Zombie Chemistry: Could It Bring The World To An End?

15 Feb

So far on this blog I’ve considered some real zombie diseases and also whether genetic engineering could bring about a zombie apocalypse, this time I’m going to turn my attention from biology to chemistry and consider whether a chemical agent could also result in the collapse of civilisation. This type of scenario is probably best known the 2010 movie The Crazies where a town’s population is turned into violent psychotic killers after their water supply is contaminated by some unnamed toxin (the original 1973 version had a slightly different plot based around a release of a biological agent). There’s also been a lot of speculation recently over zombie-like attacks by people who have been taking a drug called methylenedioxypyrovalerone (also known as MDPV or, more popularly, Bath Salts).

There’s a lot to be said for a chemically-inspired zombie apocalypse. For a start the original zombies from Haiti were thought to have been people who had been drugged so that they could be controlled by others, so there’s a nice bit of tradition there (although we’re talking a very different type of zombie in that instance). Secondly, if someone got their hands on the right chemical, it would be frighteningly easy to affect a large number of people either by contaminating the water supply, food supplies or even just by releasing a gas.

So what sort of chemicals are we talking about here? There’s two basic possibilities here. The first is some sort of psychoactive drug. ‘Bath Salts’ would be one such option, but so is old good old favourite LSD. Given in sufficiently strong quantities to people who aren’t aware they’re taking psychoactive drugs can have devastating effects. This issue is actually recognised in law in some countries where it is possible to launch a defence called ‘involuntary drug-induced automatism’. This defence hinges on the fact that if you are given drugs and are not aware of it, you effectively lose control and become a zombie (or automaton as zombies are referred to in legal language). I can’t actually track down a case where this line of defence has been successful (although there’s quite a few cases where it’s been tried), but it’s allowed meaning that many legal systems recognise the possible existence of this type of chemical zombies! However, while psychoactive drugs could create a huge number of zombies in a short space of time, almost all such drugs will wear off to a greater or lesser extent in a relatively short space of time. This means that while this could induce widespread mayhem and madness, it’s unlikely that a zombie apocalypse could be triggered by a psychoactive drug administered surreptitiously to an unsuspecting population.

The second type of chemicals that could create zombies are those that cause damage to the brain rather than just mess around with it’s chemistry (as psychoactive drugs do) and they would be considered toxins rather than drugs. If you damage certain parts of the brain, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, this can reduce impulse control and increase the propensity for violent outbursts. Again, the possibility of this type of ‘zombie’ is recognised by legal systems in many countries where if you have brain damage that can be shown to have affected your ability to control your actions you can use this as a legal defence. You could imagine that if you found a chemical that damaged just the right part of the brain it could turn people into violent killers. This damage would be permanent and the person would be stuck in this state until they died. This means that such zombies could be around for a very long time and that has much more of the hallmarks of a true zombie apocalypse.

While chemicals have the potential to create zombie-like humans, there’s no known way such zombism could be transmitted from one person to another through bites or other injuries. Given that this is a key element of most zombie apocalypse scenarios, it would mean that any sort of mass violence caused by chemicals wouldn’t really be a zombie apocalypse as such.

If it happened, though, who’s going to argue over semantics: it’d still be scary as hell to have to live through!


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From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK, and available as an ebook and in print the US from the 21st March 2013. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

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