Zombie Round Table: What is the Appeal of Zombie Fiction? | Tor.com

Zombie Week

Zombie Round Table: What is the Appeal of Zombie Fiction?

It’s Zombie Week here at Tor.com, and since Tor.com decided to spend this week focused on zombies, one would assume that a whole lot of you really, really like them. I do too, of course—but why is that? Why is it we like zombies so much? What is it about them that writers (and readers/viewers) find so fascinating?

As you might imagine, as the editor of two zombie anthologies—The Living Dead and The Living Dead 2—I’ve spent a good deal of time pondering that question. I offer up some theories and discuss the question a bit in each anthology’s introduction (both of which you can read online).

But I was not content with my own musings, and wanted to pick the brains of other zombie experts as well, so I asked the contributors to The Living Dead 2 to answer the question: What is the appeal of zombie fiction?

Kelley Armstrong, Author of “Last Stand”

The appeal for me—and presumably for some readers/viewers—is two-fold. First, it’s the ultimate threat—the endless undead horde that you can’t kill. They’re essentially human (not hundred foot tall monsters or killer bees) but you can’t really fight them. They’re hard to kill and even when you do, more take their place. Second, they allow us to explore our own death fears. For some, they’re a very literal symbol of death—mindless, relentless, inescapable. For me, I explore that idea through actual zombification. Being a zombie would be a living death. In my book series, a zombie is a fully cognizant human soul trapped in its rotting corpse. In this story, I’ve taken it from another angle.

Amelia Beamer, Author of “Pirates vs. Zombies”

Like any genre, zombie stories deliver; unlike other genres, zombie stories are allowed to end badly—in fact, they’re supposed to. Also, zombies make it possible to smash characters up against each other in ways they wouldn’t otherwise agree to. There’s a lot to play with as a result.

Gary Braunbeck, Author of “We Now Pause For Station Identification”

For the record, I have written only four zombie-/the living dead-themed stories. I can’t see any point in writing a zombie story if it’s only going to be the same old rehash of something from a Romero film. I think the appeal to readers is the cathartic release of the graphic violence often contained in the stories; the reader is powerless to express his or her own anger, frustration, and fury at the faceless entities that control much of their waking existence, so it’s a genuine release to read a 300-page novel where those faceless entities are given physical form and serve only one purpose: to be destroyed as violently as possible.

I also think it’s a way for readers to fight off (metaphorically, anyway) the inevitability of their own deaths; kill a zombie, live an extra day.

S. G. Browne, Author of “Zombie Gigolo”

I think zombie fiction is appealing because zombies used to be us. And we’re just one bite or infected wound away from becoming one of them. I also believe they’re experiencing their current popularity because they’re no longer just the mindless, shambling ghouls we’ve known and loved for the past forty years. They’re faster. Funnier. Sentient. Plus there’s this constant fascination with the inevitability of a zombie apocalypse. I mean, no one ever talks about the werewolf apocalypse. That would be ridiculous.

As for my own decision to write about them, my novel and two short stories were written with the intention of showing a different size to zombies. Giving them sentience. Viewing the world through their eyes and what they have to deal with. When you think about it, most zombie film and fiction is really about the people rather than the zombies. My fiction is about the zombies.

Adam-Troy Castro, Author of “Anteroom”

At its best, horror tests its protagonists in ways other genres rarely manage. The zombie subgenre tests them even more, by even denying them trust in their loved ones, faith in being rescued, and even the traditional sweet release of death. It can be nothing more than an exercise in reducing human beings to ground chuck. But if it’s about who the characters are and what their struggle to survive means for the rest of us, it has a hell of an impact.

Scott Edelman, Author of “The Human Race”

The zombie is a universal conceit. It is a trope capable of addressing every facet of human behavior. There is no metaphor the zombie cannot inhabit, and believe me, I’m not done with them.

Bob Fingerman, Author of “The Summer Place”

As opposed to zombie non-fiction? Other writers, who knows? But it holds almost endless fascination for me. I like zombies. I feel for them. They didn’t ask to be what they are and even though they want to eat humans, there’s no malice. They’re the average schmuck of the monster world. I can relate.

