“Get away from him! He’s not Billy anymore!”
That scene may not be not the goriest highlight of the average zombie story, but it can be the moment most wrought with emotion: the sudden horror-struck recognition that a beloved face is no longer the home of a beloved soul. That used to be Billy, but whatever resides behind those empty eyes is no longer the person you knew. It’s just a ravenous void, that will swallow you as it seems to have swallowed him.
In zombie stories, you either heed that warning, and back away from the thing your loved one has become, or you stay behind and fall prey to the same fate.
And, okay, let’s get this part out of the way first: it’s not just in zombie stories. The same scene, with few changes, also takes place in many vampire stories, and in many demonic possession stories, and in many alien body-snatcher stories. In all of these cases, your survival absolutely depends on your ability to cut transformed friends or lovers loose before you are changed, as they were changed.
But it may be most powerful in zombie stories, where “Billy” retains no trace of his former personality.
Most powerful… and most resonant. Because we have all experienced it, to some extent. We have all known people who “are not Billy anymore.”
We may have had a cousin we played with as a child, who was sweet and rich with generosity of spirit, who we loved like a sister back then, but who has gotten into some bad drugs in a big way and who now shows up coarsened and bedraggled, to sullenly demand some cash for old time’s sake. We may have had so much loyalty to the loved one that was, that we continue to allow the user to exploit us for years afterward.
We may have admired that kid from high school, the one who the smartest and most talented and most ensured of a brilliant future, the one we secretly wanted to be and have always remembered with absolute fondness… who shows up to a reunion stoop-shouldered, defeated, even embittered, having been ground down to insignificance by a steady parade of failures. We may have spent an uncomfortable evening in the company of that person once so much fun to be with, who now rants at length about the disappointments that he would have you believe are the fault of everyone but himself.
We may have fallen in love with somebody who seemed to be the one person we wanted along for the rest of our lives, and endured over a period of years as everything that made that person worth loving has been transformed into selfishness, dishonesty, or outright cruelty. Some of us never walk away from this one. The good times, brief as they may have been, tether us to the bad, blighting our days forever.
“That’s not Billy anymore.”
In the zombie story, it’s easy to tell. Our loved one’s eyes have glazed over, his skin has turned a ghastly shade of blue, his vocabulary has been reduced to an incoherent “Uhhhhrrrr,” and his favorite meal is human flesh.
In real life, it’s not so easy. Our loved one may still be charming, still ingratiating, perhaps a little down on his luck, but just going through a bad patch…the kind of guy who asks if he can stay on your couch until he gets back on his feet, and gives you absolutely no reason to believe that he’s about to trash your place or rob you blind.
In the zombie story, the explanation is simple. It’s a virus, of either the scientific or supernatural variety, that descends from a hostile universe to change people against their wills. It passes from victim to victim in the form of a contagion, changing what was once comforting and beloved, to something soulless and predatory.
In real life, the explanation is not nearly as comforting.
It’s just… one of the dangers of being alive.
Photo from Flickr user mikake used under Creative Commons license
Adam-Troy Castro is a science fiction and paranormal author. Check out his forthcoming Eos collaborations Z is for Zombie (Feb. 2011) and V is for Vampire (June 2011), or read his latest story, “Arvies,” over at Lightspeed Magazine now. Check out his full bibliography at the above author link.