Speakeasy Science

An Arsenic Theory of Zombies

As a dedicated chemistry nut – I mean, of course, enthusiast – I’ve recently wondered if my favorite science could explain the existence of zombies.

And after mulling it over – helped along by the suggestion of Scibling Scicurious that a Zombie Day would be a good idea and also by a number of cocktails from the home speakeasy, I believe I’ve come up with a very reasonable theory.

1. The poisonous element arsenic (As) is famed for its ability to make a dead person look, well, undead.

2. Why? Arsenic helps preserve soft tissues, partly by interfering with the ability of bacteria to metabolize them. It was used in embalming corpses until the early 20th century when it became obvious that a) it was poisoning people in funeral homes and b) it was interfering with criminal detection of arsenic murders.

3. We’re not talking about any old half-ass kind of tissue preservation. Nineteenth century toxicologists called it “arsenic mummification” and one of my favorite such experts, Rudolph Witthaus of Columbia University, reported exhuming a body after nearly a year and discovering that appeared as fresh as the day of burial. “Except for the mold growing on the face,” he added. “Arsenic does not appear to inhibit the growth of mold.”

4. Ugh.

5. But I digress. A good example of arsenic mummification turns out to be the body of Napoleon Bonaparte whose corpse was in such excellent shape when he was dug up that it fostered a host of arsenic murder theories.

6. An even better example is the case of the 19th century outlaw, Elmer McCurdy, whose body was so soaked in arsenic during the embalming process that the resulting remarkably sturdy corpse was used in carnival sideshows for more than a century.

7. Ugh.

8. But consider this also. During the 18th and 19th centuries, chemists discovered that arsenic could be used to create some stunning green dyes, used to color everything from hat feathers to fake malachite jewelry, clothes to wallpaper.

9. In fact, of the more recent theories of the death of the late Napoleon Bonaparte is that rather than being poisoned by his enemies, he was killed by his wallpaper. That the emperor’s last prison had rooms decorated with Paris Green wallpaper and heat, humidity and mold growing in the paper caused it to release arsine gas.

10. My zombie theory is based on those two particular qualities of arsenic: tissue preservation after death and a tendency to color things green. I mean really, what more is needed in creating an undead creature?

11. But there’s one more factor. Until the early 20th century, arsenic was the poisoner’s weapon of choice, used so frequently it was nicknamed “the inheritance powder.” Scores of people were sickened or killed by arsenic, both intentionally and through accidental exposures.

12. So, in its heyday, arsenic offered a bounty of bodies that didn’t decompose easily and which might well be zombie green – if not from the poison (and arsenic tended to turn people more yellow than green) then from the mold creeping over dead faces. In other words, an obvious way to explain the history of zombies wandering among us in a slightly (but not completely) rotten state of existence.

13. Could my theory explain the zombie legend? Could it explain those legions of zombies purportedly wandering around, seeking vengeance or perhaps dinner? Of course it could. But then, of course, after a few of those speakeasy cocktails, I tend to suspect the existence of strange green creatures anyway.

!4. Kind of like this:

i-642f5a861b462c659d294faa1135ed45-sbzombies_speakeasy.png

15. Pretty convincing, huh? Or do I mean “ugh”?

(ps. special thanks to zombie illustrator Joseph Hewitt of the Ataraxia Theatre for the great image to close my argument. If you want to see more of his great work, you should check out the scifi videogame Gearhead.)

Comments

  1. #1 Cory
    July 3, 2010

    I like it! I heard something a long time ago that part of the zombie/vampire mythos came from the misdiagnosis of death… people would be declared dead, only to awaken after being buried alive… supposedly this is also the origin of the phrases “saved by the bell” and “graveyard shift”.

    Also, are you familiar with The Serpent and the Rainbow? It’s written by ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who investigated haitian zombies, and came to the conclusion that it was a result of intentional Tetrodotoxin poisoning.

  2. #2 Deborah Blum
    July 4, 2010

    I actually first started wondering about arsenic deaths in relation to vampires. It seems to fit so beautifully with the old days when they’d reopen a tomb and – horrors – find a body that looked as if it were just sleeping. It was fun to play around with it in terms of zombies. But thanks for the reminder on the Davis book. Been meaning to read it forever and I have serious plans to write about Tetrodotoxins.