For as long as I can remember I’ve thrilled at the sight of abandoned buildings. Something about those dark, empty windows, the vacant doorways, the sepulchral quiet of an empty train station or hotel lobby, spoke of discontinuity, and of trauma. There was a vacancy in those wrecks that evoked loss and heartache and the memory of dreams that have fallen by the wayside. They were a sort of negative space in the landscape, symbols of our world’s mortality.
And then zombies came along, and I fell in love with them for many of the same reasons.
But here’s the thing.
It took me a while—as a writer I mean—to figure out that abandoned buildings, and even abandoned cities, don’t just appear because a horde of zombies happen to show up. Sure, most everybody gets eaten, and so you end up with a lot of buildings and very few people, but it goes a little deeper than that. Zombies and abandoned buildings, it seems to me, are actually two sides of the same coin. Aside from the obvious similarity—that they are both miserable wrecks somehow still on their feet—both are symbols of a world that is at odds with itself and looking for new direction. And in that way, zombies merge symbolically with the abandoned buildings they haunt in ways that other monsters never really achieve with the settings of their stories.
But just because the zombie and the abandoned building are intimately related symbols doesn’t mean that they function in exactly the same way.
Consider the abandoned building first.
When a building dies, it becomes an empty hull, and yet it does not fall. At least not right away. Its hollow rooms become as silent as the grave; but, when you enter it, its desolate inner spaces somehow still hum with the collected sediment of the life that once thrived there.
When we look at graffiti scrawled across fine Italian marble tiles, or a filthy doll face up in a crumbling warehouse parking lot, or weeds growing up between the desks in a ruined schoolhouse, we’re not just seeing destruction. We’re also seeing what once was, and what could be again. In other words, we’re seeing past, present and future all at the same time.
The operative force at work here is memory. Within the mind, memory links past, present and future. But in our post-apocalyptic landscapes, our minds need a mnemonic aid… and that aid is the abandoned building. The moldering wreck before us forces us to consciously engage in the process of temporal continuity, rather than simply stumble through it blindly.
Put another way, we become an awful lot like Wordsworth daydreaming over the ruins of Tintern Abbey. Like Wordsworth, we’re witnessing destruction, but pondering renovation, because we are by nature a creative species that needs to reshape the world in order to live in it. That is our biological imperative.
And so, in the end, the abandoned building becomes a symbol of creative courage.
But now consider the abandoned building’s corollary, the zombie.
Zombies are, really, single serving versions of the apocalypse. Apocalyptic stories deal with the end of the world. Generally speaking, they give us a glimpse of the world before catastrophe, which becomes an imperfect Eden of sorts. They then spin off into terrifying scenarios for the end of the world. And finally, we see the survivors living on, existing solely on the strength of their own wills. There are variations within the formula, of course, but those are the nuts and bolts of it.
When we look at the zombie, we get the same thing—but in microcosm. We see the living person prior to death, and this equates to the world before the apocalypse—or the ghost of what the abandoned building used to be, for that matter. We see the living person’s death, and this equates to the cataclysmic event that precipitates the apocalypse—or the moldering wreck of an abandoned building, if you like. And finally, we see the shambling corpse wandering the wasteland in search of prey, and this equates to the post apocalyptic world that is feeding off its own death.
It is in this final note that the symbolic functions of the abandoned building and the zombie diverge. As I’ve mentioned, the abandoned building, so long as it stands, calls to our creative instincts to rebuild. But the zombie, so long as it stands, speaks only to our ultimate mortality.
And so, the ruined hotel or office park becomes our mind’s cathedral, the spiritual and creative sanctuary of our memory, while the zombie becomes the devil that drives us into it.
I see a satisfying sense of symmetry there.
Abandoned building image by Flickr user Nate Robert used under Creative Commons license
Joe McKinney is a homicide detective for the San Antonio Police Department who has been writing professionally since 2006. He is the Bram Stoker-nominated author of Dead City, Quarantined, Dodging Bullets, and Dead Set. His upcoming books include Apocalypse of the Dead, The Ninth Plague, The Zombie King, Lost Girl of the Lake, and The Red Empire. As a police officer, he’s received training in disaster mitigation, forensics, and homicide investigation techniques, some of which finds its way into his stories.