Isolation and Dehumanization: Why Zombies Matter

A few years ago I started writing a zombie apocalypse story. It wasn’t a particularly inspired undertaking; basically someone told me I should write a zombie story and I said okay. I set the story several years into the ZA and focused on two families, the MacTavishes and the Havelocks, who were weathering the crisis together. Both families had lots of grown or mostly grown kids, so there were plenty of characters to share point of view.

I had fun with that story. It was my first real opportunity to write sentences such as “Logan shifted his 12-gauge Mossberg, relishing the familiar heft of it in his hand” and “They completed their circuit back to the front door, where Josiah waited with his AR-15 .223.”

I wrote 167 pages of text and notes before calling it quits. The Walking Dead was going strong, and the timing for my story seemed bad. Occasionally I still pull up my chapters and reread them. They’re pretty good, filled with generational conflict, sibling rivalry, unresolved sexual tension, faith, doubt, depression, crises of leadership, and even some occasional zombie action.

Before beginning the story, I seldom thought about zombies one way or another, but that quickly changed. At the very least I knew I had to familiarize myself with basic zombie lore and different philosophies of zombieism. I watched some movies, read some books, and pondered. Eventually I found myself looking at much of life from the perspective of a potential ZA. I live in the country, so I thought in terms of rural survival scenarios. How would you raise crops and livestock in a confined geographic area whose perimeter you’d have to constantly defend against attack? Prevent food spoilage in a hot climate with no refrigeration? Store and replenish ammunition? Maintain fences? Collect rainwater for drinking? Dispose of zombie corpses?

People started sending me zombie memes and zombie articles. I even started having zombie dreams. My husband’s subconscious could have made much of a zombie dream; he regularly has high-powered action-adventure dreams with weapons, explosions, chase scenes, and fully realized plots. My own zombie dreams were basically goofy anxiety dreams, with zombies. I once dreamed of being the only living human in a town full of zombies, and rather than being afraid, I just felt awkward and tried to discreetly shuffle away without anyone noticing.

zombie horde

The popularity of zombies says much about us as a culture. I’ve read that zombieism is a metaphor for unbridled capitalism, and this is probably true in part; the zombie, after all, is the ultimate mindless consumer. But I think there’s more to it than that. Our culture is preoccupied with fears of isolation and dehumanization, and zombies very much reflect this. Zombies are seldom physically alone—they often gather in hordes, perhaps instinctively—but they are completely devoid of social connection. They have suffered loss of memory, personal history, language, intellect, skill, affection, conscience, compassion, and all finer feelings. Relationship means nothing to them; they will turn on those who were once dearest to them to satisfy their hunger. And yet zombies never are truly satisfied. They wander without aim, disconnected and restless, tormented by an unreasoning desire that is never filled.

zombie crawling

All of which largely sums up life in modern Western civilization.

There’s a poignant flashback scene in the film Warm Bodies, with crowds of pre-ZA people milling through an airport, all focused on their electronic devices rather than on each other. The idea, developed more extensively in the book, is that pre-ZA humanity kept turning inward and neglecting relationships until they finally reached a state of emotional desiccation culminating in zombieism. This dehumanization process continues with the living, as characters deal with loss or grief or anxiety by shutting down emotionally and going all dead inside.

zombie r rain

A recurring thing in ZA stories is the failure of technology, which is something we both fear and yearn for. There are two major consequences to this. One is that people—the ones who survive, anyway—have to be physically capable, or quickly become so. They must be creative and resourceful, improvising with available materials and tools. There are no more movies or video games, no more “virtual” experiences of any kind. Everything is “actual.” Life itself is the adventure now, and survivors are strangely heightened, realizing in a way that was previously impossible that they could die today, die horribly, or see their friends die, or be turned into man-eating monstrosities.

The other effect of loss of technology is that people begin to live in community again. They teach and help and rely on one another, passing on skills for all those physical tasks that their survival now depends on. They can’t look things up on search engines anymore; if they want information they’ll most likely have to get it from other actual human beings. Those who pull their own weight are valued and respected, while users and whiners drain energy from the entire group. When people disagree, things escalate fast. No one can retreat to another room or put in earbuds or take a drive to cool down for a while. Everyone is forced to deal. Things come to a crisis, and one way or another they get resolved: people reach an understanding, or they compromise, or capitulate, or go away, or kill each other.

The other night I dreamed about zombies—not zombie apocalypse survivors, but actual zombies living together in community. Unlike the zombies in Warm Bodies, these zombies weren’t shambling aimlessly in an airport, marking time between feeding frenzies. They were living reasonable, orderly lives in a big building that might have been a hotel. They didn’t eat the living or speak in grunts. They had fully realized human personalities, endowed with intellect, humor, and affection.

The dream didn’t account for regular, living, non-zombie humans. Maybe the zombies were the only ones left.

zombie airport

As in many apocalyptic stories, the community was a makeshift one, a ragtag assortment of individuals and fragmentary families all recombined into an eclectic group. They worked cooperatively and harmoniously. Most of the work was food preparation—mostly French fries, for some reason—and laundry, which was done in epic loads. The community seemed obsessed with clean clothing. Maybe they didn’t like smelling like rotten flesh.