John Skipp & Cody Goodfellow, Authors of “The Price of a Slice”

JS: Well, fuck. My love of modern zombie horror began with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead: the film that single-handedly changed my life, and our perspective on the shambling dead, forever.

And I’m trying to figure out how to say this without sounding like an asshole, but honest to God, there was no body of post-Romero zombie fiction until 1987, when a conversation I had with Romero himself led me to this sudden lucky flash.

We were talking about something else, and I said, “George, hang on a second. We’ve been meeting all these amazing horror writers, many of whom love your movies almost as much as I do. What would you think if Craig and I edited a book full of stories set in your zombie universe, and got a bunch of great writers to expand upon what else happened when the dead got up to eat the living?”

His response was, “That’s just crazy.”

“Yeah. I know. But what if we did it? Cuz I bet you we could. I bet people would love to do it.”

“Well, you’d have to watch the legalities, but if you didn’t use any characters or scenes from the actual movies, Richard Rubenstein (his production partner) wouldn’t have any legal problems.”

“No, no, no,” I emphaticized. “All new completely batshit stories, just riffing off your mythos.”

“Well,” he said thoughtfully, “I don’t see it happening. But if you can pull it off, I will eat my hat.”

The result was Book of the Dead, in 1989, with original stories by King, Schow, Lansdale, McCammon, and a slew of awesome others. King was actually the first one out the gate, with “Home Delivery,” just two weeks after I sent out the invite. And then it began to pour.

Weird as it is to think about, that’s how it all began.

As for why I love zombies so much—or, more to the point, fear them—it comes down to human beings flensed of soul, heart, intelligence, and everything else that makes us worthwhile. Reduced to the basest level, driven only by the bottomless need to feed, for no good fucking reason.

So it’s the cannibalism, the fear of being eaten alive. The terrifying emptiness of a husked-out human. The rotting flesh. The vacant eyes. The fact that it’s happening everywhere, so that everybody’s world is being intimately invaded. The apocalyptic angle. The feeling of Hell’s doors opening up. Stuff like that makes it a ripe, astounding playground.

Seriously, I’ve written so many essays about this shit, I could talk all year. So I’ll shut up now. [laughs]

Incidentally, Romero claims he put spaghetti sauce on a Steelers cap before he ate it. But I remain skeptical.

CG: They’re the ultimate Other, disguised as us. They elegantly hotwire our unspoken social fears of the mob destroying our individuality to our most primal fears of being literally eaten. Add zombies, and any mundane daily situation becomes a harrowing adventure.

For me, the appeal itself is almost frightening, because it accepts the fall of society and condones or demands constant violence against humanity at large. Being the Last Man Alive becomes a sociopathic fantasy.

JS: A libertarian survivalist wet dream. Exactly.

Steven Gould, Author of “Tameshigiri”

The scary thing about zombies, slow or fast, is that there will always be more. It doesn’t matter how many you kill, eventually more will arrive. Also, often they were people you knew before the rose or turned or were infected, etc. And that is especially creepy. Zombies are a palpable, biting representation of our own mortality. And mortality stinks. And it has rotting flesh.

Mira Grant, Author of “Everglades”

I hear people say that zombies are the “guiltless” monster. Vampires are supposed to be sexy now; werewolves are under a curse; even the slashers usually have some sort of a motive. The zombies are just there to make you die, and that makes it okay to kill them with cheery abandon. I think a lot of the appeal is the flexibility of the archetype—fast, slow, smart, brainless, the zombie can be whatever you need it to be in order to make the point you’re trying to make. Most of all, the zombie is a completely democratic monster. Anyone can become a zombie. Anyone can be eaten. When the zombies come, all the borders between us dissolve, and it’s just humanity versus a monster we don’t need to feel bad about destroying. Writing about zombies is exciting because it’s an opportunity to write about people boiled down to their inner core, without worrying about morality about what they’re doing.

Also, it’s a great excuse for chainsaws. Everybody loves a good chainsaw.

Walter Greatshell, Author of “The Mexican Bus”

Zombie stories are usually about wish-fulfillment and venting aggression: it’s a world of free stuff, in which you can shoot your enemies without fear of consequences. That’s appealing to the teenager in all of us. But in my favorite zombie stories there’s also a level of satire and social commentary, such as the critiques of racism and consumerism in George Romero’s films. My books are deeply satirical, but I also want them to be a great read.

