Best selling author Hugh Howey shares his thoughts on zombies and death in the introduction for the soon to be released "How I Started The Apocalypse" By Brian Pinkerton . If you have not picked up a copy of Wool or I Zombie you are really missing a treat.
I was in middle school when I first became obsessed with death, with the idea that one day I wouldn’t exist. At the time, I thought something was wrong with me, that I was overly morbid. I would lie in bed at night and become petrified that I might fall asleep and never wake up. Closing my eyes, I would picture a dark place where I would one day live forever, except I wouldn’t be able to see the darkness. I wouldn’t even know that I was dead.
Years later, I saw a film about an insane man called What About Bob?, and the movie made me feel perfectly normal. There’s this scene with a young boy about the age I was when I became obsessed with death. He’s getting ready for bed one night and explains to Bob, portrayed by Bill Murray, that he’s having an existential crisis, one very similar to what I went through.
This was the first time I encountered what I now believe to be a widespread terror. How widespread is unclear because many of us keep our darkest thoughts to ourselves, but our secret fears tend to leak out at the corners. It’s evident in the way we talk about and respond to death.
Look at the bell contraptions installed in 18th and 19th century caskets to alert those above that a victim had been buried alive. Look at our obsession with ghosts, who return from the dead to haunt the living. Look at our religions, that promise us the sanctuary of eternal life. Look at the monsters we fear versus the ones we idolize.
Vampires are sexy because they never die. Sure, they have their quirks and torments, but they also have eternal youth. They are the lords of romance. Crisp clothes, worldly wisdom, a thing for necks. Vampires are the anti-death. Our fascination with them (our adulation, one might say), surely stems from their ability to defy our most primal fear: nonexistence.
The zombie on the other hand is not romanticized. This member of the undead offers the opposite allure of the vampire. The zombie is in a permanent state of death.
And while some say the zombie dates to a particular film, like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead or a book like Matheson’s I am Legend, the truth is that our universal fear of death has sprinkled human history with many references to the same sort of beast. When we say that the first zombie film may have been Halperin’s 1932 White Zombie, what they really mean is that this particular name for a universal creature first appeared in that film. But zombies are much older—they were just called something different.
In Europe, there were legends of rotting corpses walking around during the time of the Great Plague. In the Bible, Jesus returns from the dead and the buried rise from their graves and lumber about for a bit. The Haitian’s had their own lore develop in the 19th century, and there’s a history of zombie-like creatures popular in the Congo before that. You can go right back to one of the oldest stories ever told, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and find this reference:
I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
and will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living!
When I wrote my own zombie book, told from the perspective of these enduring creatures, I was told that the timing was great, that they were newly popular. But zombies have been popular for as long as I can remember. What is quite possibly the most important music video of all time (certainly the one I watched more than any other) was a zombie flick with the King of Pop himself as one of the afflicted. And then there’s the dozens of variations of Frankenstein being reanimated from the pieces of a corpse. Or the ghouls I saved (or sometimes didn’t) in games like Fallout and Fallout 2.
Whether or not all of these are “real” zombies (and whether or not you believe some zombies are fast) is beside the point. What’s fascinating is that the appeal is as old as time itself, and a bit of imagination might tell us why. Think of the state of primal man, how close people were to death. Bodies were something one dealt with personally. You didn’t phone a professional, you took a loved one and disposed of the corpse. But all you know of bodies is that they get up and move around. Every morning we return from a state of suspended animation. So what do you think uncle Urg is going to do after you shovel some dirt over him? I’m guessing there were some unpleasant dreams in many a cave.
Beyond our fear of death, zombies present another series of primal disgusts. We evolved a distaste for putrescence as a survival mechanism. Human waste, pus, seeping wounds, gangrenous flesh, writhing maggots, swarming flies, these things wrinkle our nose just to read them (or write them!). There’s good reason. We can get sick from these things. Rather than bother us on an intellectual and conscious level as to why we should back the hell up, nature just made us abhor such things. And when we concoct the ultimate evil, the perfect horror that is the walking dead, we coat them in all these disgusting fears as well.
There is no more perfect hate than that of a zombie. They are the compressed distillation of our many loathings. They are dread diamonds, the perfect monsters. And they have always been with us. Only the names have changed.
What do we love most about them? Killing them. Making their death permanent. Bashing that uniquely human frontal lobe, that part of us that feels most un-zombie, the seat of our supposed souls. If the reanimated dead seem to be gaining in popularity, it’s only because we finally have the medium to do their stories justice. We have films and graphic novels; we have video games where scores of the foul beasts line up for our bullets. And we get to kill them over and over, unending waves of them, seeing how long we can fend them off, knowing, with the most perfect fear our brains can summon the same thing that little boy told Bill Murray:
“There’s no way out of it. You’re going to die. I’m going to die . . . What else is there to be afraid of?”
Of course, modern zombie tales have an answer for this question. There is something else to fear, something that speaks to a phobia that may not be deeper, but has become more widespread. It should be noted that the most horrific scenarios in many zombie tales are the cruel things human survivors do to one another. That’s the post apocalyptic side of the zombie story, the focus on the collapse of civilization and the subsequent rot of ethics and morality. But this is a new spin added to an old ghoul, and were it not for the presence of rotting, flesh-eating undead as far back as human literature reaches, it might be tempting to mistake this modern layer for a first cause.
But that would be just as bad as thinking the word “zombie” has anything to do with what the creatures represent. The Haitians of the 19th century would laugh. To them, a zombi may be harmless, just a person brought back from the dead, often to do the bidding of another. It is a word we adopted, a word that doesn’t even appear in George A. Romero’s first zombie film except in the credits. Words change. What we call our inner demons can be as fluid as language. But our descriptions of them, our fears of them, I believe they are eternal. We will always fear these representations of rot and death like no other creature we can summon. And they will not, I’ll wager you anything, ever be seen as sexy. They sure as hell better not sparkle.