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MIND MELD: Zombies, and Why We Love Them

[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

We asked this week’s panelists…

Q: In the spirit of the breathless wait for The Walking Dead to return in February, let’s talk zombies! Why do you think they’ve captured the rotten little hearts and minds of the non- shambling public? If you write about zombies, is it just for pure fun, or are they a metaphor for something deeper and even more diabolical??

Here’s what they said…

Jonathan Maberry
Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and freelancer for Marvel Comics. His works include ROT & RUIN (now in development for film), PATIENT ZERO, ZOMBIE CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead; DUST & DECAY, MARVEL ZOMBIES RETURN and others. He was a featured expert on The History Channel special ZOMBIES: A LIVING HISTORY.

Zombies are a useful monster. In creative terms, they serve a few different purposes. First, they are the well-known metaphor generator that allows every writer to explore a different moral, social, societal, philosophical or psychological issue via an entertaining vehicle. This has a long, long tradition in storytelling. Ask Homer. Ask Aesop.

Second, zombies represent a single, massive, shared threat that impacts the lives of every single character in the story. Their impact is so overwhelming that each character’s life is shaken up, which means that the affected elements of their personalities fall away to reveal a truer inner self. In times of great crisis we see personality qualities emerge (or disintegrate) in fascinating and revelatory ways. A corporate CEO who is used to being a lion in the boardroom may be a useless coward when it comes to surviving a crisis; while a kid working a minimum-wage dead-end job at a convenience store might discover qualities of heroism that might otherwise never have emerged. Don’t forget, all real drama is about ordinary people in some kind of crisis. We don’t tell stories about a bunch of nice people having a pleasant day –there’s no drama (and therefore no insight) in that.

And also, the general public has, of late, had their perceptions of what ‘zombie stories’ are. For decades the perceptual standard has been that zombie stories are about death, dying, and visceral slaughter; that these stories were self-indulgent gorefests with nothing redeeming about them. But now that there are so many zombie stories out there, and in so many formats: novels, TV, comics, movies, short stories, video games, toys and more, it’s forced Joe Public to take a closer look. What they’re finding is that the zombie genre has drawn some of today’s top storytellers –writers who understand that the best zombie stories aren’t actually about the zombies. The best zombie stories are about the people. Real people. After all, the title of ‘The Walking Dead’ does not refer to the zombies. The dead men walking are the people whose lives and preconceptions and expectations have died. They are walking from the world that was into an uncertain future, and the name of the landscape through which they walk is ‘drama’.

As long as good writers bring quality storytelling to the genre, zombies will be around for a long, long time. Deservedly so.

Mira Grant

Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) is the author of the Newsflesh Trilogy (Feed, Deadline, Blackout), published by Orbit in North America and Orbit UK in the United Kingdom. In her guise as mild-mannered urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire, Mira was the recipient of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. You can find her works as both Mira and Seanan at her main bibliography page. Seanan’s website is the best place to find information on where both she and Mira will be appearing.

Both Feed and Deadline have been nominated for Hugo Awards, as has “Countdown,” the first novella in the Newsflesh universe.

Zombies: the final frontier. In a world where every monster has been boiled, baked, and beaten into total familiarity, becoming less frightening with every cuddly iteration and familiar trick, the modern movie zombie is something exciting, because it’s something new. It’s a monster that has the necessary pedigree to seem familiar, with ties to flesh-eaters and revenants in cultures all over the world, but still maintains a certain rotten freshness. That makes them appealing. We like new things, and we like things that feel huge and mythic, whether or not they really are. The zombie is the Swiss Army knife of monsters. It has a thousand possible applications, and each of them is, at least for the moment, completely valid and believable. I write about zombies for fun, but they generally have a deeper significance, some core point that I’m trying to make, with the zombies as stand-ins for disease, or loss of identity, or the culture of fear. Their flexibility makes them magnificent, and means that the shamble is far, far from over.

Stefan Petrucha
Stefan Petrucha is the author of, whoa, lots of books and graphic novels, most recently, the YA thriller Ripper and Dead Mann Walking and Dead Mann Running, featuring Hessius Mann, zombie detective. He also teaches online courses in things like writing and graphic novels for the University of Massachusetts. Check it all out at

The original Haitian zonbi was a slave metaphor. In a culture that’d just achieved their hard-earned freedom, what could be worse than becoming a mindless plantation slave?

Taking his cue at least partly from The Last Man on Earth (the first film version of I Am Legend) George Romero morphed that into the grunting, cannibalistic plague–metaphor we all know and love.

Aside from the usual fear-of-death thing that accompanies all horror tropes, the basic terror remains the same – become a zombie, lose your self. In the apocalyptic version, fight the zombies long enough, and you lose that self anyway by abandoning your supposed humanity.

And you know the struggle to retain either version of self is going to end badly, right?

Why so popular? I think because it reminds us of something we all know, but don’t really like dealing with – whatever else we may be, our minds are subject to our bodies, and eventually one rots along with the other. As long as it’s on the screen, or in a book, it’s safe to be terrified by that. It may even be handy emotional practice for the real thing.

In a way that’s particularly appealing to adolescents who’re dealing with their full adult limitations (and powers) for the first time. For many of them, death and debilitating disease is a distant myth.

But heck, it applies to everyone.

For my zombie detective effort, I attempt a variation on the classic trope, keeping the rot and the madness, but making the zombies more a disenfranchised underclass, hoping to create some sympathy for the shambler, if you will. Brought back in far less than perfect shape by a scientific breakthrough, they trying to hang on, keep their bodies and minds from falling apart, but they live on the fringe of society and are always on the verge of losing it.

The noir-zombie mashup always struck me as a natural. Classic Noir takes place in corrupt world peopled with folks willing to do anything to get by, and the noir hero, though he fights for the good, and may succeed for the moment, knows he’s eventually lose the big fight. To my mind that’s pretty much the same as the world in The Walking Dead, just gussied up with a few more smoky rooms and broken neon lights. But to make it work, the z’s have to be the only paranormal creatures. Any other sort of magic strikes me as adding too much hope for the zombie trope to do what it does best.

With two Dead Mann books out and an option offer from a major television production studio, it seems to be working.

Death is always around, after all, and while you might not want to make friends with it, you do have to come to terms with it. Better to do so in the safety of your living room, than in a dead end alley.

So, to answer the question, is it just for pure fun, or is it something deeper and even more diabolical, the answers is a delighted yes. Absolutely!

Ben Tripp
Ben Tripp is best known as the author of Rise Again: A Zombie Thriller. As an artist-writer, he has pretty much managed to avoid having a real job all his adult life. For that he is deeply grateful.

In the next window on my computer, there’s a zombie manuscript — an apt description: it’s Below Zero, the sequel to my first zombie novel Rise Again, and every time I think it’s finished, it gets up and attacks me again.

Let me start with some background. When I was around 14 years old in the early 1980s, I saw Night of the Living Dead. It was a 16mm print screened in a school auditorium because the faculty had lost their minds.

It had a predictable effect on me. The Pennsylvanian countryside in that movie looked a lot like the New Hampshire woods I grew up in. And movies like that should be discovered with an audience, not on the small screen; seeing it with a bunch of other bored teenagers was ideal. Even in the second decade after it had been released, that picture had the power to take a crowd of jaded kids about to discover Depeche Mode and Reaganism and turn them into shrieking, clutching infants.

Naturally, this got my attention.

As the years went by, I saw many more zombie movies. I think it’s safe to say I saw all of them, in fact. Giallo rubbish like Nightmare City, culture critiques like the original Dawn of the Dead. Weird old pre-cannibal movies such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and I walked With a Zombie (who wouldn’t?). Quasi-zombie movies like The Serpent and the Rainbow and The Last Man On Earth. Anything with a whiff of the animated corpse about it. I watched The Evil Dead twice in a row in consecutive screenings, people.

I’ve asked myself the same question you’re asking me about half a million times. What is it about zombies?

It’s personal, of course. The lurching dead coming through the woods, shambling among the graves, clawing at the drafty, brittle panes of the old house — that was my childhood. But there’s a social commentary that never gets old, too.

The moaning, mindless horde of ravenous husks made a pretty good metaphor for the 1980s when every countercultural movement was deftly co-opted by commercial interests, absorbed and mind-erased and turned against us. That’s when each zombie had to be dressed up like the Village People so we could tell what they did in life — the undead housewife dragging her laundry basket behind her, the bloodstained majorette with shako and baton, and so forth. It wasn’t just zombies — the 80s were like that.

