All We Really Need to Know is Learned From Zombie Shows

There aren’t many television shows that I watch regularly, actually there are only two that I can think of. The top of my “to watch” list has to be AMC’s The Walking Dead. I discovered it on Netflix and binge watched until I caught up to start watching on Sunday nights. It’s not really the zombies that make this show compelling, it’s the relationships, the struggles, and the moral dilemmas posed to the living. I saw a comment on a board by a fan that said the title did not refer to the zombies or walkers as they are called, but the survivors of this harsh new reality. I never watched this show when it first started because I thought that an entire series based on zombies would be boring. I mean how many ways can you tell the zombie story? The dead rise, the living try to survive and find a cure.

When well done, the zombie story may follow that recipe but it’s the individual ingredients that make the flesh eater vs the living interesting in ways that can be surprising. As far as the genre goes, it is definitely not for everyone. However, there is an abundance to choose from: comedy, high drama, action, all out gore, and more. Here are my 5 top Zombie themed venues of entertainment and what we might possibly be able to learn from them.

1. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead

This classic spawned one of the best known movie lines, “they’re coming to get you, Barbra!” It may be black and white but to me that just adds to the creepiness. It’s based in era that is not exactly postapocalyptic but more of a bizarre “outbreak”. It’s not just a gory zombie tale but a commentary on prejudices we carry and inter-human-social relations. The ending will leave you gasping.

Night of the Living Dead is a 1968 American independent horror film directed by George A. Romero

Night of the Living Dead is a 1968 American independent horror film directed by George A. Romero

2. AMC’s The Walking Dead

Based on the graphic novels of Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard. The issues of humanity and what is it, how do you hang on to it, and why should you hang on to it, are raised on a weekly basis. One of the advantages of having a long running serial is that people have more time to get invested in the characters and ask themselves, what would I do in that situation? This series is unpredictable as they have not shied away from killing main characters, you’ll have to watch to find out which ones.

The living fight to remain alive and human.

The living fight to remain alive and human.

3. Shaun of the Dead

“Let’s get to the pub.” Our hero, Shaun, makes lists of things to do to survive that changes throughout the ordeal but the best plan ends with getting to the pub. At one point he has to add the name of someone who has become a zombie and notes they need to be killed, sorry. This dark comedy shows us that we are all “zombies” in our modern self-absorbed world.

4. World War Z

This big money blockbuster features fast-moving zombies that act like a swarm of insects in their efforts to feed. I wasn’t sure I would like this one as I kind of felt it was an attempt to just jump on the zombie bandwagon but I was pleasantly surprised. The Israeli soldier character, Segen, played by Daniella Kertesz, has stuck with me as a picture of resilience and downright “badassness”. It speaks to our fears of collapsing economies and disease that may strike from afar, perhaps even our fear of a too inter-connected world. It was spun from a book by the same name, World War Z, An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks.

Isreali Soldier Segen in Action

Israeli Soldier Segen in Action

 

5. Zombieland

Similar to Shaun, this dark comedy speaks to the ‘unconnectedness’ of modern life. It’s rather gory but the mix of characters keeps you interested, not to mention, it’s funny. The main character counts down his list of personal rules for survival throughout the story. I think we can apply all of Columbus’ rules to our lives, not just the apocalypse. For instance, rule one: cardio.

I think the zombie genre will be going strong for some time as evidenced by the still popular movies, new and old. Almost everywhere you look there are zombie-fests, zombie-runs, and zombie-crawls. Here in my small town they hosted a zombie-prom at the library not too long ago, I’m sure some citizens were baffled. There are emerging venues of telling the reanimated dead story from new perspectives, The Returned and Resurrection are the latest examples.

Zombies may have come to represent what we as modern people fear most: incurable disease, economic collapse, war, environmental threat, and death. Zombies are the ultimate “other”.

