Monday, 4 February 2013

Are Zombies Real?

A warm welcome to all of you fine Zombiology Students.

As I travel the UK delivering our new tutorial Zombie Science: Worst Case Scenario I find myself regularly being asked one question in particular, ‘are Zombies real?’

Whilst this question may seem to evoke a simple yes or no answer, it is actually a little more complicated than that.

I hope it's a yes, otherwise I'll be looking pretty stupid right now...
Certainly the Zombies (dead human bodies reanimated with an unending desire to consume flesh and the ability to transform those they bite) that populate the world of television, films, comics and games do not presently exist in the real world.

However that doesn’t preclude them from ever existing. There are many agents capable of causing disease including viruses, bacteria, parasites and rogue prions. Whilst none of these produce all the symptoms found in a fictional Zombie it is important to remember that these agents are always changing.

Think for a moment of the flu. We’ve all had it at least once, but it’s far more likely you’ve had it several times. It is caused by the influenza virus, and like Lady Gaga it’s always changing. As with all living things the virus makes small mistakes, called mutations, each time it reproduces. In every generation there are slight differences and overtime these differences build up. The fancy term for this process in ‘antigenic drift’ and this is why scientists have to continually update and change flu vaccines, to try and keep up with changes in the virus.

From this example we can see how a virus can change. Who is to say that at some point in the future a virus might change enough to produce an illness that matches the fictional version of Zombieism?

Now remember, I said this wasn’t a simple question.

Zombies are real and do exist, there’s even a law banning them from being created – although they’re not like those you’ve seen on the silver screen.

Don’t believe me? Then let’s travel to the Caribbean country of Haiti, as ethnobotanist Wade Davis did over 25 years ago. Here we find a deeply spiritual culture with a deep belief in the existence of Zombies – albeit far from the Zombies of Romero or Kirkman.

Let’s say you’re Haitian and you’ve got a family dispute. Perhaps your brother borrowed your wife, or your Gran keeps asking you to explain the internet – how do you resolve it? Simple, get the local sorcerer to turn them into a Zombie slave – problem solved!
To the Bingo? Eh, yeah, of course we are Gran.
That’s precisely what is believed to have occurred there as Wade Davis discovered. Through meetings with these sorcerers (known as Bokors) Davis managed to acquire samples of their Zombie powder. Analysis revealed the presence of a range of substances including one in particular; Tetrodotoxin. Found in species of puffer fish this toxin is one of the deadliest poisons known to humanity. However if administered in small doses it doesn’t cause death but rather gives one the appearance of being dead via paralysis, the slowing down of body functions, and the like.

Now which one is the Zombie Powder and which one is the Paprika?
The Bokor would place the Zombie powder in an unsuspecting victim’s shoes, down their back or generally anywhere where it would come in contact with the skin, nose, and throat. The victim would appear to progress toward death, eventually fooling people that they were indeed dead, and be buried.   

The Bokor and his minions would then exhume the victim and feed them another concoction designed to keep them somewhat ‘out of it’, so that they wouldn’t attempt to escape or talk back. Many claim these Zombies were then put to work as slaves, but how useful they’d be in performing even a basic task is debateable.   
As I mentioned earlier, creating a Zombie in Haiti is illegal, as article 246 of the Haitian penal code states:

It shall also be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the person had been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows.

So as we have seen, ‘are Zombies real?’ is a hard question to answer, but I’ll try and make it as simple as possible. The answer is yes, and no.

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

Just remember to stay on good terms with your family if you ever find yourself in Haiti,

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.

See the Zombie Science: Worst Case Scenario tutorial –

Brighton Science Festival 2013:
Date: Sunday 10th February 2013
Times: 5.30pm & 7.30pm
Venue: Sallis Benney Theatre, 58-67 Grand Parade, Brighton, BN2 0JY
Tickets: Visit Brighton Science Festival’s Official Website 

Glasgow International Comedy Festival
Date: Monday 18th March 2013
Time: 7.30pm
Venue: The Stand Comedy Club, Woodlands Road, Glasgow, Scotland
Tickets: Visit the festival’s official website

1 comment:

  1. My friend doesnt believe me that zombies are real! what can i use to prove her wrong