Making Peace with my Zombies: A Personal Narrative

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My husband and I have really been enjoying HBO’s new fantasy series, Game of Thrones. In fact, it’s the perfect show in that it bridges two of our most divergent TV tastes; he loves costume dramas and anything set in a castle (which I normally hate) while I love a show with an impending sense of doom (“Winter is coming!”). But one thing threatens to destroy our shared television bliss: zombies. Of course, none of the many enticingly-edited previews leading up to the April 17th Game of Thrones premiere led me to believe that the series would include zombies. No, that little surprise happened in episode three, “Lord Snow,” when young Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), bedridden after being pushed out of a tower for seeing something very, very naughty (it rhymes with bincest), asks his nurse to tell him a scary story. Old Nan complies and tells Bran, a “summer child,” all about an endless  winter that happened thousands of years ago. During this winter the sun disappeared all together and mothers smothered their babies rather than see them starve. And, during this winter, the “white walkers” came. These white walkers ate babies! Babies , for crying out loud! Upon hearing this story I was all “Hell to the no!” because I had really fallen in love with Game of Thrones and I did not want to give it up just because it had a few zombies in it. You see, I have an intense zombie phobia. And like all phobias, this one is threatening to take away something I love. So I’ve decided to use this blog post to revisit my zombie phobia and to try to understand it’s hold over me. I hope you don’t mind the indulgence.

Me and my brother, at the lake.

This story begins with my older brother, Adam, and his obsession with horror films. The early 1980s was a golden age for the horror film. There were numerous teen slasher film franchises, including Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, Wes Craven), Halloween (1978, John Carpenter), and Friday the 13th (1980, Sean S. Cunningham). But my brother was into a very specific kind of horror film: the splatter film. In conventional horror films, like Dracula (1931, Tod Browning) or Frankenstein (1931, James Whale), the monster is foreign and threatens the characters’ way of life. Yes, there is the threat of bodily harm, but these films (due to the restrictions of the Production Code), rarely dwelled on the destruction of the human body. Victims screamed and then drifted out of the frame. Nice and clean.

"Boo!"

But the horror of the splatter film comes from its focus on the systemic destruction of the human body. This horror cycle is preoccupied with the faithful recreation of blood, organs, skin, and bone so that it may later rip these replicas of the human form to shreds.

I kind of hate you, Tom Savini

The splatter film takes what is usually on the inside of the body —  safely contained within our skin —  and reveals it to the outside. What is especially important about the splatter film is not the high body counts (leave those to Rambo), but the obsessive focus on death itself. Victims are rarely shot with bullets or forced to ingest poison. Instead, the destruction of the human body must take place at close range with weapons — clubs, machetes,  knives, fingernails, teeth (shudder) — that require the killer and the victim to have intimate contact with one another. The messier, more prolonged, and more painful the death is, the better.

He's going to feel that in the morning!

Yes, these were the kinds of horror films that my brother always seemed to be watching in the mid-1980s. And, naturally, as a younger sister, I wanted to be doing everything my older brother was doing. If he was going to watch Day of the Dead  (1985, George Romero), then damn it, I was going to watch it too. I asked my brother about the fateful day that changed everything for me — the day we watched Night of the Living Dead (1968, George Romero) on VHS in our family den. He thinks it was somewhere around 1986, which means I would have been 10-years-old and he would would have been around 15-years-old. And while I distinctly remember him coaxing me to watch the movie by telling me that it really wasn’t that scary, my brother remembers it differently: “I don’t recall forcing you to watch it, you were into it like any kid looking for a thrill would be.” Doesn’t that sound exactly like something a drug dealer would say? Regardless of how it happened,  there I sat, for 96 minutes, and watched as a series of reanimated corpses cornered and ate a houseful of people. Including a little girl, just like me. WTF, George Romero?

"What? I wasn't eating my Dad. He was like this when I got here."

Looking back on this phase of my pop culture upbringing, I do wonder where the hell my mother was. The film professor in me appreciates that she didn’t do much censoring of television or movies — my brother and I pretty much watched what we wanted to watch. My Mom only started to get concerned about my brother’s horror movie fascination when Fangoria magazine began to arrive in our mailbox every month. Those covers freaked me out.

 
"Hey, 10-year-old Amanda, can you go get the mail? What do you mean, 'the mail is scary?'"