Bret Hammond, Author of “Rural Dead”

I’ve actually given that a lot of thought. I think we live in a world with big problems that have complicated solutions. Whether it’s terrorism or the economy or our own disease outbreaks of AIDS, H1N1 and whatever else is next, we’re frightened not only of the problems facing us today but the lack of clear answers. I think zombie fiction allows us to approach the idea of a very frightening pandemic outbreak with a very simple solution—shoot ‘em in the head. It’s still frightening, obviously, but it gives everyone a very concrete answer and makes us all think that if the worst came we could probably survive.

Rory Harper, Author of “Therapeutic Intervention”

The zombie apocalypse gives us a way to cut through all of the accumulated b.s. in our lives. As a bonus, we also get an excuse to go on a killing spree without guilt. I fell hopelessly in love with the zombie genre when Night of the Living Dead first came out. Besides all of the social and cultural issues it lets you examine, I’ve always been attracted to the idea of resetting civilization. Unless you’re pessimistic enough to believe that it’ll simply be the end of us all, a good zombie apocalypse offers us the hope of starting over and building something better than the toxic behemoth that we seem to be trapped inside now. Naturally, I and everyone I care about will survive and prosper.

Brian Keene, Author of “Lost Canyon of the Dead”

I think, in part, it’s because there was so very little of it for so long. You’ve got an almost ten year gap between Romero’s Day of the Dead and Skipp & Spector’s Books of the Dead and Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and my own The Rising (the three which, according to critics, jump-started this new era of zombie popularity in our culture). I think fans were starved for zombies.

I also think zombies have a broader appeal than werewolves, vampires and other monsters simply because of their accessibility. Zombies are us and everyone around us—your neighbor, your teacher, your boss, your wife, your kid.

David Barr Kirtley, Author of “The Skull-Faced City”

I think one of the appeals of zombie fiction, and post-apocalyptic fiction generally, is that it makes each survivor vitally important. When there are six billion plus human beings on earth, it’s hard to feel very special, particularly if, like most people, you don’t feel that your job is all that indispensable. But if you’re one of only a handful of survivors, then every action you take is of grave import—people are counting on you, the human race is counting on you, you matter. In many ways that’s an appealing fantasy, and I’d argue it’s actually much closer to the role we were prepared for by evolution. After all, being part of a small band, in constant danger of being wiped out, surrounded by creatures who want to eat you, basically describes what life was like for our ancestors stretching back billions of years. I think another appealing thing about zombies is that they’re the kind of enemy that an ordinary person can fight back against. So many of our fears are about things that we feel utterly powerless to resist–global warming, mass unemployment, lack of affordable health care, an unresponsive government totally corrupted by money. Zombies are a threat, but at least it’s the sort of threat that you can hit with a baseball bat.

Jamie Lackey, Author of “The Other Side”

Zombies are just fun. Plus, they are terrifying because there’s the very real threat of the characters becoming infected and losing themselves to something so much worse than death.

Sarah Langan, Author of “Are You Trying to Tell Me This is Heaven?”

I think they’re a specifically American monster that plugs into our national guilt. We consume a disproportionate and unsupportable amount of natural resources, and we do it with mindless abandon. Meanwhile, citizens of poor nations labor in sweatshops across the world to supply our voracious demand, and the world is becoming toxic. It’s not our fault; we’re entrenched. We can’t help our birth or social convention. I think shampoo is pretty stupid, and frankly would rather walk most places than drive, but who’s got the time? What’s scary about zombies is just what Romero says, “They’re us.” We’re cursed with the self knowledge that our consumption is destroying the world, and there’s not much we can do about it. So it gives us soul sickness.

Seth Lindberg, Author of “Twenty-Three Snapshots of San Francisco”

Aw, what doesn’t appeal about zombie fiction? At our most escapist it’s a romp, blasting away at mindless creatures after our brains, at our most fearful it’s about our entire modern life being turned against us or rendered useless to us. There is something terrifying and awful people we know or just see on the street turning into something that hungers for our death.

In many ways, I think, it’s a commentary on the faceless nature of cities and the people who inhabit them. All those people you see at the bus stop or the train station or walking on the street. You scan their faces to see if you recognize them or if they look like they might recognize you, and you see them watching you and then just looking away.

