Monday, 26 November 2012

The Walking Bred?

Good day to all you fine Zombiology Students,

I’m sure many of you are fans of the Walking Dead¸ whether in the medium of a comic book, novel, computer game or TV series – it’s truly impossible to avoid… and why would you want to? In any form it’s become one of my favourite Zombie worlds since George Romero gave birth to the modern version.

Who wants ice cream? Daddy's buying ice cream!
Being a scientist I’m interested in what Zombieism would be like in real life, and what elements we see in fiction would actually work in reality. The Walking Dead has thrown up a few brain teasing questions that I’m keen to answer. So in today’s ZomBlog I’m going to investigate their version of Zombieism, specifically trying to figure out these two puzzles…

How is the disease being transmitted?
Whether their claim that everyone has the disease, but not everyone has shown symptoms, is really possible?

Why won't you just love me?
Whether intentional or not, Walking Dead makes the clever decision of not explicitly telling us what is causing the disease, making it more fun to theorise on.

"Internally, we don't know where the zombie outbreak started, how to cure it, anything like that," – Glen Mazzara, Show Runner, Walking Dead (TV Series)

“...the rule is: WHATEVER it is that causes the zombies, is something everyone already has. If you stub your toe, get an infection and die ... you turn into a zombie." – Robert Kirkman, Creator, Walking Dead

In the TV series even a CDC disease specialist whose been studying the outbreak for months hasn’t been able to figure out the causative agent.

“It could be microbial, viral, parasitic, fungal…”                                                                                                                     – Dr. Edwin Jenner, Walking Dead, Season 1 Episode 6

Animal, vegetable, mineral ... wait ... what was the question? 
From observation we can make some assumptions about its transmission:

The disease seems to spread through saliva. People contract it after being bitten by infected people. This is much like Rabies. A Rabies infected animal has the virus in its nerves and saliva, and can transmit it to a human through biting. In rarer cases, the animal can spread the virus when its saliva comes in contact with a person's mucous membranes (moist skin surfaces, like the mouth or inner eyelids), or broken skin such as a cut, scratch, bruise or open wound.

In Walking Dead, no one appears to have been infected from indirect contact. For example, the survivors must spend a massive amount of time off camera cleaning up the biological debris left by each action scene. This would inevitably include a few litres of Walker drool. Yet never has a character turned after embarking upon a heavy session of mopping, when perhaps, in the rarest of cases they should. (Exciting idea for Season 4? No expensive make-up or effects, just a mop and 250ml of dirty drool!?!)

Rabies has never been found in blood, perhaps it’s the same with the Walking Dead Zombie disease. This would explain why, despite the characters flip-flopping between being careful to avoid contact with Zombie blood and getting splashed on like a kid at Sea World, they don’t get the illness. 

I told you, this episode we stay clean of Walker bits, next season we'll be like kids in a fountain. Visualise the fountain with me Rick. Visualise. 
Alongside the saliva based transmission we also get a shocking revelation from the only bona fide medical expert we meet in the TV series, shortly before killing himself, when he utters the terrifying line, “every survivor is infected.”

How can everyone be infected but not turn?

An interesting comparison is latent tuberculosis infection. Tuberculosis is caused by bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Some people who are infected by it do not develop the active illness. It simply remains inactive and stays that way in the majority of cases – this is known as latent tuberculosis infection. For a small percentage of people it can eventually become active for a variety of reasons; if their immune system is damaged or compromised, if they become malnourished, or simply when they become older. So our Walking Dead characters may have latent Zombieism infection. A major biological event, such as a severe trauma, or being near death, may be what is activating it.

We've really got to stop letting the Daleks make these posters...
We’ve managed to answer both of our questions today. How is the Walking Dead Zombie disease being spread? It could be like Rabies, in the saliva of the infected Walkers. This would explain why getting covered in blood and guts doesn’t turn anyone. But realistically the characters should be equally afraid of being licked by a Walker as being bitten by one.

Finally, we discovered that it is possible for us humans to be infected by a disease that lies inactive, waiting for certain conditions to get it going. A terrifying thought, I’ll not sleep tonight! 

I do hope you enjoyed this entry, and if any of you out there want to know anything about the real science behind Zombies, do send your questions to, post them in our Book of Faces ( or get in touch on our website

Stay Frosty,

Doctor Austin

Doctor Austin ZITS BSz MSz DPep, is a Theoretical Zombiologist and Head of the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland UK. 

Friday, 9 November 2012

Zombies versus Vampires

Welcome back Zombiology Students,

It’s a busy time here at the Zombie Institute. We’ve just finished developing a brand new tutorial Worst Case Scenario that premiered at the London Horror Festival during Halloween. Right now our team are organising a UK tour so do keep your eyes peeled for that. This has meant I’ve had less time to write articles for the ZomBlog, but I’m making up for it now by finally completing this Zombies versus Vampires blog to which many of you contributed your thoughts.  

As you’re no doubt aware this year saw countless news stories appearing relating to cannibalistic attacks. These stories have inspired the term ‘Zombie Summer’ and are almost always cited as being indicative of Zombies, leading many to believe that a Zombie outbreak is in progress, or at the very least, building up steam. In a previous blog I discussed this, and to reiterate, they are not Zombie-like at all. However, whilst talking with my friends at the Zombie Shop, they made an interesting point, “...was there an influx of 'real' vampire attacks after the release of 'Interview with a [sic] Vampire'?”

