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This edition: Episode #113: Zombies

Episode Details

Original tape date: January 15, 2016.

First aired: February 19, 2016.

In episode #113 of Science Goes to the Movies, series co-hosts Dr. Heather Berlin and Faith Salie talk with Mark Siddall – a curator at the American Museum of Natural History and President of the American Society of Parasitologists – about zombies!

Early zombie movies like Bela Lugosi’s White Zombie and the films of George Romero provoke a conversation about real-life parasites that cause “zombification” in other organisms. Siddall describes different types of parasites that manipulate behavior in a host in order to complete a life cycle or other essential task – including a type of “Dementor” wasp, named after the monster in Harry Potter books, that changes behavior in a cockroach by stinging it. Whether or not zombifying parasites have a taste for brains is also considered, with reference to a species that takes over the bodies of ants, replaces their brains, and uses the ant to complete its life cycle, and The Guinea Worm, a parasite that targets humans for their own reproduction. Siddall then distinguishes between parasites and viruses and explains their similarities.

The Haitian voodoo practice of ingesting neurotoxins to create the effect of “waking from the dead” provides the basis for the next part of the discussion. Dr. Berlin defines neurotoxins and how they work in the brain to block neurons from firing. Tetrodotoxin, in particular, is explained as having a zombifying effect on humans in that its overall paralysis doesn’t affect the brain or the heart, leaving a person fully conscious throughout.

The Wade Davis book, The Serpent and The Rainbow, is brought into the discussion, as well as a story about a man kept in a zombie state for two years by ingesting a combination of neurotoxins and hallucinogens. Dr. Berlin breaks down the plausibility of the story and introduces the idea of the “philosopher zombie,” whose zombie status is more conceptual in nature.

28 Days Later and World War Z are discussed as examples of zombie movies in which the cause of the apocalypse is a zombie infection, and Siddall shares news about a cancer with contagious qualities. A recent Centers for Disease Control ad campaign, warning people to prepare for the zombie apocalypse, is mentioned and the real-life potential for human zombies, given the creativity of evolution, makes for the final topic of the show. Before finishing, though, Dr. Berlin and Siddall each share an idea for an original zombie movie.

Written and Produced by Lisa Beth Kovetz.

Science Goes to the Movies is made possible by generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Guest List

Mark Siddall President, American Society of Parasitologists