Before plagues became the explanation, zombies were created by magic to be physically durable and mentally pliable. Succumbing to a horde mentality or the will of another is one of the greatest fears underlying individualist societies, although few Westerners these days fear magic. What we do fear, however, are superbugs, diseases that cannot be controlled through modern medicine. If we cannot control it, we cannot understand it, and therefore it could be our doom.
Let’s pause the gross-out for a minute and consider where the modern idea of zombies originated: the tenets of Voudo or Voudon, referred to vulgarly in the Western world as Voodoo.
Voudo is the religious practice that includes witchcraft (both good and bad) in Haiti; Vodun or Vodoun is the similar West African practice (with some influence on South African witchcraft); and a branch of these practices exists in North America as Louisiana Voodoo. While these spiritual practices have similar roots, they are considered distinct sets of practices.
One thing these three practices do have in common, however, is the idea of zombies – from the North Mbundu word “nzumbe,” which comes from the root word “nzambi” meaning “God.” Zombies are generally human bodies that have been brought back to life by a bokor, or sorcerer, although the spirit of the original individual may or may not still exist. Zombies were created through possession or resurrected from the dead to be used as slaves in manual labor. There is even a South African story about “witch trains” run by zombie workers, after rail lines were put in to help transfer migrant workers back and forth. Legend said that if one boarded the train at night, the zombie workers would turn the victim into a zombie too, and the person would be stuck running the train forever.
Still, the basis of magic zombies had to come from somewhere, and diseases are often offered as the explanation (drugs are another explanation). As zombies have become more popular in recent years, they have become bigger, scarier, smarter, stronger, faster, and more infectious. But original zombies were mindless shufflers – and those characteristics had to come from somewhere to be so culturally pervasive.
Several theorists think that leprosy is one of the diseases that could have originated the concept of zombies. We now know that leprosy is a bacterial infection from either Mycobacterium leprae or Mycobacterium lepromatosis. The infection does not, as the legend goes, cause limbs to rot off – rather, it causes nerve damage and skin lesions, which affects the sufferer’s ability to feel pain. In his book “The Gift Nobody Wants,” Dr. Paul Brand, who studied leprosy for most of his career, discusses how many lepers became detached from their extremities as they lost sensation, so they did not care if they caused damage to their hands, feet, or fingers. It was that damage, caused by lack of pain, which caused limbs to become infected and rot away.
Lesions from leprosy cause the sufferer’s skin to appear rotting or falling away; missing limbs enhance the grotesque, rotting appearance; and nerve and muscle damage to the feet and legs creates a slow, shuffling gait. Lepers could have been the original zombies.
Scientists do not know exactly how leprosy is spread, but snot seems to be the most plausible method. Thanks to our awesome immune systems and modern medicine, 95% of the human race is immune to leprosy, and antibacterial medications can stop the disease in its tracks (although nerve damage cannot be reversed). In the past 20 years, more than 15 million people have been cured of the disease.
So the Big Z won’t get you anytime soon, right? Not so fast.
Leprosy is caused by bacteria. Bacteria haven’t been that scary since penicillin started kicking their flagellae, but as I mentioned earlier, there’s a big new horror on the scene, which is barely understood and cannot be controlled: Superbugs.
The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many doctors agree – overprescribing antibiotics has led to strains of bacteria that do not respond to conventional treatments, which dramatically increases the risk of infection, hospitalization, and death. It all started in 1961 when MRSA – methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus – and has only become worse since. Gonorrhea, chlamydia, tuberculosis, E. coli, salmonella, and many others are becoming resistant to all current forms of antibiotics, and the huge volume of international travel every day puts every country in the world at risk of catching these incurable diseases.
While leprosy might be the last on the list of bacteria to resist, it is not an unbelievable scenario. Evolution pressures creatures to find a way to survive, or perish, and it does not take a huge leap of imagination to see that Mycobacterium could become more contagious, affect the nervous system in a new way, and create a horde of barely-human creatures who don’t care about physical pain – theirs or yours.
Have I mentioned that we’re screwed? Cuz we are.