Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse

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With “Zombieland” and “The Walking Dead,” everyone thinks they know a thing or two about zombies, but if a zombie apocalypse were to really happen, would any of us know how to survive?

While the odds are even less likely than a meteor striking Earth, there are some scientific reasons a zombie apocalypse could actually happen. BTRtoday talks to experts about the reality of the undead taking over and what steps we should take to survive.

Steven Schlozman, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Lecturer in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Additionally, he teaches an undergraduate course on horror films at Harvard.

His first novel, The Zombie Autopsies, was published in March 2011. Schlozman explains the “weird genesis” of his book, which began when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“She’s totally fine now, and it was about the best prognosis you could have, but it was still bad because it’s cancer, so it was scary,” he says.

“I couldn’t sleep. I was anxious, so I went downstairs and turned on the TV and “Night of the Living Dead” was on, because it’s always on. So I watched it and realized I couldn’t cure my wife’s cancer, but maybe I could cure the zombies. And the thought occurred to me that if there were a zombie apocalypse, we wouldn’t blow their heads off, we would bring them in for brain surgery and try to make them better. So I wrote a fake medical paper about zombies that was interspersed with fake references and real references, and I can’t remember how I got it online but it went viral and from there.”

Similarly, Matt Mogk, founder of the Zombie Research Society, author of “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies” and cast member of AMC’s Talking Dead also wanted to apply real science to a hypothetical threat.

After working at a disease research company in Los Angeles that examined serious infections and deadly diseases, Mogk found that zombie-ism was just like an infectious disease.

“It’s not that different from many other blood-born illnesses,” Mogk says. “I started asking the researchers at my office about zombies. I was like, ‘Oh this is weird but this thing you’re talking about with Parkinson’s disease and blood flow to the brain, it seems to relate to zombies.’”

Everyone was willing to help and many of the people he contacted were also big zombie fans, which led to the Zombie Research Society.

“We don’t make anything up. We don’t say there was a zombie attack last week at a Walmart in Iowa because we all know that didn’t happen. We also don’t say if you find a zombie in your backyard call us because we’re a zombie killing crew. No. If you find a zombie in your backyard, good luck. Don’t call me because I’m terrified of zombies. I’m not coming to your backyard, and you’re probably screwed.”

He further clarifies what to do in the event that an actual zombie should come knocking.

“We try to theoretically ask the question if a zombie were to show up at your door, how would it act, how would it hunt you,” he says. “How would its brain work, how long would it survive, what diseases out there are mutating in strange ways that could potentially lead to an actual zombie sickness? From there we try to extrapolate what are the best strategies to survive. We’re never going to know exactly what a zombie outbreak would be like, but we look at other disasters throughout history; we look at potentials of how the government would respond to a zombie outbreak.”

There have been many zombies throughout the history of horror films and novels. In order to properly prepare for a zombie apocalypse, humans must first understand what zombies would really be like if there ever was a zombie apocalypse.

Mogk defines the “modern zombie” as a relentlessly aggressive, reanimated human corpse, driven by a biological infection.

A zombie’s priorities are not negotiable, in the same way you can’t reason with illness. There is no talking a zombie out of wanting to eat you–making it much more like a disease than a monster.

“A vampire… you can negotiate your way out of it, like ‘I’ll give you my virgin sister if you don’t suck my blood.’ Any sort of other creature is not so relentless like that,” Mogk says. “But you would never try to talk ebola out of infecting you. It just does what it does.”

A “modern zombie” differs from a “living zombie” because a living zombie, like those seen in “Zombieland,” does not die and come back to life. They are just humans who have been infected. Similar to any infectious disease, people with the living zombie infection can infect other people.

A living zombie sickness is not so farfetched from diseases already in existence. Symptoms such as loss of coordination, loss of ability to think clearly, and increased appetite are all possibilities which, when combined, could create a terrifying, infectious monster.

“There are sicknesses there that turn animals into raving maniacs, take rabies, for example. There are some other brain diseases that do the same thing, they turn people violently insane,” Mogk says.

While we can’t be sure what the zombies would really be like, due to their infectious nature, Schlozman is partial to the resolved, slow-moving zombies.

“If you look at it from a disease perspective, you would be much more likely to have the slow moving zombies.,” he says. “It’s awfully hard to be sick and to be as coordinated and fluid as you see in those fast zombies.”

Schlozman has hope that nations with good infrastructure would get on top of the zombie disease pretty quickly, the way we got on top of the swine flu, the H1N1, and so on.

“The real trick would be recognizing it as something separate from what we’ve seen before and then getting a fence around it as quickly as we could–you know quarantines–and then working on cures,” he says.

Mogk, on the other hand, believes that there is no cure, and posits that the only solution would be to prevent the spread of the infection.

“That’s really what makes it so scary,” he says. “One of the notion’s of the zombie sickness is there is no cure, and we do obviously have many incurable infectious diseases out there. Really the only solution to the zombie pandemic is to prevent the spread of the infection.”

