Summer of Zombie 2015
“What’s So Scary about Zombies Anymore?”
by Jay Wilburn
I was on a zombie panel at Mid South Con in Memphis this past March 2015. It was mildly attended as zombie panels tend to be at broad fandom conventions. We had a discussion afterward whether or not zombie panels are becoming part of the white noise of the zombie subgenre. During the panel, questions from the audience steered into the realm of what ideas work in zombie stories and what notions pushed them, the audience members and readers, out of the story. Some of the complaints seemed to be specific to the individuals in some ways and those are hard to address in writing a story for every man. The discussion drifted into what actually makes a zombie scary anymore and I contended then and still do now that zombies don’t necessarily have to be scary for the zombie story to work as a horror story or as a piece of literature apart from horror specifically.
Horror as a genre broadly deals with negative emotions. It has greater potential for emotional extremes by having deeper, darker lows that can bring out higher victories within the story and even potentially for happy endings. Zombie stories seen as horror are allowed to use all of these emotional options. Fear is a big one. Fear can be terror and revulsion, but it can also fear of letting the family down or fear of failure. Horror can also include anger or despair. These explorations of the negative don’t require moments of terror at the appearance of the zombies.
Zombie stories are also survivalist dystopian apocalyptic tales. It is a subgenre that may well be a side genre away from horror. Apocalyptic stories are as likely to be categorized as sci fi as they are horror. This emancipates the zombies to be literary in their structure. I’m making this argument to jockey for a Nobel Prize for my zombie literary achievements, of course.
Zombie stories and writers are served by being able to work in the colors of fear though. It is a layer that should not be abandoned entirely if for no other reason than to realistically portray the fear that would be felt by the characters within the context of the story.
One important tool for this fear in story is realism. This brings up some of the points of criticism broached by the audience members in Memphis. Some of them did not like the idea that everyone carried the virus and everyone turns upon death. They did not find that realistic. There are ways to explain that vested in science that could work for a story, but sometimes it is realistic that you wouldn’t know. The unknown inspires fear. I know some zombie authors that spell out the science and process of their virus in extensive detail. Others take the path that the every man in his living room would be unlikely to stumble across the lab with all the answers as he fled the undead. Both approaches can be written well. Both could be written badly.
The small strokes in describing zombies and violence can be the difference between invoking fear, humor, or boredom. Shambling isn’t a scary word anymore to zombie fans. If we actually saw a reanimated corpse shambling toward us, we’d pee our pants, but that word as an adequate describer is worn out. You have to go more specific and new in the word choice. Look into the shadows and the small motions of the shambling body to find the describer that paints the picture and reinvokes the fear that would really be there. Don’t create a new overused word. I try to have flesh slough off the bone no more than one time per piece – if even that often. One spot of decay described in painful detail on an individual, stalking body or the movement of a shoulder described just oddly enough can be all that is needed to create the unease needed.
Realism changes a little with time. Sometimes it is used just to keep the reader in the story. Zombie fans are becoming more sophisticated in their preper knowledge. Don’t leave the power on too long nor keep the toilets flushing after the utilities go out. Don’t let cars start too easily too long into the apocalypse. Don’t have everyone go Mad Max wearing tire armor and worshipping the Moon two weeks into the apocalypse, but don’t leave the grass mowed too long either. Don’t have your lone character who was an accountant building a super fortress single handed. All of these things push the readers out and they are lazy story telling and world building. It tells the reader that the author didn’t take the time to think out the details.
The times have changed in terms of the zombie’s place in popular culture. If we were writing a story in the 1990’s or even early 2000’s, you had to have a scene where the characters figure out what is going on and how the zombies die. There was a transition where zombie stories seemed to be set in a universe where zombie movies didn’t exist. The current era would not seem to realistically support characters that have no idea what a zombie is. This provides new challenges for stories to shock the readers and shock the characters that had to have seen a zombie movie by now.
When Dan Aykroyd wrote the first treatment of Ghostbusters, he had the teams fighting ghosts around space in the future. The key change was setting the story in New York in the present day. In the story we know, the ghosts are interesting against the backdrop of the known. In space in the future, the ghosts would be no different than alien monsters in any other movie. The choice of context and stripping out the extra distracting elements makes the difference in the mood of the story and the anchor point of the audience following the story.
Zombies can reflect a wide range of purposes and emotions in readers and for characters in the story. The awareness of the zombies’ descriptions and actions within the context of each other, proximity, setting, and other surrounding details can orchestrate that mood. Hearing, smelling, feeling, or tasting them in some way may be more powerful than seeing them, if those details are used at the right times in the right ways. A zombie not moving can be unnerving, if shown in the right way. Zombies in the daylight can be scary, if portrayed properly. If the tools that make them scary at night are used in a clumsy way in the daylight, it can be disappointing.
The audience of zombie fans is expanding out of horror and out of normal genre circles. Not all of these new fans are automatically readers, necessarily genre readers, or natural zombie readers. There is a challenge to convince them to pick up the books. The same challenge still exists to serve those that do pick up a story whether they are long-term fans or new to the written zombie story
Zombie fans are a partially known factor and many of the long-term or hardcore fans know the storytellers well. Many of them know the tricks and are no longer impressed. When a person has a stance and you want to knock them over, you have pick the angle that pushes against their weakness or surprises them. This can be taking a story in a direction other than fear or finding a way to deliver fear in an unexpected way. Zombie fans deserve great stories delivered in a great way. They have waited long enough.
Check out the first book in the Dead Song dodecology and the soundtrack The Sound May Suffer for the story told through words, pictures, and music. This is my attempt to push in a different direction.
Check out The Dead Song Legend Dodecology Book 1: January from Milwaukee to Muscle Shoals –
Check out the five song sound track in The Sound May Suffer … Songs from the Dead Song Legend Book 1: January –
Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in Conway, South Carolina near Myrtle Beach on the Atlantic coast of the southern United States. He was a teacher for sixteen years before leaving to become a full-time writer. He writes in many genre. His Dead Song series book 1 is available now along with the five song soundtrack The Sound May Suffer.
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The stench of rotting flesh is in the air! Welcome to the Summer of Zombie Blog Tour 2015, with 30+ of the best zombie authors spreading the disease in the month of June.
Stop by the event page on Facebook so you don’t miss an interview, guest post or teaser…and pick up some great swag as well!
Giveaways galore from most of the authors as well as interaction with them!
#SummerofZombie is the hashtag for Twitter, too!