Crank up the insanity and you have the exuberant excess of the 90s: Army of Darkness, Dead Alive, Zombie Bloodbath 2: Rage of the Undead, and so forth. Then with the millennium’s fast-paced chaos came the fast zombies (not a new idea, but they grabbed us at last) in shows like 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake, among many others.

With every decade, the zombie metaphor seems to change shape and gather strength. These days we have them on cable. They’re being postmodernized in things like The Cabin in the Woods. It seems to me that they are a metaphor for alienation, fear of the other, fear of the mindless, hungry crowd in which we increasingly find ourselves. The zombies of 1968 reminded audiences of all those terrifying drugged-out hippies and commies and nudists taking over the country; by 2008, audiences preferred the zombies to the living (Zombie Strippers!)

In a time of apocalyptic fears and global decay, when the American grip on the world is coming loose and nobody knows if it will be replaced by quasi-communist China or Islam or the Bilderberg Group, the soulless, hungry corpse shambling toward us is a reflection of our fears. Are we doomed? Have we lost? Is our very culture a walking ghost? After all, death will make corpses of us all. The zombie simply asks us: will we even know we’ve died?

Dana Fredsti
Dana Fredsti is an ex B-movie actress with a background in theatrical sword-fighting. Through seven plus years of volunteering at the Exotic Feline Breeding Facility/Feline Conservation Center ( in Rosamond, California, Dana’s had a full-grown leopard sit on her feet, been kissed by tigers, held baby jaguars and had her thumb sucked by an ocelot with nursing issues. She’s addicted to bad movies and any book or film, good or bad, which include zombies. Her other hobbies include surfing (badly), collecting beach glass (obsessively), and wine tasting (happily). Her other books include: Plague Town (Titan Books, 2012), touted as Buffy meets The Walking Dead, and a number of spicy genre romances written under the name Inara LaVey. Plague Nation will be out in April 9th, 2013.

*Why do you think they’ve captured the rotten little hearts and minds of the non-shambling public?

Oh, zombies, zombies, zombies… there are just so many opinions out there as to why zombies are so popular these days (and why we’re all anxiously awaiting the second half of Season Three of The Walking Dead. And may I just add “WTF, AMC, with a mid-season break?! We don’t need intermission, dammit”). Many of these reasons are listed in this kickass blog post by Jonathan Maberry and a slew of the top names in zombiedom today, all of them more articulate and thoughtful than I am on the subject.

Because people finally realize how ultimately creepy, cool and versatile zombies are? Well, that might be part of the reason, but I think it’s because a few really good movies and books came out at the right time and hit a nerve with people. Also there are many people like me who have been waiting eagerly for our favorite monster to get more media time and we’ve proven that if you write/film it, we will read/watch it. The quality of the offerings has been consistently improving and now, with the impending film adaptation of Max Brooks’ World War Z (I mean, seriously, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt duking it out for rights to a zombie novel?!) and The Walking Dead zombies have more legitimacy as a media money maker than ever before. Plus they don’t sparkle.

But back to more in depth reasons explain flesh-eating walking dead’s current spate of popularity (not everyone swims with me in the shallow end of the subtext pool, after all). Two of the most prevalent reasons I’ve noticed are:

1.) Zombies are a blank slate that can stand in for any fear a person might have, from rampant consumerism to terrorists to the lose of individualism, with many other fears stuffed in between those three.
2). Zombies are us and we are them. Now I’m not entirely sure what that’s supposed to mean, but I interpret it as a fear of losing our humanity, along with the paranoia that your friend or loved one could suddenly turn on you for no rational reason. I used to have nightmares where my parents looked like my parents, but whatever lurked inside of the skin shells were definitely NOT my parents. Creeped the hell out of me. Zombies creep me out for some of the same reason.

*If you write about zombies, is it just for pure fun, or are they a metaphor for something deeper and even more diabolical?

I write about zombies because I I love them (in a non-carnal way, okay?) and they became what I thought was the creepiest monster after I saw the original Night of the Living Dead with my friend who lived next door. We had all the lights off, her parents were out for the evening, and we were pre-teens at just the right age to psyche ourselves up to be scared. Good times.