Matt London, Author of “Mouja”

This is usually the part of the questionnaire where writers promise they won’t talk about how zombies represent consumerism and how human nature makes us insatiable, or how zombies represent the fragility of society, and then the writers go about explaining how zombies represent just that. Of course zombies represent those things, but what makes the living dead such an attractive trope is the universality of the metaphor. Zombies are like vampires and white whales. They can represent just about anything. For me, zombies are resonating at this moment in time because of where we are culturally. Sometimes I turn on the news and see these protests where everyone is suffering from the same delusions and I feel like the zombie hordes are already here. The United States is a deeply polarized nation, and whoever your drummer is, you can’t help but look at the other side and see them as zombies, mindless enemies bent on destroying your way of life. I can’t help but sit on the subway and look around at all the people and think Man, look at these sad robots trudging through their pathetic, lifeless existences. But the thing is, we’ve all thought that at some point on the subway. Zombie fiction addresses the “us versus the world” phenomenon we all feel at times. It’s no coincidence that the increased cultural polarization we have witnessed since 2002 mirrors the increase in zombie fiction and films.

Paul McAuley, Author of “The Thought War”

Zombies contain pathos (you can always count on a slapstick comedy moment of six in a zombie film) with dis-ease about our own mortality; that there’s something worse than death. And apart from triffids, zombies are the slowest yet most relentless monsters in the sf/horror genres. They keep coming and they keep multiplying, generating all kinds of interesting narrative arcs.

Joe McKinney, Author of “Dating in the Dead World”

I bet there are a million answers to this question. I imagine at least a few zombie fans see the genre as the safe way to fulfill a world destruction fantasy. After all, what better way to express our fears of society’s ills and our collective self-loathing for the mess we’ve made of things than to turn the idiots responsible into zombies. But I think the lasting appeal of the genre has to go beyond the simple urge to destroy. And in that sense, zombies are really part of the larger scope of apocalyptic fiction, which is, ironically enough, life-affirming in the end. These are stories about survival, after all. These are stories about life holding on, no matter how bad things get. The world may be ruined; the dead may be gaining ground; hope may be a snow ball sweating away in hell—but still we fight on. And isn’t that why we love these stories? What fun would it be if we had an apocalypse and we didn’t get to live through it?

Mark McLaughlin & Kyra M. Schon, Authors of “Arlene Schabowski Of The Undead”

KS: I enjoy writing from a zombie’s perspective and reading zombie stories because zombies are accessible to everyone. With the right mix of radiation and supernatural forces, anyone can reanimate. They’re not beautiful and they walk funny, so maybe they make us feel more at ease with our own imperfections. My favorite scenarios are those where the zombies win. I think that’s everyone’s secret wish.

MM: Plus, zombie fiction is about the revenge of mindless drones–people-cattle. Sometimes we all feel like we are being treated like cattle, so we get a kick out of seeing the cattle fight—and bite—back.

David Moody, Author of “Who We Used to Be”

I think there are many reasons why zombies continue to strike a chord with lovers of horror, but I think the main reason is the closeness of “us” to “them.” As Romero’s characters often point out in his movies, “they are us.” Unlike any other classic horror monster, when you’re up against zombies it only takes one slip and you’ll find yourself batting for the other side! Our planet’s getting pretty full-up with people right now, and in many places we’re crammed together uncomfortably tightly. There’s often no escaping other folks, and that makes the prospect of any communicable infection/situation breaking out all the more terrifying. To my mind, the fear of death (or, perhaps more accurately, the fear of losing life) is one of the factors which continues to generally keep society in check. Remove that fear and you’ve got a whole new situation to deal with. Zombie fiction allows us to imagine what would happen if the rules we follow suddenly no longer applied.

Kim Paffenroth, Julia Sevin & R.J. Sevin, Authors of “Thin Them Out”

KP: I think zombies have great potential as symbols and metaphors, ones that appeal to a lot of people in our modern world, where meaninglessness seems a constant threat to us. On the other hand, there’s the more video game appeal of them—they make great targets and you can fantasize about shooting lots of them without the moral disapprobation that would go along with shooting lots of “real” people. Add to that fears of the millennium, war, terrorism, and disease, and I think they’re uniquely suited to our age.

