The apocalypse is nigh—or it certainly seems that way. We live besieged by deadly viruses, terrorist threats and dunderheaded politicians. And because it is Halloween this week, we need to worry about zombies. Flesh-eating hordes of the walking dead, ever-growing, ever hungry, chasing us down alleys and forcing us to hide in dark basements.
Not, however, if chemist Raychelle Burks can help us with her “death cologne” camouflage method. Burks is a postdoctoral research fellow at Doane College in Nebraska and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where she studies new materials for sensors. And as a sensor expert and zombie aficionado—she has published on the topic, with scientific references—she believes we can fool zombies by smelling just like them. Burks told Scientific American that she has already identified the chemicals we need.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
How do you know zombies track you by smell?
Drawing on our bank of knowledge about zombies, which comes from pop culture, one thing that is constant is that zombies are brainless. They are awkward, they moan instead of talking, they repeatedly do stupid things. They have serious neurological deficiencies. Yet they try and eat us and not each other. How do they know we are not zombies? Well, you don’t smell right. You smell alive, not dead and decomposing.
What does dead and decomposing smell like?
There has been a lot of research in the nonfictional world about this. Scientists have helped crime scene investigators who look for hidden graves and trainers of dogs that search for human remains, and they have identified hundreds of compounds that come from rotting corpses. I’ve smelled several of them personally and, well, eeewwww.
What are some of these odorous chemicals?
Putrescine and cadaverine are two that are appropriately named. They form when amino acids break down and they smell kind of skunky, and sulfurous, and like human feces. Then there is dimethyl disulfide, which smells like rotting cabbage. A related compound, dimethyl trisulfide, smells like an open, festering wound. Another chemical produced by rotting flesh, skatole, also makes people think of feces when they get a whiff.
Lovely. How can all this help us with zombies?
We want to disguise ourselves, blend in with the surroundings, like hunters who spray themselves with animal urine. Our surroundings, however, are the walking dead. We need to cover up our natural scent to fool this environment. We need to smell like zombies. There has been a successful clinical trial of this approach: In the first season of the TV show The Walking Dead the people covered themselves with zombie goo to escape. Fortunately, chemistry provides an easier solution.
That would be your “death cologne?”
Or “Eau de Death,” yes. We would want to bring in marketing people before we settle on a name. But the idea is to create something out of these chemicals that you could spray on, instead of trying to smear yourself with zombie guts.
Have you made the cologne yet?
Not yet. We’d need to bring in some cosmetic chemists, people who work on perfumes, to figure out how to bind these chemicals so they would last for awhile. Should it be oil-based? A lotion, maybe a spray? You’d probably want lots of options—maybe a cream for personal use and a spray to camouflage where you live, so your house would not smell so alive. Then we would test it with human-remains dogs. We do not want to be testing in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. We want to know we have something that works.
You really think this would work?
There are examples of it in nature. The corpse flower, for one. It has this giant bloom that smells like rot. The smell attracts insects that usually go for carrion, like flies and beetles, and the flower uses them to help spread its pollen. I’ve stood next to a blooming corpse flower and really, whew! I feel assured we are on the right track.
So a plague of zombies does not scare you?
This Halloween I’m more worried about being hurt by a cow. I live in Nebraska. Statistically, the probability is much higher.