What’s With All the Zombies?

If you spend time in America, you will have noticed all the zombies. Seriously, they are everywhere: in our TV shows, our movies, our literature, even our phone commercials. We are deeply fascinated by the living dead.

I grew up loving horror films but never really liked or understood the zombie subgenre. When I was a kid, zombie films were thin plots stitched together with guts and gore. The perverse frisson came from rather blunt places — children eating their parents’ brains with garden trowels. Not much subtlety or subtext.

Then, as now, I liked my horror dark, cerebral and full of existential dread. There should certainly be blood and guts but there should be darker things still — existential threats, commentary on man’s inexorable slide toward annihilation, the loss of hubris when one finally peers behind the veil and sees the mechanics of reality and realizes that the universe does not need us. We are grist for the mill. I dug Hellraiser, Nightbreed and Barker’s other films way more than any of Romero’s works.

I still find zombies a bit pathetic. And yet, I am fascinated by the resurgence of the subgenre and am deeply enthralled by my favorite story cycle of the moment, The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead isn’t really about zombies. Zombies are a plot device. The story itself is about community, survival instinct and how the choices we make either reinforce or diminish our humanity. Really brilliant stuff told over a story arch that is calculated each week for exquisite tension.

So , as much as I loathe zombies and love The Walking Dead, I am getting really interested in studies about how a particular age’s monster stories reflect the emotional or psychological sense of the times. In other words, the monsters we project in our stories reveal the deeper discomforts of our shared mindset.

During the Cold War, we had alien invasions which bespoke a fear of global conflict. The 70’s gave us slasher films, an expression of new sexual codes and gender roles. The last decade gave us vampires, a fascination with blood and disease. And now, zombies.

What should we make of the current zombie invasion? What does it mean?

I think Chuck Klosterman has it right in his article “Bonus Feature/ Reconsideration: The Real Reason Why Zombies Are Scary” (New York Times Magazine, October 27, 2013, Lifestyle: page 47). The fear of zombies is an expressed fear of monotony, the kind of mindless repetition brought by technology that dehumanizes our daily lives and bruises our souls. Here’s how he puts it:

Every zombie war is a war of attrition. It’s always a numbers game. And it’s more repetitive than complex. In other words, zombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work e-mails, or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or performing tedious tasks in which the only true risk is being consumed by the avalanche. The principal downside to any zombie attack is that the zombies will never stop coming; the principal downside to life is that you will never be finished with whatever it is you do. The Internet reminds us of this every day. Zombies are like the Internet and the media and every conversation we don’t want to have. All of it comes at us endlessly (and thoughtlessly), and — if we surrender — we will be overtaken and absorbed.

This, I think, is a reality more terrifying that drained corpses and dangling entrails. The very likely prospect that I will never successfully deal with all those emails or read all those tweets or watch all those shows captured on my DVR. This is why zombies are so terrifying. It isn’t because they are the dead and we are the living. It is because we are already both. We are horrified by the prospect of becoming more of what we already are — the undead, the walking dead, corporate customers in a 400 emails-a-day kind of world.

Kill the Main Character

I like stories where important characters die. Sometimes violently. Often suddenly. Always by surprise.

I am reading George Martin’s Game of Thrones series. I am deep into Book 4 and have lost count of the number of seemingly major characters who have died over the previous four books.

My favorite TV show of the moment is The Walking Dead. I just caught up with the first half of season 3. ***Spoiler alert: from the beginning of the show to the most recent episode, people die. Lots of them.

I grew up reading both horror and fantasy novels. I read both genres for years and then just stopped. My complaint with both genres was lack of surprise. No matter how unique the adventure, how bold the quest, how vicious the monster, you could rest assured that the hero would survive and overcome. Dull, dull, dull.

When you know the hero is going to survive, there’s really nothing at stake. I love the moment of frisson when a major character fails. The whole narrative spins. Every assumption about the rules of the story get reexamined. Everything is fresh and uncertain and the characters who remain get a lot more interesting because there are no guarantees. Everything is suddenly at stake.

This works best in stories of epic scale, tales with plenty of major characters to spare. But you can’t just stock the shelves with disposable bodies. You must first make me care about them. I need to relate to their motivation and root for them to succeed. Don’t let the death be entirely meaningless. The death should be quick and merciless. It should happen suddenly from an unseen direction, but it cannot be random and it must advance the story and increase the dramatic tension. The death must diminish the hopes of those who remain and then,¬†inexorably,¬† force them to grow and inhabit their potential in unexpected ways.

Don’t write the same story over and over again. Invent new rules. Twist the old rules. Be brave. Force your characters to be brave. Kill your major characters. Don’t let the reader get too comfortable. I don’t read to be comfortable. I read to destroy my beliefs and unmake my assumptions. Surprise me. Don’t let me relax. Disturb me. I will thank you. I will read your books.