I saw my first zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead when I was around thirteen and I've been hooked ever since and I'm not the only one. In fact, there's such a huge following, it's practically a cult movement. So what is it about zombies? Why the infatuation?
It's like a bad car accident. Doesn't matter how terrible it is, we just can't help rubbernecking. But why? To see something gruesome? Are we even sure we want that imprinted on our memories forever? And yet, nine out of ten times, we do our very best to catch a glimpse.
The entire concept of zombies is revolting, or at least it should be, but here we are craving it like…well…zombies craving flesh. I realize the same could be said about vampires, werewolves, and other horrendous monstrosities but zombies seem to have evolved into a special kind of nightmare of their own.
I’m tempted to write a zombie novel but haven't been very successful getting one off the ground (or digging one out of the grave? Look, I never said I was a comedian). But the market is saturated, which makes the idea less appealing; but only a little bit. I’ll be writing one eventually, I know it. But seriously, there are so many zombie stories out there that if you did a search for horror books you’re likely to see three or four zombie novels out of every ten (rough estimate, but I tried it at a couple of book sites and that’s where my rudimentary stats come from).
But I digress.
Zombies; why zombies and why do we love them? I don't know for sure, but I do have theories.
I believe one reason we're so fascinated has to do with the most important thing in our lives; survival. But let's face it, survival isn't something most of us have to be concerned with (and no, getting our coffee before anyone talks to us doesn’t trump survival…in most cases). But when we watch or read a zombie story, whether we realize it or not, our minds are churning with possible escape routes the fool on screen, or in the pages, neglected to take.
Most typical survival scenarios have been theorized and figured out already. Involved in a plane crash? Who hasn't memorized the safety procedures by now? Same goes for trains, ships etc. Natural disasters? Been there done that. For hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes we have years of disaster preparedness expertise. Now, I'm not at all suggesting we'd all react confidently and accordingly to any of the instructions we've been given. But just knowing there are procedures makes a world of difference. And chances are if you don't know them someone else will.
But zombies? Good luck, my friend. It doesn't matter how many movies, TV shows, and books we’ve read, the zombie phenomenon is an unknown (yes and unreal, but we're theorizing here!)
Do they shamble like on The Walking Dead? Sprint like a cheetah running down a gazelle like on a World War Z? Do they really fall apart easily? Maybe they have super-zombie strength to aid them in their never-ending hunger for human pastries. Or, maybe they're intelligent like in George A. Romero's Land of the Dead. Have you seen it? The zombies actually develop socially and start using tools and design strategic attacks so they can hunt us more effectively; how's that for horrifying? Anyway, I think you get the gist. Trying to wrap our minds around surviving a zombie apocalypse is probably a lot tougher than the movies and books give it credit for, and they don't actually make it seem easy at all.
Another reason I think we're all obsessed with zombies is just as mentally invisible and somewhat related to the survival angle; what happens to you, the real you, if you become a zombie? When you see those pathetic shuffling flesh dropping automatons wandering aimlessly about, I believe the inquisitive part of our subconscious asks, “What happens to my soul?” Or consciousness, or what have you. It's not only a disturbing question (and we all do love the disturbing ones don't we?), it's also very intriguing. Let's look at some options and you'll see what I mean.
By far the most desirable outcome is that our soul simply moves on like it does after a normal death (assuming that's what actually happens. That topic may be reserved for a different post). But what if it doesn't. What if say…our consciousness is stuck? Have you ever heard of locked-in syndrome? Wikipedia says,
"Locked-in syndrome (LIS) is a condition in which a patient is aware but cannot move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles in the body except for the eyes."
Only, in this case, there's no paralysis. The zombie virus, or whatever caused our zombieism, has simply taken over but we’re still aware of everything. Can you imagine? If not, take the story of Martin Pistorius, a South African man suffering from LIS. Pistorius was stuck in his own mind for years but no one knew it. Everyone thought he was in a vegetative state during his lengthy coma. They had the kids TV show Barney & Friends on a constant loop in his room; talk about horror! He was so sick of it he decided to occupy himself in other ways, like telling time using the sun and shadows. You can read his story here:
The point is, put yourself in poor Pistorius’ position as a zombie. Instead of Barney, you get a box seat in the theater of terror, witnessing the pain and terror you're inflicting as the body you'd commanded your entire life rips another human being to pieces like a starved lion ravishing a wounded gazelle. Just imagining the screams alone can drive you insane.