For me personally there’s something about the whole relentless walking corpses intent on eating people alive that just tickles my “Wow, this is disturbing and scary!” bone and I happen to love being scared. Not much frightens me anymore; my biggest fear in life is dying suddenly and my pets ending up in the pound or starving to death. A zombocalypse plays into that fear quite nicely

When you die, you just want to die quickly and have it over with, with a minimum of pain and angst. If I had to pick the most horrific way to die, getting eaten alive would top the list up there with being buried while still breathing. Getting eaten by a big cat would be bad enough, but at least they’re beautiful and all furry and cute when they’re not mauling you. Zombies are not cute (no, not even the little ones), plus they smell bad and they tend to take their time when yanking out your intestines. You are very much aware of what’s happening to you, and the fact you’ll be coming back as one of them after you die. That just kind of sucks, if you ask me.

So no, no metaphor for me when I write about zombies. It’s pure fun and horror, all the way!

Jesse Petersen
A Facebook application once told Jesse Petersen that she’d only survive a day in a zombie outbreak, but she doesn’t believe that. For one, she’s a good shot and two, she has an aversion to bodily fluids, so she’d never go digging around in zombie goo. Until the zombie apocalypse, she lives in the Tucson with her husband and two cats and writes snarky urban fantasy about monsters and zombies. Find out more about the author at

I think zombies have an appeal because you cannot reason with them (generally, in some books you sort of can). They want to eat you, get to your brains, but it’s not for a vendetta. It’s not personal. It’s not even mean-spirited. But they aren’t apologetic, either, they just have to eat you. It makes them so different from really any other ‘monster’ out there. Plus, they are so relentless. What other monster could you blow all the arms and legs off them and they would keep coming?

As for why I write them, it really is just pure, unadulterated fun. My Living With the Dead series (MARRIED WITH ZOMBIES, FLIP THIS ZOMBIE, EAT SLAY LOVE and THE ZOMBIE WHISPERER take a normal couple and use a zombie apocalypse to help them through their issues. It saves their marriage, it gives them a business, it will even maybe help them raise their kid. So I take a very dark humor approach to our zombie overlords, and really what is more fun than that?

David Moody
David Moody grew up on a diet of trashy horror and pulp science fiction. He worked as a bank manager before giving up the day job to write about the end of the world for a living. He has written a number of horror novels, including AUTUMN, which has been downloaded more than half a million times since publication in 2001 and has spawned a series of sequels and a movie starring Dexter Fletcher and David Carradine. Film rights to HATER were snapped up by Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) and Mark Johnson (producer of the Chronicles of Narnia films). Moody lives with his wife and a houseful of daughters and stepdaughters, which may explain his pre-occupation with Armageddon. His latest novel, TRUST, is currently available free online at Visit Moody at

What’s not to love about zombies? I’m well aware of how wrong that probably sounds but, seriously, they’re the greatest of all horror monsters on so many levels.

As a reader/viewer, zombies represent some of our very worst fears realised. In many ways, they’re us and we’re them. I could write forever about why I believe the undead are truly terrifying (I’ve managed five novels and over 100,000 words of free zombie fiction so far!), so I’ll keep this short and resort to a few bullet points…

I think Zombies have captured the rotten little hearts and minds of the non-shambling public because:

  • They’re de-individualized – doesn’t matter who you were, what you did or how hard you fought before they get you, once you’re infected you’re immediately reduced to just being one of them. Every trace of the person you used to be will disappear. You’ll look, act, smell, fight, think, eat like all the others… just another mindless cog in a vast, rotting crowd – nothing more than an animated mound of cold, dead, hungry flesh.
  • They remind you of everything you’ve lost – sure, you might have visions of slicing through the zombie hordes with an axe or a chainsaw without a damn care, and you might even be successful for a while, but what happens when you come across the corpse of someone you used to know? What if that’s the body of one of your kids standing in front of you, about to attack? Or your lover? One of your parents? Your best friend?
  • Zombies repulse us – they’re generally physically grotesque, and the longer they’re left to shamble around, the worse they’re inevitably going to get.
  • They are the Terminators of the horror world – relentless, unemotional, unstoppable. Unless you make that headshot in time and hit your target, that zombie is just going to keep on coming after you until it has your flesh between its yellowed teeth…
  • They’re already everywhere. Seriously. Look out your window. Can you see anyone? Chances are you’ll see a few folks or at least a few buildings with people inside. If you live in a city you’ll maybe see a few hundred, perhaps even more. That’s all well and good until the zom-poc starts, but when the dead rise, all those people you share your part of the world with will immediately become a deadly threat. Have you stopped to consider the fact that we spend virtually every minute of our lives surrounded by endless hordes of potential zombies!

