Zombies. Rotten reanimated corpses stumbling hither and thither in search of brains and other various human body parts on which to feed. I love them for it. Zombie movies, zombie games, zombie merchandise, I devour them all with a ravenous hunger that rivals any denizen of the undead. Unlike the other usual suspects of Halloween, such as vampires, witches and mummies, who can simultaneously be bad while exuding both sex appeal and style (don’t think a mummy can be sexy? Then you haven’t seen Arnold Vosloo), zombies seem to exist for no other reason than to kill. They are remorseless, they are ruthlessly terrifying, they are…not at all appetizing. And, at least for those zombies of George A. Romero’s fertile imagination, they are actually quite gross. I don’t want to see that on a cupcake, although there are some who might. But, there are ways to create a zombie-themed confection without resorting to decomposition.
One easy way is to use something like zombie hand picks, which can easily be put on an Oreo crumb-covered cupcake to simulate a zombie rising from the dead. The way described in this post is to make “brain” cupcakes, which would also feel right at home at any mad scientist gathering.
But first, a scientific interlude about zombies and their quest for
Skip to below if you just want to get to the cupcakes!
We’ve all seen zombie movies. We all know the vague anecdotal references to zombie-like trances that voodoo-ish practices can supposedly cause. The question is, can they exist? And the answer is…what do you mean by zombie? There are two main classes of zombies, as I see it. Those that are truly dead, and those that are mindless.
Negative. When I say dead, I mean really dead, not just clinically dead. In the laboratory, scientists have been able to revive dogs who had been clinically dead for up to 3 hours. But I’m not talking about someone whose heart stopped and was revived. I’m talking someone who is truly no more…has ceased to be…is expired and gone to meet his maker…is a stiff...bereft of life…metabolic processes are now history…kicked the bucket…shuffled off his mortal coil…run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible…an ex-parrot, er, I mean ex-person. Yeah. That won’t happen. Without getting too scientific, muscles need energy to move, in the form of ATP. ATP production requires functional metabolism on a cellular level. Muscles also require input from the brain for coordinated movement. Reflex movement, no. But the type of coordinated movement that is necessary for walking (much less hunting) would be impossible for a dead brain. Nevermind that in order to hunt, zombies would have to retain some level of higher cortical function. Yes, in the confines of a fantasy movieverse, one could make a tenuous rationale for undead zombie metabolism and movement that can hold up well enough for two hours, especially if people want to believe, but as far as having to worry about undead hordes, it won’t be a problem. Although, if you are interested, a Harvard psychiatrist named Dr. Steven C. Schlozman has written an interesting mock journal article examining the zombie brain.
However, another important tenant of undead zombie lore (and the zombie mythos in general) is: if you get bit (and aren’t completely devoured on the spot by zombies) you’ll become a zombie yourself. For Romero zombies of the undead variety, it isn’t always clear whether the transformation occurs because the person died and death itself is the only requirement for becoming a zombie, or because there was some sort of contaminant in the blood, either a toxin or a virus. Which segues into the second form of zombie: living people who act like zombies.
According to West African and Haitian traditions, zombies (or zombi) are dead people that can be revived by a sort of shaman called a bokor. In Haiti, zombie creation is accepted as a reality, so much so that there are laws enacted by the Haitian government outlawing it. In the 1980s, the work of a Harvard ethnobotanist (someone who studies how different cultures use plants), Dr. Wade Davis, brought Haitian zombies to worldwide attention when he published books claiming that he found evidence that bokors induced a zombie-like mindless trance through the use of chemical agents, namely tetrodoxin that had been isolated from pufferfish. Dr. Davis’ hypothesis was that the combination of tetrodoxin and dissociative drugs first induced a state of animated suspension which the person believed was death, followed by re-awakening post-burial inducing a psychotic state (perpetuated by continual medication from the bokor) that convinced the person he was a zombie, and making him susceptible to control. As evidence, Davis highlighted the now-famous case of Clairvius Narcisse, who claimed that he had “died” in 1962 and was revived by a bokor and forced to work on a sugar plantation for 18 years as a slave. However, there are some gaping scientific holes in Dr. Davis’ theories, starting with the fact that tetrodoxin can cause paralysis and unconsciousness, but not the trances that Davis describes, and certainly not for years. Many in the scientific community also doubt that any person, bokor or not, would be able to keep someone in a constant hallucinogenic trance for years.
Far more likely, the reported zombie cases in Haiti are a combination of people being accidentally buried alive and suffering several psychological trauma as a result, or of mistaken identity due to a combination of a wandering mentally ill person identified by mourning relatives. A case study published in Lancet examining “zombie” cases in Haiti (Lancet 1997; 350:1094-1096) used DNA testing to determine that most “zombie” cases were actually cases of mistaken identity by a bereaved family. In only one case was the “zombie” found to actually belong to the family that claimed her, with a quick examination of her tomb revealing that it was empty. She was diagnosed as having suffered anoxic brain injury from being sealed in the tomb, which accounted for her zombie-like trance – oxygen deprivation destroyed her higher brain functions. That particular case is a tad sinister since it was clear that 1. She was buried; and 2. Someone probably removed her from her tomb, because her tomb was filled with rocks. The scientists who investigated left the door open to the possibility that some person (call him a bokor or whatever) might very well have poisoned her to simulate death, and then retrieved the body later. The possibility for that to happen to other people does, in fact, exist.
