Born a farmer’s son in the Pacific Northwest, Stant Litore took the college road and eventually earned his PhD in English, but remains passionate for things that grow. He spent several years in a dim corner of a library, repairing bruised and battered books, before heading overseas to backpack through Europe. Haunted by the hunger and poverty he witnessed at home and abroad, he began spinning stories about the hungers that devour us and the hopes that preserve us. Today he lives in Colorado with his wife and their two daughters, writing about the restless dead and the restless living. He avoids certain parts of the mountains during the dark of the moon. Strangers in the Land is his first published novel.
Do a search on Amazon.com for “zombie.” Go ahead. I dare you.
I just did. I got 13,560 results under “Books” alone.
(And if you really want to boggle your mind, that’s up from my search of 8,764 results this time last year.)
13,560 results. I’m going to give you a moment to let that sink in.
Are you ready for some more numbers?
How about 4,093. That’s the record for the largest number of participants dressed as zombies on a zombie walk – in New Jersey in 2010. I’m writing this post on Halloween week 2012, so it’s possible that some city has just blown this record out of the water. We’ll know soon.
Here’s another: 11,666,501. That’s the number of Likes the Facebook page for AMC’s The Walking Dead had at the time that I wrote this post.
So you can find thousands of people dressing up as the hungry dead, and you can read hundreds – and hundreds – of zombie novels, novellas, and anthologies. They’re everywhere, and they aren’t going away any time this year, or probably in the next year, either. They are the walking, lurching, moaning dead, and we remain completely fascinated by them.
Why aren’t we bored of them yet?
Here’s what I think.
Reason #1: The Fear of the Inevitable. Let’s start with the most obvious reason: zombies embody whatever inevitable and unstoppable force threatens to devour us, whatever force we are afraid of. This is a force we feel essentially powerless against and yet feel noble for lifting our machetes and our rugged individualism against. In the early days of Romero, that was communism or the threat of nuclear war and its after-effects. In the nineties, the object of fear was our rampant consumerism – the fear that we were increasingly surrounded by vast and uncountable hordes of people who do nothing but feed, and that at any moment, perhaps at the next commercial break, we might become one of them. In the 2000s, fast on the heels of repeated pandemic scares – from SARS to bird flu – that unstoppable bogeyman was pestilence. In 28 Days Later and the darker moments of The Walking Dead, it’s our own capacity for rage and mindless violence – a violence we see in our schools and public places, a violence we truly don’t know what to do with.
Reason #2: The Persistence of Grief. Zombie stories, whether played for humor or horror, give us the chance to deal with our oldest fear of all: that of loss, of bereavement – a fear and a grief that predates the mastery of fire. You’d think that after millions of years of being born, growing up, growing old, and dying, we’d be used to death – that as a species, we’d be able to deal with it. I mean, we’ve had a lot of practice. But this just isn’t the case – death still scares the bejeezus out of us. We spend a lot of our time not thinking about it, but the reality is, at some point each of us comes face to face with the terrible realization that someone – a living, breathing human being with hopes, loves, fears, and dreams, and a name – can be snuffed out like a candle. Gone. Never see them again. That’s the saddest thing I can think of. And sooner or later, we have to realize it will happen to us, too. If we go too long without realizing it, it eventually catches up with us in the form of a midlife crisis and ensuing shenanigans. Some of us find out early; we lose someone we love deeply, and we grieve. You may believe in heaven. You may believe that you’ll be reunited with your loved ones. I hope you do. But let’s face it, here on this earth, today, death still sucks.
We live in a world that has cancer, starvation, and serial killers. A world in which people who matter to us sometimes die in horrible ways. Zombie stories give us a way to start dealing with this — because when you get right down to it, every good zombie story is partly about watching someone you love die in a horrible way and not being able to help them or save them, and then having to find some way to say goodbye. This is what makes AMC’s The Walking Dead so poignant – think of the scene with the two sisters in Season 1. The Walking Dead is all about how hard it is (and how unfair, and how necessary it is) to say goodbye.
Reason #3: Damn it Feels Good to Be Alive. Scanning Twitter’s frequent commentary on the zombie apocalypse – or reviewing popular Facebook memes – will reveal just how hungry some people actually are for at least the idea of a zombie apocalypse. Stronger even than the zombies’ hunger for flesh is our hunger for meaning-filled lives, and there is just nothing as meaning-filled as a life boiled down to its most bare essentials. In the zombie apocalypse, that fight you just had with your boss, that call from your creditors, or whether to paint the garage door blue or green just doesn’t matter anymore. All that matters now is scavenging for food, hacking off the scalp of whatever is trying to eat you, the adrenaline rush of raw survival, and hot survivor sex with your wife or your husband. And maybe, because zombies are so completely lifeless and incapable of love, encountering them reminds us to recover a thrill of joy at the life and the love we have.
Reason #4: Thou Shalt Not Devour Thy Neighbor. Zombies are hunger incarnate. They see everyone living as food, and their imperative is to feed, to use and consume other beings to sate a hunger that can never be satisfied. You don’t have to look too deep to see that they’re an exaggeration of us. Too often, we look at other people as either as mere food, whether food for our desires, food for our fears, or food for our ambitions. In my series The Zombie Bible (which retells stories from the Bible as tales of humanity’s enduring struggle with its dead), many of the characters believe that when you look into a human face, into any human face, you see God’s face. When you look in your neighbor’s or coworker’s eyes, what do you see? A threat? Someone who can help you get something you need? Or a living, breathing human being, with fears and dreams, whose face is a mirror of the divine?
Zombie stories not only help us wrestle with fear and death; the best of them throw into sharp relief the questions we are least willing to ask: the questions of how we treat each other.
This is Stant Litore, author of The Zombie Bible, sharing my thoughts. Thanks for listening.