Psychiatrist's Obsession With the 'Undead' Takes a Novel Turn

Harvard professor says he uses the cinematic zombie to teach neuroscience

Ron Zimmerman

February 24, 2011

February 24, 2011 — The life of Boston psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School educator Steven C. Schlozman, MD, has recently taken an unusual turn. His long-time interest in zombies and passion for late-night horror movies has resulted in a soon-to-be-released novel, The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks From the Apocalypse.

Dr. Steven C. Schlozman and his upcoming novel

Dr. Schlozman told Medscape Medical News about his life and current obsession with the "undead" that he says helps him to better teach neuroscience to his medical school students.

So, how exactly does a Harvard psychiatrist's fixation result in a science-based zombie novel?

The start of it was thinking about large existential questions, rather than a zombie story per se, says Dr. Schlozman — questions such as, "What do we define as human, and how do we decide something is not human?"

"This is an awful comparison," he confesses, "but what made us decide that Terri Schiavo is or isn’t human? It seems to be easier to have that debate about a zombie than about a human. But it’s the same debate in a weird way."

"In all these zombie movies there’s that classic moment when one of the characters says 'Shoot her, shoot her! She’s already gone.' 'But she still looks like my girlfriend!' They can’t get themselves to pull the trigger. And then the humans all turn on each other."

In early 2010 Dr. Schlozman gave a talk titled "Science From the Screen" at a local independent movie house in Boston. The talk was based on his research of dozens of zombie movies and a fictional scientific paper he wrote about an airborne causal zombie virus that incorporates a frightening prion.

"I wrote [that paper] as if it were going to The New England Journal of Medicine," he said.

His talk at the movie house was recorded and subsequently posted online.

"The podcast went viral and somebody at io9, the sci-fi Website, wrote about it and it went all over the Internet."

This exposure, he said, led to widespread media attention, including an interview on NPR's Science Friday with Ira Flatow, and ultimately a book offer from several publishers.

Grounded in Science

When Dr. Schlozman said he’d like to tell his story in novel form, his publisher, Grand Central Publishing, instantly agreed. He already had his publishing deal in hand when it occurred to him to get an agent.

"She was a little peeved that I had said 'yes' too soon. She said I really gave a lot away with this, that I could have gotten a lot more. But I was just so excited."

Key to Dr. Schlozman’s success with the novel, he believes, was finding and working with a great editor at the publishing house.

"As I started writing, the editor, who was lovely, said, 'Hey, this is a pretty good story, let’s flesh it out some' — sorry, bad pun."

"The challenge was to create something that was fast-paced but had embedded in it mystery, something that wasn’t completely depressing, that even has clues hidden in it, and has the potential for sequels and prequels."

The novel takes the form of a series of stream-of-consciousness diary entries from the notebooks of Dr. Stanley Blum, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) neuroscientist sent to a remote laboratory where still-breathing zombie specimens have been incarcerated. Most of the medical team there have already caught the airborne virus and are themselves going through the brutal 4-stage progression of becoming zombies.

The novel takes the form of a series of stream-of-consciousness diary entries from the notebooks of Dr. Stanley Blum, a CDC neuroscientist sent to a remote laboratory where still-breathing zombie specimens have been incarcerated.

As the book’s title suggests, Dr. Blum dissects each of the zombies to find out why they hunger for living human flesh when they are essentially assemblages of dead tissue. The answer he uncovers is surprising but well grounded in neuroscience and the field of infectious disease.

Hugh Jackman as Dr. Blum?

Dr. Schlozman admits that Dr. Blum is his fictional alter-ego, much as Sherlock Holmes was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s.

"I imagine him a short, bald, Jewish guy, not unlike me. He’s a neuroscientist, which I’m not. He’s a double PhD, and I wrote a back story for him just to have it in mind. He teaches neuroscience at Clark University, here in Worcester."

"He doesn’t dislike people, but he’s kind of a shy guy and sticks to himself. Then his wife passes away from cancer, which is not like me, but while I was writing this — I have no problem saying this — my wife had just been diagnosed with breast cancer."

"One of the ways I could tolerate it, oddly enough, was to write a book about something a lot more awful than my wife’s relatively benign but nevertheless frightening ordeal. She’s absolutely fine and her prognosis is outstanding. But I thought I’d grapple with this head-on."

Ultimately, said Dr. Schlozman, Dr. Blum’s wife passes away and he moves to Atlanta, and takes the job at the CDC.

"He is my alter-ego, although on Science Friday, NPR’s Ira Flatow asked who did I want to play him as me, and I said, ‘Perhaps Hugh Jackman,’ and Ira said, 'Steve, about that delusion, you might want to see a doctor.'"

Humor aside, Dr. Schlozman remains clear that the novel grew out of his own need to connect with his medical students and grab their attention so he can teach them neuroscience.

"I think, if it works right, it makes students less risk-adverse, more willing to raise their hands and shout out ideas, because they’re talking about fictional characters."

