On June 13, bloggers around the world imagined they were under attack by the living dead, writing short horror narratives for the annual Blog Like It’s the End of the World Day (which was especially appropriate for me since it fell on my birthday). But there are some bloggers who blog as if everyday were the end of the world: the zombie bloggers.
And while the bloggers involved in BLITEOTW day imagined exotic fantasy and science fiction scenarios, dedicated zombie bloggers strive to keep their stories grounded in reality. This is a community where writers win respect for their ability to spin plausible explanations for impossible events — and where readers add to the experience, collaborating in blog comments, forums, and tweets to create a communal story.
A Group Story
Zombies have had a major hold on the zeitgeist lately, with a whole slew of new horror movies coming out as well as books like The Zombie Survival Guide and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. So it’s no surprise that there are innumerable websites dedicated to these shambling monsters. But it’s precisely because there’s little in the way of an ultimate authority on zombies that makes enthusiasts so eager to discuss them.
“It’s because of this, that everyone can have their voice heard,” said Ryan Leach, co-creator of Lost Zombies, a social networking site dedicated to an unusual attempt to film a community-generated zombie mockumentary. “It’s kind of like an undead democracy.”
Lost Zombies community members donate videos, audio recordings and photos of “zombie attacks” in their area.
“When we decided we wanted to do a community film, we knew we needed a website to be at the center to get the content we need,” said Leach. “From [the user-submitted content], we are pulling pieces out that we want to be in the final project. Originally we didn’t have any rules and just let it be, but over time we realized that users needed more direction and in order to get any narrative, we needed to create a loose timeline. We put a timeline on the website with dates and some events, but even with this, users are free to play around a little.”
Since the site’s launch in May 2008, Leach said it had received 18 hours of footage submitted and 10,000 registered members and won both the Community and People’s Choice Awards at this year’s South by Southwest conference.
“There’s no literary tradition of zombies,” agreed Andrew Morisson, co-founder of the Zombie Research Society (ZRS) and zombie-themed social networking site Zombie Central. “It’s not like Bram Stoker wrote the great zombie novel. Modern zombies as we know them didn’t exist until 1968, when George Romero made ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ That means that a lot of the questions about them are anyone’s guess and there’s a lot of debate about, if they did exist, what they would be like.”
Even so, readers generally have a sense of where the discussion is going. First, there are enough established ground rules about zombie behavior drawn mostly from popular horror films that new participants can quickly learn the ropes and join the conversation. At the same time, though, there are enough gaps in our “zombie knowledge” to provide ample opportunity for pseudo-scientific discussion. The Zombie Research Society has an advisory board made up of heavy-hitters in the zombie world, including Harvard Medical School Co-Director of Psychiatry Steven Schlozman, to help lead discussions with suitably scientific-sounding explanations for the undead.
Social networks like Lost Zombies and Zombie Central are dominated by three main groups of users: arts buffs who are interested in zombie arts and like gathering to watch zombie movies or organizing zombie walks or costume parties; survivalists who like to plan out how they would survive in the event of an actual zombie attack; and philosophers who like to discuss the social, legal and scientific ramifications of a zombie outbreak.
ZRS commenters often get into heated discussions, because everyone has their own opinion on what to expect from zombies. Morisson said he often receives excited emails from readers eager to throw in their own two cents on blog post topics such as whether zombism could be spread by mosquitoes. Keith Harrop, editor of Zombie World News, compared it to online role-playing.
“Having so many people contributing to the discussion provides perspectives and solutions that may have otherwise been overlooked,” said Melissa Ebbe of Zombie Defense Training. “Even if zombies never rise up against us, this type of Internet discussion has become a modern storytelling. We are collectively creating a narrative, of which we are all a part.”
Other than their central conceit, most zombie websites want to appear as matter-of-fact and realistic as possible, something that helps readers to better imagine that the fantastic events being described could actually happen and to get into the spirit of the conversation.
ZRS’s web page could belong to a serious thinktank…on zombie issues. Zombie World News is a mock newspaper written in dry AP style chronicling the rise of the undead. Harrop selects and edits reader-submitted stories to maintain the site’s faux-news reel tone — and the realism which he says is important to instill a sense of mounting paranoia in readers.
“The basic premise is that anyone can take it where they want,” said Harrop, “But I was interested in exploring the socio-political aspects of an outbreak, the part you never see in horror movies. How would the government deal with it? Would borders close? How would religious zealots react when the dead start coming to life?”
Harrop has also created a number of auxiliary websites for the sole purpose of feeding into Zombie World News and giving it a heightened sense of realism — for example, a fictitious pharmaceutical corporation working on a zombie antidote referenced in numerous ZWN articles now has its own ‘official’ website. Despite his commitment to building ambiance, Harrop was quick to point out that he still includes disclaimers on all his web pages, just in case any readers might be too credulous.
Having contributors from all over the world helped to establish credibility — a story set in India or Sweden always felt more real when written by a contributor with knowledge of the local terrain and culture. Adding to the faux-news feel of the site, ZWN stories unfold in real time and often incorporate actual current events; during the presidency of George W. Bush, news stories often discussed the potentials of stem cell research in zombie prevention.
Zombie sites strive to give readers a “You Are There” sense of this hypothetical apocalypse. To that end, zombie bloggers rarely break character, always speaking as though zombies were a genuine threat.
“I believe that the appeal in discussing zombies arises from a need to feel proactive in the face of adversity, and moreover in the case of a test of survival,” said Zombie Defense Training’s Ebbe. “Most civilians have never encountered a life or death situation. There is an incredible disconnect in these modern times between our work and our survival. The zombie apocalypse represents a breakdown of this monotony. Every individual will be forced to step up or become zombie fodder. In a sense, discussing this scenario gives people a chance to explore the direct relationship between their actions and their survival.”
A Global Game
Of course, communal storytelling isn’t restricted to zombies. Harrop noted how the approach he used on Zombie World News could also be applied to any number of topics. But zombies seem to be a fruitful topic around which to build an online community for several reasons.
“It’s the perfect post-modern monster,” said Morisson, “They can be explained scientifically. They’re a biologically definable creature occupying a human corpse. There’s no romance to a zombie. It’s not like a demon or a vampire which works by magic. The only mysteries with zombies are the ones that we haven’t figured out yet.”
Another aspect of the zombie genre that makes it particularly well-suited for discussion in a global forum like the Internet is that zombie attacks are almost invariably presented as causing a world apocalypse, a complete meltdown of society — in contrast to most other monster movies which pit a small group of heroes against a single monster. So it’s easier to suspend disbelief when web surfers from all over the world report similar zombie experiences.
“When I get an email from a zombie enthusiast in South Africa, we may have nothing in common,” said Morisson, “but this gives us some common ground. We know that this will hit everywhere when it happens — when it hits Cleveland, it’ll hit L.A., and when it hits L.A. it’ll hit South Africa.”
Mike Rosen-Molina is a Northern California freelance reporter and an associate editor for MediaShift. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley schools of journalism and law, he has worked as an editor for the Fairfield Daily Republic and as a managing editor for JURIST legal news services.