On the Natural Origins of Zombies
Theories on the origins of zombies, like zombies themselves, abounded.
You’d think it would be easy to say for sure; we’d all seen enough of our tormenters that we would have had a firm grasp on what force had jerked them up off the ground like meatpuppets and set all that fury in motion; unfortunately, the big problem was that, whenever you thought you had the answer at last, a piece of incontrovertible proof, another zombie would invariably come a-calling that completely undermined your theory, so at the very least you started to think we might not ever know, not for sure anyway, or that maybe zombiehood was not a condition but several comorbid conditions, if not completely separate causes operating uniquely and entirely at the individual level, as if the entire universe had first coalesced into a single mind or operating system that, hating us, decided we should be zombies, then, wanting to make sure this job got done thoroughly, sent out a great silent pulse or shockwave, commanding all the constitutive forces of the cosmos to turn us all—by any means necessary.
So it was that, when someone posed the question of the zombic origin, the others couldn’t help but respond with ready examples of different instances in which zombies presented singular signs & symptoms that had previously solved the etiological riddle for the teller, only to have that certainty undermined by the sheer variety of such markedly different but equally compelling illustrations.
Not all of these were shared every night, and it’s possible that others not appearing here were shared, but here are representative few, all of them in their own way addressing the central theme of why we humans can’t help but becoming the very things that we so despise, doing monstrous, dissociative things we do not want to do, or at least deceiving ourselves into believing we do not want to do them.
I can attest to that fear. I don’t profess to know exactly why this change happens to us, but I know what it must feel like to look out at the world suddenly through eyes that you don’t even believe to be your own, to separate body from mind, and do things your best self would never consider. Does it matter that, in life, there were times when we didn’t act? Yes, of course. But there are other things we have done. Things no one knows about. Things we must conceal even from ourselves, that break out of us only in dreams and in the morning light when we first open our eyes and know with perfect clarity how we’ve shifted to accommodate demons in whatever in us most resembles a soul.
Here a new zombie rises in the early dawn, in the gray light, standing before her decades-long lover, and tilts her head to one side, studying him where he lies tangled in white linens. He opens his eyes to the sounds of chickadees outside, and sees suddenly that this woman he has loved so long is standing there at the foot of their bed, but somehow no longer with him, that she is other, and they’ve had their periodic problems, one very recently that nearly tore them apart, but now it is final, he is all alone now, because she has abandoned him, becoming this thing they never consented to together.
Or here the zombie stands in his old apartment on West 64th, trapped behind a mental barrier, suddenly unable to turn a knob, unable to leave and join all those other hideous freaks; does he have any interest in, or even any conception of, what the others are doing in his name? They are zombies; he is zombie. But if they mobilize to wipe out the last band of humble, compassionate people on earth, what does it mean to him as he stands there with a remote control in his bandaged hand, a useless piece of plastic with buttons, only connected via memories (which he no longer even has) to the 6th season of The Walking Dead, which he was watching in its entirety for the 8th time when the power cut off?
So too did we blindly consent to let those in control of our nation always act on our behalf, forever purifying ourselves in pools of bloody ignorance. What in this universe, I ask, is so powerful to make us become the exact things we didn’t want to become? what force egged us on? what anti-force let us let ourselves go?
Well, some of the theories are scientific, some metaphysical.
Here are some of the former:
§ Bacteria. Though possibly farfetched, some believed various bacteria already found within us, that is, various microbiomes, might evolve, and replicate to such an extent that they started erupting from and spilling out of us, becoming so overwhelming that we might be forced to act solely in their interest. We learned that, on Ragnar’s second stint, working under Captain Bollywood, he had been sent out on a dirtbike to scout the small rural township of Duval. As was customary, he hid the bike in brush and made his way into the town on foot. On his way, he had to cross a narrow stream. As he hopped to the other side, he heard a moan to his left. He whirled, and trained his revolver on the sound, and saw a lithe young woman lying in the tall grass.
