1979-1989: The New Normal
In 1978, few undead were turning up in the wild, the federal grant program for reconstruction was sunsetting, and the public had largely come to think that the outbreak of October, 1968, was a unique event. That hope — though strangely, not the belief that radioactive satellite debris can reanimate human corpses — was crushed the following year. The outbreak of 1979 was worse and, to everyone’s horror and confusion, more widespread than ’68, and it was the first of three to strike in the span of ten years. The psychological impact of the 1984-85 outbreak was particularly devastating, due not only to the duration of the emergency but because the Army, acting under new rules of engagement drafted by the Nixon administration, detonated a low yield, battlefield nuclear weapon on American soil on July 4, 1984, flattening twenty square blocks of Louisville, Kentucky, and killing as many as 4000 U.S. citizens.
Pending a bomb damage assessment and a situation report from ZEST first responders, the Nixon administration hoped for the best and refrained from either acknowledging the bombing or implementing their prepared cover story. By the time it became clear that the living dead in Kentucky were not only spreading but somehow activating other undead at great distances, reanimating the recently deceased and causing “survivors” from ’68 and ’79 to move into populated areas throughout their range, the media had been describing the detonation as everything from an industrial accident to a possible Soviet first strike for three confusing days. Had the nuclear option and emergency search teams succeeded in containing the outbreak, the president intended not merely to accept responsibility for his decision, but in fact to run for reelection on its merits, and he would not have ordered the fatal cover-up (Beschloss 2014). Blaming the destruction on a natural gas explosion and shredding documents indicating that the driving force behind the new rules of engagement had been the White House rather than the Pentagon, the administration lit the fuse on a constitutional crisis culminating in President Nixon’s impeachment and resignation (Boyer 1985, Tower Report 1987).
Happily, Nixon’s Civil Defense initiative, somewhat awkwardly billed as “Retreat - Redoubt - Reclaim”, proved effective. In contrast with the chaos, slow military response, and massive civilian casualties that characterized the outbreak of 1979 and ended 20 years of Democratic control of the White House, most large cities were rapidly and safely evacuated in 1984. Those who reached designated refuges and safe zones before they were overrun were moved to redoubts, fortified towns and rural encampments capable of housing tens of thousands of civilians. Others found shelter with relatives, friends, or volunteer hosts opening their homes and churches to refugees and were transported west of the Mississippi River aboard armed trains, one of which famously took to the rails lashed up behind a restored Union Pacific steam engine after losing its military locomotive; years later, it became the inspiration for a Japanese steampunk-themed manga and animated series, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress. Hardened by their experiences of 1968 and ’79, many of those left behind were able to shelter in place and in some cases even carve out redoubts of their own that held until the arrival of regulars.
The reorganization of research into the undead threat during this period was neither so disastrous as nuking Louisville nor so successful as the Civil Defense program. The leading theory at the time was the Sixth Kingdom Hypothesis, which held that ghouls were the result of symbiogenesis, or the origin of a new form of life through the merger of two symbiotic organisms. Symbiogenesis posited a fusion between human eukaryotic cells and an anaerobic bacterium giving rise to a novel organism needed by Earth’s biosphere to bring its most successful species — Homo sapiens — back under control before we wrecked our own home (Lovelock and Margulis 1974). Within the scientific community, a soft version of the homeostasis hypothesis gained acceptance: H. sapiens’ runaway success created an enormous food supply just waiting for the first species to figure out how to exploit it, which would likely be an r-strategist that reproduced very quickly and sought to capture all the available resources, like an algae bloom (Adey and Wetzel 1975). Genetic evidence in support of symbiogenesis accumulated over a twenty year period from 1975 to 1995, and though critics pointed out the shortcomings of Margulis’ model and noted that what began as an elegantly simple idea had grown increasingly complex as it contorted to accommodate new data, the underlying theory had far-reaching explanatory power.
Margulis held that the first eukaryotic cell evolved from a symbiosis between an aerobic bacterium (most likely an Alpha-Proteobacteria similar to the modern Paracoccus) and an anaerobic proto-eukaryotic cell, and that early eukaryotes went through a series of endosymbiotic events with other bacteria to acquire the building blocks for the characteristically complex internal structures of our cells. The initial pairing was supposedly based on the metabolic advantages of the bacterium, which traded stored chemical energy (adenosine triphosphate, or ATP) efficiently derived from its aerobic metabolism in exchange for food and shelter from its anaerobic host. Genes needed for independent growth and reproduction were lost by the endosymbiont, while genes necessary for aerobic respiration were transferred to the host cell, until ultimately the endosymbionts devolved into mitochondria, still fulfilling their original function by supplying ATP to what had become a fully aerobic, eukaryotic cell. That no example was known to science of an organism producing either more or less ATP than it needs and thus being a potential candidate for forming a symbiotic relationship based on the exchange of ATP, nor any example of a cell possessing a mechanism for exporting ATP, nor indeed any example of how an anaerobic host with an aerobic endosymbiont might surmount the considerable difficulties inherent in having to take in highly toxic oxygen and safely transport it in some useable form to its symbiotic partner, to say nothing of the model’s conspicuous failure to offer any insight into the origin of the nucleus — then considered the defining feature of eukaryotic life — by instead assuming the host cell already had a nucleus before it found its partner and evolved into a true eukaryote, deterred Margulis not at all from defending this line of reasoning.