Forget about my usual advice about Never Turn Off the Lights. Zombies (as well as the fears listed above) don’t care about the light. They are the most dangerous and deep-seated fears because we can do little, if anything, to prevent them from coming when they are set in motion and there is literally nowhere to hide. Maybe, as these movies show us, the best we can do is stick together and: 1. cardio; 2. keep fighting (even if you have to cut off your hand); 3. (a.k.a. 32) enjoy the little things; and finally, 4. get to the pub.

Zombie Subdivisions, That’s Actually a Thing

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My story Dread takes place in a new, well planned, shiny subdivision. I know in my town there a several such developments underway. While I hope this is a good sign for the economy, I find there is something unsettling in the partially built homes and undeveloped lots in these areas.

As I researched and thought about my setting an interesting little phenomena caught my attention and my imagination.

The economic downturn created what has been coined “Zombie subdivisions”. Sorry, no walking dead here but platted vacant land or partially built out plots then abandoned areas. These modern ghost towns look like they could host the undead.

 

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Newly constructed homes in an unfinished subdivision is surrounded by weeds in Coolidge

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Unfinished subdivision

These photos are as interesting as they are depressing. It must be very unsettling to be one of only a handful (or less) residents in this type of neighborhood. I hope the recovering economy makes it possible to rehabilitate these areas away from blight. But for now, the possibilities these spark in my imagination are endless. The poor dear folks in Dread may find their beautiful subdivision a little less perfect (as if it wasn’t scary enough for them) by the time the book is released later this year.

Until next time, Never Turn Off the Lights!

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Ouija Boards, too Scary or Explained by Science?

I’m contemplating a Ouija board scene in my book. I’m evaluating its relevancy to the plot among other things. To help me make a decision on the scene I did some brainstorming and research. What I discovered was rather interesting.

I had numerous brainstorming questions: What are they? How do they work? Is it spirits or demons? Is it our subconscious  mind?  Or is it simply involuntary minute muscle movements? Do they open a portal to hell or just harmless fun? I probably haven’t touch one myself since my twelfth birthday.

Although the origin of the Ouija board seems shrouded in mystery there is a patent for one in London from 1854 by Adolphus Wagner. In his patent he clearly states that the messages spelled out on the board are accomplished by the unintentional movements of the people using it. In the 1890’s it was sold in America in novelty shops and made by the Kennard Novelty Company. They were able to receive a patent in 1891 because they had proven to the patent office it worked when they were able to get the board to spell out the name of the Chief Patent Officer, which they supposedly did not know before hand.

From there the Ouija board obtained a strong foothold in American culture. Using the board was not a controversial activity early on like it is today. Norman Rockwell portrayed a man and woman using the board on the front page of the Saturday Evening Post in 1920. That’s like seeing someone use a smartphone on the evening news today. Parker Brothers bought the rights to the game in 1967 and sold 2 million boards that year.

Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell

Perhaps one of the most interesting things to me as a writer are writers who used the board to help guide their writing. Here are just a few that made me go, hmmm.

  • In 1917 Emily  Grant Hutchings published a book called Jap Herron, about a diamond in the rough young man who blossoms under the tutilage of a graceful couple. She claimed the book was dictated to her via the Ouija board by none other than Mark Twain, who died in 1910. Reviews at the time called her claim into question not because she used the board but because it was terribly written. One critic wrote, there was no way Mark Twain would have written such drivel, dead or alive.
  • In 1957 Sylvia Plath wrote Dialogue over a Ouija Board after her experience of a Ouija session. Apparently, she used the board quite a bit and even took some writing direction and advice from the board. It begs the question, did her use of the board have anything to do with the way her life ended?
  • In December of 1972 an Eastern Airlines jet, flight 401, crashed into the Florida Everglades. The crashed was caused by the flight crew’s distraction of a landing gear light not functioning. While their attention was on the light the plane lost altitude and crashed into the swamp. 101 people perished. The ghosts of the 12 flight crew members who died were reported by numerous reliable people to have been seen around the company and on other flights. Salvageable parts from Flight 401 had reportedly been installed in these aircraft. In 1972 John G. Fuller wrote The Ghosts of Flight 401 about the phenomena and used the board and a medium to contact the spirits as he wrote the book.
  • Not exactly a writer but quite surprising, Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, is reported to have used a Ouija board to develop the familiar 12 steps.