So why do I write about the living dead? I guess there are a few main reasons…

First and foremost, for all the reasons I’ve already listed and more, zombies still scare the hell out of me. Personally, I can’t imagine anything more terrifying than a full-on zombie apocalypse. But equally importantly, I love writing about zombies because they’re so adaptable. You can shove a zombie in pretty much any situation and come up with a decent story. I’ve read about zombies in the Arctic and in space, about zombies invading the worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars, zombies in every historical era from Neanderthal times to hundreds of years in the future… the list goes on. That adaptability means that writing about the living dead effectively gives you a blank canvas. You can write blood-soaked slapstick in the vein of Zombieland, or use the dead to present a social commentary as Romero did with his first three living dead films (we won’t mention the others…).

But I think the main reason I write about zombies is because I have a deep-rooted fear of people. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t run away screaming when I see another person (though I do sometimes), I just get uneasy because we all have an inbuilt survival instinct and, if push comes to shove, we’re all capable of turning against our fellow man and doing whatever we have to do to make sure we stay alive at the expense of everyone else. It all boils down to us versus them and, for me, zombies are the ultimate personification of them.

Joan Francis Turner
Joan Francis Turner is the author of the Resurgam trilogy, consisting of Dust, Frail and the forthcoming Grave. For book news visit, and for random comments visit her on Twitter at @violetinbloom.

I used to have all sorts of earnest answers for why I wrote three books about zombies (although, technically speaking, zombies cease to exist by the end of the first book) from a zombie-eye view–referencing xenophobia, disability, alienation or my own neurotic fear of death, as the desire struck me–but the actual reason was the movie Carnival of Souls. I watched it several years ago very late at night when I had nothing better to do, and something about its muted palette and mood, the apparitional nature of the ghouls (I called them “zombies” once and was severely, angrily corrected), the ghostly waltz at the Saltair pavilion, protagonist Mary Henry’s hand emerging from the depths of a lake long after she should have drowned and her slow, inevitable relinquishment of life, pulled me in and wouldn’t let go. The “dance night” scene in Dust comes directly from Carnival of Souls. The story of Erysichthon was also a big influence, as the Bulfinch Myths of Greece and Rome version scared the hell out of me as a child. Also, it always struck me as slightly strange, if not unfair, that zombies are treated as some sort of wholly alien monster when, barring cremation, rotting corpsedom is all our future (and as I discovered when researching the books, embalming achieves nothing), so it was clearly necessary to write something where not only did the living regard the living dead as unnatural, revolting, diseased and invasive, but the opposite was simultaneously true. And if immersing myself in all that accomplished nothing else, it finally got me to read Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death.

As far as why anyone else likes zombies, you would have to ask them! Apocalypses seem to be perennially popular and maybe zombies manage to hit that sweet spot of environmental, existential, biomedical, geopolitical and farcical catastrophe all at once.

VM Zito
VM Zito resides in Connecticut, USA with his wife and daughter. He is an active member of the Horror Writers Association. His zombie novel THE RETURN MAN is now available in bookstores nationwide. For a free chapter, visit

I think horror has a way of reflecting the “Zeitgeist,” the spirit of the times. In the 90s and early 2000s, as our national economy rode high, vampires were often the monster of choice. Young and beautiful forever, they were the perfect consumers, able to seize whatever was needed to fulfill their desires. Heck, we barely even feared them — we envied them. But then the economy tanked, and those fantasies turned to dust in the harsh sunlight of the recession. Now we’re dealing with the aftermath, the “post apocalypse” that followed our economic bloodsucking. Foreclosed homes, unemployment, bad credit scores, an alarmingly growing distrust of elected officials. What better monster than zombies to inherit this land of decay?

