Why we love/hate zombies

Zombies Hollow Earth Expedition

Illustration by Chad Sergesketter. Image courtesy Exile Game Studio

Recently I had a chance to run a race called Run For Your Lives. This was a 5 kilometer footrace, but the twist was that there are obstacles like mud pits and walls to climb. And the bigger twist was that there were people dressed up like zombies trying to grab you. Okay, technically, they were trying to grab flags off your belt. If you crossed the finish line with a flag intact, you were a “survivor.” If not, you were listed among the dead. When I lined up at the starting line, I had no idea if all my training would be enough to keep me out of undead clutches.

I also looked around in wonder at the huge number of people who had come to run this race, and the even greater number of people who had signed up to lurk out there, waiting to nab the warm-blooded runners who were about to stampede past them.

A person would have to be living in a coffin not to notice the huge popularity of zombies right now. I think of myself as a zombie hipster, having been interested in films and the video games long before the walking dead appeared in things like, well, like The Walking Dead. And that’s not to mention card games like Deadfellas (the zombie mafia game) or spin-offs like Marvel Zombies or video games like… every third video game every produced.

So why do these rotting shamblers appeal to us so much? They aren’t sexy like vampires or powerful like werewolves. How have they chewed their way so deeply into the public brain?


Death obsession

Nothing says “Look out!” like a dead body. Through bazillions of years of evolution, we are geared to pay attention to dead people because whatever killed them might still be nearby and coming after us. And what happens when the dead themselves are the ones coming after us? This effectively takes out the middle man and causes our instincts (and our imaginations) to run wild.

Fear of the dead is absolutely nothing new: just go look at a gothic church from plague-era Europe and you’ll see bas-relief skeletal images creeping all over the walls. Every culture has some version of ghosts that come back to life for reasons of vengeance, or grief… or hunger. Zombies are just the modern embodiment of an ancient fixation, a vision of primordial terror anointed by Hollywood’s latex makeup


Adjustable difficulty level

Sometimes, zombies are depicted as fast, strong, or radioactively supercharged, but usually they follow George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead vision of the ataxic, clumsy, mindless ghoul. Wouldn’t they be scarier if they were as fast and smart as velociraptors?

Not necessarily. For one thing, there’s something monstrous about a slow, implacable foe. But for another thing, it gives a viewer/reader/player the chance to think “Yeah, I could take one of those. I could survive that.” Heck, I’m pretty sure my 65 year old mother armed with an iron frying pan could take one out.


Then what about the rest of the horde? Directors, authors, and video-game designers all increase the numbers of zombies as the story progresses to provide an ever-mounting sense of danger. When you have one vampire at the beginning of a movie, you probably have one by the end. But when you have a zombie at the beginning of the movie, you’re probably surrounded by a putrefied army by the end. It obviously works, because we’re still buying tickets.


LMOE scenario

Zombies also provide another classic imagination outlet, what Max Brooks called LMOE, or Last Man On Earth (not to be confused with the LMAO scenario, which involves speedos and a lot of dance music.) Yes, human beings are social creatures, but in spite of this (or maybe because of this) every single one of us has sometimes wished the rest of the world would just kindly frak off and die. Zombies offer a fantasy in which that happens.

If you are in an LMOE, you have license to break into your (dearly departed) neighbors houses, drink cola out of the spigot at fast food places, or steal sports cars and drive them way too fast. Plus, you get to shoot whoever you want, provided they’re zombies… or that you’re pretty sure they were zombies. Whatever: the social rules don’t apply in a post-society world.


These were some of the crazy thoughts to flash through my head as I was running for my life. Oh, and by the way, I didn’t make it to the finish line “alive:” Almost nobody who ran that day did (it might have been the need to sprint in 90 degree weather). In the event of a zombie apocalypse, use me as bait.

Update: It’s been more than a week since I ran and I have not yet begun to rot, shamble, or hunger for brains. I can only conclude that I am therefore a zombie virus carrier, immune to the effects of the disease yet able to spread it to others. But I promise I won’t bite you.


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About Sechin Tower

Sechin Tower is a teacher, game developer, and author of MAD SCIENCE INSTITUTE, a novel of creatures, calamities, and college matriculation. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
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