Gallery: Terrifying Real-Life Zombies Walk The Earth

Zombie Cockroaches

Before they appeared in movies, zombies played an important role in voodoo (or vodoun) culture in West Africa and Haiti. The word probably comes from nzambi,which roughly translates to, “spirit of a dead person.” Zombies are humans without a soul. In the early 1980s, ethnobotanist Wade Davis proposed that zombies were more than mere witchcraft and folklore, and that zombie powder found in Haitian ceremonies might be derived from tetrodotoxin, a powerful neurotoxin that blocks nerve channels.

Davis drew his hypothesis partially from real-world examples such as the female jewel wasp (pictured), which injects its tetrodotoxin into a cockroach’s brain, shutting down the roach’s fight-or-flight response. The wasp then leads the drugged bug into its burrow, lays its eggs upon the cockroach’s abdomen and, eight days later, the larvae hatch and feed upon the roach, burrowing into its innards. The cockroach is alive throughout and under the wasp’s control.

Zombie Ants

Leaf-cutter ants in Southeast Asia have their minds controlled by an infectious fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which makes the ant walk to the perfect position in the forest before killing its host, bursting through the ant’s skull, and releasing its spores into the forest.

Zombie Cows

What we think about when we think about zombies today can be traced back to a single source: the 1968 filmNight of the Living Dead. In it, an army of flesh-eating corpses reanimated by radiation attack a group of rural Pennsylvanians. Though the word “zombie” is never actually uttered, the movie’s shambling, slow-witted, cannibalistic undead remade the zombie for the nuclear age. Today, zombism is most often portrayed on screen as the symptoms of a virus— pandemics have replaced the threat of nuclear war.

These shuffling movie zombies have partially deteriorated, but still intact, brains, a condition which could be caused by a protein called a proteinaceous infectious particle, or prion. Prions are the infectious agents that brought us mad cow disease. When a misshapen prion enters our system, as in the case of mad cow, the rest of our prions take on its shape and the mind literally begins turning into mush. Relatives of victims of prion-caused diseases have looked at MRIs of their loved ones’ skulls and likened the scene to a shotgun blast to the head. And since prions aren’t even alive, they are nearly impossible to destroy. There are no known cures for prion-based diseases, and the proteins can still infect others years after their host-victim has died. The United Kingdom mandated that those killed by mad cow disease be buried in graves at least nine feet deep.

Zombie Humans

Prions began to be linked to zombie-like diseases in the early 1950s, when Australian administrators were exploring the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea and discovered that members of the Fore tribe had been afflicted with a strange tremble, occasionally punctuated with bursts of uncontrollable laughter. The tribe called the disease kuru, and by the early ’60s Australian doctor Michael Alpers had traced its source back to the Fore’s cannibalistic funeral practices, especially brain eating.

Infectious Zombie Virus

Steven C. Schlozman bases the zombie virus on prions in his new book, The Zombie Autopsies, a series of excerpts from the fictional notebooks of one Stanley Blum, “the last scientist sent to the United Nations Sanctuary for the study of ANSD,” the zombie virus (which Schlozman has dubbed ataxic neurodegenerative satiety deficiency syndrome). Schlozman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard, explained to PopScithat the frontal lobe in a zombie is probably nonexistent. The cerebellum, which controls coordination, is intact but not fully functional.

Schlozman agrees that prions are a good bet for creating a zombie-like state in a human. “How do we massively disseminate prions?” Schlozman asks. “We don’t know yet.”

Zombie-Making Spray

Prions aren’t airborne…yet. But a new study from a group of pathologists in Zurich, Switzerland took concentrations of aerosolized prions and exposed mice to the spray. It turned out to be 100 percent lethal.

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