She was nude, curled into the fetal position, shivering. (Here, the men raised their eyebrows, some luridly, some with concern, all of them wondering which direction this story was about to go in.) Ragnar whispered to her, “You alive?” She glanced up at him, rolling her eyes without turning her head, then turned onto her stomach as if she was going to try to crawl away. Instead, she rolled her hips back, presenting herself to him.
Ragnar was very fair skinned, and he blushed even when telling this part. He ignored the men trying to give him high-fives and went on to say she was covered in dirt and bruises and abrasions, her hair tangled with twigs and leaves; she was obviously sick, and scared, and it disturbed him, so he didn’t know why at the same time it drew him toward her, though it doesn’t take a genius to realize that there has always been something magical about being in the woods and coming across a lovely, unexpected thing, like some kind of mythological nymph, like some kind of immortal offering endless life to a man.
He hadn’t been with a woman in some time, years, as it were, so it wasn’t surprising that his eyes were drawn immediately into that open cherry blossom glistening in the light filtering down through the canopy.
He approached and (here, men were leaning in) and told her thank you and he appreciated it but maybe after she got better, and tried to turn her over onto her back, and cover her with his jacket (here, men sighed in mock disappointment). But as she turned, pressing her breasts together with her hands, he saw what he probably wasn’t meant to have seen: that very thing which suggested bacteria.
Just above her pubis was a boiling black mess of infection, no viral infection or pox, but more like gangrenous. He started back and stumbled over a log. She turned away and presented herself again on all fours, started scootching slowly backward across the fetid mat of leaves and grass and flesh—yes, flesh, though he didn’t have time to decide if it was hers or someone else’s. Just before she reached him, she parted herself with her fingers, inviting him in, and he saw that same black infection inside, and saw his death in it. Whatever it was was trying to infect him, and using her body as host, the way the reference materials say a certain bacteria in leafcutters infected plants so that they stopped producing flowers.
Ragnar wasn’t sure if she was just sick or dead or somewhere in between, but it didn’t matter. There was no bringing her back from this. As she turned to face him and leer, he popped a round into her temple, scattering half her head like loose stool in the brush.
“Typical woman,” someone said. A couple of the men laughed, some tittered politely, others groaned, or shook their heads in disappointment.
Ragnar said only, “Hardy-har, fuckface! it ain’t just women!”
He’d also seen a male zombie sitting beside a cache of canned goods with a similar infection on the nape of his neck, whose tongue was black and molting. Others had to admit to seeing the similar things. Not all zombies clearly presented infections, but, then again, many of them were still at least partially clothed, and it’s not like we inspected them all—so how could we know for sure?
§ Viruses. A lot of people assumed this had to be some sort of virus, particularly a rhabdovirus, a variety of rabies that no one was looking for and therefore never found. I could pick any number of examples of zombies who evinced qualities suggesting a virus, but our cook, the insanely skinny man we called Lard Ass, had seen something that, if it was actually true, takes the cake.
Not two weeks before the crew of Plymouth set out on this fateful stint, Lard Ass had been busy securing foodstuffs. It was pretty customary for a cook to use the stores made available to them by the Majority Shareholders who, it was pretty evident, weren’t hurting for food back in their fortresses as much as the rest of us. While some of the cooks were cool with using whatever came in their shipments, making do, Lard Ass liked “to spice things up a bit.” So he’d go out with a security detail and try to scrounge up some cumin, paprika, garlic salt, hot sauce, whatever he could still find in nearby towns.
On one of those sorties, he and two security guards entered a nice house with Tibetan prayer flags still hanging across the front window, his theory being that dead white people who’d hung Tibetan prayer flags were gold mines for finding all kinds of bulk items from Whole Foods; the granola and quinoa and lentils and all that would almost certainly be gone, but the spices were often ignored, and you could “score big by scoring small.”
At any rate, they entered this house, and as soon as they did, they knew something was awry. Sometimes, you could just tell. But they cleared the living room. They cleared the dining room. They entered the kitchen. Lard Ass started rummaging while the security guards proceeded into other rooms, securing the area.
