Today we’ll be looking at the history of Zombies, the likelihood of an apocalypse level outbreak, and best practices if you find yourself in a real-life horror film. We’ll also look at how preparing for a zombocalypse can strengthen your preparedness in general.
Did you know that the word for a fear of the walking dead is kinemortophobia? I happen to have that fear – as I believe all sensible humans should. But, as always, I’m aiming to be (say it with me) Prepared, Not Scared!
Defining a Zombie
Throughout the centuries there have been many different versions of Zombies. They are classified as undead, a grouping they share with vampires, mummies, and ghosts. Generally speaking, a zombie is a reanimated dead body – usually human – that can walk and often has an insatiable hunger for the living.
Depending on the mythos, zombies can be directed by whoever woke them (a witch doctor or necromancer) or they might be independent, mindless hunters. There are two ways a zombie is usually created: magic, and science.
In the original zombie stories the dead are usually woken by a priest or a sorcerer who wishes to use empty bodies or trapped souls as servants. This usually pulls a lot of themes from the Voodoo (or Vodou) traditions in Haiti. We’ll explore that more in a moment.
As belief in magic has become scarce in modern times many story-tellers are taking a new approach to the idea of the zombie. These creators looked at the traditional shambling, unkillable zombie of pop-culture and thought to themselves “How can we make these things EVEN SCARIER?” and they correctly decided the answer was to make them contagious. These creatures birthed the ‘pandemic era’ zombies and in turn, the newest wave of undead media (think Walking Dead and Shawn of the Dead).
How it all Began
It would be remiss to discuss Zombies without mentioning their origins. Many believe that the word Zombies comes from West African languages. Ndzumbi for example means ‘corpse’ in the Mitsogo language of Gabon, and nzambi translates to spirit of a dead person in the Kongo language. This makes sense as the idea of the modern zombie is believed to have originated in the slave trade.
West African peoples were among the hardest hit by European slavers looking for forced labour in the sugar plantations of the New World. Many slaves were required by law to convert to Catholicism, but they held fiercely to many of their old beliefs. The result was a spiritual cocktail mixing different traditions like Voodoo in Haiti, Obeah in Jamaica, and Santeria in Cuba.
In early mythos of Martinique and Haiti Zombies could be a spirit or ghost, or just a disturbing presence that could choose its form. Over time the beliefs took the form of a bokor, or witch-doctor, rendering a victim apparently dead and then reviving them as personal slaves. According to the BBC: “The zombie, in effect, is the logical outcome of being a slave: without will, without name, and trapped in a living death of unending labour.”
At the end of the American occupation of Haiti, American forces brought home pieces of the ‘zombie superstition.’ The first American movie to feature a zombie was a 1932 film called White Zombie. It paved the way for a pop-culture fascination with the wakeful dead.
As we mentioned, more modern versions of the zombie story point to disease as the cause for a contagious invasion of the dead. This version of the myth is what we’ll center our preparedness discussion on. It is more likely to occur than a magic-fuelled apocalypse and would affect a lot more people.
It’s safe to assume that if a zombie virus were to develop it would follow the patterns of existing infections. For the purposes of this post we’re going to assume the virus matches the rabies-flu hybrid proposed by the National Geographic Society. Here’s the gist:
- Symptoms would resemble those of rabies victims (anxiety, confusion, hallucinations, paralysis, culminating in violent madness.)
- Symptoms would begin to show within hours of infection.
- The virus would be airborne like influenza to allow a pandemic spread. (What? We’re aiming for apocalypse, aren’t we?)
For the diehard zombie fanatics out there who are limbering up to argue for transmission through biting, keep in mind that regular rabies transmits that way and it simply doesn’t get far. For our scenario, we need something more potent.
This proposed virus, let’s call it ‘the Z strain,’ would spread rapidly and create large groups of confused, incoherent, violent people. For arguments sake, we’re also going to say that victims of the Z strain are more likely to take their violent urges out on healthy people, to more closely resemble the myths. We’ll also say that the virus causes death at a similar rate to rabies, 7-30 days after symptoms show.
The Chances of a Zombie Uprising
So, how likely is the Z strain to occur in real life? While it’s not impossible, it is highly unlikely. The rabies virus would need to take on several aspects from other viruses. This has practically no chance of occurring in nature. It might be possible in a lab under human direction, but even then it would be a long shot. To borrow once again from National Geographic’s research into a rage virus, the University of Miami’s Samita Andreansky said:
“Sure, I could imagine a scenario where you mix rabies with a flu virus to get airborne transmission, a measles virus to get personality changes, the encephalitis virus to cook your brain with fever”—and thus increase aggression even further—”and throw in the ebola virus to cause you to bleed from your guts. Combine all these things, and you’ll [get] something like a zombie virus,” she said.
“But [nature] doesn’t allow all of these things to happen at the same time. … You’d most likely get a dead virus.”
