Why Zombies?

Art of the Living Dead, Chapter 1


Last year I wrote a book. This year I set it free. I am posting a chapter a week on Medium until I run out of chapters. Here is the second installment…


“Mmmmm. Brains.” — Anonymous

Strange as it may seem, this is a book about creativity. It is a guide for how to hold on to the living parts of your brain. I have been scraping together content for this book for years. No, that’s a lie. Truthfully, I have been avoiding writing this book for years. Like everything that is worth doing, I have resisted it. Call it procrastination. Call it fear. Finally, I sat down and started writing. To my surprise, the book that was hiding inside me was about zombies. Who knew?

I have no idea why zombies turned out to be the thing that unified my theories about creativity. Inspiration is unpredictable and when it pokes you with that sharp end of its motivation stick, you don’t have many options. You either accept its prickly gift and get to work, or you shrug it off, press your fingers deep in your ears, and pretend you didn’t enjoy that pinching feeling. For once, I embraced the pain and started typing–one agonizing word at a time.

Yes, I love zombie movies, TV shows, Plants vs. Zombies, and anything zombie-related. I have been sucked in by the recent explosion of zombie pop culture. It’s everywhere.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what sparked the zombie craze, but at the turn of the century, the pulse of zombie popularity started to beat. Zombie fanaticism began with movies. In the 90's only 35 zombie movies were made, but that number ballooned to 171 in the 2000's. There were 31 zombie movies made in 2008 alone. Web searches for the term “zombie” echo this trend, as a Google trend graph shows the beginning of a spike starting in 2009.

Today, zombie-themed events generate massive participation. Many cities host annual zombie walks that produce thousands of participants. While the Guinness record is officially 8,027 attendees, other sources claim the Twin Cities 2012 walk was the largest zombie gathering, with estimates of over 30,000 zombie-clad fans.

Zombie walks generate thousands of participants.

Step on any college campus and you might stumble into a game of Humans vs. Zombies, or HvZ as the players call it. HvZ is a week-long game of tag involving Nerf guns where students are divided into humans or zombies in a fight for survival. Over 650 campuses have participated in week-long HvZ games each of which can involve hundreds of students.

Map showing campuses where HvZ has been played.

The enthusiasm of zombie fans and the massive participation that zombie events generate has even caught the eye of government program organizers. Simulated zombie events are being used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to train disaster response workers. It may seem silly, but the participation level, public awareness, and general enthusiasm for a zombie simulation greatly exceeds that of a more traditional disaster.

And then there is television where the collective heartbeat of zombie fanatics has turned shows like The Walking Dead into a money-printing franchise, securing contract extensions into the foreseeable future. At some point the zombie bubble will burst, but for now the undead’s popularity shows no sign of slowing.

But why? What is it about zombies that resonates so strongly with people? And why now? It can’t be a coincidence. It’s not just a cultural obsession with violence or the thrill-seeking habits of horror enthusiasts. The movement is powered by something much more universal, much more human.

Zombie tales are fundamentally different. Think about the classic themes of good vs. evil. Take Superman vs. Lex Luthor, for example. What is so interesting about an evil genius who battles a hero with equal mental powers? Or what about Godzilla, King Kong, or Transformers? Giant monsters aren’t scary if you have enough firepower to bring them down. Disaster thrillers aren’t scary after the tsunami, hurricane, meteor, tornado, or earthquake has struck. Other villains suffer from painfully obvious fatal weaknesses. Vampires can be taken out with sunlight, sharp sticks, or garlic. Modern audiences expect more from our bad guys. Numbed by the timid state of villainy, the world needed a new enemy capable of consuming our brains. Thankfully, zombies have risen to the challenge.

Zombies are the ultimate monster. They are unstoppable. Multiplying exponentially, the threat of zombies never ends. The zombies just keep coming and coming.

Zombie stories are universally intriguing because the enemy is human–or at least they used to be. Zombies just lack whatever it is that gives you and me life. That’s terrifying because if we aren’t careful, we could easily become the enemy. You can fight villains and monsters, but how do you protect your humanity? Can you battle the entire recently-human race whose only goal is to assimilate you? The threat isn’t pain, death, or destruction. The fear is that you will lose the very thing that makes you human. They are coming for your brain.

A recipe for a good zombie story only needs two ingredients. The first is a mob that wants to kill your humanity, forcing you to become one of the mindless. The second ingredient is the almost complete annihilation of the human race. Whether it is by nuclear contamination, virus outbreak, scientific experiments gone bad, or brain parasites, the human population is almost completely wiped out, often before the opening credits have even stopped rolling.

Zombie tales are not like other genres where a hero can jump in and save the world. The damage is done. It’s over. The best we can hope for is an outpost somewhere where a few survivors can live in peace. That’s not much of a happy ending, is it? It raises the question of why this scenario would appeal to people at all, let alone be one of the most popular themes in modern storytelling. The answer to that question is the secret to the unprecedented popularity of zombies.

Here’s my theory. The reason zombies stories appeal to us is that we can relate deeply to this idea that we are utterly alone in the world. We are surrounded on all sides by crowds of lifeless bodies that look like people, but who don’t share the spark that makes our lives worth living. The world is falling apart around us and there isn’t an antidote to reverse the destruction. The damage is done. Humanity seems lost. The brain dead population seems to grow relentlessly and we can’t fight it. We fear we can’t protect ourselves from the destructive powers of the mindless majority. Our expectations are so low that we don’t even expect to save the entire race, we just want to live in peace with a handful of survivors who share our beliefs. We are living the zombie apocalypse already and the reflection on our screens is fascinating because it is so chillingly familiar.

The thing that separates us from the zombies, the thing that gives us life, is our capacity to create. Artists create. Zombies destroy. The absence of this faculty is devastating mankind. It is destroying our society and the plague is spreading. In the words of the historian Lewis Mumford,

“When man ceases to create he ceases to live. Unless he constantly seeks to surpass his animal limitations, he sinks back into a creature lower than any other brute, for his suppressed creativity, at that moment, will possess with irrational violence all his animal functions.”

In the following chapters I will explain why it is so hard to create meaningful work (what I call art) and why there is an astonishing amount of opposition to our ideas. We will identify the zombie genesis in an attempt to understand how they became monsters. We will dissect artifacts of modern culture–from branding to advertising to art history–in search of traces of integrity and clues for survival. We will study zombie projects like the U.S. healthcare website and the products of American Airlines. I will share strategies for thriving in the apocalypse based on the lives of well-known heroes like the Wright brothers, and less celebrated heroes like Robert Goddard and Samuel Langley. There is hope. Once equipped with weapons for survival, perhaps we can reverse the infection. Being bitten by a zombie is not a death sentence, there may be a remedy.

Protect your brain, my friend. We are about to embark on an adventure of horrific proportions.

Next week: Chapter 2 — Armageddon


Want to keep reading? Art of the Living Dead is available in print or as an ebook for Kindle or iPad.