by Jay Wilburn
The answer should be yes. A lot of people are banking on the answer being yes. Zombie literature is often categorized in horror on the basis that the answer is assumed to be yes. But I have to admit that I don’t know.
My son is ten and is deathly afraid of zombies. I never discuss what I write with him, so everything he knows about zombies he has picked up from the influence of pop culture and the world at large. One time, he was on a field trip with his summer camp to a wax museum down in Myrtle Beach close to where we live. There was a zombie exhibit off to one side. He followed a few of the older kids inside. There was an introductory video in the first room before entering the section with the actual figures. It was a flashy thing with silhouettes of zombies trying to get through a window at the people in the room. My son ran out and did not even see the actual exhibit. He has been nightmarishly afraid of zombies ever since. His four year old brother pretends to be a zombie to scare him sometimes.
My four year old tells me each day what he has played on the playground. Sometimes it is superheroes and other times it is pirates. Sometimes he plays restaurant or family. Family is where someone is the mom, someone the dad, someone is the kids, sometimes someone is the cat, and they cook dinner or go on pretend vacations. One day he told me that he played zombie family. He was the zombie and the family had to try to escape him without being turned. “How did it go?” I asked. He shook his head and said, “They didn’t all make it.”
I don’t believe fear is the only emotion horror can use in story telling. I don’t think all the emotional notes of a horror story have to be negative ones either. I also don’t think zombies are limited to horror. Dystopian stories are their own style in and off themselves and get used as sub genres within many other categories of storytelling from romance to horror and beyond. Zombie stories are often survival stories and zombies have been used as social commentary since George Romero essentially invented the modern zombie trope. These uses of the zombie still are rooted in the ideas of suspense and horror for storytelling though and it lends itself to the question of whether zombies lose some of their storytelling potential if they are no longer viewed as scary.
If people are asked if vampires or werewolves are scary, the answer is probably going to be some variation of the idea that they can be. In a vampire or werewolf story whether on the page or on film, the creatures are essentially the main villains most of the time. The same is true with many zombie stories, but not all. It is probably less often the truth as time goes on. People are striving to say more with the trope and the subgenre and as a result, the people in the story are more often becoming both the heroes and the villains with the zombies becoming one more obstacle to survival. A creative zombie story has to stretch and strive to become more than run, hide, fight, and die.
Describing a zombie becomes a challenge for the writer trying to elicit some sort of response from the readers. The chase may be the point of tension and so the descriptions focus on action and sounds. There might be shadows and motion. Zombies can be described in detail as they close in. This may focus on the rot and gross out. It may describe textures and the feel of characters being forced to fight and contact the creatures in close quarters. The description of the threat or minor details might create a sense of foreboding and an unnerving at the behavior of the creatures that are us, but still moving and mimicking us after death.
I think a lot can still be said with zombies. I think there is still great potential to tell a wild, exciting story. It is worth it to strive to find new ways to use zombies to create fear and uneasiness in readers that still love them enough to pick up a book. There is great satisfaction in thinking that an old, seasoned zombie fan might still be surprised and scared by a zombie story or a key scene told in just the right way. Check out some of the authors on the Summer of Zombie tour to see who is still working to tell a creative, scary story with the undead.
Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in Conway, South Carolina near the Atlantic coast of the southern United States. He has a Masters Degree in education and he taught public school for sixteen years before becoming a full time writer. He is the author of many short stories including work in Best Horror of the Year volume 5, Zombies More Recent Dead, Shadows Over Mainstreet, and Truth or Dare. He is the author of the Dead Song Legend Dodecology and the music of the five song soundtrack recorded as if by the characters within the world of the novel The Sound May Suffer. He also wrote the novels Loose Ends and Time Eaters. He is one of the four authors behind the Hellmouth trilogy. He cowrote The Enemy Held Near with Armand Rosamilia. Jay Wilburn is a regular columnist with Dark Moon Digest. Follow his many dark thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, and Periscope as @AmongTheZombies, his Facebook author page, and at JayWilburn.com