Zombie studies: The scientists taking the living dead seriously

The Zombie Research Society is using one of our most popular myths to explore the real world.

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On 3 September 2011, between the hours of 2am and 4am, Harvard physician Dr. Steven Schlozman appeared on the radio show “Coast to Coast” to discuss a terrifying new flesh-eating pandemic that consumed even the experts researching it. The segment prompted thousands of listeners to write to Schlozman, pleading for advice about how to spot the impending signs of infection and how to guard their homes from its spread. 

Many were more than a little displeased when they realised that the radio appearance was part of Schlozman’s promotional tour for his book “The Zombie Autopsies”, which recounts the impact of a fictional contagious disease engineered by a villainous hedge fund manager. While the reaction was surreal to Schlozman at the time,  he now attributes the plausibility of his entirely fake disease to a "very involved Venn diagram of characteristics" where the undead also happen to reside.  “People like things to be simple, sexy (in the colloquial sense) and familiar”- and it seems zombies fulfill all of those criteria. 

While the walking dead might seem like a curious obsession for people with PhD’s, Schlozman is far from alone. He is a board member of the Zombie Research Society (ZRS), a group formed in 2007 which is committed to the “historic, cultural and scientific study of the living dead”. It includes hundreds of thousands of zombie devotees around the world, working in film, the military and various scientific fields.

Their interest in zombies stem from a diverse range of factors, and focus on different aspects of what zombies say about society. “I’m no sociologist,” admits Dr.Tara Smith, who’s actually an epidemiology expert at Kent State University and another member of ZRS, “but I think it’s interesting that the 'how' of making zombies has changed over the years to reflect current social ills or fears”. She points to examples like George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead in which a space probe emitting strange radiation creates zombies, reflecting worries of a nuclear holocaust during the Cold War. Modern zombie canon, such as “28 Days Later”, creates zombies out of pathogens which spiral out of control, which Smith believes tallies with our “interest in emerging diseases and new pandemics such as SARS, bird flu and Ebola."

Despite the somewhat sombre implications of why we’re drawn to the zombie myth, zombie experts are in agreement that many kinds of scientific research, theorising and modelling are just more enjoyable when the undead are involved. Some are jarringly practical, such as Canadian researcher Robert Smith?’s (yes, the question mark is part of his name) textbook about how to survive a zombie apocalypse. It uses mathematical models to predict which populations would be worst affected, mainly dense and urban areas, which won't surprise anyone who's taken the London Underground in winter.

Similarly, Smith believes zombies provide an innovative way to model the spread of infectious disease and its prevention. Smith points out that “for any pathogen, in real life or in a zombie outbreak”, understanding how to prevent the infection will be relevant, and she uses zombies as an example while teaching. While her interest in horror movies dates back to childhood, after watching movies like “28 Days Later”, she spotted a link between zombies and what she studies “in ‘real life’” because “most modern zombie tales have a microbial origin". Even then, Smith has her limits of believability– the “living corpse” zombies are a biological impossibility, no matter how many authors try to make them realistic”. But rage zombies, where individuals become incredibly aggressive and can kill/eat people, usually caused by a germ, are more plausible. If that happens, Dr.Smith advocates running for the hills. “Of course, once you’re in a sparsely-populated area,” says Smith,  “then you have to worry about finding resources (including food), so it’s a trade-off between short-term and long-term survival.”

Other forms of writing on zombies expose humanity’s tendency to shoot itself in its collective foot, like Tufts professor Daniel Drezner’s book Theories of International Politics and Zombies, which highlights the weaknesses of different kinds of government when responding to a zombie outbreak.

Schlozman's fascination comes down to what our zombie stories say about our brains, both when zombified and when trying to work out how to escape them. “We have these great big brains, and in every zombie film, we fail to use these brains.” After Schlozman’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, he found himself often unable to sleep, watching late night television as a way to relax. When Night of the Living Dead was playing one night, it spurred him to write a fake medical paper about what a zombie brain would be like, which was then turned into a book with a cult following. For Schlozman, this kind of dilemma was too fun to ignore – as he says, “you can't be a brain doctor, see a zombie (especially the slow moving ones) and not think about the brain”. As for survival, Schlozman is almost philosophical - “Homer survived as a blind poet in pretty barbaric times,” Schlozman says. “I'd say that means we humans need more than ammunition and baked beans.”

With all this work being done on the living dead, it might seem that the members of the ZRS are enthusiastic about the prospects of a zombie outbreak. Should we start hoarding food and invest in an underground bunker somewhere in North Wales?

“Zombies feel so much more relevant and even potent as well as useful as a metaphor,” Schlozman says. “When you make them real, they're a nightmare.” Besides, as Schlozman points out, there are “all sorts of more boring and frankly more dangerous ways to do ourselves in than a zombie outbreak”.