With The Walking Dead TV Series leading the way by drawing millions of viewers, and the success of the Max Brook’s World War Z book and movie, zombies are big business.
The problem I have with zombies is that as currently portrayed, they are really not all that scary. I mean, let’s be honest, the modern ones lack any sort of intellect other than a primal need to go after prey. They move around at a shuffle, or run if they’re a scarier “rage zombie”, have no senses other than hearing, and their method of creating more of them is to fail to kill their prey.
To quote Dillis D. Freeman Jr. “You know what the difference between me and you really is? You look out there and see a horde of evil, brain eating zombies. I look out there and see a target rich environment.”
If we had a zombie outbreak today, given everything we know about them from popular culture, we wouldn’t have the Walking Dead. We would have an episode of Gray’s Anatomy or Wild Kingdom. The only way that the contemporary zombies that are shown on the Walking Dead actually manage to overrun the earth is if everything goes completely wrong for the humans. If the humans show one iota of good thinking or strategic foresight, the outbreak gets contained and covered up within a matter of 24 to 48 hours after being detected. If you’re interested in more, Cracked.com actually ran an article as to why the zombie apocalypse could never happen.
“You know what the difference between me and you really is? You look out there and see a horde of evil, brain eating zombies. I look out there and see a target rich environment.”
But you know what, I’m not here to tell you why a zombie apocalypse can’t happen, or why you shouldn’t be afraid of it. I want to take a look at ways where fiction creators can make it scarier.
As always, these are my opinions offered up for discussion. Your mileage may vary.
So let’s begin.
One of the first things that we want to establish before we start this exercise is that our zombies are going to be the creatures of science. Magical zombies are a lot of fun, and in many ways a lot scarier simply because magic breaks all of the rules, and your options for fighting them are based upon folklore and lost ancient knowledge. The scientific method really doesn’t work with them.
The second thing that I want to establish is that I want to stay as close as possible to the original concepts made popular as a result of George Romero’s films. If we go too far away from the mindless shambling corpse, we don’t end up with zombies. In fact, when 28 Days Later came out with its fast movers, a.k.a. rage zombies, there was a lot of debate in the fan community as to whether or not these were “real zombies.” So, with that in mind, we’re not going to go too far afield. We’re going to look at tweaks, rather than wholesale revisions of mythology and lore.
Zombies and Contagion:
According to modern lore, people become zombies when they are infected by a bite carrying a virus, a parasite, a fungus, or some other organism that reanimates and takes control of their corpse. In all cases, the infection is 100% fatal, and has a ridiculously short incubation time. People will succumb to the infection within a matter of minutes, and then proceed to attack the nearest living person in order to help spread the disease.
Sounds scary, right? You’ve got victims keeling over within seconds, dying, and then getting up to re-infect others within minutes. You’d imagine that the spread would be like wildfire.
Actually, not so much. As long as you stay away from the dead guys you’re pretty much immune. And if the public health authorities are even remotely intelligent, the contagion would probably be contained very quickly. Anyone who is potentially infected would be isolated until the authorities were convinced that they were in no danger. And let’s be honest, it’s pretty easy to identify the walking dead.
So, let’s change the setup. We’ve got two factors that we can play with here. First, there’s the method of transmission. Second, there’s the incubation time.
It has been a common theme through popular culture that the infection method has to be a bite. Out of all of the infection methods, this one is really not all that effective. The diseases that give epidemiologists nightmares are the ones that have airborne transmission. You don’t have to be touched, bitten, or otherwise have any contact with an infected individual – you just have to be breathing the same air. This is what makes influenza and SARS so contagious.
Now, as writers of horror fiction, we have a problem with this. Namely, if we are in a post-apocalyptic situation where the wlaking dead are running rampant, how do we keep our heroes from becoming infected?
So let’s dial this back a bit. Let’s say that rather than airborne transmission, the infection is spread by contact with bodily fluids. Now any good zombie hunter worth his salt is going to at some point end up slogging through hip deep amounts of gore and bodily fluids from the devastation that he rains down on the zombie hordes. Eventually, our hunter is going to become infected unless he takes proper precautions – but that’s another article.