But by that time, it was too late for me. The deep damage to my psyche was already done. And the real problem? I liked zombie movies. They scared me more than any other horror film and I really liked being scared. Zombie movies combined all of my greatest fears: dead bodies (I still have never seen a dead body), being chased by an unrelenting enemy, painful, prolonged death, and the possibility of being turned into a monster. So I continued to watch zombie movies with my brother. And like any older brother worth his salt, Adam pinpointed my fear and discovered clever ways to exploit it. For example, after we watched Dawn of the Dead (1978, George Romero) together,  my brother came up with a great tormenting device: he would chase me around the house pretending to be a zombie. He’d put his arms out in front of him, cock his head to the side, and hum the Muzak that was playing in the mall for most of Dawn of the Dead (see YouTube clip below). This horrible chase would always end the same way — with me locking myself into the nearest available bathroom and waiting, panting and terrifed, for my brother to get bored and lumber away (just like in a real zombie movie). To this day, when I hear generic-sounding Muzak, the muscles in my stomach tighten up.

Due to the combination of watching zombie movies at an age when I was too young to process their terrifying images and being chased around the house by my faux-zombie brother over and over again, I was plagued, for decades, with zombie-themed nightmares. In these dreams I was plunged, in medias res, into the climax of an epic zombies versus humans battle. The battle would conclude in one of two ways: either I was holed up in an old house with a group of survivors — sometimes I knew them, sometimes I didn’t — and we would bide our time, waiting for the moment when the zombies would finally  burst through our hastily constructed barricade. Or (and this was the worst scenario), I was by myself, being chased by a horde of hungry zombies who were always just inches behind me. At some point during this recurring nightmare I would recognize that I was dreaming and I would have to make a decision: continue to flee the zombies (and thus, prolong the feeling of absolute terror) or allow the zombies to attack me (which would allow me to finally wake up). Neither option is really an option, you dig?

The turning point for me and my love/hate relationship with zombies happened in 2002, when I went to see 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle) with my friend, Coral.  After the movie, Coral was going to drop me off at my empty house; my boyfriend (now my husband) was out of town. But I knew that sleeping alone in my empty house was going to be an impossibility. So instead I ran inside, grabbed my toothbrush and my dog, and hopped back into Coral’s car. As I lay there that night on Coral’s futon, painfully aware of the inanity of a grown woman having to sleep over at a friend’s house after watching a scary movie, I came to a decision: no more zombie movies. And I’ve kept to that, mostly. I lapsed in 2004, when I rented the remake of Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder) (which, by the way, was great). I did this when my husband was out of town and I paid for it with a night of insomnia. I haven’t watched a zombie movie since. And now I only have a few zombie-themed nightmares each year. I still get sad though, like when a group of my friends all went to see Zombieland (2009, Rubin Fleischer) and I had to say “Sorry, friends, just can’t do it!” And I know that AMC’s The Walking Dead is supposed to be great, but I’ll never know its pleasures. Instead, I try to view my zombie phobia the way a lactose-intolerant person views ice cream: you can have a sundae, but your ass is going to pay for it later.

Which brings me to the present day and Game of Thrones. Except for a brief glimpse of a blue-eyed little girl with a bloodied mouth (who I am assuming is a white walker?), no zombies have appeared in the series. But, as Ned Stark (Sean Bean) keeps warning us, “winter is coming” and with it, zombies. When they arrive, I might have to abandon this great television series, or risk giving up my dreams to the undead once again.

So, am I alone in my zombie phobia? Is anyone else out there zombie-intolerant? Or is there another movie monster that plagues your nightmares? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

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26 thoughts on “Making Peace with my Zombies: A Personal Narrative

    SarahA said:
    May 31, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Zombies are scary as hell! My parents live in a very rural area and one of my sisters lives less than half a mile from them. You can easily walk on a gravel road that goes through a field to my parent’s lawn, but my youngest sister and I won’t do it because we are both convinced that zombies will get us. I’m still not sure why we decided that zombies are hiding out in rural Pennsylvania, but once the idea took root so did our irrational fear. I don’t get HBO so I have to wait on watching Game of Thrones, but I was super excited to see it so you’ll have to let me know how it turns out because the only thing scarier than a zombie is a child zombie!

      princesscowboy responded:
      May 31, 2011 at 1:55 pm

      Why did you and your sister assume that zombies are hiding out in rural Pennsylvania? Because that is precisely where zombies most like to hang out! Romero’s Dead trilogy was filmed in and around Pittsburgh. You and your sister should be very, very afraid. Good luck and try not to get chomped.

