On zombies, survival, and making geeks exercise

Why are we so obsessed with the zombie apocalypse?

Let’s start with the most obvious point: stories about zombies are stories about our fear of death. After all, there’s no more potent reminder of the existence of death than a corpse. Zombies scare us for two reasons: one, because they’re predators that want to catch and eat us, but two, because they remind us that one day we’ll be dead too. Every one of us. Sooner or later, our bodies will fail us and we’ll stop thinking and moving and existing, and instead we’ll just decompose. It’s not a nice thought, so it’s one that we tend to avoid lingering on… except when we’re telling zombie stories.

Although horror movie monsters tend to come and go in phases, the current zombie trend seems to be sticking around. It’s already been a decade since Resident Evil, Dawn of the Dead, and Shaun of the Dead made the undead cool again, but a quick glance at any upcoming release schedule shows that there are plenty more zombie stories coming our way in the future. So what is it that continues to appeal to us about these narratives?

I think it’s the way that new zombie stories focus on survival. If you look back at zombie movies from the 60s, 70s, and even 80s, they tend to have downbeat endings. Night of the Living Dead is the obvious example, where getting through one night of zombie attacks is the least of our hero’s worries. And then there’s Zombie Flesh Eaters, the unofficial Italian sequel to Dawn of the Dead, a queasily claustrophobic movie in which the takeover of the living dead is presented as inevitable, because we’re all going to die sometime. Even Return of the Living Dead, in many ways a very silly film, ends with the dropping of a nuclear bomb. These are stories about the end of the world, and there’s something fatalistic about them.

Newer zombie stories, on the other hand, are more hopeful. They’re about finding ways to survive and, eventually, rebuild. The most explicit example is Max Brooks’s book, The Zombie Survival Guide, which sets out exactly how to stay alive when the dead are walking the Earth. Between that book, Shaun’s ‘have a cup of tea’ plan, and Zombieland’s numbered rules for survival, the idea that there’s a strategy to surviving the apocalypse has become firmly embedded in our consciousness. At this point, you can ask anyone in the pub where they’ll hide out once the dead rise and, chances are, they’ll actually have an answer rather than dismissing you as the weirdo you clearly are.

It’s kind of comforting to think that we might be able to survive the collapse of civilisation – and zombies make a tidier foe than, say, climate change, or the tanking economy. That’s why we’re still telling ourselves the same stories over and over again. If there are rules for surviving a zombie apocalypse, and we can memorise them, then we’ll be prepared for anything, won’t we?

We want to prove ourselves, too; it’s not enough to just watch other people surviving any more. Zombie themed videogames like Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead let us play through our survival strategies on screen, while live action roleplaying experiences like Zed Events’ zombie shopping mall and ZombieLARP let us test our physical prowess against the undead. Seriously – as a culture, we’re now so obsessed with the idea of being able to survive a zombie apocalypse that there are multiple companies running regular zombie survival events. Cultural historians of the future are gonna love us.

But perhaps there’s a way to put all this zombie-obsessing to good use. The fitness app Zombies, Run! uses a zombie story to encourage players to exercise – to run often, to run far, and to run fast – and, from personal experience, it works. The plot of the game is that, in the near future, the dead have risen and society has crumbled. You’re part of a small post-apocalyptic society, and it’s your job to run out beyond the settlement’s walls and collect supplies. Story clips play in between songs on your own playlist, as your radio operators encourage you to keep going, and warn you of any nearby zoms.

There’s even an option to turn on ‘zombie chases’, during which you need to speed up or risk losing precious supplies as the undead bear down on you. Somehow, just hearing zombies moaning through your headphones is terrifying enough to trigger an adrenaline-fuelled burst of speed, even in the slowest, laziest geeks. (Yup, guilty.)

By drip-feeding players just enough story to keep them hooked, by introducing them to characters it’s impossible not to care about, and by making the player feel like an integral part of the story, Zombies, Run! is hopelessly addictive. And by requiring them to actually go outside and exercise, Zombies, Run! lets players feel like they really are, in some way, preparing for the apocalypse. After all, if something’s trying to eat your brain, being able to run really fast is an important skill.

