Today we’re going to take a look at a question a lot of people may immediately dismiss out of hand: is a zombie apocalypse really possible? For millennium mankind believed that it was impossible for humans to fly. Then the Wright brothers invented the airplane. Mankind believed that it was impossible to travel faster than the speed of a horse, and that to do so would be deadly. Then the locomotive was invented. Mankind believed that he would never be able to leave his terrestrial habitat. Then we made it to the moon.
So we have a long track record of believing something to be impossible, and then later finding out that we were very much in the wrong. Could the same be argued for a zombie apocalypse? Let’s take a deeper look.
I’ll start off with the qualifier that I received my Master’s in Public Health many moons ago. During this time – and ever since – I’ve studied infectious agents extensively. Zombies and infectious agents, of course, run together. Even the CDC recognized this with their Zombie Preparedness bulletin.
5 Agents that Could Lead to a Zombie Apocalypse
Are zombies just creatures of books, board games, and movies (see the complete list of zombie movies)? After a lot of thought, and years’ worth of research (on other projects), I’ve come to the conclusion that if there were to be a zombie apocalypse it would have to come from one of five different agents…
It wouldn’t be the strain of rabies that we are familiar with, but some novel, potentially altered strain that we’ve never seen before. A lot of the necessary ingredients are already there. Rabies causes drastically increased levels of rage and delirium, during which people are very likely to do things that they would never even consider in normal circumstances. The virus attacks the brain directly and is 100% fatal if left untreated.
To make matters even more concerning, if a strain of rabies was responsible for a zombie apocalypse it is very likely that all mammals would be susceptible to infection. This means that not only would you have to worry about very angry (and deadly) people, but dogs, bears, lions, weasels, chipmunks, cats, and other hard-to-evade animals. Such a virus wouldn’t resurrect the dead leaving one with a Night of the Living Dead scenario, but would instead be more akin to the rage virus in 28 Days Later.
In truth, all of the listed “potentials” for a zombie apocalypse would still involve a living human being. They would all be in altered states, true, but there is no form of “resurrection virus” out there that can reanimate dead tissue… to my knowledge… yet.
The good thing about a rabies strain causing a zombie infection is that you would most likely be safe if you stayed near large bodies of water. Hydrophobia is the scientific name for rabies. Why? Because people with rabies end up developing a deathly fear of water if left untreated.
Once rabies has developed far enough in a victim, they will have an extremely difficult time even forcing themselves to drink a glass of water despite how thirsty they may feel. So, hopefully, with a mutated rabies strain that particular trait of infection would still hold true. (If you really want to delve into mankind’s history with the rabies virus, I highly recommend reading Rabid by Bill Wasik. I found it incredibly interesting.
2. Cordyceps Fungi
Once again, this would have to be a mutated/altered strain for this to ever happen, but cordyceps is a viable source for a zombie apocalypse. The cordyceps fungi is highly specialized, hunting ants, spiders, and other insects. The spores seem to almost show intelligence in the fact that they will reach out to infect the ant brains of a species of ant that they like when left in a petri dish full of ant brains of various species. How that happens is beyond me.
Once infected with the cordyceps fungus however, the insect will climb up to the highest location it can find. The cordyceps infects the brain and actually is able to control the behavior of the bug. Once the bug has reached a suitable location, it dies, and the cordyceps slowly takes over the rest of the body, often sending out a tiny little mushroom from the bug’s head. This mushroom then creates spores, and thanks to the favorable height it is now at, it can infect the maximal amount of hosts nearby.
The spores are able to float as far and as wide as possible with the wind and height in their favor, and the fungus is able to spread ever wider. Perchance this fungus would ever adapt or be altered to attack human brains, it would not look like your stereotypical zombie outbreak. The only way a The Last of Us type situation would happen would be if the cordyceps was somehow combined with rabies.
It would have to be some form of weaponized strain that perfectly meshed the DNA and characteristics of the two infections, which is highly unlikely.
Instead, what you would see with a human cordyceps infection would be people who all of a sudden begin acting strangely as they search for the highest location around them. There wouldn’t be a wild storm of teeth and blood, but instead an insatiable desire to climb ever higher. The infected would be impossible to reason with, most likely not even conscious of what they were doing, and unlikely to communicate as well. They would soon find their ideal location, SOMEHOW the fungus would figure out that it was where it desired to be, and then the victim would die as the fungus colonized the rest of the body, turning the victim into a fungal colony atop a roof, balcony, fire escape, or what have you.
Sound like The Girl with All the Gifts? I agree.
These former humans would then become spore spreaders. Bullets would really be beside the point here, as the victim is not TRYING to kill anybody. They’re just trying to ascend. Some form of injectable anti-fungal would be the only hope of stopping and HOPEFULLY reversing the infection in those who have not yet signaled to the virus to consume them. Those who have already been consumed are already dead, and the only way to take care of the problem then would be with flamethrowers or chemical agents. Spores are incredibly resilient, and any form of destruction that was not capable of destroying the spores as well would only put those nearby at risk of being assimilated as well.
