There’s a type of fungus found in jungles called Cordyceps, which when taken in by an ant will literally take control of its brain, and force it to climb up long stems and hang on until they die. By doing this, the spores of the fungi become more widespread, meaning, in favourable conditions, it’s able to infect yet more insects. This is as close to a real life zombie occurrence as our world has known, but the implications of human infestation by some kind of mind controlling parasite or virus have long been theorised by fiction writers all over the world. We didn’t get the idea from Cordycepts – actually the origin of common zombie law is from Africa and the voodoo traditions of native tribes. The word itself is thought to derive from the West African Kikongo word zumbi meaning “fetish”. In simpler times, zombies referred to people who had been bewitched, hypnotised and therefore, no longer capable of conscious thinking, while still responding to external stimuli. Newer interpretations present images of mass infections creating hunger driven monsters from the everyman populace. The premise remains the same, but the implications are much more serious. Modern zombies are a mixture of voodoo and Cordyceps: a mind controlled being, driven by a need to distribute its infection, no longer aware of any other consciousness or choice. And it can happen to anyone at any time; no wonder they give us the creeps.
A zombie apocalypse would be a neigh on hopeless situation, in which humanity would slowly crumble. People are everywhere, so in the case of a viral epidemic of this kind, escape to safety is close to impossible, especially in scenarios where individuals find themselves isolated. There are numerous websites dedicated to providing helpful information about locations of food stores, and weaponry, transport, and code details, but a zombie take-over would put the world in a situation out of all rational control, and most people cannot cope with, let alone navigate, situations beyond rational thinking.
On an overt level, zombies scare us for the reasons anything else might. Removed of all reason, they are essentially killing machines, only interested in mauling. In some universes it’s because they’re hungry, and in others it’s because the virus wants more hosts, but in nearly all zombie fiction it’s the bite that’s the problem. Short of merely killing us, zombies present the fear of being turned, transformed into the same pathetic horrifying being. There’s an element of tragedy to zombies; they were once human, they were people who were loved and cared for, and they could be someone you loved and cared for. Zombies are the shambling remains of what was once our kin, and becoming one is worse than simply dying. It’s why in zombie culture the rule of thumb is to keep one bullet for yourself. There’s a terrible shame and fear is losing our humanity, because without that single element, we are no more than animals. Zombies take that notion one step further. Even animals have some rational thought processes; they can perceive danger, and be influenced to behave a certain way, but zombies lack all cognitive functions, making them impossible to bargain with; they don’t even have motives, only a drive to claw and chew.
As such, zombies tap a psychological nerve, because essentially, we’re all ticking-time-bombs. A zombie outbreak (according to the fiction) is one slip-up that can happen at any place at any time. Zombies are a reminder that our primitive selves are always there, and that evolution hasn’t yet beaten it out of us. We’re capable of destructive, animalistic behaviour, and engaging with zombie narratives only serves to keep that notion alive. No matter how much we believe ourselves to be above lesser creatures, the primordial ticks are still within us, just waiting for be exploited. At what point do we die? When is a person no longer a person? Zombies strip away any notion of a simple classification of a human being, and aside from their unquenchable need to feed on our still living flesh, it’s our identification with what they were, which makes them so terrifying.