The second aspect – incubation time – can also increase the zombie fear factor. For a lot of writers, the faster the infection, the scarier because there is no no hope for an infected victim to get any kind of treatment. However, I actually argue in the opposite direction. I think the slower the incubation time, the scarier this infection becomes.
If we have an infection that takes days, or even weeks, to have symptoms manifest, then that is a longer period of time where the infected can spread the disease to other people. Think of the number of people that you are in contact with every single day through your work, through leisure, and through relationships. A sexually transmitted disease, for example, can tear through a social group within a matter of weeks in direct relation to just how sexually promiscuous the members of that group are. Now imagine if the person that you are hooking up with had been infected with the virus – something that takes quite some time to reach it symptomatic phase, has a 100% transmission rate, and it 100% mortality rate and you won’t know for at least a week? Suddenly, that changes the dynamics of the outbreak to truly apocalyptic proportions. The walking dead at this point aren’t your biggest problem. Instead your biggest problem is knowing if you or other members of your survival collective are either:
- infected and waiting to turn, or
- carriers who will continue to unknowingly spread the infection on to everyone else they meet, kind of like an undead Typhoid Mary.
For hard science guys like myself, that’s how you make a zombie apocalypse scarier.
As an added thought, let’s assume that the zombie contagion can actually jump species. This way, anything can be a carrier or can ultimately become one of the walking dead. The cross species infection played a big part in the back story of the fungal monstrosities in the hit videogame The Last of Us.
Likewise, we have seen sporadic references to things such as a zombie dogs, and zombie cats in horror fiction. For human beings, one of the protection mechanisms we have against infection is that viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi have a hard time infecting across species. But just think of all of the mammals, both domesticated and wild, that live in and around your neighborhood. Everything from dogs to rats, skunks to rabbits, coyotes to bats – every one of those could be the carrier of a zombie infection. How would humanity ever be able to fight back against something like that?
Okay, let’s say that you’re just fine with the infection method as is. It was good enough for George Romero, so dammit it’s good enough for you. Besides, you want to write stories about lots of zombie killing, so you have the undead shambling hordes coming towards your heroes, and your heroes have enough brain cells between them to actually lure the undead into a kill zone. Suddenly your story loses all tension because the only dramatic question you’ve got is whether they run out of ammunition before they run out of undead.
Here’s the problem with the shambling undead horde: the lack of any intellect, other than an autonomous response to external stimuli, means that the zombies really suck at being predators. The only time that they become dangerous is if there are a lot of them and the humans are stupid enough to get caught in an area where walking dead have congregated.
We’ve become so used to the idea of the mindless, unthinking zombie that we really have sucked a lot of the potential horror out of them. These creatures then become part of the environment, and we’re reduced to watching the heroes make bad life choices in order to mine any dramatic tension out of the situation.
So, let’s change things a bit. Let’s actually make them into predators. We don’t need to increase their intelligence by a great deal. We can actually have fairly unintelligent predators who rely on hunting instincts and pack mentalities to pose a greater threat.
For example, coyotes are pack hunters. They will form groups that will harass and tire their prey, while at the same time shepherding the prey towards another pack that lies in wait. This cooperative hunting behavior could be applied to zombies who are looking to deal with their ravenous hunger for human flesh. Undead hunting bands could exhibit the same pack-hunting behaviors as coyotes and develop a few new ones.
Zombies need a little bit of intelligence that goes beyond just the stimulus-response reaction to noises made by victims. If we’ve established in modern lore that they need to attack humans to feed and to spread the contagion, then they have a motivation to seek out prey and that prey is going to be humans. They are going to find ways to get inside human havens, and, they are going to learn to work together beyond simply a mob mentality.