Doctors would first need to recognize who is sick with the zombie bug and who is sick with the cold or any other bug because we would not want to put uninfected people at risk.

“You don’t want to remove people from the population who could be your allies and get better. We could say the same for any bug,” Schlozman says. “Then we have to make sure our hospitals are ready to keep people who are sick both isolated and alive long enough for us to figure out what’s wrong.”

If the zombies were infesting the streets, people would be forced to relocate to safe, uninfected areas. When deciding where to go, it is crucial to choose an unpopulated place.

Schlozman says his first instinct would be to go to Iceland, but because too many other people would also migrate to Iceland, he would have to choose a more remote location, preferably an island with a developed infrastructure.

Furthermore, Schlozman believes that our biggest enemy would be one another due to a neurological response to the zombies; he emphasizes that the most essential key to survival would be to keep our heads.

“If you watch any zombie film, the zombies aren’t that scary… All you have to do is walk slightly faster than them to get away. What makes them scary is the way we respond to each other in the face of that threat,” Schlozman says.

In many zombie films, there is a person infected with the zombie contagion, and they are just five feet away from an armed bystander. Rather than just walking slightly faster in the other direction, he or she blows its head off.

There’s something about a zombie’s lack of emotional response that enrages us and forces us to react aggressively.

“We hate it, as humans, when our enemies don’t seem to care about us. [Zombies] will eat the person next to you if you get out of the way, and that is infuriating,” Schlozman explains. “So we shoot them. And that’s a mess because the zombie still doesn’t care, and then humans turn on each other because they have all that negative energy flying around, which actually has a neurology basis to it called interneurons.”

As a result, Schlozman says the top three items he would bring are books, antibiotics, and film scripts.

While antibiotics seem important to prevent catching the infection, Schlozman is more concerned with finding ways to keep himself and fellow survivors entertained.

”Our biggest risk is boredom, so I would take books, a lot of books, even though they weigh a lot. You can’t count on charging up your kindle, but someone has to tell stories,” Schlozman says. “Stories are actually what keeps humanity going through rough times, and in the absence of stories we actually lose our humanity and do things we regret later which I know sounds preachy, but there’s a lot of history to back that up.”

Schlozman says he would also want access to the American Film Institutes scripts and would want to bring 20 scripts so he could act them out with fellow survivors on the island so they don’t lose our minds.

“Boredom is what will kill us. Zombies are like snails, we’re smarter than the zombies. It’s more that we’ll get bored once we figured out how to stay alive. Then we gotta fill up that time. That’s why the Greeks had their plays.”

While Schlozman has a more laid-back, entertainment-filled approach, Mogk maintains a strict algorithmic, survivalist strategy.

Mogk explains that the things that are necessary to survive in a catastrophic zombie outbreak are the same things you would need to survive in any other longterm major catastrophe, whether its man-made or natural.

The most important things to worry about would be food, water, shelter, first aid, fire starting materials, clothing, weapons, and all the same resources needed as a catastrophic event like an earthquake or nuclear disaster. Mogk recommends having an emergency survival pack ready to go ahead of time.

“Basically a backpack filled with everything you would need if you need to get on the road right away. If a zombie is at your front door, you want a bag you can grab and go,” Mogk says. “You might want to have several of those. Keep one in your car, one in your office, one in your home. This is advice any disaster prepared person would give you.”

Mogk focuses his top three items based on the “rule of three,” a general rule of thumb for survival under any circumstances.

“In a worst case scenario, you’re dead in three minutes without air, in three hours without shelter, in three days without water, and three weeks without food. That’s how I would build my priorities around my survival kit,” Mogk explains.

Assuming air is not a problem, Mogk’s first concern is shelter, meaning anything that’s responsible for protecting him from the outside world, including clothing.

“The first thing I would have is a really good pair of boots because in a zombie apocalypse scenario there would be no driving anymore. The country would be out of gas within the first two days,” Mogk says. “You would instantly go for an entire population that is on foot or bicycle. So you need a really good pair of shoes or boots and socks. I would really worry about my feet. Your feet are going to keep you alive.”

Next would be water, so the ability to purify water because human beings need a ton of water on a constant basis, and no one would be able to carry enough water to sustain themselves.

“I would want water purification tablets, and all sorts of different types of water purification methods, but if I had to pick one thing, it would be dependable fire starting,” Mogk says. “I would plan to boil all my water and purify it that way. So I would have a flint stick where you could create sparks.”

The last priority according to the rule of three would be food, so you need a way to find and secure food.

“Other than some ability to hunt food, what I would carry with me is a nutrition survival block. There’s a thing called an ER bar, there are a lot of different ones but the coast guard uses this thing called an ER bar which is like 3,800 calories,” Mogk describes. “It’s just pure calories, so it lasts you a little while.”

If he wasn’t limited to just three items, Mogk says he would double up on all those. He also suggests carrying a lot of extra socks, other methods of purifying water, some weapons for defense and for hunting, and binoculars.

Schlozman jokes, “Right now we should not walk while texting, but you definitely shouldn’t walk while texting if there were zombies.”