“Rabid Otter Killed After Attacking Elderly Man” reads the headline that’s become international news this week. Apparently, the good people of Boca Raton, FL have been terrorized by mad otters lately, with at least three people suffering bites from these malevolent mustelids. But do I write a post about otters? No. Today we examine the curious, seemingly paradoxical biological entity known as the rabies virus. Specifically, as it relates to zombies.
If zombies were subjected to taxonomic classification, I’d say there are two orders of zombies. The first is the “The Serpent and the Rainbow” zombies: Living people who are poisoned with botanical agents and supernatural voodoo, buried alive and brought into a near comatose, shell-shocked state so that they become egoless slaves of their poisoners. Symptoms include a lack of free will, a slowed metabolism and traumatized mind, and severe suggestibility.
This is what a real zombie looks like, you fucking hipsters.
The second order is the “Night of the Living Dead” zombies: Whether infected with a virus, or an ancient evil that simply behaves like a virus, these zombies usually only exist as post-necrotic, reanimated corpses. Symptoms include immortality, sleeplessness, rigidity and slowness of movement, an insatiable hunger for human flesh, and often a compulsive repetition of the word “brains.” Unlike the Haitian zombies, this condition is highly communicable through body fluids, usually saliva.
“Send more paramedics.”
The zombie-as-virus trope is by far the more popular one since George Romero practically invented it with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Suddenly, zombies were self-replicating entities that functioned like, and could be treated like, an epidemic. In the graphic novel & television show The Walking Dead, the Center for Disease Control — not the Catholic church or any other such ghostbusters — is at the heart of the fight against the undead hordes, and Max Brooks’ books The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z solve the zombie problem with logical, scientific protocols, as if the legions of the damned were merely another outbreak of swine flu. Zombie “purists” (to whom I say “See Exhibit ‘A’ Above”) took umbrage when Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later further re-defined zombies as living people who are infected with a virus called “The Rage,” which causes the same mindless hyper-aggression and need to bite the uninfected, but without the pesky rigor mortis. Mindless hyper-aggression? A need to bite the uninfected? I think we’ve seen this virus before.
Rabies causes encephalitis, a swelling of the brain, in warm-blooded animals. It is usually passed through saliva, via biting, though can be passed through other body fluids, even aerially. Incubation of the virus can take weeks, months, or even years before the first symptoms show, and when they do, they resemble that other infamous virus, the flu: lethargy, headaches, and fever. But then the symptoms take on a distinctive personality: insomnia, anxiety, aggression, an aversion to sunlight, cerebral dysfunction, hypersalivation (“foaming at the mouth”), and hydrophobia — a fear of water, coupled with an unquenchable thirst. (I make the zombie comparison, but rabies has also been suggested as the real disease behind the vampire legend.) Viruses have many ingenious ways of transmitting themselves, sneezing and sex being the most common. But instead of mouth-to-mouth spit-swapping, this virus alters behavior so that its host transmits it via mouth-to-skin flesh-biting. Eventually, after the “rage” phase has passed, the brain-damaged victim passes into a coma and expires.
That victims of the rabies virus function like zombies is telling, because virions themselves act like zombies. What is a virus? It’s the most abundant type of biological entity on Earth, found everywhere life is possible, yet it is debatable whether it can even be classified as “alive.” On one hand, it does possess genetic material — a strand of either DNA or RNA, but never both, like other living things — and does replicate itself. On the other hand, it doesn’t possess the ability to replicate itself without genetic material from another species, and owns neither a metabolism nor any cell structure. By the usual definition of life, you have to possess at least one cell. If it weren’t for the fact that viruses evolve via natural selection, with their genetic material being altered with each cell they invade and manipulate into manufacturing more of themselves, they might be considered a complex type of crystal. They are neither alive nor not alive, a Schrödinger’s Cat of a being. They exist to replicate themselves, but experience nothing like life; they can be exterminated, but do not die. They are the walking dead.
One last word about viruses, rabies, and zombies. The term “virus” is used freely in our culture — computers have their own viruses, and we often talk about an idea, a meme, or a video “going viral.” So-called “viral marketing” is all the rage now, using customers the way a virus uses hosts, to incubate and replicate desires in order to infect and create new customers. The way kids today love the undead, with participatory “zombie walks” in every city, and countless new t.v. shows, movies, and comic books, I’d say even the zombie meme is viral. The thing about viruses, both literal and figurative, is that they multiply faster in urban areas, or any place with a high population density. Rabies, which worldwide is almost entirely transmitted by dogs, has been virtually eliminated in many industrialized countries like the U.S. thanks to Louis Pasteur and his marvelous vaccine. Rabies attacks in the U.S. are almost entirely due to bats, opossums, skunks, and raccoons. But as we encroach on their territory, pushing them into closer contact with both each other and us, we increase the chance of epidemic. Already, there are signs of a resurgence of rabies; foxes, which are not commonly carriers, are dying from the contagion in record numbers in Russia, and then there’s the case of the rabid otters in Florida, the first attacks of their kind. As the virus can pass between any two mammals, there’s no way to target one species or another. You can destroy the bats in an area, but pretty soon, your city has a problem with rabid bears. Or rabid squirrels. Such is the risk of living at high populations on the forest’s edge: suburbia becomes a giant cell for the virus to invade. Civilization itself lives on that precipice between natural life and sterile non-life, both the condition of a virus and the perfect habitat for viruses. When there is no more room in the wilderness, the damned will walk the suburbs.