That’s the reason, I think, why zombies are so popular today. Without zombies, we’re afraid we’ll just keep traveling down the same sad road, punching the clock at our tedious jobs, dropping pennies into insufficient retirement funds. Our homes will keep losing value as gas prices continue to climb higher… until the zombies come and save us. An outbreak lets us start over; it frees us from our despairing, powerless lives. Suddenly, money and politics mean nothing. Suddenly, it’s survival of the fittest. Rotting corpses are the new bottom rung on the class ladder; zombies are the victims, fallen to a fate that we barely escaped ourselves. In this fantasy, we are the unlikely heroes. Who cares if my paycheck is small, or if I’m just the bag boy at Shop Rite? In the new zombie world, all that matters is how well I smash undead skulls with a crowbar. That’s how respect and power will be earned. It’s what so many of us are craving in the real world now — a second chance for greatness. Zombies allow us to dream again.

Of course, when I write about zombies, I’m not paying much attention to any deeper meaning. All that stuff I just said? That’s like describing how a Ferrari engine works, compared to actually racing a Ferrari along an Italian mountain road. Who cares if you understand the mechanics? The ride kicks ass. And the truth is, zombies are just plain fun. They’re mindless and disturbing, with their slow, staggering steps and vacant eyes and teeth that will peel the skin from your red, shuddering muscles. Zombies scared the shit outta me when I was twelve, and they still scare me now that I’m forty. Long live the walking dead!

Joe McKinney

Joe McKinney has been a patrol officer for the San Antonio Police Department, a homicide detective, a disaster mitigation specialist, a patrol commander, and a successful novelist. His books include the four part Dead World series, Quarantined, Inheritance, Lost Girl of the Lake, Crooked House and Dodging Bullets. His short fiction has been collected in The Red Empire and Other Stories and Dating in Dead World. In 2011, McKinney received the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel. For more information go to

I’m not going to tell you his name, but I know an author who, over the years, has been my friend, my best and most honest critic, and, at times unwillingly, my mentor. He has praised me with patient good humor during my successes and counseled me with sage advice during my low periods of self-doubt and frustration. I admire and love the man.

But I don’t always agree with him. For example, we were guests at a recent convention and found ourselves sitting next to each other on a zombie panel. The moderator asked a question very similar to what we’re responding to today. My friend, who likes to think of himself as a part-time misanthrope, said, and I’m paraphrasing, that the popularity of the zombie is a symptom of our societal self-loathing; that we so disgust ourselves as a species that we first seek to debase others by turning them into zombies and then punish them for all the things they do to piss us off through a series of zombie kills, each more gruesome and bloody than the last.

I don’t buy that…even though I kind of get where he’s coming from. After all, when you look around, things are pretty bad. The economy is horrible, and more and more young people are finding the job market a barren and hostile environment. It’s easy to feel like you don’t matter when you can’t find a job.

And even if you do find one, it’s easy to feel the life bleeding out of you as you slog through another meaningless shift, or clear out the emails in your inbox, or put caps on bottles, or fold boxes, dunk fries in grease, whatever you do. There is a cyclical monotony to our work lives that is paralleled in the endless parade of zombies in all the various first person shooter video games, like Left 4 Dead and Dead Island. Perhaps the greatest example I’ve ever seen of this is in Shaun of the Dead. Remember Mary, the shop girl, the first zombie that Shaun and Ed encounter? She’s also one of the first characters we see, making her appearance as a living person during the opening credits. It’s that moment to which I’m referring. I love that her expression as she’s ringing up a customer is exactly the same expression she wears as a zombie. Life is a non-issue, that look says. It’s the monotony that matters.

But, as I said, I don’t buy it. Perhaps it’s true that zombies tell us a little about why we hate ourselves and the mess in which we find our lives, but I just can’t believe that hate and self-loathing can carry a wave of popularity as wide and as far reaching as that which the zombie has achieved. Surely there’s more to it than that.

I think what really bothers me about the “zombies as an expression of our self-loathing theory” is that it implies we’re amplifying our nightmares instead of purging them. The best horror fiction, historically speaking, has always been cathartic. It’s always been about stripping our fears of their efficacy by talking about them. (Can there be a greater example of this than Dickens’ “there is more of gravy than the grave” line in A Christmas Carol?) Zombie fiction is no different. It is, for me – and I believe for so many others – a genre that proves we are, at heart, a creative species that needs to tear down the world and create it anew in order to survive in it.

