A Truly Public Monster or Why Are Zombies Fun to Talk about?

Each year at Shared Worlds there is a zombie outbreak and each year I do my best to try to understand what zombies mean.  Here is the third post about zombies, then I’ll take a little break from them for a while.

Public readings at Shared Worlds are unique.  The audience is stocked with dozens of insatiable readers and fanatical writers.  These are young people who sign up to spend two weeks of their summer world-building, reading, and writing.  They swarm a bookstore like, as the manager of the Hub City Bookshop described them, “piranhas in a feeding frenzy” and it is awe-inspiring to behold.

During the second week of Shared Worlds 2010, we had a double bill of Holly Black, the creator of the Spiderwick Chronicles and Carrie Ryan, the author of The Forest of Hands & Teeth and the forthcoming The Dark and Hollow Places.  By 6 PM, Black and Ryan had been around the camp most of the day, teaching and leading discussions.  For hours, the students had barraged Black with questions about magic systems, plot, and writing in general.  Black’s classes are very lively, and Ryan had helped her tame the gloriously wild beast of teenage enthusiasm.

Somehow, though, Ryan had managed to keep a very important secret from the students.  I don’t know if she did so intentionally or not, but the word finally go out that Carrie Ryan writes zombie novels.  Yes, zombie novels.  YA zombie novels.

I wasn’t prepared for how exciting this bit of information was going to be for the fifty or so people in attendance. 

After Black read from her recent novel White Cat and Ryan read from The Dead-Tossed Waves, we opened the floor to questions.  Dozens of hands shot up.  Most of the questions had to do with that subject so dear to Carrie Ryan and, apparently, to the majority of the people in the audience – zombies.

I was amazed at how excited everyone got.  I like zombie novels, but this was out of control.  The questions just kept coming.  It was as though someone had announced Now is the time to discuss the undead and the students did.  There was something about the public forum that seemed to encourage them to ask more and more questions about zombies. 

I wondered why.  Why is zombie talk so lively?  And so I did what I always do when I have a burning question, I asked the nearest game designer to explain the situation.

I found Will Hindmarch hanging back toward the display of new releases.  Will, who is the creative coordinator at Shared Worlds, spent a big chunk of years thinking, talking, and writing about that other popular monster, vampires, as part of his work on White Wolf’s Vampire: The Requiem role-playing game. 

Below, Will and I have recreated the conversation we had while Black and Ryan signed books after the Q & A.


It’s amazing how excited they get about zombie.  I wonder why?

Will Hindmarch:  The thing about zombies is that they’re incredibly easy to talk about. They are great touchstones for discussing new worlds and new stories. On the one hand we all know some of the core traits of zombies—e.g., they’re undead, they want us bad—yet on the other hand, so many of the identifying features of zombies are up for grabs. Maybe they’re slow and shambling, maybe they’re wicked fast. Maybe they’re supernaturally given some semblance of life, maybe they’re ruined by science. Maybe they want our brains, maybe they want to make more zombies.

But if there are so many different kinds…

Will Hindmarch:  When we talk about zombies, we’re comparing imaginations and creative theories. We’re able to hold a wide variety of zombies in our head at once, all coexisting under that one title: Zombies. We’re able to accept and tolerate a lot of riffs on this one grim idea of the walking dead. The zombie canon has porous borders. New kinds of zombies get let in—to our stories, to our nightmares—all the time, even while the classic ghouls keep coming back.

Zombies have important defining features (the head is usually key to taking one out) but even those features can be imagined in new ways, erased or replaced, without necessarily removing the monster’s innate zombie-ness.

When they heard a vampire story read by Nathan Ballingrud a few nights ago, they didn’t ask so many questions about vampires.  I mean, they liked the story and asked Nathan plenty of questions about the story, but they didn’t ask all these questions about vampires.  I guess hard-core zombie fans are just…  different.

Will Hindmarch:  Audiences seem willing, or more than willing, to accept new takes on the classic monster, accepting variations bent to the purpose of a particular story or imaginary world. But even with all the variations allowed by the zombie fan, the audience hardly seems to segment or fracture. Zombie fans debate the merits, ferocity, and fearsomeness of their favorite kinds of zombies, but they continue to tolerate and count new models of zombies into the expanding identity of the monster.

The result is a truly public monster, a creature with no single master, ready to be adopted by any author with a good story to tell about the waking dead. It’s modern folklore, not owned by anyone, ready to be adapted again and again, and tough enough to withstand a few missteps and stay scary even after they’ve been made funny.

But still, once the zombie talk starts it doesn’t seem to end…

Will Hindmarch:  They’re easy and fun to talk about because they’ve broken the bounds of archetype and entered remix territory. Your zombies might not be the same as my zombies, but the appreciation of new terrifying remixes is part of the appeal.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

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