Zombies are generally portrayed in our times as the street thugs of the horror genre–as the dregs of damnation, as brutish packs of monsters motivated only by a desire to consume living flesh for reasons or purposes rarely examined. No such examination is usually thought necessary in what passes for modern horror art–zombies are simply wild beasts to be eliminated for the maintenance and advancement of human civilization. Who cares why they want to eat our brains? Just blast 'em and lets get on with fighting the real villains–ghosts, vampires, alien fungi, evil organizations, etc.
While compiling some design notes for a potential “Survival Horror” IF game, amidst my drawing of maps and conception of ingenious puzzles I began to ponder my chosen antagonists, zombies. Since one may rather easily justify zombies these days as deranged mutants suffering from a virulent disease rather than bothering to think up some truly unnatural genesis for the creatures, they’re the perfect baleful fall-guys for our decadent science-obsessed age. The conventional wisdom would seem to be: why tinker with zombies? They already perform their duties competently, and everything there is to say about them has already been said well enough. However, the more I pondered the situation the less satisfied I became.
What’s so scary about zombies, as portrayed in recent mainstream horror fiction (art, literature, film, games)? Not much. Just what exactly is the bug up their rotting behinds? Where do they come from, why are they here, and why are they rudely wreaking such terrible havoc? No one really cares. The zombie is a mindless monstrosity, doing what any mindless monstrosities would do under the circumstances. Zombies are sent in from central casting because… hey, it’s a fast-paced horror story and we need some zombies wandering around. Sketch zombie, get paid, go home. Such usage of zombies as a standard thematic/plot/character device unfortunately reduces them to little more than preternatural predators while setting aside an examination of their unnatural state, which is the far better source of justifying their intended horror and inducing lasting unease in one’s audience. The “animalistic” zombie, sadly used by many artists as means to pass off relatively easy-to-create “exploring the unknown” fiction in lieu of hard-to-create “horror” fiction (that actually lives up to the name), has in my opinion contributed to the general poverty of the modern horror genre.
There are few true frontiers left in our modern world, and no ferocious swarms of natural menaces (other than our own kind, of course) remain to physically predate humans on a scale ambitious enough for us to express much concern. Zombies are thus generally portrayed naively as substitute monsters who want to eat us. In this sense, as antagonists they are hardly different from bears, dinosaurs, sharks, or other carnivorous beasts. While zombies helpfully fill a role in modern art as vaguely plausible supposedly visceral threats from the frontier/unknown, their portrayals aren’t terrifying or even very disturbing these days. Certainly they may be grotesque creatures, and certainly we may fear them because they want to kill us (and they roam in packs which outnumber us in the remote locations where we typically encounter them). However the objective of protagonists in modern zombie horror works (generally, not just in the Survival Horror subgenre) is simply to destroy these creatures after obtaining a sufficiently well-stocked cache of arms, ammunition, and arcane knowledge. As the janitorial staff later sweep away ashes from fading bonfires of vanquished undead, no further thought is given to these fallen foes. They’re gone, and now it’s Miller Time. While we may casually call these creatures “the undead,” there is never much satisfying exploration of the key aspects of zombie nature.
As I thought about my game project I began thinking about how one might rehabilitate zombies (particularly after listening to this interesting but only tangentially-related discussion) to make them truly terrifying–rather than just the horrible and vicious creatures they are generally thought to be. By “terrifying” I mean that sense of inconsolable dread explored by H.P. Lovecraft in his non-fiction essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” Although Lovecraft was able to helpfully articulate and examine this concept, in my opinion his own entertaining writings never attained a mastery of consistently engendering such terror (but that is a discussion for another day).
A promising avenue for enhancing the terror credentials of zombies may be an exploration of their fundamental nature in contrast to our own human condition. The fundamental nature of human beings is that we are mortal creatures aware of our own mortality. These two factors, consciously or not, shape most of the activities with which we fill our daily lives; our reactions to them shape our sense of life and plans for the future (and even the desire to plan a future at all).
