Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"What's the deal with zombies anyway?"


Right now the dead have risen - both from the grave and in popularity.  There is no denying that right now zombies are, erm, hot?  Sure technically I guess they should be cold, being dead and all, but as far as pop culture trends go - they are HOT.  World War Z by Max Brooks is being made into a movie starring Brad Pitt as we speak.  Two nights ago the second season premiere of The Walking Dead aired.  Zombies have made an appearance on almost every Disney show (trust me, I watch a lot of Disney so I know).  In fact right now you can go play a Wizards of Waverly Place zombie themed game (Zombies on the 13th Floor) at Disney.com.

On Saturday, October 15th, I went to the Dallas Zombie Walk and saw zombies of all ages - from babies to teens to grown ups - walk the streets of downtown Dallas, some of them going all out in their costumes.  That night they showed a sneak peek of The Walking Dead.  And this month the Dallas Children's Theater is doing an all teen production of Night of the Living Dead, which I think is immensely cool.  And libraries everywhere are having zombie proms and zombie programs.  My library is even having a zombie themed event next Monday, October 24th.  And there is no shortage of awesome zombie themed reading available at your library.

 
I have a tweenager, however, that is not necessarily on board the zombie train.  So yesterday she asked me the question I am sure that is on a lot of people's minds: What's the deal with you and zombies anyway?   (Note: zombie author Jonathan Maberry has a panel discussion up on his website that also attempts to answer this question.) And I wanted to give her a good answer and it went something like this:

What I like about zombie fiction (and I think it applies to dystopian fiction, too) is the underlying discussion of good versus evil.  And the question we must all ask ourselves: who do you become in the face of extreme adversity?  After a brief discussion of what adversity is (she is a young tweenager), I think she started to understand.  You see, it is easy for those of us who are basically good people to do good when life is easy.  The question, however, seems to be will we continue to be good in the face of extreme circumstances?  Who would you, or I, become if we woke up one morning and found that there were only a few 1,000 people left on the planet and we had to spend our days scavenging for food and water while trying not to be eaten by zombies?  When the tables are turned, do we still choose to be good people?  Does what it means to be a good person change in these types of situations?

For example, in the second season premiere of The Walking Dead (spoiler warning!!!!), our merry band of survivors find themselves stuck on a freeway surrounded by deserted cars and decide to search them to find the necessities of life.  One of the characters feels uncomfortable with this proposition because it is "grave robbing."  In the movie Zombieland, the survivors often go in and "rob" stores.  But the rules have changed.  It's like the age old question posed in Les Miserables, is it okay to steal to feed your family.  But pushed to the extreme, is it even really stealing if everyone else is dead?  (To be honest, I didn't really mind the survival need to rob the store, but I was bothered by the way the trashed everything in it - although I did understand the extreme stress and release that it conveyed).

Zombie fiction (and again, dystopian fiction) is a great spring board for discussions of ethics and compassion and humanity.  If my tweenager woke up one morning a zombie, what would be the compassionate thing to do?  Could I be the one to pull the trigger and keep her from becoming a mindless need to feed motivated monster?  (See Rot & Ruin for a great discussion of monsters vs. men.)   Can we, as educators, draw parallels between this concept and discussions regarding quality of life and euthanasia and end of life decisions?  Why yes, yes we can.  And you need look no further than your zombie and dystopian fiction for discussions on violence and society, human psychology, government structure, etc.  There is rich discussion and thought in zombie and dystopian fiction, all packaged within some fun, tense thrills and chills.

And I think apocalyptic fiction is so hot right now in part because, well, it often feels culturally like we are in fact on the verge of an apocalypse, probably more so to teens.  You can't help but read every day in the news a variety of stressful news stories: we are on the verge of economic collapse, we are on the verge of environmental collapse, we are on the verge of overpopulation and a deficit of adequate resources.  These are stressful and scary times for adults, they must be tremendously overwhelming for kids and teens.  Even if they don't understand it all, they can't help but notice that they are living in a climate of fear and stress.  And many of them are being personally affected as their parents are being laid off at worse, or at least tightening the proverbial belts and life is being lived much differently.  As a nation our spirits are worn out, and we sometimes must appear as spiritual zombies just going through the motions of life as we wait for the next shoe to drop.


Many of these themes come up in teen fiction.  Scarcity of resources. Check.  Environmental disaster.  Check.  Good vs. Evil.  Check.  Government corruption.  Check.

One of my favorite series in the zombie fiction is Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry.  Don't read this next part if you haven't read it.  You have been warned.  In Rot & Ruin, society has collapsed and enclaves have been formed behind large walls designed to keep the monsters, the zombies, out.  Resources are scarce so everyone has to start working at 15 and their rations are decreased if they don't.  Rot & Ruin is the story of Benny, just turned 15 and his attempts to find himself in this new world.  But it is also the story of Tom, a zombie hunter with a twist.  Don't worry, I won't tell you the twist.  But it is also a great discussion of good vs. evil and who we become in the face of great adversity: what makes a monster and who are the monsters?

In most zombie fiction today, zombiism (probably not really a word, but we're going to go with it) is a result of a virus that has wiped out most of humanity and caused them to re-animate.  These are barely living dead people with no real brain function.  They are not necessarily acting so much as they are being acted upon.  But the people who live in a post apocalyptic world, the people like you and I, they are forced to make extraordinary choices in a world we could never imagine.  It is interesting to see what choices they make, how they shape both their inner selves and their outer worlds.  Can their choices make them monsters?

In some ways, the survivors of a post apocalyptic world are like the settlers of old - they have an opportunity to build (or in this case rebuild) a new society.  Can they learn from the mistakes of the past?  What would that new society look like?  Will they strive for justice and freedom, or is there really an overwhelming tendency for societies to be greedy and corrupt and always on the brink?  What type of people rise to power?  Can ordinary people become extraordinary heroes?  These are just a few of the many questions that zombie and dystopian fiction allow us to ponder.  When we read it we get to go outside of ourselves and yet examine ourselves at the same time. 

Plus, let's not forget, sometimes a little scary tension is just fun.  Seriously, there have been studies here and there looking at why people like scary movies.  I personally prefer my zombies slow and shambling, that's enough tension for me thanks.  Let me put my request in right now, should the zombie apocalypse happen please let them be the slow and shambling type so I have a chance of surviving.  Those 28 Days Later fast zombies scare me; unless I start marathon training in the next few days I don't have a chance of surviving that type of zombie apocalypse.  I think I'll just read about it instead.

Zombies titles to share with your teens . . .
Some newer titles not pictured include:
Z by Michael Thomas Ford
Ashes by Ilsa Black
The Enemy (series) by Charles Higson

Some dystopian fiction to share with your teens . . .
Some other titles not pictured include:
Delirium by Lauren Oliver
the Maze Runner (series) by James Dashner
Divergent by Veronica Roth

Author Joni Bodart has an upcoming book dealing with monsters - including zombies - in Young Adult literature entitled They Suck, They Bite, They Eat, They Kill.  You'll want to check it out.

Some more discussion about zombies:
Holly Black discusses Why zombies are better than unicorns (Be sure to check out her stories in Zombies vs. Unicorns)
Wikipedia (shudder) has a long list of resources to look at


Previous TLT Posts about zombies and dystopian fiction:

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