And to be fair, evidence supporting the endosymbiotic origins of eukaryotes piled up in Margulis’ corner throughout the 1980s. Her thinking gained support from multiple studies confirming the Alpha-Proteobacterial origins of mitochondria, as well as findings that segments of nuclear DNA expressing compounds targeted at mitochondria were inherited from Alpha-Proteobacteria, suggesting that these genes originated with the endosymbiont and were transferred to the nucleus as the bacteria were withering into mitochondria. Further, endosymbiosis explained the origin of plants: about 1.5 billion years ago, a eukaryote went through a second endosymbiotic event and again formed a stable partnership with bacteria living inside it, this time with cyanobacteria capable of photosynthesis. From this collaboration arose the first true algae, the Ur-species ancestral to all plants, and the Sixth Kingdom Hypothesis proposed that another such union had recently occurred and given rise to the undead, adding a new kingdom to the five then used to classify all life on Earth: bacteria, protists, fungi, plants, and animals.
While microbiologists sought to understand the nature and origin of the undead, biologists adapted their protocols to observe and quantify the threat. In the early ’70s, biologists concentrated on measuring baseline physical characteristics, such as speed over different types of terrain, bite strength, visual acuity, and so on, and examining the behavior of the undead, with an understandable emphasis on hunting and terminal attack dynamics (Wilson 1990). Research physicians met with varying degrees of success experimenting with behavioral conditioning and neurosurgery in hopes of reducing aggression and inducing the dead to perform useful labor, but these programs, briefly branded as “the Redemption of the Dead” in hopes of winning over an appalled public, were deemed impractical due to the time, resources, and skilled personnel required to treat each victim. Nonetheless, the experiments continued in such numbers that by the mid-1970s, laboratory specimens were becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.
In response, the emphasis shifted to field research. This continued into the 1980s when the diet and metabolism of the dead came under scrutiny as researchers sought to discover how wild populations sustained themselves, preserving the seeds of the next outbreak. In the late 1980s, biologists following up on tips from hunters and National Park Rangers found that white tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), perennially overpopulated as a result of the extirpation of wolves, were a key food resource for undead in the wild, as even with broken or missing limbs they could wear down and take a sick or starving deer (Root, Fritzell, and Giessman 1988). Field observations of the undead consuming insects, plants, mushrooms, dirt, and even gnawing the paint off old barns informed the idea that they might be driven to feed by stoichiometric cravings for limiting nutrients (Pulliam 1975, Sterner, Elser, and Hessen 1992). Insects’ chitinous exoskeletons are rich in nitrogen, for example, while mushrooms are an excellent source of vitamin B12, and traditional homemade red barn paint used iron oxide as a pigment.
A nationwide program to fit ghouls with radio tracking collars during the 1984-85 outbreak found that wild populations of the undead failed to thrive in the western United States and Canada because of the hostility of the climate, terrain, and rural residents, many of whom professed to be happy to have something other than road signs to shoot at when deer were out of season. In the mountains, the wandering dead were most often found at the bottom of canyons, where they could accumulate in sufficient numbers to choke streams and culverts until a flooding rain blew them out in horrific debris flows. The hot sun and dry winds on the Great Plains and in the deserts of the intermountain west jerked dead flesh on the bone, and ghouls froze solid in the harsh winters; months later, unsuspecting travelers could find themselves in the middle of a herd when a heavy rain melted away the last of the winter snow or fell on ground long dry, and the dead rose as if born from dragon’s teeth. Enterprising westerners made a cottage industry of cleaning up downer herds with large wood chippers, stripping the corpses of valuables as they strip off their clothing, composting the chipped zombies with locally available biomass, and fertilizing fields with them. Only on the wet, temperate West Coast were the dead found to persist in the wild, but this population became a resource, as well, when vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley started winning awards with grapes planted atop ghouls buried neck deep, so feeding the zombies would fertilize the vines rooted in their bodies — a practice pioneered by marijuana growers in Marin County, California, who also left the arms free in order to booby trap their plants, and which is now so widespread that many families have turned to it to keep loved ones close.
Field researchers also found that rural folklore (not to mention several country and western songs) of the 1980s made reference to the ability of the undead to learn from their experiences, act upon changes and patterns they perceive in their environment, and even come to recognize other individuals and form emotional bonds with them. In the wake of the outbreak of 1979, it was accepted that ghouls retain some vestigial mental functions based on ingrained behaviors — not just muscle memory, such as opening doors and climbing stairs, but habituated patterns, such as teachers and students returning to their classrooms every morning or dead soldiers coming to attention and saluting officers. However much the dead may play at being alive, though, without surgical intervention they will quickly lose interest in their dimly remembered lives if presented with the possibility of securing a meal. After the outbreaks of 1979-1989, there were few surviving advocates of the idea that studying the behavior, mental capacity, or preferences in habitat and diet of the undead might be in any way worthwhile beyond finding more efficient ways of putting them down.
By necessity, many rural Americans had been informally yet assiduously engaged in such studies, so much so that on the eve of the August, 1989, outbreak, they were broadly able to interpret the disappearance of roadkill and the homeless as telegraphing its coming. This undoubtedly contributed to the speed with which it was brought under control and helped limit the loss of life to slightly less than was seen in 1968.
Part 1 • 1968-1978: The Lost Decade
Part 3 • 1990-2003: The False Spring
Part 5 • References