“A zombie film is not fun without a bunch of stupid people running around and observing how they fail to handle the situation” ― George A. Romero
Zombies, as a rule, are relatively apolitical. One brain is as good as another, gastronomically speaking. And while young flesh may be a little more tender and flavorful, it also tends to run faster. Having recently returned from the dead with cannibalistic hankerings and a lack of higher cognitive function, a zombie can’t afford to ask your party affiliation before sinking its teeth in. Zombies are busy. Busy making more zombies and mindlessly shambling about the countryside trapping survivors in indefensible positions. Lacking the capacity for strategic thinking, zombies have to rely on the mathematics of epidemiology to further their cause.
Epidemiological modeling of a zombie outbreak doesn’t look good for humans. In 2009, a savvy group of Canadian mathematicians, obviously interested in existential risks to humanity (as we all should be), using basic biological assumptions derived from popular zombie movies, created a rudimentary mathematical model for zombie infections, examining the potential impacts of quarantines, cures, and an all-out zombie war on our future prospects. The answer was pretty straightforward. We all end up zombies or dead. The main problem is that the zombie population expands faster than the human survivors no matter what we do, and those survivors, even if they are fruitful and multiply, can’t keep pace and are really just providing more grist for the ever-expanding zombie mill. The researchers concluded that the only marginally successful strategy would be “impulsive eradication” (Munz, et al., 2009, p.13), that is strategically and repeatedly destroying massive amounts of zombies as resources permit. Otherwise, we’re pretty much doomed.
An outbreak of zombies infecting humans is likely to be disastrous, unless extremely aggressive tactics are employed against the undead. While aggressive quarantine may eradicate the infection, this is unlikely to happen in practice. A cure would only result in some humans surviving the outbreak, although they will still coexist with zombies. Only ever-increasing attacks, with increasing force, will result in eradication, assuming the available resources can be mustered in time. Furthermore, these results assumed that the timescale of the outbreak was short, so that the natural birth and death rates could be ignored. If the timescale of the outbreak increases, then the result is the doomsday scenario: an outbreak of zombies will result in the collapse of civilization, with every human infected, or dead. This is because human births and deaths will provide the undead with a limitless supply of new bodies to infect, resurrect and convert. Thus, if zombies arrive, we must act quickly and decisively to eradicate them before they eradicate us (Munz, et al., 2009, p14).
We’re not particularly good at acting quickly and decisively, or marshalling our resources cooperatively these days, so if our collective response to the COVID-19 epidemic is any indication, we should all get used to the taste of brains, given the outbreak of a zombie plague (one of the mathematical models disturbingly predicts that without coordinated response, in a city of 500,000 people, zombies will outnumber the uninfected within 3 days. Another study suggested that we would be completely overrun worldwide within 100 days). Fingers crossed that a zombie war largely remains the province of popular fiction. In fact, that is not the most disturbing thing about the work of these foresighted mathematicians for our day to day lives. A truly frightening, and seemingly offhand observation made by the researchers was, “Clearly, this is an unlikely scenario if taken literally, but possible real-life applications may include allegiance to political parties” (Munz, et al., 2009, p15), and the spread of political views.
Now why would they go and say that? Well, epidemiological models generally assume that once you’re dead, you stay dead. The problem with a zombie apocalypse in relation to other infectious diseases is that the dead can come back to life and continue to infect others. Extrapolate this to the world of political ideology and you may come to some troublesome conclusions. Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman defined zombie ideas as “things that people believe in the political sphere that are demonstrably false” — they never die, and they continue to propagate. Seems a little bit like the world we are living in now.
People by and large can be pretty decent and reasonable on an individual basis (or so I’m told). Get them together in groups and you start having a problem. “In the ordinary sense the word ‘crowd’ means a gathering of individuals of whatever nationality, profession, or sex, and whatever be the chances that have brought them together. From the psychological point of view the expression ‘crowd’ assumes quite a different signification. Under certain given circumstances, and only under those circumstances, an agglomeration of men presents new characteristics very different from those of the individuals composing it. The sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes” (Le Bon, 1982, p23). Of course, Le Bon was writing about crowd psychology between World War One and Two, where if you wanted to form a mob, you did it in the streets, but in our modern information-saturated environment, we propagate our ideas through unfiltered social media. Our crowds are “digital” crowds and our zombies are “thought contagions”, or in popular parlance, memes (derived from Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene) – that is ideas that have within themselves the means for their own self-propagation e.g. raise a bunch of kids who are taught that they should have lots of children, they will have a bunch of children who believe you should have a bunch of children, and the number of people believing you should always have tons of children steadily increases from generation to generation, and so on and so on, until those that hold this belief far outnumber those who don’t.
Nazi propogandists worked under the assumption that if you tell a big enough lie, and tell it often enough, people will come to believe the lie (attributed to Joseph Goebbels, although nobody can find where he actually said it, except for related snarky commentary on the British). They lived in a world where the spread of information was dominated by governments, broadcasters, and publishers, and probably would have had a hard time envisioning a world where the primary sources of information dissemination were informal, ubiquitous, and on a tribal rather than societal scale. Small ideas are circulated, amplified, repeated, and persist for long periods of time. In a more centralized model of information transmission, ideas (right or wrong) emerge, are credited or discredited, and either become canon or die an inglorious death outside rarified pockets of society, much like an infectious disease. In the data-infused world of today, ideas, memes, and ideologies emerge, spread rapidly throughout the infosphere and are extremely hard to kill, often rising from the dead to once again spread perniciously. Much like a zombie epidemic. Millions of people can come to steadfastly believe blatant untruths, as those untruths serve to explain broken systems, fractured social relations, economic woes, and all the inadequacies of life. There is no cure. There is no quarantine. And ultimately, the beliefs become pervasive as the zombie ideas propagate faster than they can be eradicated, frequently rising from well-deserved graves to once again spread amongst us, giving a rather sinister cast to “going viral”.
Perhaps zombificaton is inherent and inevitable in the formation of cultural norms, and civil society is continually in the process of rising, dying, and rising again, for as Alan Moore said, “Culture is just a shambling zombie that repeats what it did in life; bits of it drop off, and it doesn’t appear to notice”. If the epidemiology of zombie ideas is anything like the mathematical model of a zombie plague, we’re forced to ask a singularly important question. What wine pairs well with brains?
Le Bon, Gustave, 1841-1931. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. 2nd ed. Marietta, Ga.: Larlin Corp., 1982.
Lynch, Aaron. Thought Contagion. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1996.
Munz, Philip, Hudea, Ioan, Imad, Joe & Smith, Robert. “When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection”. Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 2009.
Tchuenche, J.M. & Chiyaka, C. “Mathematical Model for Surviving a Zombie Attack”. Wired. Condé Nast, 2009.