Death is the final frontier, the great unknown–and much more importantly, a great unknowable. Although we may conjecture all we like, the only way to know anything substantially meaningful about this enigma is to explore it first-hand. Once we have taken the first step on that journey, however, we cannot turn back nor can we share any insight or experience (nor, if you prefer, can our post-mortem nonfound nonexistence report an absence of any experience to be gained) with those who remain in the realm of the living.
Zombies are human beings who have made a journey into the land of Death and have (by some unnatural means) resumed occupancy of our land of the Living. While we may posit that zombies are simply mindless mounds of reanimated flesh, that their souls are lost in the realm beyond, and that the shambling creatures shuffling toward us are essentially unrelated to the deceased “persons” whose visages the zombies have procured, this course ultimately leads to their unsatisfactory (for our purposes of expressing them as cogently terrifying) reduction to beasts discussed above. Unfortunately, this has been the course chosen by mainstream horror fiction over the course of the last century.
What if, however, the zombie–appearing to us as the re-animated flesh of our fallen comrade (let’s call him Bub)–fully is that fallen comrade, who has resumed habitation of his own formerly-inert corpse? What if it’s not “a zombie” who wants to eat our brains–what if good old Bub wants to eat our brains? Why would he want that? What happened to him on the Other Side, to produce such a monstrous change in formerly honorable and congenial Bub? How has it come to be that Bub now, in light of his experiences after death, thinks so little of us that he refuses to even acknowledge us as something other than prey to feed his insatiable bloodlust?
I think this particular conception may be the angle needed to give credibility to zombies as truly-worthy material for the induction of hysteria. Whether the thought is novel or not, I cannot say; I can only say that I haven’t seen this view of zombies promulgated before, and I generally consider myself fairly well-versed with the modern (i.e. 20th century) horror genre.
If we observe the typical behavior of zombies, we see that they appear to be less than us–mere human bodies carrying out a degenerated animal existence. They seem to lack any moral sentiment or ability to conceive of the universe as existing differently than it does as they perceive it at any particular moment. Zombies seem driven by primal instincts; they feel hunger, so they wish to eat us simply because we are there. Beyond that, they don’t seem to care much about making a better life for themselves, creating art, or pondering the nature of things. They don’t seem to have a conception of the passage of time; for the zombie all that seems to matter are the few seconds on either side of right now. While human beings may also live this way, we can do more if we care to; thus we see ourselves as superior to zombies, in that they appear to lack capacities we possess. Zombies also seem to lack any sense of fear; they plod forward toward our machine-gun nest, apparently either unaware or unconcerned that we shall at any moment let loose a volley of 7.62 mm gunfire that will immobilize them as we blow off their limbs or debilitate them as we score a lucky hit on their foreheads. The living fear when they perceive they may lose something of value. Do zombies seem to lack fear because they value little, because they value things we can’t perceive in preference things familiar to us, because they don’t perceive any plausible risk of loss, or because they simply are truly mindless?
While zombies seem to prefer taking sustenance from human flesh and some commentators may thus posit that either they are insane or vengeful beings who resent us and our spirited status or that the we possess something the zombies lack or desire which may be hopefully gained by eating us, the stipulation of such zombie preference may be due to limited chances for observation (i.e. limited imagination on the part of authors). Zombies may indeed fill their days feasting on cows and sloths when we’re not around to notice; when we are around, we’re usually too busy paying attention to the zombie horde chasing us to notice the other horde of zombies chasing a varmint. Or it may be that zombies focus on human prey simply because we’re numerous and we’re easy to catch–we can’t fly away like a bird, nor can we outrun them like a horse or powerful cat, nor can we dive deep like a fish to escape the zombie’s grasp.
