What's the science behind this whole zombie invasion theme and the spectacular success of AMC's show? There's both the medical side of what is possible, and the psychological side of why people are so fascinated.

Why are people fascinated?

Dr. Mike Friedman, a clinical psychologist, looked at the phenomena in Psychology Today magazine (Feb. 18, 2014) and found two reasons for the popularity of zombie programs and movies as opposed to the general interest in horror-themed movies. During the recent Olympics, more 18-49-year-old viewers turned to “The Walking Dead.”

Vampires and werewolves are magical.

Vampires, in particular, are seductive and werewolves can change form to take vengeance, but zombies are the epitome of bored couch potatoes with empty lives and a monotonous existence. In “The Walking Dead,” viewers see people very much like themselves but who, in their struggle against the zombies, have at least escaped boredom and isolation. The other reason for the show’s popularity in that age group is that vicarious living in the skins of the humans gives them a positive feeling of achievement.

Another connection is the way the “heroes” try to establish a way of living, perhaps on a farm, but are always forced out of their comfortable environment by the “evil” forces who make it impossible to settle down, instead forcing them to keep changing, adapting to new circumstances -- just as millennials face a future where they are told they will have to change careers four or five times in their working lives.

The medical side of zombies

Recent clinical trials proposed in India used a combination of stem cell injections, exposure to light stimulation using laser beams, and electrical stimulation. The ReAnima trial is on hold for the time being but the goal is to bring totally brain dead patients to a state of partial awareness -- a condition where some people have experienced spontaneous recovery. Not exactly turning them into zombies, but since that’s just a fantasy, the ReAnima program is as close as we are likely to see.

Articles in the AAAS’ Science Magazine, a peer-reviewed scientific journal have described infections from a virus to a fungus, that have turned various insects from ladybugs and caterpillars, into virtual zombies, doing tasks which are outside their normal behavioral patterns, such as caring for wasp eggs and then guarding the emerging larva.

This is much closer to the zombies in the original zombie movie, “White Zombie,” starring Béla Lugosi, than the current crop which started with “Night of the Living Dead,” in 1968, where zombies are reanimated, dead people. In “White Zombie,” people are enslaved and turned into zombies while alive after being given a drug.

Zombie fight goes Hollywood

Mayim Bialik, the neuroscientist who also plays one on "The Big Bang Theory," and the National Academy of Sciences have worked with Texas Instruments to introduce STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education efforts using the popularity of shows like "The Walking Dead" as a foundation. “STEM behind Hollywood,“ which develops apps for middle and high school students, in an attempt to make science and engineering cool again (as they were during the space race of the 60’s, when student interest in STEM peaked).

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