogpocalypse (not really).
Another of the modern, so-called “realistic” zombie theories, the idea here is that normal, good people are infected with a neurotoxin that either severely damages their brain function, or alters their consciousness.
We asked Dr. Schlozman whether neurotoxins actually exist, and what sorts of things they might be used for. “Neurotoxin is a fancy term for anything that is bad – i.e. toxic – for the nervous system,” he said. “Curare, for example, is a plant based neurotoxin that paralyzes nervous control of muscles and is a common poison in blowdarts.”
Above: This is a puffer fish, the nasty little creature at the heart of the Haitian zombie problem
There are even controlled medicines that can be used in the same way. This brings to mind many people’s fears that a zombie plague would be man-made. “We use them all the time in the [operating room] and at the bedside, but we counteract them with other agents to keep things going. This way, we can slow down physiologic function enough to work, but not so much that [the patient] passes away.”
Neurotoxins are also behind the coolest fringe-theory (as long as it stays a theory) to be found in zombie science, the Haitian zombie.
Before digging into this subject at all, it’s worth noting that much of this information is based on true things that unscrupulous Haitian doctors used to do to people. There are stories that they would use neurotoxins to essentially zombify a person into a shambling, near-mindless slave that could work grunt labor on sugar plantations.
As Schlozman mentioned in the last section, some neurotoxins can slow down the human metabolism to an extreme degree if they’re not counteracted. “The tetrodotoxin found in puffer fish species is the putative agent in the creation of Island and West African Zombies. It shuts down autonomic (re: breathing, heartbeat, high school boners, and other things handled instinctually by the brain) function,” he said. “In the absence of advanced medical diagnostic tools, folks poisoned with this toxin will look dead.”
Haitian zombies gained widespread attention in 1980, when a supposedly dead Haitian man was found wandering around a nearby village after being pronounced dead and buried in 1962. The accusation (though it’s never been entirely proved) was that physicians were slowing down the patient’s metabolism (by mixing a few natural ingredients with some toxins) enough to convince the family that the man was deceased. Then, later, the physician came back, unburied the body and claimed himself a zombie worker.
Above: In Haiti, zombies were supposedly used to work on sugar plantations. In the modern United States, they will be used to staff menial data entry positions
It’s pretty horrifying stuff, but nobody said the zombie apocalypse would be pretty. That said, this theory doesn’t give zombies any way to spread their contagion, so even if it’s entirely true, it doesn’t threaten humanity.
Bonus: It’s not every day you get to chat with a Harvard M.D. about zombie theories so we gave Dr. Schlozman the floor to school us with his personal favorite theory. He told us a bit about the details of the theory he presented in The Zombie Autopsies.
“[In the book] we have an airborne bug like influenza, tinkered with to carry prions in the tail and with borna virus nucleic acid to code for increased hunger in the host. After talking to lots of folks, I can't make a zombie plague become a plague (that is, threaten all of humanity) unless it wanders through the air and lingers on things like keyboards and doors. If we just get it by biting each other, we'd have a lot more time to stop it.”
“From a more metaphorical standpoint,” he continued, “my favorite theory is modernity. I know that sounds all preachy, but the more disconnected we become while we think we're increasingly connected (talking to someone on Facebook is not the same as offering them help when they've fallen on the street), the more zombie-like we become.”