This is Writing Zombies, Part 2, the second post in my series on zombies. Part 1 can be found here.
Today I’m going to focus on infected zombies as opposed to other types. I’m not too familiar with the details voodoo zombies, but I’d highly recommend checking out White Zombie for a brief overview.
How does the infection spread?
It’s important to consider how the infection spreads from a zombie to a healthy person. The traditional method of through a bite, much like how rabies is transmitted. Rabies spreads when an animal infected with the rabies virus bites another animal or a person. The bite breaks the skin, allowing virus-filled saliva to enter the body. It can also be spread if the saliva simply gets into an open wound or into the eyes or mouth.
But as far as viruses go, rabies is nearly impossible to get without contact with saliva. Which means it can be pretty easily eliminated (and was in the United Kingdom). So for stories where the characters need to completely eliminate the zombie virus, transmission through bite would be the best bet.
Another effective way of getting a lot of people sick is to make the zombie virus airborne, like the flu. Experts believe that the flu virus typically spreads via droplets of mucus that the body naturally expels when a person talks, sneezes, or coughs. These droplets then end up in the noses and mouths of people up to six feet away. They might even be inhaled into a person’s lungs.
If people know about the virus, it’s easy enough to keep infected people away from healthy ones. But the virus—flu or zombie—will spread like wildfire when no one knows it’s there or its strength. And the virus can become even more problematic when people are contagious but not showing symptoms. In stories where everyone is infected, airborne transmission might work best.
What’s the process of becoming a zombie?
So what happens after a person becomes infected? There are two important things to consider: process and timeline. The process is simply what happens. So after a person is bitten, they might become violently ill. The illness kills them, and they turn into a zombie after death. Or maybe once they’re bitten, the virus sits dormant inside them until they die of natural causes, an accident, or something else.
The timeline is how long it takes for the process—from infection to zombification—to happen. To use The Walking Dead as another example, it takes about a day for a person who’s bitten to die of the infection. Then it ranges from an hour to several before they turn into a zombie. The timeline can be useful in the story to arrange for characters to come face to face with corpses suddenly coming alive.