I will be upfront and say I am not a huge zombie fan, but there are depictions of zombies that I do enjoy. I feel they should be talked about and emphasized more, to be honest! I don’t want to point out specific franchises, but rather explore what some in the creative (writers, artists, and such) community think.
Therefore, I took to twitter and asked about this topic! I would love to discuss a few responses with my own insight and opinions, and bring up what others have said here too. Here is what I asked:
There were several responses that really stood out to me, one of which I want to share at the end because it does encompass my mindset when it comes to zombies. When we talk about zombies, however, there are several ways of looking at them. I would like to discuss the zombies which lack a will, versus those with free will, since that was the topic discussed the most aside from the collapse of society at large. In this discussion, I want to bring up several other people’s tweets as well, because a deep dive subject needs more than me just sharing my thoughts!
Zombies Absent of their Will
Many people, when they consider zombies, think of mindless corpses that hobble around in large numbers and rip people apart, usually causing a societal collapse. Typically we see zombies as a result from a viral infection. In fact, the rabies virus causes a short-term zombie, though the person with it is not an animated corpse. They are dead as soon as symptoms appear, as there is no cure for rabies. The brain deteriorates to the point where you lose all of yourself.
I remember listening to a horror video which brought up that topic, and it honestly terrified me. I felt a deep dread upon listening to the story of how rabies completely destroys someone, and only in the matter of a few days. Watching yourself waste away while having no way of stopping it, turning into a mindless zombie-like state is a horror story that exists in real life. I do not recommend looking up videos on rabies in general if you want to avoid being greatly disturbed.
The origin of the zombie myth can be found all over the world, of course, shown in varying ways. The scientific element in some origins is fascinating, but zombie-ism could also be magical in nature, something I will discuss later in this article.
Anyway, I was curious to see what other creatives like writers and artists thought of zombies, and so I made my tweet in question. I enjoy the creative community on Twitter, and was not disappointed to hear their thoughts.
This is an interesting point when to zombies without a mind. There is no reason, only instinct, the need to kill, the need to consume. In a sense, they are quite like viruses, which only exist to take over and replicate. Zombies are that, but on a humanoid scale. CD Pulley puts this into perspective very well with this insight.
Philip Webb also brings up this point, with the single objective to kill and consume. They will keep going, and sometimes a bullet to normally fatal areas will not stop them. The idea of being chased by something that simply will never stop is terrifying, and it can be pretty hard to kill zombies in some lore.
Infinitelyblankpage brings up a very interesting point with their response. What if your soul or mind was still there, but you could only see yourself murdering everyone you love? Actually, this concept does apply to another type of undead known as the Death Knight in the World of Warcraft franchise. Long story short, they were mind controlled to do terrible things. I’m not sure if a zombie with this plotline could even break free, or if they would be trapped forever. If an afterlife is to meet them, how would they cope with their fate? What if they can be cured, but have to live with the atrocities they committed while puppets to the zombie-ism?
Then, there’s the other side to this matter. Like I said before, the living still need to actually suffer their loved ones descent into madness and face either killing them, or being killed by them. Would you risk this issue to try and bring your loved one back?
Maxime Jaz brings up exactly this point, and quite well. Loss is never easy for someone you’re close to, so the idea that you could try to bring them back could be tantalizing. Zombie stories sometimes show this notion going very wrong, and the consequences of trying to bring back a loved one from the dead. Suppose your loved one wasn’t guaranteed to become a zombie, but perhaps there was a 60% chance. Would you try to bring them back and risk that high percentage? What if it was 1%? What about 99%? These topics could definitely be explored in horror fiction.
Brooklyn Ann reinforces this idea by bringing up Pet Sematary, as well. I have not seen the movie or read the book myself (and perhaps should), but I understand the premise, and it makes sense. We never want to say goodbye, but it is definitely the better alternative than being ripped apart by someone you loved.
I learned something when asking my question, as well, about Haitian folklore. I love when I’m taught new things, and this is the case of such! I included this tidbit because this is an example of not having a will, but temporarily, and your will actually being owned by someone else as opposed to truly mindless.
I am already someone fascinated by necromancy, the act of raising the dead, so learning about this made a lot of sense and was super interesting to me. I also really enjoy how the bokor can capture the zombie astral, a part of the soul, to have complete control… or sell it off for a variety of benefits. This reminds me a little bit of a lich but absent of any free will of their own. In the case of a lich, their soul is in an object separated from the body and they retain their will (although likely not if that object, the phylactery, is stolen. Something interesting to explore.)
I would definitely read stories on this subject, as it’s one of the really interesting things I learned about a ‘zombie’ concept. Something else I enjoy is how the soul could eventually be freed by a deity. Which brings this back around to how the soul would cope with what they did under control of another, of course.
