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Zombie dearest: our inhuman love affair with the undead

What's your choice form of zombie entertainment?
Posted 6:42am on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012

Just after sunset on a recent Friday evening, Carson Prim, a 12-year-old student at Boles Junior High in Arlington, fled in terror, pursued by a slow, plodding, brain-hungry member of the army of the undead. As her screams echoed through the cool night, the ghoulish zombie, whose pale face was caked in blood, relentlessly followed her around the area in front of Hangman's House of Horror.

Prim and about 30 of her classmates had just arrived in buses and were being treated to what they thought would be a night of the usual semi-scripted and supervised fun through one of the most reputable and long-standing haunted houses in Texas. The students raised more than $5,000 for their school from proceeds of their own haunted house. They never imagined the reward would be running in terror from zombies.

But just as it seemed inevitable that they'd join the ranks of the undead, the cavalry came. A military vehicle with flashing lights sounded its horn, and uniformed men in gas masks and brandishing riot gear swept the area, corralling the rogue monsters. Members of the zombie response team scanned the still-numbed students, and unfortunately several were infected from zombie bites. They were dragged off, some kicking and screaming, and the zombie outbreak was contained. For now...

"We know it's fake," said Prim, "but it's still scary."

And that only begins to explain the hold zombies seem to have on us these days. The idea of a zombie plague or apocalypse is the theme behind everything from fitness bootcamps, survivalist seminars and gardens to wildly popular TV shows, local pub crawls and parties -- even a Centers for Disease Control zombie preparedness blog.

Author Max Brooks, who has penned three zombie-related books, including The Zombie Survival Guide, says that zombies are a way for people to explore their apocalyptic anxieties at a safe distance, particularly during periods of great uncertainty. Zombies, he says, are a metaphor for hopelessness.

"During the '70s, when zombies used to be popular, it was a time when people felt like the system was breaking down, the apocalypse was on their minds," he said. "I think we've come full circle, we're right back where we were in the '70s. People are asking, 'What's happening to the world we live in?'

"And zombies are a great way to take that to the extreme, but at the same time, you're sure none of this could happen."

If the blood-lust of the once-terrifying monsters is now somewhat diminished by zombie-themed pub crawls, costume parties, dance teams and more, our preoccupation with them isn't. Myriad websites are dedicated to zombie detection, survival and the like -- one such blog, "Zombie Apocalypse in Fort Worth, Texas" provides helpful survival tips specifically geared towards people living in Cowtown.

"If you read a book by Cormac McCarthy or watch the movie Contagion, that can really happen, and that's way too scary," Brooks said. "Psychologically your brain will want to go away from that.

"But if you see the exact same movie, read the exact same book, but the catalyst is a zombie, which is not real," he continued, "you have that one step removed."

Which may explain the runaway success of a show like AMC's The Walking Dead, which shattered ratings records for a cable show with its Season 3 premiere Oct. 14.

Absent the smoking of bath salts, even the most zealous zombie enthusiast admits the cannibalistic monsters are fictional. But, as Brooks and others point out, the fear of them is still very real. Preparing for defending yourself against them is no joke. You must know how to identify a zombie, how to hide from them, how to kill them and how to survive in a world gone mad.

Though the students from Boles Junior High were able to laugh off their experience with the undead at Hangman's House of Horrors, they might have been better served by taking notes on how the response team handled the lurching terrors. Because one thing's for sure, today's zombies are hellbent on world domination.

Zombies: a history

Like all monsters, the zombie mythology has changed over time, although the basics are pretty simple. Something causes a normal human being or a dead human being to turn into a zombie (a plague, a virus, a bite from another zombie) and then the undead creatures go hunting for human flesh. Killing them is fairly standard in most zombie literature: remove their heads somehow.

The movie White Zombie first introduced the world to the cannibal corpses in 1932. Since then, there have been hundreds of zombie movies, comic books, books, television shows, etc., and many of them are set in an apocalyptic future, one in which zombies are taking over mankind.