JS: They’re not fast, they’re not nimble, they’re not strong, they’re not smart. They’re not even all that lethal when they do get their hands on you. I’ve said before that a single zombie poses about the same threat to humankind as an improperly closed manhole. Even when they aggregate, human fatalities can be avoided through the simplest of practices. Zombies as a whole are less like cunning predators and more like a natural disaster: massive, aimless, amoral, and easy to sidestep with proper organization. As with the failure of the federal levees in New Orleans in 2005, the only impediments people face to survival are cooperation, information, and resources. Zombies are useless unto themselves. They are a foil designed to let living people demonstrate their glorious awfulness and tear each other apart for no good goddamned reason.

RJS: To paraphrase Clive Barker, zombies represent our fear of mindless and dangerous behavior on a national level. This is a very appealing concept to those who fancy themselves survivors. Which, of course, is everyone reading this anthology. You don’t project yourself into the SWAT guy who blows his own head off twenty minutes into Dawn of the Dead; you’re Peter, man, and you kick ass.

At its heart, zombie fiction (film or written) is but a branch of apocalyptic fiction, with roots in Alas, Babylon as well as I Am Legend. There’s a reason that Dawn of the Dead is Romero’s most popular film and The Stand is Stephen King’s most popular novel, and it’s not because either piece is either creator’s most finely-wrought creation. We all know this world is fucked, to put it bluntly, and we all would love to have the chance to start over, to watch the whole thing burn to the ground and to then do what we can to build it up from the ashes.

Marc Paoletti, Author of “Category Five”

Good question. Maybe the appeal depends how you approach the material. For writers and filmmakers: Zombies are monsters, but are easily identifiable as people as well, which means you can use them in all sorts of thematic, political, and metaphoric ways. For horror fans: When you pick up a zombie novel or sit down to watch a zombie flick, you pretty much know things’ll get messy–a big part of the fun.

Steven Popkes, Author of “The Crocodiles”

I don’t know about general appeal. I can only say about my own. I don’t care much for traditional zombie fiction since there are only so many changes one can ring on George Romero’s work—it seems a significant amount of zombie fiction (like vampire fiction) has been “commoditized.” There should be a contents placard on the side of the book: contains 80% of the daily requirement of zombie fiction.

For me, the interesting idea of zombies is their transformation, from living to dead to “living,” when someone you know is changed into someone or some thing you don’t. The change of the zombies forces an analogous change on the person confronting the zombie. This had been a human being, now it is a thing that merely looks like a human being. This brought it into an area I was interested in. This is your nice German engineer. This is your nice German engineer under Nazism. The German engineer turning concentration camp victims into zombies isn’t so different from your nice German engineer using a dying slave labor force to build V1s and V2s. Calling him evil is just a convenient name to put on him so we don’t have to understand him.

Zombies aren’t interesting. People interacting with zombies are.

Cherie Priest, Author of “Reluctance”

I think it is—at least in part—a way to address both the fear and appeal of conformity. Vampires promise eternal life, sparkles, and adventure; but zombies make you ugly, mindless, and hungry, just like everyone else in the horde. There’s also the added apocalyptic element, too—the lure of the potential survivalist, living against the odds, off the land, king or queen of a small domain. Deep down inside, I think a lot of people want to go a little Lord of the Flies, temporarily. Safely. Fictitiously.

Also, of course, there’s the prescriptive element of zombie/apocalyptic fiction. When the zombies overrun the earth, the power grid goes down, food supplies get low, and your ammunition runs out… what do you do? Zombie stories provide a playbook of survival strategies, teaching people how to get along in the wake of a civilization-ending catastrophe.

Carrie Ryan, Author of “Flotsam & Jetsam”

It’s funny because I was pretty much ambivalent about zombies until my fiancé talked me into going to the opening night of the Dawn of the Dead remake. Up to that point I’d eschewed all scary movies after a babysitter convinced me to watch Poltergeist when I was five (she said I’d love it because the character was just like me: same name, same looks, same closet full of stuffed animals). Sitting in the theater, squeezing the life out of my fiance’s fingers, I just became enraptured; I was so terrified and yet after the movie I was so pumped up! I couldn’t stop wondering what I’d have done in their shoes, what I’d do if the zombie apocalypse hit now and my fiancé fed my addiction with a steady diet of zombie books and movies and I was pretty much hooked.