If it works right, it makes students less risk-adverse, more willing to raise their hands and shout out ideas, because they’re talking about fictional characters.

Dr. Schlozman is careful to make sure that his students take the discussions in the right spirit. But he says, "Hey, there’s no rule that says we can’t have fun."

Teachable Moments

"Basically what I’ve done is say, 'Look, if there ever was really a zombie plague,' and I’ll show a clip from [George Romero's] Night of the Living Dead, and then I’ll say, 'OK, let’s stop. If those folks were brought into the emergency room, what would you do? What’s wrong? What would you start to hypothesize what’s wrong with them based on what you’re seeing here?’ And the first thing they say is, 'They don’t walk so well.' And you can start to think out loud about functional neurobiology."

"And with my students, I’ll go even deeper. And there’s those moments in the book, and you see it in zombie movies, where they’re stumbling and can barely walk, but they’ll see their prey and they’ll lunge toward it with almost gracefulness — classic paradoxical parkinsonism."

"You see that in Parkinson’s and in other diseases that cause insufficient dopaminergic supply in the basal ganglia. Like stroke victims, for example, where they can’t speak but they can swear when they’re angry. So you can broach those issues, you can ask, 'Why can they lunge so well?' And if the students connect it to Parkinson’s you can say, 'Is there something wrong with their basal ganglia?'"

"And you can say, 'What makes you full? Why do they have to eat all the time? What makes you angry? What makes them want to fight all the time? How do you modulate the discussion of the region of the brain that makes you want to fight with the section of the brain that wants to make sense of the world, through the internal cingulate gyrus?'"

Dr. Schlozman believes he may be wired slightly differently from others in his field, and that difference allows him to be open to using zombies as a teaching tool.

Child's Play

"I’m a child psychiatrist and child psychiatry is by definition a really playful field. Even when you are treating pretty sick kids, kids play. That’s how kids figure things out. So there’s part of me that always wants to be kind of playful."

Dr. Schlozman says he has been criticized for his methods.

"I did grand rounds at the University of Texas Galveston in a visit called the Master Educator Series. They had me come out at Halloween, and they asked if I could talk about zombies and it was great. Many people were fine with it and had a good time, but one person said, 'I think this is making a mockery of what we do.' There are just going to be people who feel that way."

Before he took the zombie novel project too far, Schlozman ran it by his professional colleagues.

"I ran it by my chief, my colleagues, and my wife, who is a PhD. I wanted to make sure no one was offended or hurt. I have a lot of respect for the hospital I work at, and they were all right with it."

Dr. Schlozman said he even asked his professional therapist about it. "I asked him, 'Why do I want to do this?'" According to Dr. Schlozman the therapist answered with a hearty laugh, 'Why not? You’re having fun.'"

But Dr. Schlozman says he doesn’t want to be known solely for his zombie novel. He’s written regular columns and articles for general audience publications, such as The Boston Globe, Spirit, Southwest Airlines' magazine, and Psychology Today, as well as numerous academic journals.

Movie Offers

"Academically what matters most is what I’ve done studies on: stigma in mental health, especially in medical education," said Dr. Schlozman.

"I’ve done research at King’s College looking at the ways psychiatry is portrayed in medical curricula. Thinking out loud about that means a lot to me. I also really like the idea of demystifying psychiatry. I don’t like it being in a solo field. I feel like it’s a big part of medicine, and I love being in a hospital where we all talk and help each other on cases and get along."

Dr. Schlozman also says he may be preaching to the choir when he says that psychiatrists are better adjusted about their field than other physicians.

"I run into a lot of doctors who are very frustrated with their work, and maybe it’s the Pollyanna in me, but I don’t think many psychiatrists are frustrated with their work. There are things about it that are frustrating, but the work itself is really special, it’s privileged, and the stories that patients let us be part of, are amazing."

How does he find the time to write books when he has both teaching and clinical duties and a family life?

"Sometimes I’ll just not sleep as much as I ought to …To me, writing, you just got to do it. As a writer, if it’s been awhile since you’ve written something that’s your own, something that’s really yours, and not an academic article report or a study, then you start to get a little edgy. Some guys go to the gym to relax — I have to write something. It could be an essay for the Boston Globe, or a blog entry. I can’t go to sleep until I write, then I can turn in."

The novel is scheduled to be published March 25. Dr. Schlozman plans on taking the book’s release back home, back to where it started. Across the street from the Coolidge Theater where, a year ago, he gave the talk that kick-started his zombie adventure, he’ll be holding a book signing and reading at the Brookline Booksmith, the largest bookstore in Boston.

Movie offers have come in, but Dr. Schlozman says he’s waiting to sign a deal until the book comes out and, he hopes, a wave of zombie autopsy mania builds.

Dr. Schlozman says he plans to write more. "Artistically, I’d love to keep writing. I am writing another novel, not a zombie book. My agent loves it. Hopefully I’ll get it published too. And then," Dr. Schlozman says playfully, "perhaps then, a children’s book."

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