That has certainly been my experience. I started writing zombie fiction back when there were very few entries in the field. (Romero had done three of his zombie movies, and Skipp and Goodfellow had done Mondo Zombie, and Brian Keene had just published his wonderful novel The Rising, but there wasn’t much else.) I had watched Night of the Living Dead as a young teenager, and it was one of the only horror movies that ever actually scared me. I still remember going to bed every night with a baseball bat cradled in my arms. I knew that one day I would go on to write my own zombie story.

But of course life got in the way. I grew up. I went to college, and then grad school, and then got a job as a San Antonio police officer. Every night I was experiencing something new and crazy. Car chases and fistfights and talking people out of setting their babies on fire were normal nights for me. Believe it or not, I was having the time of my life. I even met the woman who would become the love of my life. And, in the winter of 2003, she gave me my first child. That was the moment right there: fatherhood. That was the moment that the zombies finally got me.

It happened like this. I was standing with my face against a large window, looking in on the nursery where my first-born lay sleeping. I was a young man, a scared young man, a young man finally willing to accept what my Dad had been telling me all along: that the world is infinitely more complex than I realized, and that fatherhood carries with it demands no one is ever truly prepared to accept.

Those of you with kids know what I mean. One minute you’re footloose and fancy free. You go out whenever you want. Life is good. You got this. And then – a baby! Suddenly, you’ve got more responsibilities than you ever knew existed. Life is complicated. Life is about diapers and insurance and visits to the pediatrician and wondering how you’re going to afford the groceries. Life is about actually getting to sleep through the night.

That was me in the winter of 2003. I was scared to death. But I had my writing to back me up. Since my early teenage years writing had been my outlet for my anxieties and concerns. I turned to it again. I started a science fiction novel that really sucked ass and I nearly gave it all up. But then I thought of the horror movies that I’d loved as a kid, and Night of the Living Dead came to mind. I realized that if I was going to do this right I needed to write what I loved, and what I loved was horror. I figured if I was beset on all sides by responsibilities too big for my kenning I would write about a character who was beset on all sides by horrors too big for his kenning, horrors he needed to dispatch in the most visceral way possible.

That’s how I started writing zombie fiction.

And that’s why I take exception whenever someone tries to dismiss zombie fiction as meaningless fluff.

Because it’s not.

It’s personal.

It matters.

It matters to me.

Diana Rowland

Diana Rowland has lived her entire life below the Mason-Dixon line, uses “y’all” for second-person-plural, and otherwise has no southern accent (in her opinion.) She attended college at Georgia Tech where she earned a BS in Applied Mathematics, and after graduation forgot everything about higher math as quickly as possible.

She has worked as a bartender, a blackjack dealer, a pit boss, a street cop, a detective, a computer forensics specialist, a crime scene investigator, and a morgue assistant, which means that she’s seen more than her share of what humans can do to each other and to themselves. She won the marksmanship award in her Police Academy class, has a black belt in Hapkido, has handled numerous dead bodies in various states of decomposition, and can’t rollerblade to save her life.

She presently lives in south Louisiana with her husband and her daughter where she is deeply grateful for the existence of air conditioning.

I could go off on a commentary about how so much of the non-shambling public actually does the mindless shambling thing quite a bit, but that’s veering off into cultural and social analytics that are probably beyond the reach of the question posed! However, commentary aside, I think that part of the reason zombies are so popular now is because they’ve reached the tipping point of being “cool.” By that I mean that zombies are popular, and there hasn’t yet been anything to make them unpopular (*cough* sparkly vampires), so therefore they become even more popular as the people who don’t yet know and love them try to find out why they’re so popular.

Peer pressure aside, a good measure of the appeal is that it’s something new and different. Yet I also think a generous portion of the fascination is the train-wreck/rubbernecking aspect. We get to see people at their worst, up against the wall, sometimes losing the battle and yet still remaining part of the story.

I think every piece of zombie media, whether film, novel, or story, carries its own metaphor, though they all seem to run along a common thread of representing inexorable forces or anything difficult to defeat or overcome. In some it’s a metaphor for apathy, or consumer excess, in others it’s government intrusion or corporate influence. In my White Trash Zombie books there’s no mistaking that my main character’s zombieism is a metaphor for her addiction, however as the series has progressed, I’m seeing that metaphor shift into an Us against Them theme.

But sometimes it’s just about bashing heads and eating brains. Braaaiinnns!