Sure enough, our cook found a virtual treasure trove of overlooked spices, which he went on and on about for a couple minutes, until someone told him to shut the fuck up and get on with the story.
“And cloves,” he added. “I shut the cupboard. A guy was just standing there. In the next room.”
He didn’t look particularly zombified, not at all mortified or decomposed, not the way so many of them are; rather, he was wheezing, and kept spitting, like he was trying to get coffee grounds off the tip of his tongue.
Lard Ass raised his hand in a wave.
The man cocked his head to one side, confused.
“Guys!” he called to the security team, whose footsteps he could hear upstairs.
As he shouted, the zombie’s eyes widened, and it ran at him at full speed. Lard Ass shuffled backward into the wall and a water cooler. He’d noticed it on the way in, had noted that it was partway full, but thick with green algae and black mold. He had left his cleaver on the counter and had nothing to hold up between them so he grabbed the bottle just as the zombie hit him—spilling the water all over.
“And the damn thing was afraid of the water. And it bought me enough time to run into the dining room. The guards came in shooting.”
Hydrophobia, of course, is one of the strangest symptoms of rabies. I had never seen that to be true, had seen them walk across snow, had even been chased out onto a dock where I had to jump in and swim for it—but then again, had the zombies followed by choice or by inertia? It’s hard to say.
Others had had similar experiences, though not quite as textbook, and many thought the virus might have been hiding in us all for some time, the way rabies could. Some disputed that, if that were the case, it could have lied dormant for so long and struck in so many places all over the world within a fairly narrow timeframe, usually in large metropolitan centers. This gives rise to theories about bioterrorist attacks, though I remain unconvinced. Certainly no terrorist cell could have ever afforded the R&D to weaponize a rhabdovirus, much less carry out coordinated attacks in dozens of cities worldwide with nary a trace. Though I don’t totally discount the possibility it was bioterrorism, it seems like the culprit would have to have been a powerful government, or several governments with similar capabilities and enough animus to start such a covert war, though it might be better not to think about that tiny list of powerful nations that actually had the resources and the disheartening will to do such a thing—no matter how I turn it in my mind, it always narrows down to one and it happens to be the one I’m from.
§ Protozoa. This one comes from my own experience, and might be a longshot, as it certainly required a lot of deep reading and conceptual thinking on my part long after the fact. At any rate, after I read all the materials I could find on microbes in my little library bunker, one type in particular got my brain cranking overtime: Toxoplasma Gondii.
I don’t propose that this is the precise protozoan that turned humans into zombies, but rather that there were certain traits that seemed to make sense, if not fully quantitatively (I am not and never claimed to be a scientist), then at least qualitatively, or maybe even poetically, as a cause for certain aspects of the zombism.
This line of inquiry started when I came across an old issue of the Atlantic Monthly titled, “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy.” A scientist, Jaroslav Flegr, was said to be busy building a case that a fairly common protozoan was changing human behavior in ways we didn’t recognize or associate with the microbes. I found a few more sources discussing Flegr and T. Gondii and learned as much as I could; apparently, it replicated by infecting rats, altering their brains, and making them less afraid of obvious external threats, going so far as to make them not only unafraid of cat urine but sexually attracted to it; that was the beauty of the sleight of hand, the legerdemain, because the protozoan needed to get inside cats’ intestines in order to sexually reproduce. Flegr was building evidence that T. Gondii was also altering people’s behavior in similar ways, making men more introverted, women more gregarious, and all of them somehow less risk-averse. This wasn’t settled science by any means, but it was gaining credence before The Collapse, and the bottom line is that, whether or not Flegr was right about T. Gondii, we already knew of at least one protozoan that was able to alter an intermediary mammalian host in such a way as to make it subconsciously an easier target for an end host—like a writer trying to burrow into the mind of a reader and, through altering certain perceptions in his mind, alter the course of history in some small, even imperceptible way.
