Sweet Zombie Jesus!

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

Apologies to Piero della Francesca and thanks to gimpy.It’s the Easter holiday weekend, the sun is shining, and for many of us (apologies to those wage slaves still in chains) there’s no work till Tuesday. We can all relax, maybe do a little DIY or hit the pubs without fear of remorse! Nevertheless, it’s important not to forget that there is a deeper, more important meaning to the Easter weekend:  zombies.

Okay, Jesus (if he existed) might not technically qualify as a zombie, but hell… he died on the crucifix (which must have made him a little cross) and then rose again three days later. I mean, that’s pretty damn close to the process that your everyday brain munching, groaning and rotting zombie goes through, so why split hairs?

Fair play to the J-man: he is a bit different from the traditional Hollywood conception of what a zombie is, and doesn’t really fall in any of the main ‘categories’ of zombie- Demonic, Viral, Parasitic- what with his Dad’s job and all. But what of zombies? Do they have any basis in reality?

The fictional zombie has its roots in the voodoo belief system (which in turn has older roots in European witchcraft) and is typically a reanimated corpse with a shambling, stuttering gait, and an insatiable thirst for human flesh. They are typically conceived of as simple creatures who are driven by their baser instincts alone. Although, some notable exceptions exist: Romero’s zombies have evolved over the course of his films to display rudimentary intelligence and tool use, and the infected in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later are speed demons as opposed to having one foot in the grave. I would argue that many of the films that feature “demonic” zombies don’t really show us true zombies . The deadites in the Evil Dead series of films, for instance, are not zombies, even though many of the features of the Evil Dead series have become synonymous with the genre: chainsaws, shotguns and Bruce Campbell.

That leaves us with viral and parasitic zombies. Are there any basis for these in reality?Perhaps more than you might think.

While there is no “rage” virus or equivalent that will set us killing each other off in a manner similar to that portrayed in 28 Days Later (and its sequel), or the recently remade “The Crazies“, there are a number of viruses and parasites that can affect how we behave.

Prions are small infectious protein particles that can be held accountable for an array of rare degenerative brain disorders, the first symptoms of which are changes in an individual’s behaviour. Prions mainly affect the grey matter of the brain, causing loss of nerve function and spongy holes to form in the brain. In CJD (caused by prions) patients suffer progressive dementia, volatile emotions, difficulty walking and muscular jerks. Another prion caused disease is Fatal Familial Insomnia which is characterized by wild shifts in the body’s vital signs, as well as by loss of sleep.

You will likely be aware that rabies can cause dramatic changes in animal behaviour (as dramatised in the Stephen King novel CUJO) making them more aggressive and likely to attack. This is how the disease is mainly transferred to humans. You nonetheless might not be aware of the behavioural changes that the virus causes in the infected: early-stage symptoms of rabies include malaise, violent movements, uncontrolled excitement, depression, and hydrophobia.

Syphilis, a disease caused by the spirochetal bacterium Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum (and, of course, facebook) also causes changes in our behaviour and is associated with insanity. When syphillis reaches its tertiary stage, a diverse number of neurological complications can arise. In some patients, this manifests as a generalised paresis of the insane, resulting in personality change, and changes in emotional effect. Also particularly interesting, from a zombie point of view, is Tabes Dorsalis, also known as locomotor ataxia, a disorder of the spinal cord, which often results in a characteristic shuffling gait.

The parasite toxoplasmosis has been implicated in incidences of depression, schizophrenia and various other psychiatric disorders. In 11 of 19 scientific studies, T. gondiiantibody levels were found to be significantly higher in individuals affected by first-incidence schizophrenia than in unaffected persons. Individuals with schizophrenia are also more likely to report a clinical history of toxoplasmosis than those in the general population (see here). Some scientists believe that Toxoplasma changes the personality of its human hosts, bringing different shifts to men and women. Parasitologist Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague administered psychological questionnaires to people infected with Toxoplasma, and to controls. Those infected, he found, show a small, but statistically significant, tendency to be more self-reproaching and insecure. Paradoxically, infected women, on average, tend to be more outgoing and warmhearted than controls, while infected men tend to be more jealous and suspicious.

These changes are, by and large, not as dramatic as those portrayed in the zombie genre (there is, to my knowledge, no virus or parasite that turns us into brain-munching automatons). However, I think that the examples given above do show that perhaps we aren’t as much the masters of our own destinies as we would like to think. And that there is, perhaps, a little zombie in all of us.