Can Ebola really turn you into a zombie after you die?

Zombies are people who have died and been brought back to life, under the control of an evil force.

Workers carrying an Ebola patient.
Workers carrying an Ebola patient.

Ebola is a virus that has been making headlines for the past few years, and is currently spreading in Uganda. However, there is no evidence that Ebola can turn people into zombies. So why do so many people believe that it can?

While on the surface, the question seems totally ridiculous, I was shocked to see how widespread interest in "ebola zombies" had become since the last major outbreak, in 2014. Ebola zombies weren't just relegated to internet forums - instead, it was covered in articles on major sites like the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Foreign Policy, and the Independent. And, in fact, there was at least one case I found from Newsweek that bares special discussion - one in which a corpse sprung back to life moments before being cremated.

Because fear and misinformation go hand-in-hand, and because health officials say that misinformation about Ebola is making it harder to contain the virus, I thought it might be interesting to investigate the question and evaluate the myth once and for all.

What is Ebola?

Ebola is a deadly virus that is spread through contact with bodily fluids of an infected person. It causes severe hemorrhagic fever and can lead to death within days. There is no specific treatment for Ebola and it is often fatal. Early diagnosis and treatment is critical for survival.

There are a number of symptoms associated with Ebola, including:

  • Fever
  • Severe headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Weakness
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain

However, Ebola is probably most known for the unexplained hemorrhage (bleeding or bruising) that comes with it. In the 1976 outbreak that led to the discovery of the Ebola pathogen, 75% of patients bled from various parts of their body. Since contact with infected blood is a common way to acquire infection, this made the job of treating sick patients especially difficult and dangerous.

Unfortunately, the current Ebola outbreak spreading in Uganda is caused by a strain of the virus for which there is no known vaccine.

What is the difference between Covid-19 and the Ebola virus?
Both viruses are highly contagious and can cause severe illness, but there are some key differences between them.

Do people actually think Ebola can turn you into a zombie?

A zombie is a creature that is often depicted in horror movies and books. They are usually depicted as people who have died and been brought back to life but are now under the control of an evil force. A typical zombie is characterized by decaying flesh, a hunger for human flesh, and a lack of intelligence. They may also be able to infect others with their zombie virus, which would turn them into zombies as well.

A disease that causes patients to ooze blood from their eyes, mouth, and other body parts creates a conspicuous set of symptoms that can lead to widespread public fear. With fear comes rumors, and one such rumor that took root on the internet was that Ebola could turn you into a "zombie" after you died.

Here are a couple of examples of headlines that contributed to this fear:

Note that, in the case of the Washington Post article, while the article was attempting to make a more nuanced point, the headline (which gets much more coverage) did not.

In China, Xinhua, the state news agency, even had to publish an article about the subject after rumors on the Chinese web gained traction.

Why do people say that Ebola can turn you into a Zombie?

As Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian writes for FP, some issues can be traced to the semi-legitimization of the rumor online. For example, see the note about the term "zombie disease" here:

[S]ome netizens on China’s rumor-prone Internet have deemed it the "zombie disease," out of concerns the disease reanimates victims who appear to have died. The term — which Baike, a Chinese online encyclopedia similar to Wikipedia, even lists as a synonym for Ebola — appears to arise from the virus’ high fatality rate and the particularly gruesome death it can cause, sometimes with bleeding from the eyes, ears, and gums.

There is no scientific evidence to support the claim that Ebola turns people into zombies after they die. However, the Ebola virus can cause severe hemorrhaging, which can lead to death. In some cases, people who have died from Ebola have been reported to bleed from their eyes, mouth, and ears. This may give the false impression that they have turned into zombies or might have somehow come back to life.

Theatrical release trailer for the movie "Outbreak" (1995)
Theatrical release trailer for the movie "Outbreak" (1995)

Additionally, movies like the 1995 film Outbreak spread fear about the Ebola virus disease. In the movie, Ebola mutates with influenza and becomes airborne, spreading to a large number of people and creating gruesome symptoms. While the film raised awareness about Ebola, it also reinforced several fears in the public conscience that made it easier for scary rumors about Ebola to gain traction.

I'll also add that there is a 2015 movie called "Ebola Zombies," but it has a 2.6/10 on IMBD and doesn't seem likely to be driving a lot of cultural discussions.

The case of the reanimated corpse

I mentioned previously a single case that bares special discussion. Dr. Richard Besser, writing for ABC news, did share something remarkable about a reanimated corpse infected with Ebola:

When reports came in from Liberia describing Ebola victims rising from the dead, most of the world brushed it off as figments of people's imagination, driven by the tragedies that have struck the area. But recent footage by ABC's Good Morning America suggests there may be a bit of truth to these zombie stories.

To the surprise of GMA's crew, a corpse they were filming sprung back to life moments before it was hauled into a truck on the way to the crematorium. The video is quickly going viral and giving the world a glimpse of just how bleak the situation in West Africa has become.
As men wearing protective suits sprayed the area with bleach and began to wrap what they believed to be a dead body in plastic, the man moved his arm. "He's alive," someone yelled, and the surrounding crowd began to cheer. Shortly after, an ambulance arrived to take the man away, but with no more space left in hospitals, it's unclear where the man was taken.

You can read the full report in Newsweek, but you can also find the more detailed report on ABC's website here. What is apparent, from the more detailed reporting, though, is that the man is not a "zombie" - rather, he was extremely ill and misidentified as deceased by workers.

Conclusion: can Ebola make you into a zombie after you die?

Since no corroborating evidence exists for any stories of zombie-like resurrection post-infection, and since there's no known mechanism by which Ebola can turn people into zombies, it's safe to say Ebola does not make you into a zombie after you die.