Despite the spots of decay on their skin, the zombies were well-mannered, well-fed, and (owing to all the clean laundry) well-dressed. It was a nice community, companionable and in a strange way cozy. Their existence was not all that could be hoped—they were, after all, undead—but they were coping.

zombie r shower

I say “they,” but I should say “we,” because I was a character in the zombie community. I wasn’t myself, though; I played the part of a zombified teenage boy with a zombie dad. (I don’t know how common it is to dream about being some completely different person, but it happens a lot to me. I just consider that person to be the point-of-view character for the story.) “I” had a zombie best friend around my age, who also lived in the community with his own zombie dad.

One day a new zombie showed up. He was not a well-mannered courteous civilized zombie like the rest of us; he was an open-mouthed teeth-baring ravenous cannibalistic zombie, and he was about to start eating our community.

We were already dead, so we couldn’t be killed per se, but we could be dismembered and devoured, at which point our quasi-life, such as it was, would surely end.

So I picked up a brick and crushed the zombie’s skull.

I noted with interest that his brains were black and liquefied. Using the brick, I scraped them into a plastic grocery bag and stowed the bag in the back of a dresser drawer.

I didn’t feel compunction over ending this zombie. It was him or us, and when a being shows up in your community ready to spread death and destruction, you have to do what you have to do. I did it, and I felt fine about it.

But then my best friend’s dad started acting just like the savage zombie. His appearance even changed; his teeth suddenly got pointy, and he got a starved, crazed look in his eyes, like Bilbo in the FOTR movie when he wants the ring back from Frodo. No one else was around, just the two of us. For a moment he got himself under control with a shaky laugh and even said he was only kidding, but then he went all ravenous again, and I knew the ravenous part wasn’t an act.

So I took the same brick in my hand and crushed his skull too.

His brains looked the same as the other zombie’s brains. I scraped them into another plastic grocery bag and hid it in the drawer next to the first.

Now what? Should I tell the others what had happened? No one had seen what I’d done or witnessed my friend’s dad’s transformation. The others might think I was at fault, that I’d gone randomly murderous on an innocent zombie. They hadn’t minded when I’d ended the other zombie—it had plainly been the right thing to do—but this was different. This wasn’t just some marauding stranger who showed up at the door ready to eat us all. This was one of our own, with a history and a personality.

I considered feigning ignorance about the whole thing; I imagined spiraling into deceit, my lies growing ever more complicated…and decided honesty was the best course. Whether the others believed me or not, they had to be told the truth. I called a meeting, and I told them.

I woke up before anyone had a chance to respond, but whether they believed me didn’t seem important. There was a terrible sense of sadness and finality over it all. Our little community had always been on borrowed time, and now the end was in sight. We’d eluded the typical zombie proclivity for mindless destructive cannibalism so far, but we could no longer escape what we were. This was our entropy. Sooner or later we would all end up reverting to ravenous zombie savagery, and then it was either kill or be killed. Either way, the community was doomed—and in truth it always had been. What did we expect? We’d been undead from the get-go. All that hanging out, eating French fries, doing laundry—it was temporary, just so much shuffleboard on the deck of the Titanic. We were never more than dressed-up corpses biding our time.

zombie eating

The worst horror of a zombie apocalypse is the dread of becoming the thing you fear. Zombieism is an infection you pass on. Once it’s done to you, no matter how hard you try or how good your intentions are, barring a hard blow to the brain you’ll do it to someone else. Your chances of staying unscathed for the long haul are not good.

Sin is this way too, especially across generations. A child suffering from a parent’s besetting sin often makes a vow: “I will NEVER do this to my kids.” But once he grows up, he either does it anyway, or does something else that’s bad. Maybe he’s repulsed by his father’s sin of substance abuse, and when he grows up he stays sober but indulges intemperance some other way, perhaps with sexual sin. Or maybe he manages not to get entangled in any such carnal vulgarity but instead internalizes his sin, becoming cold and self-righteous. Either way, in some form or another, the effects of sin are passed on.

Zombieism is an amplification of our own greatest problem, and that problem is sin. Sin leads to death. It isolates us. It hurts people. It spreads. And any measures we take against it in our own power are only temporary. We may win some victories but we know the onslaught isn’t going to let up. The world itself has been altered and is hostile to us now. Danger is always waiting just past the perimeter and sometimes within it, and sooner or later we’ll be vulnerable. Maybe there’ll be a breach in the wall, or maybe we’ll be forced to make a supply run. We can’t keep up perfect performance forever. Sooner or later we’ll be taken down.

We don’t need a bigger weapon or a huge supply of ammunition or a more defensible compound or a lifetime’s supply of freeze-dried meals. We need a cure.

We need a savior.

I wish I could go back to my dream and make things work out okay. I wish I could think of a way to deal with our root problem of death and depersonalization, to bring us back to life for good and deal a final death-blow to the pestilence of the undead.

In the real world the problem’s been fixed. Death isn’t the end of the story, and one day entropy itself is going to cease to be a thing. These decaying shells we walk around in can be reanimated, not with a sham of life but with the reality of it, better and fuller than we ever imagined.

zombie r looking up