Could the zombie apocalypse really happen?

The science behind whether the old horror tale has the potential to plague Earth


Photo courtesy of Barksdale Air Force Base via Creative Commons

Ashley Donohoe, Author

Sunken eyes, grotesque flesh a shade of translucent green, and blood oozing down every crevice of the staggering creature, a man brought to a horrific doom, haunting the nightmares of both young and old once the zombie apocalypse became an iconic trope in pop culture. Originating from 17th and 18th century Haitian mythology, zombies have made their mark in the film industry. Introduced with the movie White Zombie (1932), the apocalypse became a staple once the cult classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) hit theaters. Generations have been intrigued by reanimated dead, but it is a mystery as to why.

Neuropathologist at Boston University Peter Cummings theorizes, “Zombies have two things that touch on us, and I think one of them is we’re afraid of a viral pandemic, but we’re also afraid of each other.” This fear is easily squandered, however, when one comes to the rational realization that zombies could never possibly exist.


Cummings begs to differ, pointing to multiple examples scattered throughout the natural world that could point to the creation of zombies. Klüver-Bucy Syndrome causes it’s victims to experience the desire to put objects into their mouths, to be easily distracted, and contract dementia. In their catatonic state, Cummings mentions how they can become quite brutal. “If I spilled coffee on you, you might want to punch me in the face. That’s due to the limbic system. But usually the frontal lobe shuts that response down… if you lose that connection, the amygdala takes over and that response takes over,” says Cummings. In theory, Cummings explains that the syndrome, paired with a motor deficit, could cause infected to greatly resemble the undead.

Additionally, a disease known as Encephalitis Lethargica causes those infected to hallucinate, enter a stupor, and eventually become catatonic. During this state, if they are stimulated with anything as harmless as a tap on the shoulder, they could go amok, causing serious harm to all in the direct vicinity. This disease also encompasses motor deficits, such as the renowned shuffling. While both of these brain malfunctions point to the possibility of zombie reign, neuroscientists Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek have coined a term that encompasses all zombie-like symptoms, Consciousness Deficit Hypoactivity Disorder. Currently, no known disease can pinpoint all symptoms included in their diagnosis, but they can locate all exact areas of the brain that could cause such symptoms to occur.


“There are real things out there that affect the brain to alter behavior where you do socially unacceptable things,” Cummings continues. One fungus in the genus Ophiocordyceps invades an insect’s body, spreads, and takes over the host in days time. The fungus then makes the insect climb up high, and the fungus proceeds to bust out of the victim’s head. Cummings notes how peculiar this is; a parasite taking control of their entire host’s brain function sounds eerily similar to how zombies have developed.


Hypothetically, neuroscientists have suggested a zombie apocalypse could be in humanity’s future, but whether they would actually be successful in their demise of the planet is questionable. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have taken this threat into account, dedicating a section of their website to zombie preparedness.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leicester have also investigated the threat of a zombie apocalypse, adapting the epidemiological model S.I.R. (Susceptible, Infected, and Recovered or Removed) to fit the zombie virus. Going through three versions of the test, they eventually came to the conclusion that humanity would live onwards, but not without disastrous effects.


In their model, zombies had a 90% probability of infecting a survivor during an encounter, the world was split into three geographic zones prohibiting zombie movement until they reach a population of 500,000, each survivor has a 10% chance of killing a zombie on encounter, half of all females in a population are in the position to make a baby at any given time, females can have one baby every three years, and zombies die after one year without feeding. With these regulations in place, the model predicted that by day 100 there would be 200 million uninfected. By day 1,000, there would only be 67 million uninfected survivors. After approximately six years, zombies would be eradicated from the earth, and three years after that the human population would slowly begin to grow. While it appears like 67 million survivors is an astounding amount of people to live through this nightmare, that means there is only .0088% chance of someone surviving to day 1,000. Sophomore Alana Vierra notes how weird a circumstance like this is, and it really shows “how unsafe the the world could become.”

With Halloween approaching, horror movie viewings are sure to be implemented in many high schoolers’ daily routines. From clowns to serial killers, many write off these tales as completely hypothetical with no scientific basis. Unbeknownst to them, the next time The Walking Dead appears onscreen, their theory for world destruction may not be so far-fetched.