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.)