Since the beginning of this new millennium we’ve seen a gradual increase in the interest people have of the cultural phenomenon of zombie films. But the fandom has increased in the same amount of time to include not only movies and videogames, but a whole way of life for some people. And while the images created in this still obscure genre may be fairly disturbing and fantastic, our understanding of genetics has increased as well. And contrary to what we may have expected, the possibility of a Zombie virus actually being engineered has increased rather than decrease in that time.
The idea of a virus that can be transferred from person to person and completely take over their bodies may seem like something purely left to the realm of fiction. But unlike so many illnesses, a zombie virus would affect the behavior and mortality of the person afflicted rather than simply infect them. And yet while this makes the zombie phenomenon a dangerous and frightening illness, it still doesn’t exclude the disease from the illness entirely from what is possible. In fact, we may see the disease as something of a joke, but there have been several viruses that have affected the behavior of those infected, and there are even more reasons a zombie virus may evolve to affect the motor control and appetite of those it infects. And while we may think of this zombie survival culture as nothing more than a long joke, when the CDC put up its zombie survival tips it may have actually been giving hints at something more. While the CDC openly admits the announcement was a joke, it also said the plan actually gave good real world safety tips as well.
The CDC is no stranger to disease, and so naturally it would be aware of other diseases that have infected other species, including spiders who are actually driven to perform very specific tasks at the whim of a virus that infects their brains. Dr. William B. Eberhard first noted the ability of a wasp larvae to infect spiders and then control their minds like puppets to construct very specific webbed platforms they would normally never construct that serve no other purpose than to allow the wasp larvae to survive – and then the larvae eats the spider. Through years of study this mind control technique was never explained even partially and is to this day a complete mystery.
How difficult would it be then for a virus that infects the brain to infect the limbic system of the human brain to essentially control the behavior of the infected so they must attack other humans? The virus could turn each human being into a being of pure aggression who never stops or needs to sleep, instead raging across the countryside and spreading its illness as quickly as possible. If the disease had a dormancy stage of even a few days it could spread like wildfire quickly, and soon after the world could look something like the film 28 Days Later. The most terrifying part of it is how well science confirms this possibility at each step.
And in the mean time our cultural perception of zombies is raising questions about our feelings about the changes in medical science which to the layman can sometimes seem like magic more than science. Many of us are both fascinated and frustrated with the complex nature of our own bodies and minds. And if the idea of a virus that enters the body through a bite, attacks the limbic system in the brain, and is difficult to detect and can lie dormant for years sounds like complete fantasy – those are the exact parameters the virus known as Rabies works with; a virus that is all around us right now. Only a slightly different evolutionary path could make it a real life zombie virus.