My theory (that is, proposed means for making zombies genuinely terrifying) is that while based on their observed behavior zombies may indeed seem like the ravenous beasts they are usually portrayed to be, perhaps something else is going on with them related to their new perspective of having died, of having experiences which we have not, and then of returning to us and our realm. Rather than lacking our wisdom, is it possible these undead are more wise than we the not-yet-dead? I firmly believe that a genius is simply a persuasive madman. While we may consider zombies to be insane (if indeed we bother at all to consider them as more than mere beasts), perhaps they possess all our faculties but have freely decided upon returning to our own realm to change their behavior to the lifestyle we observe them pursuing.
This gives rise to several important questions.
Firstly, what experiences could these zombies have had on the Other Side that would universally motivate them to exist, upon their return to this world, as little more than highly aggressive packs of wolves? Did the experience simply drive the zombies insane–or did it (much more interestingly and disturbingly) lead them to be indifferent to those things we value under the rubric of “humanity”? Is there any meaningful distinction between insanity and utter indifference to generally accepted beliefs?
More importantly our second question should be: if the behavior we observe in zombies is (from the zombie perspective) a desirable way to exist–based upon knowledge which the zombies (having died) possess and we lack–what does this mean for us the living, for the things and sentiments we value, and for the way we live our lives? What if, from the perspective of the zombie (who has a fuller range experience than we) we are the fools for affirming the values they reject and for engaging in the behaviors they formerly valued, but no longer sustain? Is the cosmic joke actually on us as we struggle to survive the zombie hordes and hold on to the perspective with which we are comfortable–the perspective of the not-yet-dead? If our entire way of life and everything we believe are lies yet we are unable (short of leaping into the unknown realm of death) to directly experience truth, isn’t that more horrifying than being eaten for lunch by something?
Ultimately, why do we flee the zombies rather than join them? If we knew what the zombie knows, would we still believe our fight to cling to our present form is a cause worthy of our striving? Consider a situation in which one of our re-imagined zombies sees us holding a shotgun. He knows perfectly well he won’t be able to sink his teeth into us before we disable him with our weapon. Yet he approaches anyway. What could possibly be his motivation for such vapid (from our vantage point) behavior? Should we change our own behavior based on that we observe in the zombie, or should we resist what the zombie may represent?
Other, less immediate, questions may be in order as well as we ponder the nature of the zombie. In stories where the emphasis strays from a tight focus on true horror, our own fictional brethren often become zombies themselves when bitten by a zombie and we (if we identify with the protagonist) may ponder the traditional choice of killing ourselves rather than face the fate of becoming zombies. This seems like an unfortunate way to develop the zombie mythos, however, as it implies in some way that zombification may be similar to a plague which is at least partially comprehensible to us (in that we may identify a process or cause to which “victims” are “subject”). Comprehensibility fosters delusions of rationality, and rationality stifles our sense of the horrific. If we stipulate the living become zombies only after they are actually slain (rather than just “infected”) by zombies, we advance the cause of zombie terror very little; yet if we stipulate that all who die (by any means) after the initial rising of the undead will (choose to?) become zombies we seem to set ourselves on a fast-train to nihilism (which may be our destination in any case–but any such story is likely to be much more effective if we take the scenic route). This approach was taken in the generally novel film Shatterdead, with the result that the living seem a bit pathetic in their doomed effort to remain not-yet-dead (although not nearly as pathetic as the undead who strive to maintain the civilization of the living). The question, then, is this: is a terrible yet inevitable fate as truly horrifying as the terrible yet hardly inevitable result of a failure (whether of action, of knowledge, or of character) on the part of the protagonist? While I further believe little is to be gained by conflating zombies with vampires (who clearly transmit their own condition to victims via direct attack), this detail of zombie genesis seems difficult to adequately formulate in a way that will satisfy all qualms about suspending disbelief in regard to the story-world under construction.
