After reading Vincenzo Bilof’s post on how zombies have lost their fear factor, I began to wonder if he was right, and if so, why. Bilof’s work seeks to reclaim zombies as terrifying antagonists, taking the focus off of survival because it’s hopeless.
In a sense, his observation is dead-on. According to Mark Nichol, there are seven types of conflicts in literature. These play out in a typical zombie text like this:
1. Person vs. Fate/God
Protagonist wonders why God would let the apocalypse happen. Some texts view it as a sign of God’s judgment, others as a sign that God has given Earth to Satan. A struggle for faith in a faithless world arises.
2. Person vs. Self
Protagonist doubts ability to survive or if there is any reason to survive. Also must face constant fears of living in an unsafe world.
3. Person vs. Person
Within each survivor group, people are bound to fight. The apocalypse is stressful!
4. Person vs. Society
As moral compasses realign and different groups form, they come into direct conflict, typically over resources.
5. Person vs. Nature
Surviving in a previously developed nation is tough for those without the skills. Scarcity and shelter constantly threaten the protagonist, hence the boring supply-run scenes in The Walking Dead.
6. Person vs. Supernatural
The zombies! At long last! This is a zombie’s desire for food versus the protagonist’s desire not to be food.
7. Person vs. Technology
Since zombies typically come about from some sort of medical-technological glitch, the protagonist may need to find a way to right the glitch or just get past it.
Of course, different texts focus on different elements depending on who and where the protagonist is. This variety of conflict is part of the reason people continue to create variations of the zombie story. This is also what enables it to cross from horror into thriller, action/adventure, science fiction, romance, fantasy, drama, and so on. Furthermore, the zombie, unlike vampires, werewolves, ghosts, or witches, is rarely the actual antagonist. Why?
1. They usually can’t speak, which dehumanizes them (even ghosts can communicate).
2. Their motive is basic–food. Sure, vampires feed too, but you get the sense that they enjoy it. Zombies are more like hungry lions. They have no intent to destroy the protagonist.
3. They travel in expendable packs. The zombies don’t recur. Each one either wins or loses a battle with a character in the text. It’s hard to have an antagonist that doesn’t have a specific face.
4. It’s not their fault that they are what they are. Zombies were just regular people until something got screwed up. It’s hard to blame them for their actions.
So if zombies aren’t really antagonists, what are they–setting? What do you think?