Everyone and their grandma has jumped on board the zombie bandwagon, the undead taking over television, films, video games, and inspiring thousands to do their best amateur makeup job and shamble through cities in zombie walks. Our fascination with zombies probably serves as a function in society that is a way of dealing with death, and social tensions increase the distorted worldview many now hold, who would rather wake up to a zombie apocalypse than the alarm clock and another day at the office.
While Zombie enthusiasts pour dollars into the mainstream market on books and movies, an actual psychological disorder has quietly crept its way into recognition that is one of the most bizarre we've heard of. Cotard's Disorder, also known as Walking Corpse Syndrome, is a rare disorder in which the individual holds a delusional belief that they are dead, do not exist, or are actually rotting away. Many who suffer from the disorder believe they are effectively dead. In some cases, the individual believes they are essentially zombies, dead and living inside a dead corpse. In other cases they believe they have died and are experiencing an afterlife.
Cotard's is not mentioned in the DSM-IV, the diagnostic manual/psychiatric bible. This is because Cotard's symptoms are viewed as part of an underlying disorder. Those afflicted have had prior psychological illness, often schizophrenia, dementia, and psychoses. Cotard's Disorder can also result from traumatic brain injury. Along with the obvious difficulties those who suffer from the disorder engage in risky behavior and self-neglect. Their belief that they are already dead often causes them to stop regular hygiene routines, eating, and taking medications. They are mor prone to engage in risky behavior as they have no need to worry about dying, they're already dead....in their minds.
The syndrome is named after French neurologist Jules Cotard, who first described it at a lecture in Paris in 1880, which he called a negation delirium. Cotard related the case of a patient he referred to as Mademoiselle X. a middle-aged woman who came to the doctor complaining that she had no brain, no nerves, no stomach, no chest, and no intestines, and was nothing more than a decomposing body. She believed in neither God nor Satan, and that she had no soul. Thus, she couldn't die a natural death, and had no need to eat. Mademoiselle X eventually died of starvation.
The central symptom of Cotard's Disorder is the delusion of negation. They deny that parts of their body exists. Research has identified three stages of the disorder. In the germination stage the individual exhibits psychotic depression and hypochondriacal symptoms. the second stage, Blooming, is when the delusion of negation takes hold. The third stage is chronic and characterized by severe delusions and chronic depressions.
The distorted reality and belief that organs and body parts are missing is caused by a malfunction in a part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus, which recognizes faces, and the amygdala, a set of neurons that processes emotion. The combination results in the individual having no recognition when viewing familiar faces, leaving them feeling disconnected with reality.
In 2007 the children of a 53 year old woman called 911 after growing concerned on their mother's insistence that she was dead and smelled like rotting meat. When emergency responders arrived she insisted they were trying to burn her house down, then demanded she be taken to the morgue to be among other dead people. The woman refused food and suffered severe depression as a result of the belief in the loss of her own life. She also refused medication. Her situation became dire and her children obtained legal rights to oversee her care. She was given medication and left the psychiatric hospital after 30 days, seemingly fine.
Also in 2007 a 28 year old pregnant woman complained to her doctor that her liver was putrefying and her heart was all-together missing. A 1990 case involved a man who suffered brain injuries after a motorcycle accident in England. After being initially discharged his mother took him to South Africa. The man was convinced that he had been taken to hell, as evidenced by the hot weather. He thought his mother was a borrowed soul to show him the ropes in hell, and that she was actually asleep in Scotland.
In 2008 a psychiatric journal reported the case of a 53 year old Filipino woman who was admitted to a psychiatric unit after insisting she was dead. She believed she smelled like rotting flesh and also wanted to be taken to the morgue where the other dead people were. Last year a 32 year old man from Iran was admitted to a mental health facility with beliefs that not only was he dead, but had also transformed into a dog. He believed his wife and two children were dead also. Referred to as Patient X, the man believed his family was ignoring him because he was already dead and suspected that friends and family had been trying to poison him. Patient X's delusions seemed to manifest from guilt he carried for committing acts of bestiality with sheep as a teenager. This was obvious in his belief that his daughters had been turned into sheep after their imagined deaths, evidenced by him by their smell of urine. Patient X responded well to treatment and was released.
It seems that while pharmacological treatments have had some limited success, each case of the rare disorder is unique. Most cases we read about were treated with Electroconvulsive Therapy. That's right. Zombies are flying over the cuckoo's nest, and shock therapy is still being practiced. I thought we had crawled out of the stone ages of psychiatry.
Zombies aren't the first spooky creatures to carve out a niche in the world of mental disorders. For centuries cases of clinical lycanthropy have been reported. Individuals of this rare syndrome hold to a delusion that they can transform into an animal, most commonly wolves.
Clinical vampirism, or Renfield's Syndrome is a pseudo-diagnostic label associated with an obsession with drinking blood. The name Renfield coined in the 80s, named after Count Dracula's assistant R. M. Renfield in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Renfield's Syndrome starts during childhood when an injury leads to the ingestion of blood, and the event is remembered as exciting. during puberty the excitement is manifested as sexual arousal. Throughout adulthood, blood represents power to those who suffer from the disorder. Some sufferer's believe they have mystical powers and by ingesting the blood they are taking their victim's life force.
In February a 23 year old man in Turkey was admitted to a psychiatric unit after several arrests for stabbing and slicing victims for their blood. His father even managed to obtain bags of blood from a blood bank for him. Doctors who treated the man say a traumatic childhood led to his delusional beliefs.
So what if someone found a way to produce the effects of Cotard's and weaponize it? Could a Cotard's laced bomb lead to an actual zombie outbreak? The CIA spent a lot of time and money after the second world war to get Nazi scientists into the US to work for us, and the release of information over time such as the MK Ultra files, that verify the CIA attempted to find a way to use mind control to the benefit of national security feeds paranoid fires. Who knows where some mad scientist type may be holding up, preparing to get revenge on the world that scorned him by making us all undead zombies?