So what about a plague upon mankind that reduces its victims to mindless and/or crazed hordes, a la 28 Days Later? These “zombies” are definitely alive, but no longer in control of their faculties. Could humans become exposed to or infected with some disease that alters their brain chemistry to such an extent that they can exhibit zombie-like behavior? It might be unlikely, but it isn’t technically impossible.
When neurotransmitters become aberrantly regulated, they can have a severe impact on behaviors such as aggression. Pump rats full of serotonin, and they attack each other more easily than they would otherwise. Throw them enough out of whack in response to a disease, for a large enough segment of the population, and theoretically it is anyone’s guess what will happen.
As far as viruses go, there is already at least one virus out there that mucks up brain chemistry, causes hyper-aggression, and is transmitted through a bite: rabies, which proves that aggression-causing viruses do exist in nature. Given the rate of expected new virus discovery in the coming decades (Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 275 (1647), 2111-2115), plus, the constantly expanding pool of zoonotic viruses (viruses that are coming from animal hosts to infect humans), who knows what challenges new viruses might bring. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying it will happen, I’m just not saying it can’t.
There are other infections that can cause gross behavioral changes. Take Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which is a fungus that infects ants, turning them into so-called “zombie ants”. Basically, this fungus can only thrive under certain exact conditions, and when it infects an ant, it hijacks the ant’s behavior to the point where the ant seeks out leaves in those exact specific locations where the fungus can grow, and when it finds them, it clamps down on the leaf and dies. Once that happens, the fungus spores in the ant’s body sprout and disperse seeds. If the ants are moved to even slightly different locations after death, no spores sprout, so this induced behavior is extremely specific and solely designed to provide the fungus with the correct environment. Or how about Toxoplasma gondii, for instance. This parasite lives the majority of its life cycle in the gut of cats, which is where it wants to be most of the time. But when it sheds its eggs, those eggs are eaten by other critters such as rats, where they hatch. But the brand-new T. gondii wants to get back to cats pronto, so it alters the behavior of infected rats in one vital way: Normally, rats have a panic attack when they come into contact with cat urine, which is an evolved response to keep them out of areas where cats live and patrol. Buuuut...infected rats lose this anxiety when they smell cats, so they just waltz into cat-infested areas, presumably to get eaten. Humans can also be hosts to T. gondii, and there is some (controversial) evidence that this parasite can also alter behavior in humans. There might even be a link between T. gondii infection and schizophrenia, although this is not completely understood, and is a matter of much debate. But the point is, there are parasites out there that can hijack behavior in a variety of different ways, even when those ways go against every tenet of self-preservation. Just because it hasn’t verifiably happened yet for humans doesn’t mean that it never will.
Now, are these living zombies true zombies according to genre purists? If you have hordes of crazed people hunting down humans and chomping on them, do those distinctions even matter?
Whew! That was a long interlude! Sorry, I’m a biologist, and this stuff excites me. But now on to the
These cupcakes are pretty easy, they are more decoration than anything else. I injected heated jam into them to make them look “bloody” (check out my Vampire cupcakes to see more details on the actual injection). But, you can fill them with anything you want, or nothing at all. Some cherry pie filling from a can would work well mixed with some almond extract, or some red Jell-o to make a poke cake. If you are using cherry pie filling, or any filling that involves cutting a plug out of the cupcake for filling, you can use any type of batter you want. If you are relying on something soaking into the cake itself, like jam or Jell-o, I recommend a yellow or white batter so it is easier to see.
So, step one, bake those cupcakes!
Step two, fill them or poke them, or whatever you are planning to do. Like the vampire cupcakes, I used a syringe to fill these. And like I mentioned in my previous post, if you remove the needle part too fast, the jam will come gushing back out of the hole, so easy does it. Although, these can look a little messy. They are brains, after all.
Then, make some icing, and dye it a light grey color or a light beige color with some gel. I used a basic buttercream (recipe below) but you can use any icing that will stand up to being piped, and that you can dye grey.
You are going to be piping either with a round tip (#12) or with a bag with a ½” snip taken out of the corner. Mentally divide your cupcake surface into halves. Then, in one sequential motion, draw a line down the center of the cupcake, and bring it back up around the edge, tracing a semicircle. Without interrupting the flow of icing, fill down the empty semicircle with a curving zig-zag motion (see diagram below).
This is one hemisphere, so repeat the mirror image for the other half of the cupcake, and voila, brain!
To make it a little more gory, you can dab your bloody filling along the brains. I have a feeling this would work better with the Jell-o than with the jam. As thin as the jam was, it was still a little too thick to run down the sides of the icing in the way I was hoping for. But it didn’t turn out too badly, although it was so hot in my apartment that my icing started to melt.
These cupcakes only take a little extra effort, but they are a great way to pull together a theme. If you have more time, they could be done a heck of a lot nicer than I did, but they get the job done either way. They definitely qualify as on e of the easier Halloween treats!
Basic Vanilla Buttercream
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 3 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
- 1-3 teaspoon milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
1. Beat softened butter until fluffy, then add in the sugar and salt.
2. Add in vanilla extract, and milk one tsp at a time until you reach desired piping consistency