Science and the Supernatural in Zombie Fiction

Do keep in mind that these are the musings of a rank amateur who has neither the breadth of reading nor the deep understanding of the field that might make for a more coherent set of speculations.  However, ignorance has never stopped me from flapping my gums and I don't see any particular reason to start now.

One of the "givens" of zombie fiction is the so-called Zombie Apocalypse.  Given that I do have a resolutely scientific mind in these matters and I had cause to ponder this question over the weekend it occurred to me that the triggering mechanism for the plague had a great deal to do with the possibility of such an apocalypse.

Let us consider the matter--if the trigger is based in the material and scientific world, it most likely consists of some strain of virus, prion, or other contagion.  This has practical consequences--either a virus, bacterium, fungal, or protozoan infection have means of redress and an incubation period.  The scenario resembles that proposed by George Mann in The Affinity Bridge: after a bite, the contagion incubates for eight or more days and then causes a condition in which there is no renewal of tissue and the victim--for reasons entirely opaque to science develops a cannabalistic urge.  As a result (1) it is conceivable that a vaccine can be developed, and (2) some will either have a natural immunity or will survive the attack and not succumb to the sickness.  Even if the infection/transformation rate is remarkably high--there will be some who do not succumb.

The prion is a more complex matter because it is less well understood.  The primary prion-mediated disease I'm aware of is Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) and its variants including Mad Cow.  I'm not sure we completely understand infective mechanism, rates of transmission, nor completely how the human body reacts to it.  If we consider a prion infective mechanism, there is a great deal more legitimate speculation on cause and cure and incubation and just about anything else.  The other fact about prion-mediated diseases is that even when there is an "outbreak"  it tends to be a relatively small number of people with the toll adding up more through time rather than a sudden spike.  Prions do not appear to be good causal mechanisms--but as I've noted, speculation on that front certainly falls completely within the domain of reasonably considered science fiction.

Additionally, under any scientific scenario, those who are already dead remain dead. There is no reanimation of those not affected.  So, what is possible with a scientific explanation  is contagion and spreading a plague.  And what is really frightening in this world of possibility is the disease vector--whether arthropod or air-droplet, one need not be infected solely by a bite from one with the disease.  However, you can limit this scenario by proposing that like certain types of hepatitis and nearly all STDs, infection only results from contact with the bodily fluids (in this case saliva or blood) of the infected.

Even with a high transmission rate and conversion factor Apocalypse is quite unlikely under the scientific scenario.  You're not reanimating armies of the dead, you have only those who are attacked and survive the attack, or even succumb to it who become zombies. The living far outnumber the dead even under the most outrageous odds, and local housewives and newspaper boys keep their baseball bats handy.

Now let us consider a supernatural origin to a zombie plague.  In this case we can allow for the recently dead to be reanimated.  However, in everything I've touched on to date, this seems to imply an enormous army of the dead rising and causing havoc.  But even here we need to consider the simple science of the matter.  Those who have been dead, even with embalming, will not have anything viable in the way of musculature after say three-to-four months.  (Probably much less, but let's start by being generous.)  We also have to consider the modern preference for and prevalence of cremation as a means of giving the dead repose. Finally, let us also consider the sheer difficulty of finding one's way out of six-feet under (think Uma Thurman in Kill Bill 2); it is a safe assumption that only the dead in tip-top shape will make it to the surface.   Add to that those in funeral homes and morgues awaiting interment, and we have our viable zombie army population.

The supernatural scenario also has certain postulates: mortality rate is 100%, revival rate is 100% although the time period does not seem to be clear--anything from minutes to days (your actual mileage may vary, past performance is not an indicator of future returns, etc.)

Under these supernatural conditions, the likelihood of an apocalypse is greater.  Certainly if taken by surprise the normal population could be quickly reduced to the proportions observed in Rot & Ruin--although one still asks the question--if you amputate ahead of the infection/bite, what is the effect?  In the supernatural scenario, this may be of no avail, in the scientific world, as with necrotizing fasciitis,  the end result may be variable.

We are left to the question of the supernatural nature of the infection.  What caused it?  What is the element that propels it?

While often left in the background because, let's face it, most zombie stories aren't really so much about zombies as they are about humanity in extremis, this is a compellingly interesting question, because the cause both suggests a cure (in at least the realm of supernatural laws) and it tells us something about "motive."

A supernatural malignancy can have any number of causes--from demonic to divine to supernatural through an unknown agency that consists of neither of these, (an affliction of ghostly spirits perhaps--maybe zombies are in fact a supernatural disease).

You have been patient enough with me in my speculations here.  I hope I've shown that under all likely scenarios an apocalypse doesn't go well with any scientific explanation of a zombie event.  Apocalypse seems to require a supernatural event, the nature of which is almost never pinned down, and which in itself might form the intriguing nucleus of a story.

Perhaps more thoughts later as I finish The Affinity Bridge and take on The Angels Are the Reapers amongst others.


  1. Nice analysis. I like zombie fiction but I often find it helpful to shut off my brain while reading, as I agree that the chances of a zombie apocalypse occuring under the circumstances described are rather slim.

    One of the things that's always irked me is the flesh consumption bit. If zombies consume their victims to any degree, how does the mangled and limbless corpse manage to reanimate and join the ranks of the undead?

    Brian Keene's City of the Dead attributes the rise of the zombies to a biblical plague, with demonic forces battling a benevolent creator.

  2. Dear Bryan,

    I didn't get into other aspects of Zombie life/motivation, perhaps touching that later. There is a sense in which zombies represent Wasichu. But more about that when I've put together more coherent thoughts.

    Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment.




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