Zombie narratives can chew through complex topics

Four-day conference bridging science and the arts explores zombification to engage in potentially frightening aspects of the future

Max Brooks ASU zombie survival

Things we learned at the first day of the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting:

  • Tap water is just as good as sterile saline at cleaning wounds (it’s been studied).
  • You can still be poisoned by a decapitated rattlesnake. (“Happens at least once a year,” the presenter cheerily pointed out.)
  • Amputating a zombie-infected foot within 18 days will save the victim’s life.
  • If you do need to amputate, the patient would much rather prefer you used a hacksaw than a wire saw. Quicker and cleaner — trust us.

The latter was demonstrated most dramatically on a sheep leg.

Watching people hack through bloody bones was only part of the fun at the kickoff of the inaugural conference, a four-day interdisciplinary meeting at Arizona State University where scientists, artists, doctors, ethicists, lawyers and other experts discussed the undead mythology and the idea of being controlled by outside forces.

“I think zombies are a very accessible way of engaging with some really complicated, complex scientific topics,” said conference chair and Department of Psychology Assistant Professor Athena Aktipis. “Any time you have one entity that’s controlling another entity, you can get really interesting and bizarre behavior and evolution of absolutely wild things.”

Parasites that control their hosts are one example. A certain type of fungus completely controls the behavior of ants and co-opts them so they spread the fungus around.

“You have toxoplasma gondii that manipulates the brains of rodents to actually make them approach feline predators so that they eat the rodents and complete the life cycle of the toxo,” Aktipis said.

Humanity is rife with zombie behavior. Look up from your own phone and you'll see an entire world staring at the tiny computer in their hands. Why? Creating incentives and influencing others are ways of controlling them.

“Ideally those things are happening in a way that’s mutually beneficial, but not always,” Aktipis said. “Sometimes people get conned or exploited. Sometimes people get coerced into things they don’t want to do. Sometimes influence is a really good thing because you get behavior change that’s good for society.”

Cultural zombification can be a good thing, Rutgers anthropologist Lee Cronk said in a discussion. People are vulnerable to social coordination conventions, where the culture at large decides what’s best for everyone. (QWERTY keyboards and driving on the right side of the road are two examples.)

“Sometimes it may be adaptive to allow yourself to be zombified by a cultural trait, especially if it’s a social coordination convention,” Cronk said.

Sooner or later, we’ll all be forced to hail autonomous rideshare vehicles and enroll in online banking. There won't be any other way.

The conference's first day wrapped up with a talk by Max Brooks, author of the best-sellers "The Zombie Survival Guide" and "World War Z."

Pop culture can teach and engage complex topics and ideas to a wide range of people, but it’s underused, Brooks said.

First traumatized by an Italian zombie movie at an early age, Brooks had an epiphany when he saw "Night of the Living Dead," where he learned zombies can be killed by a blow to the head.

“I wrote ('The Zombie Survival Guide') for myself,” he said. “Most people would die from what the military calls second- or third-effects. … For every person who dies from a zombie bite, how many people would die from sickness or infection?”

That's not just hypothetical: Brooks made it all real, researching sickness, supply chains and emergency planning. For "World War Z," he researched how nations would respond to a zombie outbreak. In the case of China, the SARS outbreak spread to the rest of the world because the state controls the press, and the outbreak was never reported.

The Naval War College invited him to lecture, telling him he’d written a credible global-disaster scenario. Brooks continues to lecture and work with the military.

Pop culture used to connect people to the issues of the day. That has disappeared since 9/11, Brooks said.

“We need to find ways for people to become engaged,” he said. “That’s where zombies come in. That’s where science fiction comes in.”

Read more about the remaining conference days' topics here.

Top photo: Max Brooks, zombie-laureate and author of "World War Z," speaks at the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting at the Student Pavilion on Thursday in Tempe. He talked about using zombies as a substitute for real-life plagues, such as the SARS virus, and how their presence would affect entire civilizations, not just those with the infection. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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