Zombies Who Maintain their Will
The other subject I wanted to talk about is less common, or zombies who maintain their will. Now, I do prefer this variant of zombie myself, however I really do enjoy the Haitian folklore mentioned above. We do get slightly into ‘vampire’ territory (if your vampires are undead) when talking about zombies-with-a-will, but I think a few key differences are that your willful zombie will likely rot, or at least need replacement parts. There also is the matter of how much will they have. They could be impacted by undeath and not the same person they were before, despite actually keeping most of their will.
Gabriel Hargrave (who has a fabulous halloween tag) brought up what I, personally, like in the zombie mythos, which to be honest, is not common. He points out here that zombies that are mindless shells aren’t nearly as scary–and I think that’s why I’m not interested in them as a monster. Imagine a monster that is super hard to put down, but who maintains cunning, who can outsmart you, and who has questionable morals. Now, multiply that by a lot. Or, as mentioned above, controlled by someone else with intelligence rather than no objective.
Not only that, but we can explore more of the psychology and morality of an undead person here as well. At what point are they entirely changed while still maintaining intelligence? Do they do a complete personality shift to aggressive, or do they actually maintain quite a bit of who they were when they died? How do their maintain their bodies, if they even need to? Can they sustain on non-human flesh, and if not, how do they handle that if they do maintain morality?
All of these questions are those that fascinate me. Again, this is something that vampire writers tend to explore more than zombie writers, from my experience, so it’s understandable not to be as common.
Breakdown of Society
I wanted to also talk about, in this post, the outcome of a large number of mindless zombies, which is usually a complete societal collapse. Here are a few tweets that mention this:
The collapse of society as a result of a zombie infection, or something like it, is among the most likely of apocalypses. My lover and I discuss this at times, and I will let him take away this topic:
“Based on medical advances, knowledge of the human body and how it acts, as well as advances in biological warfare…while it isn’t something utilized, it is constantly advanced upon naturally. The efficacy and likelihood of a manmade virus that can alter a human’s thought process to be more primal and bloodthirsty is the highest likelihood turning something that could be the common cold into the next world-changing zombie apocalypse by simply licking your fingers, smelling the air, or drinking water. Going about your daily lives, you could have ingested something that will remain there for the rest of your life, making every human being a ticking time bomb to their loved ones, where they are least protected.” —Athedima
His point is valid as well, considering you can have the rabies for a while with no symptoms before it hits. Humans are advancing in science, after all, and in many deadly ways. The science behind this could be very real and very terrifying.
Shimaira brought up the realism and science in some of the zombie mythos, and with the discussion going on with advancing diseases, a realistic zombie story could turn from fiction to reality, terrifyingly enough.
People bring up a cure for zombie-ism with this subject, and it is always an interesting thing to think about. After all, some viruses do have cures or treatments, while others do not. Your immune system is there for a reason, could it actually fight off some sort of zombie virus? Would a vaccine be made to help humans grow immune? Even if so, what do you do about people that are too far gone? If you have zombie animals, would you need a different blend of chemicals, considering veterinary medications vary from human medications, and diseases affect animals differently?
Some folks on twitter brought up the idea of both different types of zombies, and a cure, which I like as well. It’s something to think about in a horror story involving zombies. Is there a cure? Or perhaps a release of the soul or will, if the zombie-ism is magic in nature? How would your characters go about freeing or curing people if so? How much loss would occur in the meantime?
A cure does add another layer to the story, whether that be the race to actually find one, or the race to cure as many as possible before they are too far gone.
Variety in General
Many people discussed how zombies can change from myth to myth and story to story. Not all are mindless hordes, though even in those large groups, there could be something that makes them distinct. Speed, intelligence, magic, you name it, various things can be applied to zombies to make them really stick out.
(Jaclyn Algie also brings up the retention of intelligence, something I mentioned really liking the notion of above!)
Here is one more mention on how zombies can have a ton of variety as well:
Jackie Sinfulwolf makes a great point when it comes to how versatile they are, mentioning several franchises where they come up, and how they can be used for various plot points to push characters into action, show emotion, or move society in some way. This is something that I hope creators bear in mind. Straying from the ‘norm’ is a great thing, and I would love to see more variety when it comes to zombies as people put their minds to awesome stories.
This topic could go on for several books beyond a blog article! I wanted to do a short exploratory post on the matter, however, since a lot of horror fans like zombies. I hope you enjoyed my breakdown! What do you think of zombies? Would you prefer those without will, with a will, or a mixture of both? How would you world build your zombies to be different from ‘common’ myth? What zombie myths from around the world do you enjoy the most? Feel free to comment here or send me a tweet on Twitter!
As always, I wanted to toss in a reminder about my books, since I am an author in the dystopic fantasy genre! Though my focus is more on vampires, and I talk about them extensively in this blog, so be sure to browse if you’re looking for interesting ideas on vampires. My magical college novel just came out, so if you’re interested, be sure to check it out!