Sunday, May 13, 2012

Thoughts on Zombies

I suspect that I spend far more time thinking about zombies than the average American … at least, I hope I do.

I’ve started watching “The Walking Dead”, and so far it strikes me as fairly standard zombie apocalypse stuff. Of course I’m looking at things rather critically, so really it says a lot about the series (or at least the first two episodes) that I don’t already have a long list of plot holes, contradictions, and the like.

It did get me musing about zombies in general. My first thought was that an old-fashioned prison would be a good place to hole up and fend off the flesh-eating hordes. That assumes the prison isn’t already occupied – cleaning one out might be a challenge.

Then I got to musing about the best defenses against the traditional, stupid, shambling undead. It occurred to me that what would really work well would be land mines with trip wires. The zombies would just shuffle right into them and take themselves out, giving a loud alert to their presence in the process. The mines could even be clearly marked to allow the living to step right over them. A few perimeters of such mines could keep a small town nice and zombie free.
“Yeah, but sooner or later you’re going to run out of bullets for the machine gun, and then you’d be glad to have the case of machetes.” comment by unknown speaker in an overheard conversation about zombies at a Pennsylvania campground ]
The real zombie paradigm shift (bet you never thought you’d see those four words together) hit me as I started musing over the zombie-as-disease issue. I’ve chatted with friends and relatives about this in the past and I just haven’t been able to make the concept work realistically. The problem, simply put, is that I any disease capable of making a corpse walk about wouldn’t really care if the creature’s head gets blown off. It’s not like the lump of spoiled brain mush could be cranking out enough power to achieve anything anyway.

What I realized though is that the whole problem is resolved (and all sorts of new areas of conflict are created) with one simple change: zombies are not dead.

Let’s consider the hypothetical zombie disease. It’s a virus like CJD or Kuru that cause the physical symptoms associated with a degenerative neurological disorder. This would account for the shuffling gait and the inability to speak.

Now add aspects of Frontotemporal dementia, which would affect planning, organization, and other cognitive functions. Throw in a dash of the symptoms of Schizophrenia caused by Temporal and Limbic damage, as well as the kind of peripheral nerve damage that leads to an inability to feel pain like that caused by Leprosy (which is bacterial, but I figure a virus could easily do it too).
So what we end up with is a disease that turns the victim into a unthinking, unfeeling, stumbling thing that will ignore non-fatal injuries. Assuming the disease encourages transmission by making the victim prone to biting others, that pretty much completes the package.
“More fun! More people killed! Blood and brains upon the ground, and me without a spoon!” [ my grandmother ]
Here’s the interesting part (for writers). A disease like the hypothetical one above could have all sorts of aspects that are perfect for use in a horror novel.

The first that comes to mind is that the victims are still alive. Is it right to kill them off indiscriminately? Are they curable? Having characters wrestle with these issues makes the story much more than an infestation of big, rabid animals.

Another important aspect is that a lot of viruses like these have potentially long latency periods – some up to 20 years – in which the victim could be contagious. The healthy characters could end up obsessive about disease and cleanliness, constantly watching their fellow survivors for telltale early symptoms.

The method of transmission is also full of potential. Yes, it’s typically through zombie bites, but there are all sorts of interesting possibilities. Airborne or waterborne would add additional challenges for the characters to overcome. It might be sexually transmitted as well (though I don’t think I want to read that book).

Then there’s the issue of where the disease came from. A terrorist’s biological weapon or an accident from a secret research facility are the obvious choices, though it could be something that springs up spontaneously from the edges of the wild, like Ebola. It could also be a chance fusion of multiple viruses from someone who was very very sick.

All of this means that the zombie-as-disease concept now works pretty well in my head, and therefore will probably find its way onto a written page.

I’m going to go wash my hands now, and then maybe go watch something that is all sunshine and butterflies.

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