The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why Zombies?

Jason is back to school, as of yesterday. New school, and we like it a LOT better. It is a shame, but true, that the school is better because of the tax base--a more affluent area. Them that's got shall get, and so forth.


Devil's Wake's launch was a rousing success, with lotsa great reviews, reader enthusiasm, penetration into huge chain stores, an audio book, and studio inquiries. Ah, the fun. But whatever success we reap there has nothing to do with any marketing decisions on our part. We'd wanted to do a zombie story long before this new wave of Walking Dead fever.

Why? Well, personally, I've always loved horror, but not written much of it, just a few short stories, and a "supernatural suspense" leaning. But why zombies, specifically? To answer that question, we have to look at the nature of horror fiction itself. Horror is the literature that specifically seeks to generate the emotion of fear and dread. Not because these emotions are pleasant in and of themselves, but because we need to adjust our personal tensions to the perfect level: too much or too little tension, and we are in an unproductive life space, just as too much or too little exercise can destroy your body.

Horror, then, is one of the tools that can either heighten tension, or take us all the way through the cycle of tension into a release, followed by relaxation--and yes, the sexual symbology is obvious and deliberate. But...why zombies?

My theory is that the modern zombie (braaaaains!) was created in 1968, in George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Referred to as "ghouls", these spawn of atomic radiation stalked the countryside, eating people and stumbling around in whatever they happened to be wearing at the moment of death. Romero repeated this ten years later (1978) in DAWN OF THE DEAD, where he added a conscious social subtext of mindless consumerism. We noticed, and loved it, and so did the world. A raft of Euro-zombies followed, peaked, and then died. Romero made additional films, none as successful as the first two, but keeping the trope alive until zombies became part of the social dialogue. Everyone knows that if you get bit, you turn. Zombies want flesh, or more specifically, brains. They hit a critical mass, where enough people know about them that we no longer care about the shocking imagery (well, not too much) and can concentrate where the attention belongs: on the characters, the "family" formed by those trying to survive the apocolypse.

You see, unlike vampires, zombies aren't sexy or interesting per se. They are just gross, and deadly. They are a blank slate upon which we can project fears (dehumanization? Illegal immigration? Disease? Take your pick), and hopes, nightmares and dreams.

And now that the culture has absorbed them, I think they're the first really "new" monster (not the voodoo zombies, but the post-Romero variety) in almost a century. Eventually our interest will burn out, but right now, they've lurched and moaned their way into our hearts.

That means that any kind of story you want, you can tell against the background of the Zombie Apocalypse. Romance, war, adventure, comedy. I'm waiting for a good caper movie, and I bet it will show up. Or heck, I'll write it.

If DEVIL'S WAKE is the kind of success it is shaping up to be, it will be because we are following our hearts, having fun in an arena the public has embraced. That's the "two overlapping circles"--our interests, and the culture's. Where those two overlap, that's where I choose to write.


My mother told me that I was going to have to work hard my whole to find something I love. I flat love writing, and if you do as well, and want to make money doing it, you'll want a copy of the LIFEWRITING YEAR LONG program...still the original, still the best.

1 comment:

Steve Perry said...

Mine was with Indiana Jones, both kinds of zombies -- real and chemically-made, plus Nazis, Japanese soldiers, and lots of voodoo. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and -- wait for it -- snakes ...