Science writer and blogger Kyle Hill recently explored the unusual virology of The Walking Dead in a fascinating new article for Discover Magazine. And his unique theory regarding “zombie venom” may finally explain some of the shaky science behind the ubiquitous infection featured in AMC’s popular television series!
Unlike most modern fiction, the characters of The Walking Dead are already infected with the deadly zombie contagion. However, the undead walkers are still portrayed as a constant source of toxic danger. A single bite can lead to a quick and painful death… or undeath, as the case may be. But if you can’t further infect the infected, what’s the danger?
Dead bodies are dirty. Shortly after our body stops fighting off bacteria and starts decomposing, we are colonized by microscopic critters not safe for the living. For example, the state of a corpse is dangerous enough that crews searching for victims of natural disasters take special precautions to make sure they don’t get infected. A rotting body can still transfer gastrointestinal pathogens, tuberculosis, and hepatitis to the living. Tuberculosis itself can survive in a corpse for 36 days after host death. So, one can imagine that a biting mouth of a rotting corpse, continuously chomping down on humans, isn’t the most hygienic place. It harbors a cocktail of bacteria and viruses that could be considered a sort of “zombie venom.”
This theory is based on the idea of a “reservoir” which is generally defined as a population that hosts a dangerous virus or pathogen without injury to itself, yet serves as a source of infection for others. And since the characters on The Walking Dead obviously aren’t dying from a virus they already carry, the true danger of the zombies must be a sort of “venom” made up bacteria and other viruses commonly associated with decomposing corpses.
Of course, many longtime fans of the series have discussed this matter ad nauseam. But the updated version of Hill’s new article is definitely worth checking out. And despite conventional wisdom, I’d suggest reading the comments section where you’ll find a number of thoughtful remarks that actually add to the conversation… go figure!