Whether zombies place any value on individuality is unknown. While they are often seen as anonymous members of massive undead hordes, it seems likely that zombie crowds initially form in response to the appearance of prey, and that these congregations would quickly disperse if prey were locally plentiful. Members of zombie hordes seem to have little meaningful interaction with each other, and never seem to coordinate their hunts by setting ambushes while kin flush prey from cover, etc. Whether this behavior stems from indifference or an inability/reluctance to socialize seems difficult to determine, as does an answer to the question of whether lone zombies experience loneliness, relief, or indifference when separated from their kin. Will a zombie society ever develop, and if so what forms would such a society present to the eldritch anthropologist?
A question perhaps unexpectedly more helpful to the cause of enhancing the terrifying credentials of zombies is that of what happens to humans who die leaving no physical remains (as a result of explosions, fires, visiting slippery walkways placed over vats of acid, etc) to possibly be subjected to zombification. Are these individuals the “lucky ones” who have escaped a terrible fate, or are they instead the truly damned–forever locked out of our world, never to return?
This latter question has some interplay with the larger mystery of why zombies have arisen in the first place. While we have stated that after finding themselves in their former bodies they likely conduct their affairs in a way sensible to themselves, we have not touched at all on the question of how they came to be reanimated in the first place. Did they choose to return? Did they fail or “die” in the next realm, thus returning to ours? Were they sent, directed, or otherwise expelled from what lies beyond? Were they recalled from beyond by one of us? I see this last as the least interesting possibility–sadly it is also the explanation usually chosen by authors of zombie fiction. Does this phenomenon have any relationship to their predilection for living flesh (while we might suppose zombies enjoy dead flesh as well, if such were the case they would likely do very little but sit about and lazily gnaw on themselves).
Some may say that with these re-imaginings I am unhelpfully confusing the idea of zombies with the idea of vampires. Let zombies be mindless beasts, either soulless reanimated tissue or else individuals driven mad by a forced return to their decaying corpses; we already have the perfectly fine concept of vampires to allow for reasonable undead who rationally pursue their own goals. Nonetheless I am attempting to say the traditional vampire is a far less alien creature than the zombie. It seems to me that vampires are beings who simply skip the (what we see as) inconvenience of death. They go from mortal to quasi-immortal without ever having meaningfully experienced death itself as a permanent proposition; from our wistful perspective vampirization would seem to increase the vampire’s range of freedoms rather than attenuate them. Vampires traditionally pursue agendas very similar to our own–seeking wealth, power, comfort, and also evidencing a considerable concern for self-preservation. Sure they want to suck our blood, be we can understand vampires; their behavior remains coherent, and they behave as we grant we ourselves might if placed into their situation. The horror of the zombie is that we cannot comprehend his behavior at all; we therefore dismiss it as mindlessness or insanity because we cannot discern any circumstances which would cause us to choose to exist as the zombie does. In our odd modern way we would likely lock the apprehended vampire in jail for crimes of violence, whereas the apprehended zombie we would likely place in a sanitarium for further study.
A more influential argument is that while this re-imagining of the zombie may provide fertile ground for an outpouring of universal horror in an intimate setting (namely a story with few characters who can each be explored at great depth), the complex zombie character is unsuited to an ambitious theme of big-budget Survival Horror in which large numbers of these enigmas will be present as obstacles to be overcome by the protagonist. I do see this as a potential pitfall of my approach, although the solution (create some other, more original menace from scratch) is much easier said than done.
While this may seem an unpromising forum for such musings, the fact is that there are a fair number of zombie or more generally horror-themed IF games; this observation would seem to indicate a fair level of interest in the subject amongst the writers of the IF community. What then are your thoughts:
–what I have written above?
–on zombies generally? (For example, does my re-imagining of the zombie mythos suffer from serious flaws I haven’t considered, or are my views too harshly stained with Romero-esque notions about the creatures)?
–on the overall craft of horror writing (for example, does what I have written above seem trite rather than terrifying?)–whether within the context of an IF project or for broader purposes?