Before we start, can I get you a drink? No. Wait. I meant something to eat. Damn it! It's the Murdoch interview all over again!
Has the prevalence of the Zombie genre (e.g. The Walking Dead, Zombie events, walks, etc) caused reporters to become obsessed, and see Zombies everywhere? If so, why hasn’t the Twilight series created a similar pattern for Vampires? Or as Zombie Shop point out, did Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire evoke such a response when it was published, or again when adapted as film?

It’s important to state here that I am not examining ‘real’ Vampire stories, those that pertain to describe the exploits of a mythical being who feeds on blood. I for one am not an expert in Vampirology. I am merely looking for news stories that attribute unusual assaults/murders to Vampires, or set these stories in that context.

Interview with the Vampire was published in 1976, and the later film adaption in 1994. During my research I couldn’t locate many reports of Vampire-like attacks following either of these periods.

This may be due to the lack of Internet, it was a simpler time, where not every news story was posted online and kept available until the end of the universe. However, in 1998, 22 year old Joshua Rudiger ran around the streets of San Francisco slashing homeless victim’s throats and drinking their blood. He claimed to be a 2,000 year old Vampire, and a Samurai.  

There are a wide range of such stories available in the 21st century, amazingly some very recent stories are far more extreme than that of the Miami Cannibal. Yet we haven’t seemed to have heard of them.

Take the case in Florida of Josephine Smith, a 22 year old woman. In September 2011 she viciously attacked an elderly homeless man, biting chunks of flesh from his face, lips, and arms. Her final words before beginning the assault were, “I am a vampire, I am going to eat you.” When arrested Smith claimed to have no recollection of the attack. This story is very similar to the recent Miami Cannibal case. The victim in both instances was a homeless person, both involved biting, and both attackers carried out the attack naked. Yet this story apparently failed to capture the public’s eye. Smith wasn’t even deemed worthy of her own nickname as the ‘Florida Vampire’ or even ‘Bitey Lady’.

And this is by no means the only one;

May, 2006: A 15 year old girl attacked three classmates in New York, slashing their throats, biting them, and attempting to drink their blood. The ‘vampire’ was charged with second degree assault as a minor and released. Read in full:

December, 2010: A 20 year old in Alabama attempted to burn a ‘V’ into a teenager’s forehead, the arresting Detective described him as, “a want-to-be vampire”. Read in full: 

August, 2011: An 18 year old man appeared in court accused of, amongst other things, cutting young woman, biting them, and telling them he was a vampire. Read in full:

August, 2011: A 19 year old Texas man, who claimed to be a 500 year old vampire (from Hell), broke into a woman’s apartment and bit her, then fled shouting that he, “didn’t want to have to feed on humans”. Read in full:

June, 2012: A San Diego man with ‘vampire teeth’ was arrested for attacking a 55 year old homeless man. Read in full:

I'm often mistaken for R-Patz
June, 2012: In Denver a woman was arrested after attacking two people in a convenience store, groping and biting one man, then biting the female cashier. Read in full:

A notable difference between these stories and their Zombie counterparts is tone. When reading the Vampire stories it’s obvious that they don’t paint the ‘Vampire’ as being real, but rather as an (often) disturbed person. Yet many of the Zombie articles cite the incidents as being clear proof that a Zombie is real and that a ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ is beginning.       

A fellow Zombie researcher, Louise, had an interesting perspective:

Eating human flesh, particularly the face, in public places is a bit more terrifying than draining blood in public. Plus, those acting like 'zombies' seem unconscious of what they're doing, whereas the 'vampires' are probably very conscious of their actions ... which, to me, make it a little more scary.

Another student of mine, Mike, had this to say:

The main issue is the background of each of the two types of story, vampiric behaviour has always been seen as erotic, personal, and this is why people are attracted to the whole vampire thing due to books and movies. The vampire has lost its ‘darkness’ and is more acceptable now as such the media likes is shock value and that's why the ‘zombie’ stories still loom large in the media. There is nothing sexy about eating someone’s face.

However, fans of the film Zombie Strippers may disagree with the last sentence.  

Ultimately I haven’t determined a single reason as to why assault stories framed as ‘Zombie Attacks’ are more prominent and have a tendency to go wildly viral compared to those described as ‘Vampire Attacks’. But I do like the following idea from one of my top students, Flora, on how we can make the Zombie a more attractive story in the press:

Zombies lack the glamorous image the press likes to promote, but do get the 'shock, horror, yuk' response. Redress the balance by getting Gok to do a zombie make-over, thus making them appear more on-trend and ask Alistair Campbell to do some negative spin about the more gruesome vampire activity, showing them in their worst possible light in a Sunday newspaper expose. Suddenly zombies will be the ones to get the positive headlines and vampires will be so last year they won't get a mention, except in a short disparaging paragraph on page 10.

I'll leave you with this brain tickler from the enigmatic Philosoraptor...

If any of you out there want to know anything about the real science behind zombies, do send your questions to or post them in our Book of Faces (

The truth may well be out there,

Doctor Austin

Doctor Austin ZITS BSz MSz DPep, is a Theoretical Zombiologist and Head of the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland UK.