Are Zombies Real? Encounters & Potential Explanations

Updated May 7, 2021
A spooky female hand protruding from behind a wall

Many people around the world believe zombies are real, and in some cultures, there are documented incidents driving such lore. Explore the evidence and mythos surrounding zombies and make your own determination. Do you think zombies are real?

How Real Are Zombies?

You'll find legends of zombies throughout the world, especially in some regions of Africa and the Caribbean. Zombies are corpses that are reanimated through some form of witchcraft or other spellwork. A Voodoo spell supposedly creates the zombie to serve the priest or priestess creator.

Science Examines Haitian Zombies

Stories of zombies are common in Haitian Vodou folklore. One documented case is of a Haitian man who died and was buried and then, 18 years later, returned to visit with his sister. This led one botanist to speculate that while people who were believed to be zombies appeared to be dead, they had actually been subjected some type of toxin. The hypothetical toxin, he speculated, temporarily caused a significantly slowed metabolism and paralysis that, to onlookers, made the person appear dead.

In the decades since that initial hypothesis, scientists have conducted further study into zombification powders. Ultimately, they discovered that the poisonous puffer fish (which contain a potent neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin) used in the spell concoction is most likely responsible for the paralysis that makes victims appear dead to onlookers. Doctors declare the person dead, and they are buried. Some die, but others are dug up by "zombie makers" who feed them a psychoactive compound made from something called zombie cucumbers (Datura stramonium or jimson weed). This produces powerful hallucinogenic states and delirium that may make it seem like the person under its effects is a zombie.

Datura inoxia (downy thorn apple, desert thornapple, angel's trumpet, sacred datura)

In other cases of zombie-like behavior in humans, doctors have discovered that certain conditions may account for this, such as Cotard's syndrome (also called Cotard's delerium or Cotard's delusion), a rare mental disorder that causes a person to believe they are dead.

Zombies Found in Nature

Real life zombies exist in the animal and plant worlds. Zombie spiders, beetles, cockroaches, fish, rats, and other animals are victims of various parasite tactics used to gain control over the host. This can be another insect that moves in and dominates the unsuspecting victim. Sometimes the parasite is a fungus with its own mandate to live that drives the host to act oddly and out of character. Some of these zombie critters are created when the parasite alters its host's brain chemicals to force them to act in abnormal and deadly ways. These zombies end up sacrificing themselves as part of the parasite's goal of survival.

Zombie Ants and Spiders

For example, zombie ants are affected by a brain fungus called Ophiocordyceps that releases mind controlling chemicals, and zombie spiders are affected by a parasitic wasp called Zatypota, which hatches on the spider's belly and causing the spider's behavior to change for the wasp's benefit.

Zombie Rodents

Another example of this bizarre behavioral change can be seen in a mouse or rat suddenly attracted to cat urine and ending up the cat's easiest meal ever. This toxoplasmosis seen in rodents is due to a brain parasite (protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii) that desires to set up shop inside its ideal host - the cat. Most cats aren't affected by the parasite, but it is spread to other creatures via the cat's feces.

Zombie Plants

Plants can be "zombified" as well. A bacteria called phytoplasma has been found to cause certain plants to reproduce differently than they naturally would for the bacteria's benefit.


In 2012, scientists reported that honeybees were turned into zombies by parasitic flies. Termed ZomBees, the bees were infested with the parasitic flies, which took over their behavior and caused strange activity uncharacteristic of honeybees, ultimately resulting in their death.

Zombies in Pop Culture

Pop culture paints a different picture of zombies altogether, and it's often pop culture that drives zombie lore as opposed to scientific explanations. For example, in the classic film, Night of the Living Dead, corpses are reanimated via some unknown, assumed supernatural force. In more recent pop culture, modern zombies are frequently depicted in movies and graphic novels as the ghastly result of a weaponized virus that accidentally escaped some secret government lab. Once infected, the victim becomes mindless and reverts to primal instincts with a thirst for human flesh. If bitten by a zombie, the victim also turns into a zombie.