The success of Zombies, Run! – now in its second season, it’s been downloaded by over 450,000 people – demonstrates that our obsession with zombies, and running away from them, is far from over. It’d be great if someone could figure out more ways of using that obsession productively, though. If anyone ever develops a Zombies, Clean Your Flat! or Zombies, Stop Arsing Around On Tumblr And Do Some Work app, I’ll be the first to download it.

(I wrote this for The Literary Platform, but it’s now gone, so I’ve reposted it here.)

Remembering Boris Karloff


I wrote a thing over at Den of Geek about Boris Karloff and, while I won’t republish it here, I am gonna link to it. (See?) I think Karloff is probably one of the best actors we’ve ever seen, in or out of the horror genre, and I’m really sad that time travel doesn’t exist so I can’t go back and meet him. From all accounts, he was a pretty awesome guy.

It’s a bit weird that I’ve visited his grave, though, isn’t it? It is. Yeah. Sorry about that.

I am *totally* available as a horror columnist

I’ve noticed that a couple of magazines have started running horror-related columns lately. Which is kind of awesome!

But I can’t help feeling a little jealous. Y’see, I’d really like a horror column. I love horror movies! I watch them all the time and get into frequent online discussions/arguments about them. There is basically nothing I love more than watching, talking about, and getting other people to watch horror movies.

So. If you’re a magazine or website editor, and you’d like a horror columnist, you know where I am.

(Well, it’s worth a shot, no?)

Winning NaNoWriMo

I just hit my 50k word count.

I haven’t yet written the final, climactic scene, but my Main Character is currently entering the building where it’s going to happen.

So I’ve got a little way further to go yet to finish the novel. But I’ve written 50,000 words! Hurrah!

International Procrastination Month

So, yes, I’m doing NaNoWriMo 2009.

For those of you who don’t hang out in the same shadowy corners of the internet as I do, that’s National Novel Writing Month, although it would be more appropriately titled International Novel Writing Month, since people from all over the world take part. The idea is to write a novel in the space of a month: specifically, to write 50,000 words in the month of November. There are no other rules: just that you have to write 50,000 words worth of story between November 1 and November 30th.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo once before, in 2006. I spent every morning before work diligently typing away, and had one crazy weekend where I wrote 20,000 words over the space of two days, and ended up finishing around November 20th. The finished novel, tentatively titled “Reality”, then sat on my computer for years. Every so often I’d open up the Word file and cringe at how awful it was, have a go at editing a chapter or two into something resembling a real novel, and then give up again, but mostly it just sat around being ignored. I kept thinking that I really should do something with it, because it was a really really awesome idea – zombies in the Big Brother house! – and then Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set happened, and I finally acknowledged to myself that I never would work Reality up into a publishable novel and it would be forever consigned to the dusty recesses of my hard drive.

So why am I putting myself through this again?

I’m not sure I’ve really got a good answer for that. Every time NaNoWriMo rolls around, I think about taking part, but usually life gets in the way. This year, I knew I had enough spare time to do it justice, and I had an idea for a novel that’s been hanging around since about 2005, and so on October 29th, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and just do it.

That’s what NaNoWriMo is about, really: just doing it. It’s about the joy of creation. It’s about turning off the little voice in your head that says there’s no point in bothering, that you’ve got nothing to offer the novel-reading world, that there are a million other things you could be doing instead. It’s about turning off your inner editor, who says that that last sentence could have been expressed more concisely, or more evocatively, or just, well, better. There’s no time to go back and fine-tune every word. There’s only the mad panic and pain in your wrists caused by typing typing typing late into the night, and the terrifying knowledge that there are people out there who wrote 10,000 words on November 1st and are now coasting gently to the finish line while you’re still trying to catch up with the words you should have written three days ago.

When you write for a living, it’s easy to forget that writing can be fun. NaNoWriMo, despite the terror of such a short deadline, helps remind me that writing – especially the kind of writing where you’re just pulling random things out of your head and setting them down on paper – actually feels kind of awesome.

Of course, it’s easy for me to say that now, a comfortable 23 days from the end of November and 17,000 words into my story. Remind me of this blog post when I’m pulling my hair out on November 29th with another 15,000 words to go.