I think part of the appeal of zombie fiction is that it’s an easier and safer way to talk about the really scary things going on out there like flu pandemics, nuclear weapons, global warming and our own impending deaths. But I also think it’s more than that—zombies have always been monsters, they’re not sexy like vampires or werewolves. They’re our neighbors and family and friends come back to life with the specific aim of killing us and doing us harm. And on top of that, there’s no escape. You might be able to outrun a zombie for a little while, but they’ll always catch up and they’ll never stop their pursuit. Eventually, even safe places will fall to them.

I also really love using zombies in writing young adult fiction because it allows me to ask the question of what differentiates the living from the dead? What do the living do beyond simply existing the way the zombies do? How to we determine our own lives and futures beyond mindlessly doing what someone tells us?

Paula R. Stiles, Author of “Zombieville”

Well, I came into it by the back door. Mostly, I’m in it because I like the zombie fic community and all those crazy kids out there writing it. They’re just good fun to be around, don’t really take stuff seriously.

In terms of what I find appealing about zombies, I’m going to be a heretic here and say I like the fast ones, or the ones that seem nearly normal until they get close enough to take a chunk out of you. I don’t consider Romero’s zombies to be “traditional,” anyway (they’re more like medieval vampires, in fact). Zombies are originally a Caribbean monster and it irritates me a bit that the “Americanized” version has taken over so completely that there are fans of zombies who just won’t accept anything else as a “zombie.”

But I find it really creepy when you have these relentless and mindless people after you, who exist only to eat you or convert you into them. Or both. It’s very, very disturbing.

Karina Sumner-Smith, Author of “When the Zombies Win”

Unlike other “monsters,” like vampires and werewolves, it’s harder to turn a ravenous, decaying, animated corpse into the desirable hero of a paranormal romance. Zombies are still scary. I think that there’s an also an appeal to gore in a context where violence is always justified, the enemy can never be helped or healed, and a human-shaped being can be destroyed without pause or remorse.

For myself, I’ve always loved apocalyptic stories. I think that just as many stories use big life events (accidents and illness, births, divorce, falling in love) to examine what it means to be human, so too can apocalyptic fiction use the threatened or actual end of civilization to cast light on the greater workings of our culture and society. What do we do when everything’s falling apart? Who are we at the end of all things?

Genevieve Valentine, Author of “And the Next, and the Next”

Zombies are one of the best metaphors for hopeless conditions—even after they win and eat everyone’s brains, they’re still going to die. Brain-eating aside, they’re really tragic figures in the classic sense: their doom is sealed, and they don’t know it yet.

Plus, zombies are a pretty handy metaphor in general, since they’re a mindless yet overwhelming force that can be applied to mean just about anything you want. Want to talk about materialism? Put them in a mall! Want to talk about man’s essential helplessness? Stick him in a cabin and turn them loose! Class tensions, psychological drama, feel-good comedy: zombies always have a place at the table.

David Wellington, Author of “Good People”

Zombies are contemporary monsters. They aren’t loaded down with a lot of 19th century values and fears—they appeal to the people of today.

Brenna Yovanoff, Author of “Obedience”

I think zombies are so compelling because they represent a very personal kind of monster. They used to be human, but that’s been stripped from them (or at least drastically altered) and the implied promise is that if they don’t kill you, you’ll end up just like them.


So there you have it. Agree? Disagree? Have something to add? Sound off in the comments!

If you’d like to see more from these authors, each of them have also been interviewed more extensively about their stories in The Living Dead 2 over on the anthology’s website. There, you can also read eight free stories from the anthology, along with other bonus content.

John Joseph Adams is the bestselling editor of many anthologies, such as Wastelands, The Living Dead (a World Fantasy Award finalist), The Living Dead 2, By Blood We Live, Federations, The Way of the Wizard, and The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Barnes & Noble.com named him “the reigning king of the anthology world,” and his books have been named to numerous best of the year lists. He is also the fiction editor of the science fiction magazine Lightspeed and the co-host of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.


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