Beginning of the Zombie Apocalypse

Reports of Modern Zombie-Like Attacks in the US

With real life zombies in the animal kingdom and logical explanations for zombie-like incidents in the Haitian culture, it may not be so inconceivable that zombies might actually exist in the human world. Some unexplained modern attacks in the US may lend credence to these fears given the lack of data about their causes.

Man Goes Ape at Zoo and Dies

In July 2011, a Colorado man was at the zoo with his girlfriend and complained of being hot. He proceeded to dunk his head in a nearby fountain and when approached by a zoo employee, attacked him, biting and chewing on the employee. Police arrived, and the man became more aggressive. A witness reported that it took 12 people to subdue the crazed man, who managed to bite a police officer. A taser finally brought the man down, but he died on the scene.

Miami Zombie Shot Dead

The most publicized possible zombie attack happened in Miami, Florida and was captured by CCTV (Closed Circuit Television). In May 2012, a Florida homeless man was attacked for 23 minutes by a naked man who chewed off 80% of the victim's face. The first police officer on the scene ordered the assailant to stop, but according to a witness, the attacker glanced up at the police, growled and then resumed eating. The officer then shot the attacker, but the bullet didn't slow him down. It took several more bullets to finally stop the man, who was declared dead on the scene.

The autopsy and toxicology reports revealed marijuana, but "no evidence of any other street drugs, alcohol or prescription drugs, or any adulterants found in street drugs." The circumstances were bizarre and inexplicable. After the Florida incident, attacks were reported elsewhere.

Other Bizarre Attacks

In September 2012, a naked man in Pennsylvania jumped from a two-story window and attacked a woman, biting her head. In August 2016, a 19-year-old Florida man randomly stabbed a couple to death and began chewing on the man's face. The police officers' tasers had no effect on the man, and it took three officers to overpower him.

Possible Explanations for Human Zombie-Like Attacks

Could the man at the zoo complaining about being hot and the subsequent Florida attacker being naked be a common thread between the attacks? Was it possible the Florida attacker had shed his clothing because he, too, was overheating?

Although in the 2011 and 2012 attacks, no physiological cause was found in the deceased so-called zombies. Is it possible that a person infected with rabies might act very much like a deranged zombie, attacking, biting, and even eating another person?

Some of the symptoms of rabies include:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Hyperactivity
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Other possible causes might be brain infections, such as encephalitis or possibly a strange type of bacteria or fungi. Toxoplasmosis as seen in rats and subsequently, cats, is rarely found in humans. However, a person fails to wash their hands after cleaning feces from cat litter, they can ingest the parasite. Most cases of human toxoplasmosis recover within a few weeks through their autoimmune responses. If the person has an autoimmune disease, they may not recover and exhibit symptoms that include:

  • Confusion
  • Fever
  • Inflammation of the brain
  • Lung inflammation with coughing
  • Seizures
  • Severe eye problems

Other explanations given for these and other incidences of strange cannibalistic zombie behavior that include:

  • Excited delirium is a condition that overheats the body. It's feasible a person might rip off their clothing in a desperate attempt to cool down.
  • Abuse of bath salts may be at fault. Bath salts are a cheap, recreational drug that elevates blood pressure and body temperature, causing profuse sweating and also erratic behavior.
  • LSD received an upgrade in a new souped-up form that has been blamed for cannibalistic attacks.
  • Prion is a protein that can cause changes in behavior and is found in diseases, such as Kuru and Mad Cow.

The Ultimate Biological Warfare Weapon

Many theorists claim that zombie viruses currently exist, and incidences of bizarre human zombie-like attacks are actually controlled test subjects. Other theories claim that a viral agent was accidentally released into the world and is in the process of gestating and mutating, popping up in random episodes that will eventually escalate.

Are Zombies Real?

The answer to the question appears to be maybe depending on how you define zombie. Currently, it seems unlikely that the zombies of pop culture have much basis in reality, but in other cases the answers are less clear. Based on the number of reports of zombie-like behavior, it's difficult to dismiss the reality of modern zombies out of hand, but the origins of such bizarre behavior often remain unexplained. Whether the cause is a secret drug on the streets, some form of mind-control, illness, or other unknown agent, it's clear that something happened in these known cases that isn't fully understood.

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Are Zombies Real? Encounters & Potential Explanations