    Shaun Huston said:
    May 31, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    I have a similar history with zombies. In my case, it started with my dad taking my sister and I to see a double feature of INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD at The Guild, which was a revival house and art theater in Portland, Oregon. We were like six and four, believe it or not. BODYSNATCHERS was probably mostly above our heads, but NIGHT was traumatic. He maintains that he thought it was some other film about aliens from Mars, but that doesn’t quite explain his judgment in staying when it became clear it wasn’t what he thought. Anyhow, we slept in the living room that night with mom (ha! My parents have become more progressive about that kind of thing over time).

    I still avoid zombies, but BUFFY and ANGEL did a lot to ease my discomfort. In fact, “Habeas Corpses”, where the entire staff of Wolfram and Hart are turned into zombies, is one of my favorite episodes of ANGEL. Some day I will get around to testing myself with 28 DAYS LATER or SHAUN OF THE DEAD (you can imagine the jokes when that movie came out).

    One last note: this had the opposite, or maybe no, effect on my sister, who became much more of a zombie/horror movie fan than I did, or will ever be, I suspect.

      princesscowboy responded:
      May 31, 2011 at 2:08 pm

      Thanks for sharing! I wonder what films and TV shows are going to scar my children years from now!

      One thing I did forget to mention in my post is SHAUN OF THE DEAD. I have watched this movie (and I even taught it a few times as an example of genre mixing), and it doesn’t mess with me as much. I think the use of the comic frame makes the zombies more tolerable. I guess adding comedy to a zombie film is the equivalent of taking some lactaid before eating a sundae?

    Coral said:
    May 31, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Nothing has affected me so much as the little boy vampire on Salem’s Lot. I think I saw that movie when I was 13 and had to sleep with my mom for 3 weeks. Then for years after that, I could never turn to look at a window if there was a scratching noise, like a tree branch rubbing against it, because I was afraid it would be a vampire scratching his nails on the glass who would then hypnotize me with his red eyes to open the window and let him in. I’ve lost sleep over zombies too, but nothing that serious.

      princesscowboy responded:
      May 31, 2011 at 3:16 pm

      I’m glad you never looked because I bet at least one of those times, it *was* that little boy.

    dayh8 said:
    May 31, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Great write-up, and especially great screenshots/clips. Zombies do have so many things inherently creepy about them (they just break so many rules!) that I doubt anyone can blame you for your fear. I have, however, always seen them as rather funny (thanks mostly to Romero) and only occasionally fail to find some humor in their lumbering debauchery. I guess the cynic in me sees them, even for all their rule breaking, as not too different from us (again, thinking back to DAWN OF THE DEAD here). That being said, THE WALKING DEAD does not continue the humorous aspect of the living dead, so you might not want to fall off that wagon with that one. ZOMBIELAND might be doable, though; the zombies are not particularly funny, but there is enough non-zombie funny stuff and meta-commentary on the genre to water down the necrohunger a bit.

    On a side note – have you ever tried to read THE WALKING DEAD graphic novels?

      princesscowboy responded:
      May 31, 2011 at 3:14 pm

      I did read the first of THE WALKING DEAD graphic novels–right around the time I gave up zombie movies. I think I thought it would be a way to get my zombie fix. But they gave me nightmares too!

    Michelle said:
    May 31, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Shane and I are loving Game of Thrones! We watched all 7 episodes this past weekend and are hooked. Shane likes anything castles, kings, wards, hands, you name it and fantasy, it is what he like. Historically, it’s what I hate. I like real shit, real worlds, real drama, but I also like screwed-up families and houses and sibling relationships, so it’s a great series for our divergent interests. As to your question of movie monsters, no phobias there. My one movie phobias are movies that take place and depict prison. Now that’s some shit! Enjoyed your post!

      princesscowboy responded:
      May 31, 2011 at 3:15 pm

      you guys gotta come over for the finale! We can drink wine out of leather pouches!

    Amanda's Brother said:
    May 31, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    You should also point out how Night of the Living Dead set the “rules” that all zombie movies since – to a greater or lesser degree – now follow: bites from a zombie will make you one, if you die you become one and, perhaps the most important, only a shot or blow to the head can kill them. You should check out Zombieland, it’s not very scary at all.

      princesscowboy responded:
      June 1, 2011 at 1:26 pm

      Ummm, you gave me that line before, remember? Not buying it this time big brother.

    melisser said:
    May 31, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    I didn’t know you were afraid of zombies! I am surprised, but sympathetic.