Without predator behavior, zombies are essentially a force of nature that is no different from fire, rain, or snow. Humans have been learning how to overcome forces of nature for millennia, and zombies of this type would essentially fade into the background noise. They would become just another aspect of the world that characters are dealing with, and they would not be a particularly scary threat. Those of us who used to play Dungeons & Dragons back in the day can remember the wandering monster encounter table and how little excitement it gave to the adventure beyond a simple interlude in the story. Unthinking undead would basically devolve just to that level.
With predator behavior however, zombies become a more active threat in the environment. They become the villains that are able to carry the weight of the story and provide the dramatic tension needed to make it a compelling horror story. With predator behavior, you remove any aspect of a safe haven for humans and you put the walking dead above humans in the food chain.
If we look at a movie like James Cameron’s Aliens from the perspective of a zombie movie, there’s a lot in there that a smart writer could mine to make his monsters much more frightening. The predatory instincts of the aliens map very well on to a predator zombie. There is the element of stealth where the undead would be able to appear in areas where the humans are not expecting them. Even the famous line from Private Hudson: “What do you mean, THEY cut the power”? How could they cut the power, man? They’re animals!” gives the audience a sense of just how bad the situation really is for our heroes. Imagine that line in a zombie story.
Some people want to be zombies
So, we played around with contagion, and we’ve also played around with behavior. Let’s take a look at the next way to make them a little bit scarier. Modern lore treats zombies as a disease, with humans being either food or undead spawn. What if there’s a third option for humans? What if there were humans who wanted to become zombies?
The idea of humans wanting to become monsters isn’t new. Anne Rice’s romantic vampire stories inspired an awful lot of people to toy with the idea of living as vampires. The human living vampire (HLV) movement has adherents all across North America and in Europe, where real people choose to live their lives is if they were vampires – right down in some cases to drinking blood. In fact, it’s become one of the new tropes and horror fiction that people who are unsatisfied with their human lives seek out the power or the romance offered by becoming a vampire, or werewolf, or some other supernatural creature.
Werewolves and vampires are one thing. Just what kind of twisted do you have to be to willingly want to become a zombie? What would the cost benefit analysis be like in the mind of someone who willingly submitted themselves to the infection, who thought that the life they had was far outweighed by the benefits of being an ambulatory, unthinking, rotting corpse?
Here are a few options.
While most people would immediately make the connection with suicide, a scarier motivation would be if the people that wanted to do that were people that like killing and for whom the prospect of being an unstoppable, unkillable monster who could keep slaughtering victims forever appealed. We’ve already seen variations of this in films where a mass murderer is executed in an electric chair, and instead comes back as a revenant hell bent on revenge. Also, you can think of it from the perspective of someone who hated the world enough that he willingly wanted to turn himself into one of the walking dead just to be able to terrorize and kill the people around him.
We can push this trope a bit further to the point where we have cults or groups of people who all willingly want to become zombies. We also have real world tragedies, such as the People’s Temple in 1978, the Solar Temple in 1994, and Heaven’s Gate in 1997 where cult members committed mass suicide further to their religious beliefs.
Finally, we have the emergence of the new drug called Krokodil. News of this has been making the rounds of the Internet in recent weeks and this is a drug which is far more addictive and cheaper than heroin, but its manufacturing process generates impurities which cause necrotization at injection points, effectively eating the flesh of the still-living addict. Photographs can be located on the Internet showing people with their flesh rotting away, leaving exposed bones. The addictive nature of this drug is such that people understand what’s happening to them and yet they will still injected into their bodies to get the brief hit of ecstasy it provides and to stave off the terrifying withdrawal symptoms.
As humans, we grow up with a healthy aversion to death. For people to willingly decide to embrace undeath and visit that horror upon the innocent people around them, that’s something that can give even the most dedicated horror fan pause for thought. Now, the zombie apocalypse isn’t a public health concern, it speaks to a much deeper sickness within society. Done right that can chill anyone write to their bones.
So, this has been a way of looking at the conventions in the zombie horror genre and twisting them, just a bit, to make them even scarier. Let me know what you think makes zombies scarier in the comments below.