How often do you get to chat with someone so rad you know it’s going to make your entire week that much better? That’s right – not often enough. Fortunately I am about to fix that little is by having a zombified discussion with the man, the myth, the soon-to-be legend…Shaun Phelps!
Give up some lovin’ now!
JW: Zombies are today, what vampires once were – until someone decided to make them sparkle. One question I get a LOT is “When do you think zombies will fall out of favor with the general population?” My answer to that is simple, but may be unpopular – the general population doesn’t have much bearing on whether or not zombies fall out of fashion. Those that count against the health of the genre are the actual fans – horror fans. Of all the genres I’ve touched, horror fans are the single most honest and loyal. To that end, the popularity of zombies will most likely not wane. Groups like Zombie Book of the Month Club and All Things Zombie are perfect illustrations of that. The groups aren’t overrun by The Walking Dead discussion – it’s about the genre as a whole. And those fans have been fans for a very long time. Why? The genre is the single best fictional metaphor for the reality of modern life.
We are but an overtime shift away from becoming zombies. And the fear of biological weapons and terrorism continues to rise. Along with those real-world fears comes the fictional parallel of the zombie apocalypse. It’s the perfect escape.
SP: I think zombies have gone up and down in popularity since their mainstream introduction but I can’t see it ever going away. I think the rise in fall in popularity had more to do with acceptable levels of violence in media and artist integrity. The vampire culture became too enmeshed in love and romance. Suddenly everyone was searching for more of that and the singular concept played itself out. Since then the fans of twilight shifted to the hunger games and a variety of other post apocalyptic themes–much for the same reason we are drawn to zombies: Zombies since their first mainstream introduction have fascinated us because of the reflection on the human condition. The drives that inspire us and the drives that destroy us. This will always be an issue that hits home. This is what people are looking for, because people want to understand.
JW: That’s the very reason why I believe the zombie is the universal monster (not to be confused with the original Universal Monsters). The zombie has no superpower – it just is. That alone makes it more terrifying than anything. And when a horde of such creatures gathers, their collective ability to consume and destroy – well, that simply speaks for itself. It’s one of the reasons why so many of Romero’s films were master pieces. Horror actually speaking to the human condition in ways that the viewer can relate. That’s not possible with most monsters – save the demon (which can always be viewed as the downward spiral of human morality).
The average human consumes. The average human relates to the plight of the shambling horde.
I wonder, though … do people really care to deconstruct the zombie? Or are they content with letting it just be? Zen and the art of the undead?
SP: If I understand your question then you are asking if people really need to know the parts and pieces that make a zombie tick, or are they just content to appreciate the zombie as it is. If that’s what you mean I’ll relate it to what I know. You probably know I’m an adjunct “professor” of psychology. There was an early longstanding movement called structuralism. Their goal was to break everything down to its smallest piece so we could understand the mind body connection. Eventually 2 major voices rose against this: Gestalt and Functionalism. Gestalt literally means “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Meaning you can take apart a computer to see every piece in detail–but then what good is the computer (and is it even a computer anymore?). Functionalism says “we know all of this information, how can we apply it to real life?”
So to cut a lecture short, I think the zombie itself provides us with a necessary antagonist to give the reader/writer an interesting and horrifying world to build on. One that will bring out the best or worst of people. It lets us bring all our fears and hopes to life in an environment that perfectly supports it.
What makes a zombie tick, in that case very much takes a back seat. I always love to know the theories from each writers perspective, but that definitely is not what keeps me coming back.
JW: Let’s dig deeper into this, Professor Phelps. The best and worst in people can be played from both sides of the razor-wire fence. On one hand you have the beast – but that beast (the zombie), at least at the heart, is innocent. On the other hand you have two sides of the human coin – the innocent victims of the apocalypse and the perpetrators of the nightmare.
- Innocent, yet destructive, monster
- Innocent, victimized human
- Guilty cause of the apocalypse
Both the zombie and the human play victim and monster. To me, that is one of the many fascinations within the genre – It’s like a sandwich of gray matter between two slices of black and white bread.
SP: Well, let’s look at this on a few levels. Regarding the zombie: think of it like a shark or a spider. It has no ill will or intention. It exists to survive. We just make movies and myths to horrify. In that case, even though our zombie is our antagonist it is also our greatest victim for so many reasons.
Regarding the human victim: they are only victims for as long as the pain is immediate. After that the human becomes a victim by death, conversion, or circumstance (such as slavery or citizens of a dictatorship).
The heroes of our tales are the ones who rise above. They find strength in a hopeless situation and persevere. We call them survivors. I suspect if you asked a protagonist in your own books if he/she were a victim you’d get slapped in the face.
As for the real antagonist, that may be the person who dropped the first bomb or released the virus, but their role is quickly diminished as the “victims” seek a new order and become actual victims, survivors, or the REAL antagonist: the person who finds strength in control, hatred, and abuse. Those characters are often the most compelling adversary in our stories. The origin is just a piece of a puzzle we want to know.
Shaun Phelps is a Mental Health Counselor and college professor who specializes in anger, trauma, Substance Abuse, Domestic Violence, Child Welfare, grief, bereavement, and parenting. He is the parent of two children who challenge his specialties in all areas.
Using these specialties Shaun writes in the Zombie and horror genre with a focus on human reaction and response to terrifying situations.
Shaun is preparing to release a Zombie novella and a horror graphic novel with Kyle Clements.
Links to Shaun’s work
- Zombie Stories for People With Short Attention Spans
- All Things Zombie: The Gathering Horde
- Gabriel (by Mike Evans) — includes short story by Shaun
- A Very Zombie Christmas
- Hunger Pangs: Dark Confessions