Anyway, as I was reading about Flegr, my mind flashed to a day in what used to be northern Idaho, when I was walking west along I-90 into Coeur d’Alene. The highway in that area winds alongside a mountain and drops down beside a large, beautiful lake. I was staring off at the blue water, imagining, of all things, whales breeching. It was childish, total fucking nonsense, but oddly soothing at the same time. My mind wandered as I walked and as I rounded a bend I happened to glance over to my right, across the median. Someone was walking parallel to me, watching me the way I must have been watching the water. At first, I thought it was just another person, someone who had fallen in lockstep beside me, trying to gauge whether he could trust me or not; but soon I noticed his gait was unusually rigid; and then, just as I realized his arm had recently been severed at the elbow, it happened.
The bushes on the uphill side of the road parted and a mountain lion bounded onto the road. It leapt on his back and dug its teeth into his neck and just as quickly the zombie was on the ground, struggling against it, grunting, whining. The lion shook its head, trying to snap the neck. Then shook it again and again. Then, pinning its prey to the ground with its forepaws, repositioned its teeth on either side of the head and clamped down. The zombie went limp as a ragdoll and I stood and gaped as the lion dragged the carcass up the hill into the trees and disappeared.
It had been some time since I had thought about that, but reading the articles and entries in reference books reminded me of the strange way the zombie gaped at me, without anything like concern for predators, the way I gaped at the lake and my imaginary inland whales, without anything like concern for predators.
Seriously? in times such as these?
It gave me shudders to think that I might be infected with some sort of protozoan, a Toxoplasma Zombii—T. Zombii, if you like—or something of the sort, and that something in me was always seeking death without my realizing it; and that the zombies were little more than advanced cases, driven to plod about in the open with their new mindless distraction, us, but not even unlike us, just further along that line toward our shared parasites’ final host: the intestines of large predators so many Americans had sought to hunt to extinction.
These thoughts didn’t even change my behavior. To this day, I’ll still catch myself daydreaming when I’m outside and the sun is shining just so, or if it’s cloudy, or raining—probably even if a tsunami of blood were to swell on the horizon—and yet the scariest part is the nagging worry that almost anything you do, if it turns out badly, might have been ascribed to protozoa, little cyst cells suppressing your fear centers, triggering your pleasure centers.
To think, anything from sexual arousal to pride for a job well done to basic human decency—it could all be a trap! But, even then, that I still have the ability to feel such revulsion about something as quaint as the total loss of free will is sometimes the only thing that gives me hope.
§ Fungi. I may have mentioned this previously, but Neo had a calm way about him, almost as if he were perpetually half-baked, which may have been the case. He typically wore an old-fashioned pageboy hat with a big rust-brown stain on it shaped a little like the flukes of a whale—a.k.a., old blood—with a corncob pipe tucked into the band. Before The Collapse, anyone rocking a pipe this way would have been a bad joke at best, a hipster feigning ease with the exact same accessory he worried over the most—major douche. Post-Collapse, it was another thing, and anyway Neo was always his own strange brand of bird. Our second lieutenant would draw this pipe from the hatband during any down moment and pack it with stale tobacco he must have paid a hefty price for, but for all the sweet tobacco smoke always hanging around his head, every so often you’d catch the faintest whiff of something more potent, maybe even find yourself getting a little daydreamy and philosophical, but in the most lighthearted way, but all of this so subtle you could never tell for sure if it was a contact high or Neo was just fun to be around.