Currently, one can find cordyceps fungi available for purchase in health food stores as a form of supplement to aid in memory, among other reported benefits. Perchance any of these ingested spores had any form of mutation, or perchance the human consuming them had any form of condition that attracted the fungal infection, there could be a chance that such an outbreak could occur.
3. Bath Salts
By using bath salts to get high, one can turn themselves into something of a zombie. Several years ago, there were several reports of drug users who had taken bath salts and resorted to cannibalizing those around them. The most notable such report involved a man under the influence of bath salts who ate the face off a living homeless man. Cops were called to the scene, and when they shot the cannibal, he simply turned around and growled before continuing his meal. You can find some of the details here.
Not everyone that takes bath salts ends up being a bulletproof cannibal – many resort to self-destructive behaviors such as gouging out their own eyes – but they should all be viewed as extremely dangerous when under the influence. How do you fight off an attacker who cannot feel pain, and has super strength? This is a situation where – like in a zombie movie – head shots would be your best option when under attack.
This has an almost marginal probability of ever being more than isolated cases here and there however, as bath salts are not contagious. Being bitten by a under-the-influence attacker only leaves you with a nasty wound. It by no means indicates that you will turn into a cannibal as well. The only way that a large scale outbreak could ever occur would be if the bath salts were somehow aerosolized, and even then, it’s unclear whether there needs to be a pre-inducement psychological priming (e.g. having a large percentage of the target population recently watching a zombie movie) in order for such cannibalistic behavior to commence.
In either case, simply waiting for the high to wear off would instantly resolve the conflict. Given enough time, there would not be a single psychotic cannibal left.
4. Psychological Warfare
If there’s one thing that the placebo effect has demonstrated, it’s the susceptibility of the human mind to suggestion. Have you ever heard of med school syndrome? It’s when med school students believe that they have terrible and uncommon diseases simply because they are studying about them. In many cases, these students can even end up exhibiting symptoms that are purely psychosomatic – meaning that they are brought about from no other source than the student’s mind.
There is a great deal of speculation as to whether the women involved in the Salem Witch Trials were the victims of such psychological manifestations. They THOUGHT they were, and so they BECAME such (this could have been a symptom of ingesting ergot, however). Max Brooks explores such a concept in his book World War Z.
In his story, there are those who behave exactly like zombies even though they have never been infected. They THINK they are zombies, and so they BECOME as close a thing to them as possible. People can create self-fulfilling prophecies. At the same time, think about the sheer number of patients contained within asylums’ walls who believe themselves to be frogs, dictators, George Washington, or tea kettles.
Whether it was through brainwashing or via the power of suggestion, it is possible that people could resort to violent cannibalism simply because they believe that they have been infected with some sort of agent. Once again, this most likely would only occur in isolated cases. The likelihood of great swaths of the population being simultaneously susceptible to such suggestion is incredibly low. However, IF somehow a very large proportion of the population were ever deluded with the idea that they were zombies, then the likelihood of the spread of such an idea would be drastically higher.
Those who were “uninfected” would become much more susceptible to the idea of being a zombie due to fear, prevalence, and other factors. Such zombies would take a number of shapes and forms as well. Some would picture zombies as being fast and aggressive such as in 28 Days Later. Others would think of them as slow, bumbling idiots as demonstrated in The Walking Dead.
Either way however, pain would most likely be a very strong reminder that reality is very different from what is taking place in their heads. Using a placebo “cure” (e.g. sugar water) could very easily bring people back to reality as well. The power of suggestion works both ways, and people wouldn’t quit thinking while they were “infected”. They would still be able to be brought back to reality.
5. Unknown Agents
The only other potential for a zombie apocalypse (to my knowledge) would be some form of unknown agent. Such an agent could be a microbe brought back from outer space, a bacteria that’s been frozen under Antarctic ice, or some form of genetically modified and synthetic bio-weapon. In any of these scenarios, the most likely result would be something akin to The Andromeda Strain, but to remain intellectually honest, I suppose there is always a CHANCE that human cannibalization could be the chief sign among the infected.
Final Zombie Apocalypse Thoughts
The likelihood of any form of zombie apocalypse is slim to none, but SHOULD there ever be anything reminiscent of such, it would most likely take the form of one of the above options. And out of all of the above options, I believe that a strain of rabies is the most viable option and would lead to the most stereotypical version of zombies out there.
by Aden Tate, contributing writer and author of The Faithful Prepper
Are there other potential sources for a zombie apocalypse that I missed? Do you have other thoughts? If so, let us know in the comments below! We want to hear from you! And again, if you enjoy zombie fiction, or are looking to discover how YOU would react when placed in particular zombie circumstances, I think you’ll enjoy my book/game Zombie Choices: An Interactive Story.