To make matters worse (as if this isn't bad enough, right?), LIS victims also report being able to still feel physical sensations, like touch. So in our zombie scenario, if it's something akin to LIS, you're not just a visual witness. You get the great pleasure of experiencing the crunch of human bones grinding between your teeth, the squishy sensation of chewing through someone's spleen, and the spaghetti slurp of blood filled veins sliding between pursed lips. And despite the revulsion, can you resist comparing the texture of raw human meat to beef? Oh! What if you can still taste? Will you laugh maniacally in your mind while wondering if someone's glutes taste like chicken?
And despite all that, eventually, you'll get used to it and grow bored. The horror will no longer be so horrible and all you'll have left is endless wandering while bumping into walls, cars, and other zombies until some unknown, merciful end.
And what if our souls do move on but it's sort of a zombie itself? It’s been an accepted notion that the soul leaves the body when it's dead. So what happens when we’re technically undead? What if our souls are zombie-like in the afterworld? I doubt we’ll make very many friends…
This next one is definitely a personal observation (ok, they all are but I'm trying to convince myself that I didn't really conjure all this up by myself). I believe that books are much more profound than films when it comes to zombieism. With films, everything is done for us. The visuals, sounds, all the situational peculiarities, everything. I'm not saying that films aren't horrifying, but they do make it sort of...well, easy. What I mean is that films enable us to turn off the imagination to a point. Not so with books. I don't care how descriptive an author is, there's going to be gaps and it's ultimately up to the reader to visualize and fill them; that's the best part of reading IMHO.
So essentially, and whether we realize it or not, as readers we voluntarily creating horrific images in our minds. This is another thing that I believe lends to our fascination of these wretched creatures. We read a zombie story and next thing you know we’re intimately involved with aspects we probably wish we weren't. Imagine this brief scene:
She opens the door, barely an inch, then pauses, listening. Again. Another inch, hoping the door doesn't creak. Through the crack, the darkness tugs and teases at her fear. It was like that time she sat at the top of one of Six Flag’s scariest roller coasters. The damn thing refused to move, letting anticipation eat away at her resolve and courage like a colony of ants slowly picking apart a helpless grasshopper.
But no. This is so much worse.
She has to go in; there's no choice. Where the hell is Bryce? She needs back up but can't wait for it. Taking a deep breath and bracing her nerves, she eases open the door.
It happens so quickly.
One second her hand is pushing the door open, the next, a booming sound that leaves her ears ringing. A glance around the gloomy room reveals intestines playing out a gory dance on one wall, while rotted brains create a gruesome pattern of their own as they slide lackadaisically to the floor on another.
A hysterical chuckle bubbles out of her as the wet mess brings a memory of a ruined painting, a myriad of colors running down a wall saturated after a flood. Just as with the picture, the color of brain matter mixed with years of old dingy drywall creates a macabre portrait that is both mesmerizing and repulsive.
She shakes her head and turns to see Bryce smiling at her with that wry grin of his, the one that manages to irritate and turn her on at the same time. Only not so much of the turning on thing at the moment.
She starts to smile back, a thank you on her lips, when her savior's demeanor turns sorrowful and…fearful.
For an instant, confusion fogs her reason. Then, a glance reveals a gaping three-inch hole in her forearm. How'd she miss that? Blood flows from it, a syrupy ooze seeking new real-estate from the grimy floor. She finds a morbid fascination with the muscle, tendons, and veins that swim in the life’s fluid as they spill out, trying to escape their fleshy prison.
When she looks up again, tears flow freely from Bryce’s eyes and his shotgun is aimed at her head. She wants to speak, but only has time to see his finger squeeze the trigger.
I probably didn’t need to write that much to get my point across, but I got carried away. I definitely see a zombie novel in my future!
Anyway, if you watched this scene in a film, I have no doubt the producer would do a fantastic job with the visuals. And once the scene is over and moves on to the next, you move right along with it. But in a book, it’s pretty easy to pause and get caught up with the aftermath of “It happens so quickly”. Authors write like this all the time, and guess who gets to imagine how that chunk of flesh was ripped from her forearm? That’s right, you do. But the key here is that YOU develop those mental pictures. From the actual attack to the details about the missing chunk of flesh.
These points are some of the reasons I think we crave the whole zombie thing. For a while, I thought the fascination would peter out but after shows like iZombie came out, I realized the zombie following is still in full swing. Incidentally, if you haven't seen iZombie, you're missing out! Treat yourself and watch an episode or two.
Obviously, my musings here are from the perspective of a fiction author. If you’re still interested and want a very different view from a serious societal perspective, I highly recommend you read “How our zombie obsession explains our fear of globalization” by Joseph Gillings. It’s actually scarier than anything I can come up with.
Care to add your own views and thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment below.