Anyway, he told us a perfectly Neo story one evening about a zombie that suggested fungi might be playing a part in the plague. So very Neo was Neo’s story that I’ll just try to say it the way Neo said it:
I knew marauders were out there. I could see them on the shore. I’d commissioned this fucking party barge. But I was afraid. I guess I was, like, afraid of change. Like maybe a little on the chickenshit side. Anyway, I had to get out. So I did. Late night. Locked n’ loaded. Rock n’ rolled. Like swam for it. Came this close to getting my neck bit off by a grabby one chained to an anchor. But that’s another story. Davy Jones’ Locker or whatever. Anyway, fast forward—I hate when people say fast forward. Timewarp: accidental Zombiefest down at the Booby Bodega. Zero boobies. Lotsa zombros. Had to sort ‘em out. But there was this one in the back. Dank storage room or whatever. Fucking freakshow. Like a biker dude sitting against the wall in the corner. Leather jacket with patches and all that. Skulls n’ shit. Boss man. Captain Crossbones. Been a bad year for business. Dude’s total mouldering meatchunks. Anyway: what I’m saying is dude, besides meatchunks, has got like mushrooms sprouting all over him, like little white ones. And I fucking shit you not, I’m just thinking dude has been kicked back against this wall too long, dampy basement—Haha! Did I just say dampy? Haha! Dumbass!—damp basement. Molding n’ shit like shit molds. But wanna know the weird part? Dude has probably been growing to the floor for months, but dude gets up. Slow. But gets up. And leaves this shape on the floor in the mold. Like the whole back of his jeans. Just like jean legs and some skin rotted right to the concrete. Some pretty tripindicular shit, man. You know, I shivered his fucking timbers or whatever. Easy enough. But you wanna know the really weird part? Right before he got up, one of the mushrooms, one of the bigger ones on the top of his head, like, turned to me. Like: barely turned. Like: I could barely see it, but I swear the little fucker turned. Then: dude’s head turned. Like: same exact number of degrees the toadstool just did. Like: perfect parallel n’ shit. Then: dude rose.
Others claimed to have seen similar things, though not quite as convincing. Neither does the limited data I have seen preclude the possibility that that mushroom had taken control of Neo’s monster.
According to some articles in my library, scientists did know of fungi that manipulated hosts, one that rotted and controlled frogs whose name I have forgotten, and one I remember quite well called cordyceps, which zombified ants; in fact, one article I dug up said these zombifying agents had been practicing their dark art for some 48 million years; and opening the mausoleum of my memory, I even remember seeing videos of the fungus in action: jungle ants being driven to take a hike and position themselves above their fellow ants and latch onto leaves, at which point the spores finally matured and burst out the top of the ants’ heads, producing a long tendril that released more spores, potentially infecting entire colonies.
This wouldn’t necessarily account for zombic aggression, but, once you’ve accepted that zombies are real, that this thing that couldn’t exist is coming for you, Barbra, is it really that farfetched to think a fungus might find an evolutionary path toward maximum spore distribution via horde attacks on as-of-yet unimplanted members of the species?
I gladly defer to any mycologists out there, should we advance out of these Dark Ages, should science ever receive funding again.
§ Parasitic Creatures. Some thought parasitic creatures, such as wasp larvae, might be likely candidate, and I remember hearing of a great deal of scientific literature on the subject before The Collapse that might lend an air of believability to even the batshit-craziest parasite theories you hear on the road; but in all my encounters, it was Lieutenant Buttplug who had the most compelling story to confirm this—one about worms. But since there was nothing unique or interesting about the way he told his story, unless absolute mediocrity is the thing you want, I will just summarize: Buttplug puffed out his chest and declared that he had the best theory of all and anyone who disagreed with him was a dumbass because his theory was the best. Yes, Buttplug’s logic was infallible: my story is best because I told it. At any rate, his story was at least compelling, because one night not long after The Collapse, he had not only glimpsed a long worm writhing among entrails, the way others had, but had actually been present, or so he said, when a worm entered someone and “zombied him.” According to him, his small crew—that is, Buttplug and his “bros” from the gym—had been making their way around a lily-pad-covered pond when 10 or 12 zombies had come stumbling out of the woods; they didn’t even seem to notice Buttplug & Co. until they were right on top of them, as if they were heading for the water anyway….
Yes, this contradicts some accounts of zombies being hydrophobic, but the strange thing, according to Buttplug, happened toward the end of the fight. Two of his bros were killed and someone, he wouldn’t say who, had accidentally chopped one of his other bros in the shoulder with a machete. After Buttplug went around finishing off zombies with his machete, he went back to his bro, set his machete down, and helped bandage him up.