    The thing that freaked me out most about Nan’s stories are the alleged Giant Zombie Spiders. Yeeesh.

    And I totally had to TRICK Corey into watching GoT. But after four episodes, finally, I caught him reading the Westeros Wikipedia yesterday. YES!!!

    Matt said:
    June 2, 2011 at 9:54 am

    I don’t suppose you want to take my zombie class in Spring 2012? I am one of those zombie people that has read all of Walking Dead, World War Z, Pride.., and even watch obscure foreign zombie films (Dead Snow?). Sadly, I get more scared watching Disney films.

    nfrankenhauser said:
    June 2, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    You already know that I’m not a zombiphobe, but even I have a few things that squick me out when it comes to horror movies. The chiefest thing is body mutilation, by far. I won’t won’t WON’T watch anything that falls under “torture porn,” so I have never seen Hostel or any of the Saw movies at all. I want to be clear that I’m not talking about splatter films–people being dismembered doesn’t bother me–but watching someone’s fingernails get ripped out sends shivers up and down my spine. Weird, huh?

    I will never watch Old Boy again for this reason, and I loved that film right up until the tongue-cutting scene (the same goes for Ichi the Killer). It’s the maiming that does it to me, the prospect of living on as a diminished version of the self instead of dying, even through evisceration.

    I should note that not all maimings bother me either. Losing an eye or a hand doesn’t do it for me; maybe Evil Dead 2 cured me of that. It does bother me when a character does it to himself, though, which means that, no, I have not and will not see 127 Hours. Ever.

    I don’t know why this should be, except that I do have a fairly vivid memory from when I was five: my father, an artist, was cutting picture frames with a power miter saw and chopped off the tip of his finger. I didn’t see it happen, but I remember him coming in the house with both his finger and the tip wrapped up in a bloody rag, so I suppose that might have something to do with it 😉

      princesscowboy responded:
      June 2, 2011 at 9:52 pm

      Dude, it’s just like that SOPRANOS episode when Tony sees his father cut off the butcher’s finger! Only substitute horror films for gabagool!

        nfrankenhauser said:
        June 3, 2011 at 8:30 am

        Oh, and regarding the walkers in Game of Thrones: there will be more of them, but if the show’s producers follow the books there won’t be much flesh-devouring. The walkers are zombies after a fashion, in that they’re animated corpses, but they just kill and convert people, not eat them (at least so far in the books, but the series isn’t finished). They can be killed, however, though not like normal zombies. Basically, they function as a metaphor for winter itself.

    Kelli Marshall said:
    June 3, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    FYI: The First Zombie-Proof House (no, I’m not kidding): http://all-that-is-interesting.com/post/4956385434/the-first-zombie-proof-house

    Great read, as always! =)

    bald guy said:
    June 23, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    The world view of The Human Centipede depresses me. I can’t deal with it. It makes my hair fall out even faster.

    guest said:
    June 24, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    White Walkers are not zombies. That girl shown etc, was not a white Walker. The white walkers have not been shown on screen yet besides the two seconds where one cut off a night watchmans head and threw it at the other one, though it wasnt shown up close. When a white walker kills a human/or animal it becomes a wight (kinda like a zombie, though shooting it in the head isnt going to do anything these wights, they can only be killed by fire). the White walkers themselves though have never been human, and are not reanimated corpses, zombies, or anything of the like. They are their own race. Hope this clears matters up.

    […] we will watch any series featuring characters who regularly get shot, beheaded, scalped, or mauled (but not eaten); we will watch any MTV reality show that makes us feel better about who we are and the life […]

    Asa Jones said:
    October 29, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    After reading this blog, i’m glad to say that my older brother has a phobia of Zombies. I personally, love them. With stuff like Lucio Fulci’s THE BEYOND, ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS & CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and also George A Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, DAY OF THE DEAD & NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, i feel like zombies are a joke. But, if you should ever watch another Zombie film, i’d recommend SHAUN OF THE DEAD or RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART 2 as they are Comedy/Horrors. Also, i recommend REC & REC 2. They’re mint

    LeSquish said:
    December 10, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    I am absolutely terrified of zombies. My husband loves the genre, has loads of zombie movies, and watches the Walking Dead, every time I see an episode I have recurring nightmares for days after. Weirdly though the zombies in Game of Thrones don’t bother me at all (even the really “scary” sequences with them in the books). I think it’s because they aren’t in a real world setting.

