The Zombie Rights Campaign Blog

Matt Darst, ‘Dead Things’, Zombie Stereotyping and, Yes, Toxoplasmosis

BuyZombie has an informative and of course, unfortunately prejudice-filled interview up with new Anti-Zombie author Matt Darst:

MD-Zombies are a very different type of monster. My dad introduced me to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead when I was a kid. That movie scared me in a way that, until then, “creature features” and Universal Monsters had not. Zombies represent a fate worse than death: the loss of individuality. That’s been a popular theme in literature, especially science fiction (think Fahrenheit 451, 1984, or The Stepford Wives), and it especially resonates today.

Personally, I don’t worry about loss of individuality when I think about the diverse and vibrant Zombie Community. ‘American Idol’ fans, sure. ‘Twilight’ fans, absolutely. But not Zombies.

Interestingly, the works that Darst cites are all from the Cold War era (1984 from ’49, Fahrenheit 451 from ’53, and Stepford from ’72). ‘Loss of individuality’ coded for ‘Communism’ there, or in Orwell’s case, totalitarianism in general.

Yet the Anti-Zombie genre as a whole has never fit well to the Anti-Communist message. In fact, to the extent that the American portion of said genre has a political bent, it tends toward the Left; ‘Dawn of the Dead’ is overtly critical of consumerism, ‘Day of the Dead’ is a poke at the military-industrial complex, as is ‘Return of the Living Dead’, etc.

So I kind of wonder if Mr. Darst has an axe to grind with Communists rather than Zombies here, but that’s possibly just me.

We’ve seen this sort of concern before amongst the most recent crop of Anti-Zombie authors. Max Brooks calls it ‘mindlessness’, for example. Conformity seems to be a major worry for some of these folks. I have to wonder why authors, already natural outliers in the human experience, seem prone to this paranoia that someone is going to take away their individuality.

Is this a reflexive fear of the censor? Hmm.

Unfortunately, potential red-baiting and a possible fear of someone taking away his pens isn’t all that motivates Mr. Darst to attack Zombies with prose: he also has some rather out-there ideas about science and medicine.

Ideas we’ve heard before:

BZ-What, if anything, scares you?

MD-Zombies, but not how one might think. Zombies are real; they occur everyday in the natural world. There are whole ecosystems based on parasitic relationships. Spiders, grasshoppers, caterpillars, fish, mice, and even humans are controlled at some level by pathogens. They’re not dead, but their minds are no longer their own.

Toxoplasmosis is a great example. About a third of the world is already infected with this parasite. Humans aren’t the natural host (cats are), so the protozoan takes up residence in our brain and protects itself from our immune system by forming a cyst. Still, there’s evidence that toxoplasmosis is chemically altering our behavior, changing our personalities. Infected men tend to be antisocial and suspicious and women more outgoing and promiscuous. Toxoplasmosis may even lead to schizophrenia and impact the increase the likelihood of giving birth to a male over a female. This all raises an interesting question: how much of what we perceive as us is actually us? How much of our personality is shaped by parasites? How much control do we really have?

I know we’ve discussed this before on the blog, but: there is no scientific consensus that Toxoplasmosis does any of that. In fact, outside of a brief period of acute infection with generally flu-like symptoms, toxoplasmosis hasn’t been shown to have any real effect on healthy adults. The supposed psychological effects are largely speculation, based on the behavior of the parasite in radically different animals (like rats).

Nevertheless, let’s play Brooks’ Advocate here: toxoplasmosis, in rats, causes risk-taking behavior. If it worked the same way in people, what sort of people would it produce? Surely not conformists, right?

Well.. it’s sort of a mixed bag; there’s been speculation about antisocial behavior, or promiscuity, as Darst notes. But it also might result in thrill-seeking behavior, or fast driving, or potentially anything, really. We don’t know. Some scientists think it may actually improve human behavior in some cases, for what it’s worth:

Carriers tend to show long-term personality changes that are small but statistically significant. Women tend to be more intelligent, affectionate, social and more likely to stick to rules. Men on the other hand tend to be less intelligent, but are more loyal, frugal and mild-tempered. The one trait that carriers of both genders share is a higher level of neuroticism – they are more prone to guilt, self-doubt and insecurity.

So it might make you neurotic, or smarter; it might make you loyal, or less intelligent. Or none of these! The science just isn’t there yet. As some commentators on this subject have noted, assuming these behavior modifying effects are real, many could be seen as beneficial; is it a parasite on the mind, or a symbiote? The answer might vary from person to person.

Toxoplasmosis does have one really serious, known set of nasty effects though: it can cause spontaneous abortions and horrific birth defects, some of which take a long time to make themselves known. That’s really what we should be concerned about, not weird, very small potential effects on brain-chemistry. Pregnant women in particular should stay the heck away from cats.

Still, the idea that Toxoplasmosis is some sort of Zombie Apocalypse analog is just nutty. The level of infection varies wildly from country to country; in the US it’s low, about 10%. In some countries it’s as low as 3%, while in France it’s really high, as much as 80%, apparently because they eat a lot of uncooked meat. If this really produced a lot of profound effects surely when 80% of the people in Paris are walking around with it we’d notice. If the parasite does anything to the species as a whole, it’s very subtle and probably very minor. We’re not going out and getting ourselves killed and eaten by cats after all.

I know I harp on these science-related Anti-Zombie topics a lot on the ZRC blog, but I think they’re doubly dangerous. Zombie does not equal disease, but the negative stigma attached to Zombiism also shouldn’t get back to things like stem cell research, or the flu, or a very common, generally mild parasitic infection, in this case. Yet it does, again and again. As people, and particularly Zombie haters, look for mental hooks to justify their obsession, science gets injured as well as the Zombie Community.

And naturally, the ZRC opposes both of those unfortunate events.

We’ll keep an eye out for ‘Dead Things’, but somehow I don’t think it’s going to be our cup of tea at the Zombie Rights Campaign. Of course, maybe that’s the parasites in my brain talking.

They also want tea, by the way. And for me to get a cat.

About The Author

The role of 'Administrator' will be played tonight by John Sears, currently serving as President of The Zombie Rights Campaign.


One Response to “Matt Darst, ‘Dead Things’, Zombie Stereotyping and, Yes, Toxoplasmosis”

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