About Kristin Centorcelli (842 Articles)
Kristin Centorcelli is the Associate Editor at SF Signal, proprietor of My Bookish Ways, a reviewer for Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, and has also written for Crime Fiction Lover, Criminal Element, and Mystery Scene Magazine. She has been reviewing books since late 2010, in an effort to get through a rather immense personal library, while also discussing it with whoever will willingly sit still (and some that won’t).

16 Comments on MIND MELD: Zombies, and Why We Love Them

  1. I think one of the cool things about the zombie stories of the last, say, decade, is that even for someone who doesn’t gravitate towards zombie stories there is something cool that will draw you in. And the variety of types of zombie stories has kept the trope fresh even as it undergoes the same oversaturation of the market that has happened with urban fantasy.

    For me more serious films like 28 Days Later appeal as much as the brilliantly funny Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. Games like the Left for Dead series give you some of the same scare factor that movies do while allowing you to act as the hero or heroine in the story.

    I think part of the appeal of zombie stories is that they are truly the scariest monster there is–man. You can read true crime stories or just watch the news and you hear stories that horrify beyond anything anyone could invent. Among other things zombies can be an easily identified representation of the horrifying things mankind can perpetrate on itself. But as so many of the commenters pointed out, zombies can be a metaphor for many things and I think that versatility has kept them popular.

    I’m curious if those who write more serious zombie fiction enjoy the more humorous representations or if that bugs them.

    • For my money, I loved Shaun of the Dead, and I don’t know any horror writers or fans who didn’t at least enjoy it. Not so much Zombieland for me, since I felt it paled next to Shaun.
      I am looking forward to Warm Bodies, but don’t want to get my hopes up. “Funny” horror, if well done, always appealed to me. Caught John Dies at the End last week and, though not zombie, got a kick out of that, too.
      While it may make the tropes seem kinda silly, I don’t think it hurts serious zombie efforts at all.

      • I liked ’em both quite a bit. I’m not getting my hopes up for Warm Bodies either but given the current lull in films I want to go see I could see myself having a guys night out to go see it.

  2. One of the books not mentioned, and I Want to check out in the genre,is This Dark Earth by John Hornor Jacobs.

    I can appreciate both the serious and the funny when it comes to Zombies.

  3. Other than comics/graphic novels and Cherie Priest’s “Clockwork Century” books I am hard pressed to recall any books I’ve read that had a zombie presence. I was impressed with Hugh Howey’s Wool series and am interested in checking out his “I, Zombie” novel.

  4. Michael O. // January 16, 2013 at 11:22 am //

    For those into zombie fiction, I highly recommend I, Zombie by Al Ewing. It is COMPLETELY nuts. You can find it in some of the Tomes of the Dead collections.

    Also, Ben Tripp writes, “Giallo rubbish like Nightmare City…” While Nightmare City is certainly rubbish (I too have watched it and nearly everything with a zombie in it), it is not a giallo. Giallo refers specifically to a certain type of Italian crime/mystery movie with a certain style, like Suspiria. If you want to talk Italian low-budget film, you could say “spaghetti zombie movie,” I suppose.

    The best Eurotrash zombie movie is Zombie Lake, by the way. Completely, hilariously terrible.

  5. Do we really love zombies at this point?

    Might be different in my case, as I tend to focus a lot on the gaming scene as well, but zombies as a whole just.. ugh. They don’t excite me in the slightest, and worse yet, anything that has zombies as an advertised feature will drop way down on my priority/interest list. The scope of media just feels so supersaturated with zombies, and the unavoidable clichetastic plots inevitably tied to zombiestuff, that I don’t really know how one might still be enthused by the Zed.

  6. Zombies have become on par with sparkly vampires IMNSHO…

  7. My point of view is that regardless of how long something has been around there will be a goodly number of fans. First off, be it sparkly vampires, urban-immersed fey or the undead, if it hangs around for several years there are brand new fans coming on board all the time and for them our saturation is their next new thing. Beyond that, unless a person over-indulges in something they are passionate about it is hard to get tired of it. For example I’ve loved steampunk since before there were corsets and goggles everywhere you turn. I don’t overindulge in it to the exclusion of other subgenres that I enjoy and thus despite all the steampunk and whateverpunk one can see on the local bookstore shelves I’m not tired of it nor am I concerned that it is, or has, become passe.

  8. Such wonderful comments, guys! Thanks so much for weighing in on this one!


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