    Bella said:
    May 4, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    I actually just got in a fight last night with my hubby because of my phobia of the “Z” word. He likes to chase me around and pop out of no where to scare me… Last night was just wrong though. I ran to the vending machines in our apartment complex because HE wanted a soda and we were fresh out. I hate going out at night but at least I can physically do it these days.. Anyway I was coming down the hill to our back patio door and hubby looks at me panicked and says “Run baby, there’s a zombie right behind you!!” and so I run, slip down the hill and fall on my hands and knees of the patio… I look up and he had closed and locked the door. I finally got the guts to look behind me and when I saw there wasn’t a single z word, I imagined it being at the top, just beyond my eye sight. I started banging on the door and hubby was laughing hysterically… Until I threatened to throw a chair threw @ glass door. Then he opened the door, he wasn’t happy (I had also thrown his favorite lighter down hard enough for it to break/cause a bitty “explosion”) He just doesn’t understand how real my fear is. He thinks it’s a joke, or something I do for fun/attention. I did those things because I could feel the panic attack settling in my chest. That seizing feeling…. Ughgh I hate that feeling. It’s a VERY real fear. I haven’t always been so paranoid but I have always been afraid of the z word. The phobia and irrational behavior started when had to take ambian a few years back. It caused terrible life like z word dreams that I felt I never woke up from because I would hallucinate z words too. In broad daylight some times, but usually evening time or night, someone would walk through my peripheral vision but I’d see a z word not a living unrolled person– you know? I had to double and triple check them. It got to the point where I would see them popping out from behind trees or cars and I couldn’t leave my house at night. The straw that made me stop taking the meds, though, was when my mom talked me into going to fear fest @ kings dominion. I don’t think she (and my sister, her accomplice) realized that there would be random people walking around dressed as z words and chasing or popping out @ you, making the growls and moans… It was a night mare come to life, worse that hallucinations because these z words bumped into and brushed past you. I take adderall too, which is why I was on Ambian.. Adderall causes quickened heart beats and combining that with crippling fear, it was beating sooo fast that I was having chest pains. I thought i was hoing to have a heart attack (bare in mind I was about 19 at the time and I’m fit/in good shape) Never the less, I ended up on a bench in the fetal position barely able to breath, crying and screaming and completely hysterical. My sister (about 11 and the time) was cursing out and fending off the z words, who apparently took my panic attack as “great job, keep it up guys!”.  I think thats when my mom realized how serious my z word phobia is. Unfortunately, even after I stopped the meds, the paranoia still remains. It took me a few years to be able to go outside alone at night w/o hyper ventilating and running back inside before I left the front porch. To this day, I won’t sleep w/o the lights on and if no one else is in my apartment I won’t sleep @ all. Everyone around me knows not to say the z word, especially not in the evenings or @ night, I have a pocket notebook on me with notes from the Z word survival guide and I have my action plan all laid out, ready for anything. The worst is that, although I love my Uncle to death I can’t go to his house alone if I will be leaving after dark. It’s a ranch in the middle if nowhere and it’s dark, even w/the outside lights on. Even if someone walks me to my car, after I drive away, I imagine a z word in the back just about to grab me at any moment. Last time I tried to visit and I accidentally stated too late, it was a 20 min ride into town and i was desperately trying to calm myself the whole way. Sitting on the edge of my seat, speeding. I pulled over the second I finally got into town where it was populated. Then, because I had gotten myself so worked up, I lost my lunch. I’m a mess, but hey– at least we’re not alone, right?? Someone suggested to me to take some anti anxiety meds and I couldn’t help but laugh. Mess got me into this, I don’t trust them to get me out!!

    blip said:
    April 17, 2013 at 8:04 am

    In 1982, when I was 11, I saw Dawn of the Dead in a cinema; why I was let in there, (probably because my housekeeper took me) I’ll never know. We looked at each other about 1/3 of the way through and mutually agreed to exit, it was a disturbing experience for us both and it was the worst scare I have ever had from a movie; not sure how I managed to sleep that night, and even the next day, in daylight, I was freaked out in any quiet place. That fear lasted for a good 12 months, I was deeply disturbed. Like the author here, I had to avoid zombie movies for quite a while (although when Evil Dead 2 came out on VHS I watched it three times in a week). Looking at Dawn of the Dead now, the allegory (the plague of sheepish consumerism that grips America) is clear, but it’s not something I was able to understand as an 11 year boy. BTW have to disagree about the Snyder remake, thought it was terrible, and 28 Weeks Later was, in my opinion, superior in every respect to 28 Days.

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