As they were sitting there, he saw what he took for a piece of small intestine half coiled in the shallows, settling down into the silt at the edge. He didn’t think anything of it. But then he heard a zombie groan off to the side, one he thought had been dead, and he turned to see it dragging itself to the water’s edge. He went over and cleaved its soft cranium in half. Before he could even turn back, he heard his bro making a terrifying gurgling sound and trying to scream.
He whirled around just in time to make out the scenario: his bro had leaned down to drink from the water and now the tail end of some wriggling white thing was snaking down his throat.
He ran to his bro. He tried to grab the tail end of the thing with his fingers as it slipped out of reach. His friend choked and choked. Buttplug positioned himself behind his bro and tried to do the Heimlich maneuver, but nothing was happening. Finally, he did it so hard to his bro that he heard some of his ribs snap, and as his friend expired, he looked into his eyes, at the fear, and the dread, screaming, “Come on, bro! don’t give up on me, bro!”—and was still watching as these human emotions snapped in an instant to a look of depthless fury.
He had to use his machete to “dispatch” his bro. As he was sitting there, alone, coming to grips with what had happened, he glanced into the water, and noticed the loop of intestine, or what he thought had been a loop of intestine, was gone.
I was more than a little suspicious of his story, because, knowing Buttplug, and his conspicuously over-macho hatred of his nickname, I thought there was a better than average chance his subconscious mind had simply manufactured this tale as a way of processing difficult memories of pleasuring his gym bro from behind and getting felated by a lily-pad-covered pond that may or may not have precipitated Buttplug venting his deep inner conflict and turmoil by hacking said gym bro to death with a machete; and yet, the worm theory wasn’t entirely implausible either, as some other Plymouth crewmen spoke of ephemeral worms in random bloody gutpiles; and let’s not ignore the fact that there are articles in my library discussing a kind of parasitic hairworms that enter the bodies of a grasshoppers or crickets as larvae, grow inside, then guides them to a body of water where the hosts can’t help but jump in and drown—yes, a suicide worm.
And there are yet other worms, flukes, that will convince ants to latch their mandibles to grass so they can be eaten by sheep or cows; even more strange is that, during the day, when the sun is up, the ants will carry on with their normal routines, but come evening, when the sheep and the cows are most likely to be grazing these pastures, the flukes will once again zombify the ants and make them march back up the stalks. Once they latch on, they simply cannot let go. The flukes kill the mitochondria in their cells, and mitochondria are the energy sources—philosophically speaking, the energy that would otherwise make free will possible.
§ Evolution. I won’t attribute the evolutionary theory to any particular proponent in our crew, because many speculated that the zombie was but the next stage in hominid evolution. They held that, just as the zombie had evolved through history and perpetually again through cinema, so too had zombies evolved as a distinct species or subspecies along our family tree. Many disregarded this reflexively, of course, the same way so many ignoramuses had reflexively dismissed the idea that evolution existed at all: they didn’t want to look back and believe we were cousins to monkeys and neither did they want to look forward and embrace zombies as the next phase in our evolution, but it had its natural draw: it wasn’t wholly unreasonable to see in zombies’ utter lack of sentiment, lack of scruples, lack of hierarchal order, lack of obsessive individuality, lack of endless navel-gazing, lack of private ambition, even their lack of higher cognitive functionality, a possible evolutionary advantage; it might not have been an advantage to the good or betterment of the world, but one could see how such things might help one survive in a world that had been moving inexorably toward a kind of hedonistic, consumeristic materialism—each person getting theirs, no matter the cost. Indeed, while this was much disputed, there was a certain elegance to the idea that zombies were nothing but People 2.0, the pain of the knowledge of our existence, and the attendant responsibility, being for so many too much to bear. Evolution doesn't happen overnight, the change slow, generational. How were we to know we had become them until it was too late?