The peaks and valleys of the popularity of zombie literature and movies is no accident. Brooks, who won an Emmy award as a writer for Saturday Night Live, became interested in the subject of zombies during the Y2K panic of the late '90s. An atmosphere of fear hung in the air like a black cloud, as many stockpiled weapons and supplies. Although there was no shortage of how-to survival books, much to Brooks' chagrin, there were no books that directly addressed his biggest childhood fear: zombies.

While researching his first book, The Zombie Survival Guide, he drew upon his experience growing up in southern California, preparing for earthquakes and other natural disasters.

"If you're ready for a natural disaster, you're ready for a zombie plague," he said. "The main thing is to remember that there are a million ways that zombies can kill you without ever having to see you: dehydration, starvation, disease, improper medical care."

To his point, last year, the CDC posted a blog titled: "Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse," as a fun way to discuss preparing for emergencies. The CDC recommended stocking up on water, nonperishable food, medication, tools (including duct tape), first aid supplies and more. It also discussed devising an emergency plan, and holding onto documents such as your drivers license.

The No. 1 thing that could save your life during a zombie attack, Brooks said: "Ironically, you just have to stay calm and think."

Secondly, he said, don't underestimate your enemy, just because zombies are slow and dumb.

"For me it's all about how you react to something," he said. "When we had an air-born virus, like the bird flu or pig flu, the World Health Organization pulled the fire alarm.

"But if you have something like AIDS, everyone thinks it's so hard to get," he said. "People didn't think they'd be infected, and nobody reacted, and we let the genie out of the bottle."

Now Brooks tours the globe giving talks on the subject, and recently gave such a talk at the University of North Texas. He gets a wide spectrum of reaction to his work. Some take it more seriously than others, he said during an interview.

"You have the people who are into it because other people are into it," he said. "Those are the same people who were doing the Macarena a few years ago. Then, on the opposite side of the spectrum you have the people who really think it's going to happen. And a lot of those people are actually kind of psyched, because they don't think it through. They don't think, 'What's going to happen in 20 years when there's no chemotherapy?'

"They are thinking about being the hero and saving the girl and being the alpha-male, and finally fitting into society," he said. "They think, 'Once society falls apart, then I could rise to the top.' They don't think about, what am I going to do when there's no National Weather Service and I have no idea when a storm is coming?"

They don't blink

As the zombie response team at Hangman's scanned potentially infected haunted house-goers, they also brought with them some useful literature on how to identify a zombie. While most of us are familiar with how they look and behave, the pamphlet, titled, "Know Your Foe," detailed some of the lesser known characteristics of zombies.

The first thing on the response team's list: Smell. "The tissue of a zombie continues to slowly decay and produces a distinct odor," it reads. "Some newer zombies will have little decay and not smell."

Secondly: "The eyes of a zombie are glazed over and may appear hazy," it says. "Also, zombies do not blink."

The next thing to look for, according to the literature, is skin color: "The skin of a zombie will appear pale, and in some cases will appear blue or grey. A zombie will feel cool to the touch, but you must never touch someone suspected of being a zombie."

The most typical form of transfer of the zombie-causing virus, according to the pamphlet, is the bite: "If a person is seen with a bite mark, they should be considered a zombie risk and immediately put into observation."

One tell-tale sign that your neighbor, friend or spouse has become zombiefied is their movement: "A zombie's walking pattern will seem unstable. A previous attack may have left the legs of the zombie injured, but they will continue to walk. If both legs have been disabled," the pamphlet adds, "the zombies do crawl and are still a threat."

Manuel Olivo, a teacher at Tarrant County College, founded the fictional Fort Worth Zombie Defense Center. His goal is to educate people on how to carry on during the inevitable zombie attack.

