This blog is the fifth installment of examining the changing meaning of story tropes in urban fantasy.
Made popular in movies, the walking dead archetype is a more recent invention as compared to other popular characters. Ghost stories are ancient and vampire tales date back to the Middle Ages, if not older. However, the idea of zombies emerged in the 1800s, with the first mention of the word occurs in 1819 in a book on the history of Brazil. In addition, spooks and the fang-and-hairy groups have their roots in various legends and myths whose origins are lost over time, while zombies come from a specific origin that is based first in Africa religions and then later in Haitian voodou.
By being rooted in a specific culture, this form of undead takes on a higher sense of realness than other urban fantasy story tropes. In fact, you can find stories on the Internet of people who swear they were cursed and eventually cured of being a zombie. Although it is true you can also find stories of people who have seen ghosts, no one has yet to produce a first person account about a ghost coming back to tell of their afterlife experiences. This difference puts ghosts on the very edge of belief while Haitian zombies have more concrete overtones in today’s world.
How to Make a Zombie: Reality and Fiction
This sense of reality makes the zombie genre significantly different from the other archetypes. In Haitian lore, the undead person is under the control of a voodou “witch” referred to as boker. This evil witch uses ritual magic combined with a mixture of chemicals, including psychoactive drugs, to make the victim ill and appear dead. After a few weeks, the afflicted individual reappears among the villagers but the personality is gone. The result is a shambling, mindless body that can perform minimal tasks but lacks any violent intent.
A few stories and movies, such as The Serpent and the Rainbow, feature the culture of Haitian voodou as the focal point of their undead tale. For most, however, Haiti is a little too far away and alien to the average American audience. The fear factor is elevated if the story takes place in a comfortable environment such as the small middle-class setting in George Romero’s famous film, Night of the Living Dead. Therefore, writers came up with new ways to create these shambling monsters in a more normal setting, such as reading spells from a necromancy book, being exposed to radioactive contamination, or creating a terrible disease.
Cinema zombies also wanted to eat flesh, which is another change from the accepted “reality.” After all, a scary looking person staring at you is not as frightening as one wanting to claw you to pieces. The “real” zombie fear in terms of Haitian culture lays in being buried alive or having lost your soul or willpower. The fictional horror is in monsters eating you while you are still alive.
The classic cinema brain-muncher archetype got its famous start from Night of the Living Dead, although a few other films on the topic predate this one. Romero showed the zombies, which theoretically came to life due to radioactive contamination, as having a slow, steady shambling gait. Their sheer numbers and mindless tenacity is what made these creatures terrifying. In that regard, they were like swarming bees, easy enough to defeat individually but horrifying in large numbers.
Part of the Voodou Exhibit at the Field Museum, Chicago
Later zombie films, such as 28 Days Later and World War Z, had the undead develop an almost superhuman speed. Now victims could not run away since the monsters attacked in a blink of the eye. The suddenness of the attack, an effect used in so many films from the Alien franchise to the Final Destination movies, added to the shock value as the audience receives a momentary heart flutter as a visual reaction to the story.
As an example of creative storytelling, Warm Bodies showed the monsters could heal if they fell in love. This cute, original concept offered humor instead of the normal terror. Zombieland also took a comic approach in examining the psychology behind the few survivors. What became important to them in an undead-filled world was trying to find some link back to their old lives. For one character, his motivation involved finding stashes of Twinkies, while another felt she would find safety in an amusement park.
In another unusual approach, Laurell Hamilton’s zombies retained some of their mental abilities in her Anita Blake series. Her main character started as an animator, raising the dead for legal or family reasons. Although the act seems evil on the surface, Blake’s work actually had positive outcomes in Hamilton’s books.
Some of the books or films also showed the creation of the monster changing from less magical methods to more scientific accidents such as a disease. The best representation of this to date is World War Z by Max Brooks. His novel features a discussion of patient zero, the rise of the infection, its symptoms, the world’s cultural reaction, and the ultimate solution for “curing” the plague. One could easily stick “flu” or “cholera” into many of the scenes and see similar outcomes throughout history.
Modern Meanings in the Undead
The old zombie concept involves a form of necromancy, whether aided by science or not. Even the Haitian types of undead are frightening because they represent a loss of self-identity and control. The concept of being brain dead while the body lives on is horrible enough but the modern zombie adds in the sense of changing from passive victim to attacking monster.
A Lucifer Mirror. Part of the Voodou Exhibit at the Field Museum, Chicago
Thus, World War Z is strangely realistic and successful in that it capitalizes on our fear of disease. We live in a world of AIDs and Ebola as well as almost yearly threats of the next flu pandemic. Although modern medicine, such as penicillin and anti-virals, give us a sense of power over infection, we are also aware that the “monster” is changing, evolving past our current means of stopping it. Many of the “cured” diseases of the past are returning and being harder to kill, such as MRSA or antibiotic-resistant STDs. Death may be the final result, but in the meantime, the victim suffers weakness, loss of physical control, and the ability to think clearly.
The loss of self-identity has become more of a fearsome issue. As the population gets older, more people are facing the curses of dementia and Alzheimer’s, while younger folks must work with their sick loved ones. These diseases “eat” at the brain, changing the personality and intelligence until the patient becomes an unrecognizable and unresponsive individual. These degenerative maladies are also nonspecific attackers, relentless in their approach and nearly unstoppable.
The real fear of becoming a zombie is not that you will attack your friends, at least not physically. You are afraid that your mind will no longer recognize reality anymore. Anyone who has served as a caretaker to people with dementia are quick to say “that’s not my (fill in the blank) anymore.” The personality changes from vitality to passiveness and happiness to anger. Eventually the person becomes an emotionally and mentally detached individual, sitting in a bed with or a wheelchair with vacant eyes, waiting to die. The difference is so dramatic as to make the victim seem like the walking dead.
Braaaiiinnnsss! What Does Your Undead Say to You?
So what can you do to make your zombie story different and more original? Consider changing the origin of the disease, like Brooks did, or focusing on the animator as seen in the Hamilton books. Think about the biology and physics of zombies. After all, a “dead body” feels no pain so your monster can take a lot of damage and still go on. They could strain muscles and break bones while trying to accomplish some great feat. You can have them retain some of their quirky personalities, making them less controllable. For instance, what if a zombie character wanted the Twinkies instead of the survivor?
As with any story trope, the trick to great writing is keeping enough of the current views of the walking dead to make a story the audience can believe in while adding subtle changes to make your version unique. In building this world, you must have some idea of the origin of your monster, how the contamination spreads, how the monster works, and if there is a final solution or cure. Remember that most people want to see some kind of hope for survival. I won’t tell you not to write a no-win situation, but I find those stories are much harder to get published.
Whatever shape your world takes, have fun with it and the monsters that roam around.
And as always, happy writing!