Zombies in Real Life
Flesh-eating, mindless, reanimated human monsters. Not a whole lot of chance of it happening in real life, right?
Well, at least I hope not. As much as I love writing and reading apocalyptic fiction, if zombies started walking the streets, I’d probably be dead in the first twenty-four hours.
But at this moment, there’s already a bunch a weird shit going on out there that proves nature is one sick puppy. Parasites are hijacking animals like a b-grade horror movie on steroids. From zombie ants, suicidal rats and brainwashed grasshoppers, to the rabid berserkers of lyssavirus. Now, if you imagine this stuff happening to our own species instead, you’ve got the making of some great horror material.
A parasitic hairworm Spinochordodes tellinii, grows within grasshoppers and crickets until it is ready to transform into its adult form. The trouble with this situation, is that the adult hairworm lives in water. Somehow, the parasite makes the host grasshopper plunge into water where it would never usually go. Once in the water, the worm, which can be three to four times the length of the host, bursts out of the insect like an alien and swims away, leaving the gutted grasshopper to die.3 If you put that on a human scale, it would be like an eight metre long snake bursting out of your abdomen. Ouch.
There’s a group of fungi, Ophiocordyceps, that targets ants. Once infected, the ant’s behaviour can be controlled. The fungus grows inside the ant, absorbing soft tissues but leaving vital organs untouched. Once it’s ready to sporulate, the fungus infiltrates the ant’s brain, producing chemicals that alter the ants perception of pheromones. This prompts the insect to climb a plant, and secure itself to the leaf or stem at the top. The fungus then kills the ant by devouring its brain, and sprouts through the body of the insect. It subsequently explodes clusters of airborne spores over the surrounding area that it can recruit other ants to its zombie army and begin the process again.1 Yep, that mushroom is one nasty bastard.
Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite that lives in multiple species, from humans to rodents, however, cats are the only hosts that T. gondii is able to sexually reproduce within. This freaky parasite is able to manipulate the behaviour of infected rodents so that they are more likely to be eaten by a cat, in which the parasite can then reproduce and complete its life cycle. T. gondii achieves this by remodelling brain neurones that govern certain behaviours, such as fear of predators.2 It makes you wonder if that last stupid tourist who got out of their safari vehicle with large feline predators in the vacinity may have had a dose of T. gondii on the brain.
Rabid infected berserkers.
Rabies is caused by lyssaviruses, and is found on every continent except Antarctica. Rabies attacks the nervous system of its host, and can cause a range of symptoms such as confusion, hallucinations, and hydrophobia. However, it’s probably most famous for rendering some animal hosts aggressive. The virus does this by binding with nicotinic receptors in the brain. This results in the host losing fear, becoming aggressive and biting, thereby giving an opportunity for the virus to transmit through saliva inoculated into the victim’s wound.4 Sounds familiar? Raging and driven to attack, passes the virus through a bite. I know I won’t be the only one here to think of zombies with this last example. Well, at least the rage virus variant in 28 Days Later.
With such close fit already existing in nature, it took little stretch of the imagination for me to wonder what could happen if such a virus mutated and crossed the species barrier. In my novel, Plague War: Outbreak, this is exactly what happens, turning Australian into an epic bloodbath within a matter of days. If you’re interested in checking the book out, click on the link below.