Friday, April 13, 2012

It's true, I like Zombies

I recall, when I was 13, getting creeped out by a werewolf.  Rather, it was the vague thought of a werewolf stimulated by terrible reception on a black and white TV.  It helped that I was alone in the farmhouse at night – we had no close neighbors -- and the only unnatural light was the small TV set.  I was flipping the channel knob and channel 13 was almost entirely static.  Over the hiss I barely heard a faint howl, and through the dancing gray pixels – barely – the outline of a wolf.  That was it.  I scared myself with almost nothing.

I also was impressed by the 1999 film Blair Witch Project, particularly one scene in which the screen was entirely black and the sound was just a person clucking.  Again, nearly nothing -- but everyone was on the edge of their seats.

On a shallow beach in Belize a few days ago I was able to walk out into the ocean about 1,000 feet, and then I swam out another 5 minutes.  I may have been a half mile from shore, no one knew I was there, and so again, there was nothing.  This time the thought of sharks really freaked me out -- just disappearing, like that!  I went back to shore right about then.

So, I like to think I have a fairly nuanced sense of fear, and maybe for this reason I dismissed zombies long long ago as too stupid, too ugly, too slow and clumsy to be taken seriously.  The base appeal of zombies, I thought, was that they were dead, and gross, and that didn’t interest me.  I’m afraid of a razor blade. Zombies were way too obvious.

Background, for those few who don’t know:  Zombies are humans who have fallen victim to a strange disease which first kills them, then awakens them in whatever random state of decay.  They don’t seem to rot more from that point on, but they lumber on stupidly, endlessly, always hungry for (living) human flesh -- particularly brains.  They’re generally easy to avoid, and a blow to the head will kill them for good.  If they notice a living human they stumble towards it, to bite.  The bite will kill, and one who dies this way becomes a zombie too. Simple as that.

With the help of my sons, who turned me on to the graphic novel The Walking Dead, I've come to realize that zombies are actually a brilliant invention. It's apocalyptic, either by epidemic for which there are random immunity, like small pox, the plague, typhoid, Ebola.  Despite their obvious silliness, you'd be hard pressed to find a monster requiring so little suspension of belief.

I have compared the zombie situation to what would happen if you took a random group of U.S. citizens and parachuted them into the Brazilian jungle.  New predators, new challenges, total uncertainty, and then the tribes of survivors would form.  Some tribes would become threats, as well.  And it’s not an unfamiliar jungle – it’s the ruins of their own neighborhoods.  And instead of crocodiles, the threat comes from familiar things -- neighbors, and loved ones. The better analogy would be a total failure of the electrical grid, which would cause a collapse of government, businesses, services.  Neighbors prey on neighbors while diseases (the zombie part) spreads wildly.  How interesting.  How terrifying: modern people, thrown back in time.

Zombies reintroduce problems from the past: lack of water, food, shelter, medicine.  Survivors are nomads, and they coalesce into tribes, with governments, rules, specialization of labor.

There's another take on zombies which is pretty interesting. Survivors are often confronted with their loved ones who have turned.  They still feel love for wife, husband, or child, but there is nothing but the shell of the person left.  These bittersweet confrontations are reminiscent of a friendship or love relationship gone bad.  The person looks like the friend or lover, but they are just no longer interested.  The flame, on their side, has died.  Ouch.

You see, just a little twist and the zombie story is a familiar one.
There’s an ant, the Camponotus leonardi, which is susceptible to a parasitic fungus, the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis which gets into its nervous system, causing the poor creature to climb a stalk of grass, clamp on, and die.  Fungal antlers sprout from its head, and the spores of the fungus infect other ants.  Zombie ants.  But a better zombie is caused by trematodes, or flukes.  Here is a slightly condensed quote about the fluke, from a Scientific American blog:
The parasitic Dicroelium dentriticum, lives in the livers of sheep, but its intermediate host is an ant. A snail accidentally eats the fluke’s eggs and the parasite hatches and develops in its gonads. The fluke is excreted in the snail’s slime, which is eaten by an ant.  Once infected, the ant continues about its business by day, but as the sun goes down, the parasite takes over. Every night, the zombie ant will leave its colony behind and search for a blade of grass, to climb to the top, to bite down, and to wait until sunrise. Night after night, the ant will dutifully wait atop its blade until it gets accidentally eaten by a grazing sheep, thus completing its enslaver’s life cycle.

They still don’t scare me as much as static, clucking in the dark, or thoughts of a shark far from shore, but when it comes to monsters, zombies simply take the cake. They require just a small stretch of the biological imagination, and it’s social sciences from there.

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