Today we hear from Joe McKinney, one of the best-selling zombie novelists around today. His initial works were big hits and he continues to produce great horror novels.
James Robert Smith: Why Are Zombies Such a Powerful Image?
Joe McKinney: Zombies are the monster world’s equivalent of a good pair of blue jeans: they go well with just about anything. In recent years, they’ve gone up against everybody from the police and the military to superheroes, the cast of Star Trek, vampires and, believe it or not, unicorns. They’ve even taken on Jane Austen.
The living dead have worked their way into our hearts, one bite at a time.
So it’s not hyperbole to say that zombies are the hottest thing going.
I don’t want to belabor the point that zombies have taken over modern horror. You see them everywhere, from the TV to the internet news blogs. And of course there’s been a glut of them in print. In fact, I don’t think a revenant has so thoroughly dominated popular fiction since the Victorians took up the ghost story. So I think we can safely say that the zombie is, for the moment, ubiquitous, and consider the point made.
But how did we get here? How did a monster with no personality, no vampirelike sex appeal, and certainly no intelligence, become such an adaptable, and powerful, image for modern life?
The question has come up at every convention I’ve attended for the last five years, and I’ve heard a lot of answers that satisfy with varying degrees of success. But for as many different people who have tried to explain the phenomena, their answers can all be lumped into one of two schools of thought.
The first, and larger of the two schools, touts the zombie’s metaphorical range. No matter what you’re afraid of, be it illegal immigration, terrorism, disease, economic disparity, you name it, there’s a zombie for that.
The second school claims that the zombie is simply a manifestation of our self-loathing, that we realize how inadequate we are as individuals and as a society, and so we’ve invented the zombie as both a degenerate version of ourselves and as a punishment for our society.
Actually, neither explanation totally works for me. Consider the metaphor theory. Certainly even beginning readers are capable of recognizing metaphors. The metaphor, as a literary device, comes about as close to being hardwired into the way our minds work as rhythm and rhyme. But to say that zombies have taken over the popular imagination because of their metaphorical range seems like wishful thinking on the part of writers looking to legitimize the fun they’re having.
And as for the idea that zombies are manifestations of our self-loathing, well, that may work for the nihilists out there, but it hardly explains why the zombie has crossed over into academia, so that we routinely hear of economists talking about zombie banks, and computer experts talking about zombie viruses or zombie terminals. Even political analysts have gotten into the game by referring to fringe presidential contenders who refuse to drop out of the race as zombie candidates.
Something more than shared misery and frustration is going on here.
But you know what? I suspect that we’ve all been over-thinking the problem. Zombies are, after all, not that complicated. They’re dead. They’re dead men, women and children, who look as gross as prose can possibly describe, and they want to eat us.
That’s pretty simple.
It’s frightening, too.
Believe me, I know. As a cop, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time in some flea bag apartment where some critically ill guy has hanged himself and been rotting away inside that room in the middle of summer with no air conditioning for a week or more. When you see a body in that condition, and then envision what it must be like for that corpse to suddenly pop its eyes open and come after you with nothing but the base desire to eat you, then you get the whole why zombies are scary question.
Most of realize this, even if we haven’t been in the company of a week old corpse.
Most of realize this because we’ve seen approximations of it in the movies.
Or first person shooter games.
Or from books and blogs.
And it’s from those movies, first-person shooter games, books and blogs that one simple truth emerges: Everyone knows how to kill a zombie. Seriously. Anyone can do it. You don’t need Van Helsing’s lifetime of study into vampire lore to kill a zombie. You don’t need special powers. You don’t need military training. You simply need a blunt object. Apply that blunt object to the zombie’s skull and - Bingo! - you are in business.
The ease with which a zombie can be dispatched is the only thing that explains their mass appeal, and their adaptability into so many kinds of media. We (and here I mean everyone, not just horror fans) recognize that one zombie is a cinch to kill, but a legion of them is not. We see the same thing in our daily lives, with all of the various problems we confront. Those of us in dead end jobs get this at the molecular level. We recognize that plowing our way through a mountain of paperwork, moving it from Pile A to Pile B, is a lot like mowing through the endless zombies on Left 4 Dead. The same could be said of working your way through the hundreds of emails in your inbox on Monday morning. Or through the packing manifests at the warehouse where you work. Or the endless line of customers in your store. There is a tidal motion to the work we perform that is echoed back to us in the archetypal zombie plot. In killing zombies, we are working out our frustrations and taking control of our circumstances.
And for me anyway, the answer to the question Why are zombies such a powerful image is just that simple.
You can check out all my books here:
And find out more about my writing and what I’m up to here: