Forget shambling corpses and brains-starved zombies in science fiction: if you scratch nature’s surface deeply enough, you can find enough real-world zombie horror tales to send your undead nightmares into overdrive.
Simon’s new book, Plight of the Undead: What Real Life Zombies Reveal About Our World—and Ourselves, delves into the world of viruses, microbes, and fungi, exploring how they hijack their hosts, take control of their nervous systems, and essentially force them to contravene their instincts to do their invaders’ parasitic bidding.
At the teensy-tiny level, there’s the Dinocampus coccinellae wasp, which subjugates ladybugs by injecting them with both a virus and an egg. The baby wasp feasts on the ladybug’s insides while the virus goes to work on its central nervous system, eventually forcing the hollowed-out ladybug “to stand guard over her tormentor, periodically convulsing to fend off potential predators as the baby wasp grows into adulthood,” according to the report.
On top of that, Simon says there are already viruses at work in the human population that turn people into…something else. Though not endemic in humans, thanks to a short incubation cycle, rabies is the most common, generating “aggression so the host ideally gets another victim in its teeth, thus transmitting the parasite.”
But, Simon adds, “the manipulation even goes beyond that. The parasite makes its victims, including humans, not just shun water, but fear it. That’s because it wants to keep its host’s mouth full of virus-packed saliva. That in my opinion is way more diabolical than anything Hollywood could ever dream up.”
Point taken. Simon also highlights the little-known potential of the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, which by some scientific estimates dwells within one-third of the human population. Native to rats, it “gets in their heads and makes them straight up attracted to cat urine, which of course ends badly for the host," he says.
As for what it can do to Toxoplasmosis-afflicted humans, “studies have shown some weird things going on with Toxo-infected people — it’s been linked to suicide and risk-taking and even schizophrenia,” he says. “I mean, no need to run to the doctor to get tested, but it is a haunting reminder that we humans aren’t special.”
The book calls into question the idea that living things, including people, truly possess free will — a trope that most zombie fiction, from graphic novels to movies to video games — takes for granted.
If there's a lesson here, it's pretty simple. While you've still got your wits about you, should you come across any insects or animals that appear to be exhibiting self-destructive, mind-controlled behavior, run the other way — while you still can.