Welcome to part two of a three-part special on zombies and how to use them. Today I’m going to be letting other people do a lot of my talking for me, as we all discuss some of the different things that zombies can symbolize. In-between, I’ll talk about how we might take some of these meanings and build around them the kind of zombie that might reinforce them.
From /tg/ on 4chan: “It’s also of persecution against the survivor. Everyone is out to get you, to destroy you, with absolute irrational zeal. Your friends and loved ones also turn against you, familiar faces among the teeming, hateful masses turned against you simply for being… different from them.”
As someone else replied: “You’re the minority who haven’t conformed to undeath, and are relentlessly hunted for being alive. Those that are captured or infected are forcibly turned, and some would rather take their own lives against the tide than become one. Society and infrastructure crumble because the mob is focusing exclusively on a single issue, for seemingly no purpose other than its complete and pointless eradication. Every single minute of existence in this world is fraught with danger, usually through being discovered.
Sometimes you can fake it just long enough to get through, but if you’re found out, suddenly everyone is your enemy. You can make camp and hang out, but left in one place, you stagnate and die a slower, more agonizing death than by your own hand or that of the mob. Relative safety comes in the form of small communities far away, though sometimes the protective walls come down and the survivors are left to the merciless hands of the mob.
“I suddenly have a whole lot more respect for the zombie genre, even though I don’t like zombies as much, because it’s essentially putting you in the position of irrational persecution: just replace survivors with, I don’t know, homosexuals, and zombies with conservatives… and it works as a great analogy.”
Here’s the kind of story where you want to make it possible for humans to masquerade as zombies. Maybe it’s the smell of rotting, like in The Walking Dead. Maybe it’s something in the way that they move and act, and so long as you shamble and moan the zombies will think nothing of you— but you’d better eat what they eat too, because a zombie with a weak stomach isn’t a zombie at all, and they’ll know that something’s wrong with a zombie that doesn’t go for prey.
Acting like a zombie can’t be healthy, though. There could certainly be physical effects, infection and the like, but the ones that I’d be most concerned with are psychological. You can pretend to be something for only so long before the mask becomes you, and does so kindly.
Elsewhere on /tg/, someone mentioned how, in a post-post-apocalyptic society, the zombie apocalypse could represent societal trauma, as “its lingering effects continue to mess things up and prevent society from healing.”
Good old Science, incidentally, may have confirmed that many people are afraid of zombies because of political subtext. Zombies are the fear of the Republican Party, characterized as sexless, mindless, conformist, and terrifyingly evangelical.
Like the Borg, you will be assimilated. “Your culture will adapt to service us,” they proclaim. “Resistance is futile.” Except that zombies, and caricatured Republicans, have no need for your technological or cultural distinctiveness. They just want warm bodies.
Despite that, however, Annalee Newitz tells us that you don’t have to be on the Left in order for zombies to hit a nerve: “Republicans fear a revolt of the poor and disenfranchised, dressed in rags and coming to the White House to eat their brains.”
Stephen Harper, in the essay Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate, talks about how zombies have represented everything from “cultural dupes” of consumerism, to the nagging existential dread that mindless consumerism is supposed to fight off, to “a lumpenproletariat of shifting significance, walking symbols of any oppressed social group,” especially “in the literature and cinema of the twentieth century, in which zombies are synonymous with oppression and slavery.”
Could the real monsters… be us? (cue the cliché klaxon)
This is a harder idea to pull off, but what if you could make the zombies pitiable in some way? For example, what if the idea of a cure were not just the pipe dream of the standard deluded farmer with a barn full of his zombie neighbors, but a proven fact? Unfortunately, it isn’t accessible to our heroes just yet, so every zombie killed is a person who will never be cured.
As an extra horror, you can let the cured talk about how they haven’t totally lost themselves in the zombification process. They’ve just lost control of their bodies, but they are still forced to bear witness to every bone-crunching act that their hungering bodies perform.
Maybe show things from the point of view of the zombies, too. Perhaps their psychology is changed, so that they think nothing of eating people but still have a strange kind of culture, effective enfants terrible in full-grown and hungry bodies. Yes, they might have to be shotgun’d and chainsaw’d to save your brains, but at least for me there’s something sad about the necessity of killing thinking beings who, through no fault of their own, simply can’t be reasoned with.
There’s a difference between evil and insane, and I think that it’s always a tragedy when the latter have to suffer.
You could even do both of these at once, though that would be more difficult to pull off. Perhaps they suffer from a kind of dissociative identity disorder, or maybe the original personality is an impotent observer to all that the new and dominant personality is doing.
From This Book is Made of Spiders: Seriously, Don’t Touch It, by David Wong: “The zombie looks like a man, walks like a man, eats and otherwise functions fully, yet is devoid of the spark. It represents the nagging doubt that lays deep in the heart of even the most zealous believer: behind all of your pretty songs and stained glass, this is what you really are. Shambling meat. Our true fear of the zombie was never that its bite would turn us into one of them. Our fear is that we are already zombies.
Here’s a zombie that doesn’t need to bite you to grow the horde. Maybe there’s something in the air now, and it’s wearing at the mind (this could definitely work as a “living zombie,” like out of 28 Days Later). Or perhaps it’s supernatural, and the weak are possessed or simply transmuted.
Regardless of the details, the zombification process starts in the mind, not the body. You give up, and then you turn into a zombie, having shed all your pretensions at being a higher kind of creature. Everyone is a zombie. Some people are just play-acting at being something more.
C. T. Phipps, author of The Red Room and Cthulhu Apocalypse, gave the standard one: “Everyone knows cheetahs are faster than human beings. So are a lot of animals. However, something I learned in college was human beings are actually much better at endurance walks. So, when they caught up to their prey, they were fresh and the latter were dead tired. Zombies are much like this. Our hero can spend the entire movie running away from them but they, unlike their pursuers, have to catch their breath and sleep. The zombie is like death. You can escape it every day of your life but it will catch you.
Something else that this statement makes me think of is how zombies, more than being about death, can also be about putting us in the place of our prey. Zombies take us down through endurance hunting just like we used to do (and like the Kalahari, Raramuri, and others yet do).
I haven’t yet come across a story that really plays up this element, of zombies beating us at our own game. Perhaps you’d like to research other ancient hunting methods, and suggest these to your zombies (what comes to mind off the bat is a group of zombies driving people to a cliff face, where some choose the yawning gap below rather than the jaws of the dead, but this idea could do with some tinkering).
Lastly, from George A. Romero himself: “Zombies don’t represent anything in my mind except a global change of some kind. And the stories are about how people respond to or fail to respond to this. That’s really all they’ve represented to me.”
So yeah. Consider your themes.
Join me next month as we close this feature out with a few more questions to ask as you go about worldbuilding.
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