"Be prepared," he said. "Don't wait until zombies are walking down your street to get everything you need. If you have empty space in your place, fill it with food, water and medicine. Stocking up now instead of waiting for the first signs of an outbreak will save you from the trouble of having to deal with the many others heading to the stores in a panic for the same things you need. Don't put yourself at a disadvantage that early in the game."

He also believes that silence is the best way to avoid a zombie attack.

"Silence is golden," he said. "Zombies are primitive by nature, reacting to audio and visual changes in their surroundings. Don't give them a reason to look in your direction."

He listed several other keys to survival, many of which are also listed by Brooks, the CDC and others. Some of the highlights include knowing your surroundings -- where to find warehouses, food distribution centers and supply stores; how to dress: cargo pants, light, long-sleeved tops, backpack, gloves and hiking boots are all highly recommended; reading up on survival books; and stockpiling weapons.

"Before you run to the gun store and buy one, remember this: clubs, bats, tire irons, lead pipes, knives, maces -- don't require ammo, and make next to no noise when in use," he said.

It's also important, most zombie literature agrees, to plan an evacuation route. The CDC blog post recommends that you plan multiple routes out of town.

"When zombies are hungry they won't stop until they get food (i.e., brains), which means you need to get out of town fast," the post reads. "Plan where you would go and multiple routes you would take ahead of time so that the flesh eaters don't have a chance." When canned food supplies run out, one organization is promoting post-zombie apocalypse gardening. Leah Ashley Esser, co-founder of the Zombie Victory Gardens in Loveland, Colo., latched on to the zombie theme as a way of motivating people to grow their own food.

"Very few movies, comics, or books that focus on zombies look at what the long-term survival plan would be," she said in an e-mail. "Canned food can only hold out for so long...I kind of feel like we're filling a void in that department."

Like much of the literary cannon of zombie fiction, Esser and company understand the zombie metaphor, and use it to promote their cause.

"My personal thoughts are that [using the zombie theme] is not so much about the zombies as it is a way to reflect on what people...and society does when things fall apart," she said.

Crawling like a zombie

Last weekend more than 500 people slathered on makeup and fake blood and took to area bars in the Fort Worth Zombie Crawl, which went from Houston Street Bar and Patio to the Fox and the Hound to Paddy Reds. Though it's the largest pub crawl in Fort Worth, it was by no means the only zombie-themed party in town. A search on the DFW.com event listings revealed more than a dozen pub crawls and parties that revolved around the undead. For area bars, it meant big business.

One of the crawl's organizers, Dondi Baggett, said that it has grown exponentially every year. The networking event doesn't cost anything to be a part of, and zombies can come and go as they please.

Baggett said she believes the zombie theme appeals to so many people because anyone in any walk of life can be turned into a zombie.

"Anybody can be a zombie, regardless of what your job is," she said. "You could be a business person or a farmer, and you just wear whatever you'd normally wear to work and zombify it."

This year's crawl was interrupted by an appearance from the zombie response unit, while the monsters crossed Burnett Park. Only a few of the participants knew about the raid, so it was a surprise to zombies and onlookers alike.

While masses of zombies staggered from bar to bar, Sheryl Jordan, who played one of the offending zombies at Hangman's, was also taking part in a zombie dance squad. She and her fellow Thriller Dancers were also bar-hopping over the weekend, performing a move by move re-enactment of Michael Jackson's famous dance to his hit, Thriller. Last year, the dance team, which has some 40 members, performed at Bass Hall during the intermission of Little Shop of Horrors.

Jordan, who said she doesn't watch scary movies or enjoy haunted houses, was drawn to becoming a zombie because of the charity work that Hangman's does. She said that, despite not enjoying horror movies, once the makeup is on, she easily falls into character.

"It's different when you put the makeup on. It's like having a force field -- you go in stealth mode," she said. "You become a zombie. People are afraid of you rather than you being the one who is scared. You put on your tattered clothes and the makeup, and find your inner-ghoul."

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