§ Radiation. No one I knew argued that the cause was purely a matter of radioactivity, and I never saw anything that suggested radiation had straight-up mutated normal people into ghouls, but there was always the lingering suspicion that it somehow played a part, if not as a direct cause, then by some slow, unseen process behind the scenes, down in the cellular, even genetic depths, either in one or more of the microbes or parasites mentioned above, or inside us, altering us just enough to make us responsive to some zombifying agent already surrounding us. Though it should be noted that there was some strange activity many of our crew noted, namely that a sizable portion of the zombies gave off the faintest glow in spaces that were pitch black. It was so faint that many would claim not even to see this, or to ascribe our claims to paranoid cold-war hallucinations….
Sitting here in my library, I have somewhat debunked such hypotheses, finding information about something called postmortem luminescence, a glow that can be seen at colder temperatures when certain bacteria, such as photobacterium fischeri, are present on a body. This probably accounts for the glow people sometimes report.
And yet, despite a healthy dose of skepticism about a radiological etiology, the mind can’t help but attach some significance to the string of prominent nuclear-plant meltdowns starting with Fukushima in Japan in 2011, each triggered by earthquakes or, as in the case of the Pilgrim Nuclear Facility in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a combination of a record-breaking hurricane and, according to some, infrastructure problems persisting in the plant’s final scheduled years of operation—casting fallout mostly to the west and south, but also including a strange dogleg sweeping back out over the ocean to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, both islands of which were evacuated, and have probably remained uninhabited since The Collapse.
§ Psychotropics. Some people thought it was just drugs, like some advanced version of flakka, or someone had dropped acid in the water supply of every city and town across the country, or some other kind of harder drug, a drug that severed the part of you that had memories and emotions from the physical part of you. I only heard about this secondhand. No one I ever met really believed this, and it was a bit too quaint in my opinion, but not totally out of the realm of possibility. Anyone who has drank much or taken certain drugs knows how separated you can sometimes get from yourself, or at least wouldn’t find it hard to imagine how a man who usually only drank a few beers a night might tie one on one night and find himself one night driving his car through a fog of memories and the tracers of illegible neon signs, talking to himself almost with another person’s voice, stopping to take a shit in the middle of a neighborhood park because he had to take a shit and the whole world was somehow suddenly his and all things permissible; or how someone who started out taking some painkillers for fun might eventually wake up hardly remembering the intervening years, all the people they’d fucked, all the people they’d fucked over, all those nights of feeling so good and expansive, like the universe was not so big after all, but wrapped around them like a womb. Sometimes, you didn’t even need chemicals to stumble around intoxicated by the strange phantasms of your own existence. Hell, people got that way watching too much TV. So why was it so farfetched that the right cocktail of drugs might do the same, but much more efficiently? Selectively shut off a few important synapses in these infinitely complex brains, induce a few million chemical lobotomies, and presto!—a civilization of zombies.
§ Collective paranoid delusion. Perhaps the most terrifying of the scientific etiological theories, the theory that has given me the most sleepless nights since I heard it, came from a security guard named Omar who died gripping his throat the very night he shared it with several of us under the stars on a zombieless night. Omar, about whom I know almost nothing other than that his favorite food was blackberry cobbler, didn’t know who or what had started the whole zombothon on its course, but his theory was simple: we were all just caught up in some kind of collective paranoid delusion that told us to perceive threats all around us—zombies, marauders, murderers, thugs, thieves, rivals, competitors, enemies, frenemies, whatever—and once the paranoid delusion got started, it snowballed everything in its path, picking up speed, growing bigger and bigger, until we were all—for each other—just members of other outgroups, hordes of shredded flesh, sinew, hair, teeth, and guts, the stuff of that oozing, quivering, steaming mass, all rolling downhill, going faster and faster and faster until everyone simply reached a point where we perceived everyone around us as threats and, as we responded to them as threats—that is, with violence—we made them into actual threats. What horror: to think that maybe what we saw as zombies were only our wounded neighbors seeking help.