The Kit is Real
Like all major emergencies a well supplied kit will be crucial for surviving an outbreak of the Z strain. Going to the grocery store and running errands will be a dangerous proposition until the virus has been eradicated.
The rules for building a zombocolypse kit are very similar to building any kit. You’ll need food, water (in case the people running the water treatment/distribution networks become infected), lights and radio in case power fails, and first aid supplies. It would be a very bad time to go to a hospital. What’s different about a pandemic kit? A concentration on sanitation and face masks. Pack a box of latex or nitrile gloves, a LOT of hand sanitizer, and plenty of N95 masks.
There is one other HUGE advantage that a zombie kit has over any other emergency kit: It’s fun. Zombies are a gateway topic to get kids and adults thinking practically about preparedness. Not having any luck getting junior to learn about your earthquake or flood preparations? Well, now they’re for zombies, and much more interesting.
Best Practices for Zombie Attack
So, you have a kit, you know all about zombies, and you’ve just spotted the first mention of an outbreak in your area on social media. What do you do?
Learn the Signs
Research is one of your best tools against pandemics. Look into how the disease spreads, and what early symptoms to watch out for. Map out the areas where it is known to be spreading and avoid them.
If the situation turns full zombie-movie and you wind up living with a small group of survivors it will be important to know when one of you is infected.
Wash Your Hands
Keep clean, don’t shake hands with anyone, wear your N95 masks, and if possible stay in your home. An apocalypse is a bad time for house guests, so keep visitors to a minimum – there’s no telling who might be carrying the deadly virus.
Be sure to keep cooking areas clean, and to deal with your waste appropriately if your plumbing stops working. Even if the Z strain only travels by air exposing yourself to more mundane sickness can lower your immune defenses, making it easier for zombification to take hold.
Location, location, location.
In extreme zombie situations, you may need to evacuate your home to avoid exposure or attack. In these instances, a bug out bag will make your life 100x easier. Having a grab and go option for evacuation means that you will not need to rely on central supplies, like muster stations, where crowds may gather and risk of infection is high.
Head away from population centers where zombies will gather in greater numbers to look for victims. If you have access to a boat, head to an island with no land access, or live on the boat itself. Unless your undead are like those in the Pirates of the Caribbean, they probably won’t brave the water to reach you.
If boats aren’t an option, head for places with difficult terrain and plenty of cover. Wooded mountains are good, as are remote cabins, or taking a motor home to the far end of a logging road.
City dwellers may find it impossible to leave the city without risking infection or attack. In these cases sealing your home off from any marauding zombies and staying in central rooms is good. If that is not an option, try to find a way to get up high, where it will be difficult for a zombie to follow.
In a mundane flu pandemic, people can continue with their day to day lives without much interruption. Coughing into your arm instead of your hand, frequent hand washing, getting the flu shot, and sanitizing objects you share with others (phones for example) are usually enough to keep most people safe. These will not be enough in a zombie situation however, as the infected will be motivated to attack civilians and spread the virus.
Build a Team
If we’re going full zombie movie, you’ll need a team of survivors to ride out the zombocalypse with. Cinematic case studies would suggest that the strongest teams have at least one of each of these roles: weapons expert/brawler, doctor, tech-whiz, a diplomatic leader, an antagonist, and someone likeable who dies early to invest the audience. Try not to be the latter.
In a real life scenario you will likely not get to pick and choose who you get, but you can assign roles and work together to make your hideout safe. Avoid infighting at all costs – it never ends well.
The Right Tool for the Job
On the off-chance that an actual, honest-to-goodness, walking-dead style zombie apocalypse occurs, you may need to kill things that are already dead. According to most mythos, detaching the head from the zombie usually does the trick. Because of this, pack an axe or other slashing weapon to your zombie kit, and avoid piercing and bludgeoning weapons as they will have little effect.
*Total Prepare does not condone the use of weapons against infected or other living persons. Only against actual reanimated bodies in life or death situations.*
How Long Will the Zombocalypse Last?
The lifespan of our DIY apocalypse varies depending on the type of zombie. According to the Zombie Research Society (yes – that’s a thing) if the zombies are of the shuffling dead variety, they could be gone from the earth in as little as 5 weeks. This assumes that the bodies still decay at the same rate as their non-infected counterparts.
The University of Leicester’s Journal of Physics Special Topics published a peer-reviewed student paper that analyzed how the world would fair against an epidemic-like spread of zombie infection. The results were not promising for humanity. According to their estimations, human populations would crash to a few hundred people left on earth. The zombies would die off 1000 days after the beginning of the epidemic. 10,000 days after the epidemic begins, humanity would begin to recover.
What’s Your Plan?
Whether it’s an outbreak of the Z strain, or a rogue necromancer raising the dead, it helps to have a plan, a kit, and a safe place to go. Do you have a zombie plan in place? If so, let us know in the comments!
Thanks for reading!
This article was written by Zenia Platten – Author of Tethered (which has zombies!), and emergency preparedness professional.