The board did not really become controversial in popular culture until after The Exorcist came out in 1977. In case you have been living on a deserted island for many decades, a young girl plays with a  board and begins chatting with an entity. This fun and games end with the girl being possessed by a demon. Not the portrait of a harmless parlor game.

Ouija board advertisement, via Pinterest

Ouija board advertisement, via Pinterest

Even in the camp that believes it is spirit energy moving the planchett there is strife. On one end of the spectrum there are those that believe your intent when using the board dictates the outcome. If you intend to communicate with departed loved ones or good spirits that is all that will come through. For those who think they are an acceptable tool for contacting spirit they stress exercising caution. They say that before you use one say a prayer of protection, know how to close anything you open, smudge the board with sage, and the like.

Way over on the other end are those who say it is definitely spirit communicating through the board but your intent doesn’t make one bit of difference. It can only be demons moving the planchett, impersonating loved ones or good spirits to lead people astray. They point out that scripture forbids believers from participating in communication with the dead. People with this viewpoint would never touch one under any circumstance and suggest we all do the same.

Skeptics and science have a different opinion, not surprisingly, it does not include spirits. It is the live humans using the board. The planchett moves because of something called the ideomotor effect. This term describes the small, automatic muscular movements we all make and are totally unaware of. Experiments have suggested that the planchett movements to spell answers to the questions asked are caused by the ideomotor effect working in conjunction with our own subconscious mind. These two things combine to generate the effect of an outside force moving it. To disprove this notion there have been experiments of people using the board blindfolded to minimize user influence with mixed results.

There is a strange phenomena around the board that shows just how mucky the understanding of the way the board works is. It’s been coined the Zozo phenomena by paranormal investigator Darren Evans. People from all over the world report the board spelling out “I am Zozo”. These encounters are characterized by extremely negative encounters with death threats and blasphemous messages. Believers feel this is a demon or negative entity that attaches to users and affects their life in detrimental ways, proving the boards are dangerous. Listening to their personal stories make for a compelling viewpoint.

Skeptics say it is simply the ideomotor effect and the subconscious that has knowledge of this phenomenon at work. Others say it is the ideomotor effect and the “collective subconscious” that causes the common experience to emerge. Mostly, it is dismissed as internet folklore.

Lunch anyone?

Lunch anyone?

Here’s my own experience.

The year I turned twelve I was living out on an acreage just north of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. We lived in a large home which was good because there were seven kids living in the house. We had a walk out basement that had a large open room with a wood fireplace that we called the rec room. Just off this room was my favorite area of the house, the den. It was floor to ceiling book shelves with a heavy desk under the window. I got to commandeer these two areas for my birthday party sleep over.

At some point during the evening we settled down in front of the fire to tell scary stories. I don’t remember exactly how it came about but we pulled out the Ouija board and I suggested we go under the desk in the den where it was really dark.

We huddled under the desk and sat with the board balanced on our legs. Not everyone could fit so some of the girls sat on the floor as close as they could. The only light source was the slowly dying fire in the other room. We started asking questions and the room was very quiet as we were all very intent on what we were doing. Not much was happening.

I finally said in my most dramatic voice: If there are any spirits in the room, give us a sign. At that exact moment there were three very loud and slow knocks on the window above us. We shrieked and bolted up the stairs in a jumble of legs and arms like the devil himself was chasing us.

By the time we reached the kitchen we were laughing. Of course, it was the older kids heading into town for Saturday night. They must have seen us get the Ouija board and waited around to scare us. When my aunt heard the ruckus she came in and we explained what happened. She didn’t laugh. She explained that the older kids had left for a movie in town over an hour ago. Needless to say we slept upstairs in the living room that night.

I don’t know how to explain that using the ideomotor effect, unless someone’s  subconscious was able to tap the window.

I still haven’t decided whether or not to use the scene in this particular book. Feel free to share your experiences, they might just make me lean one way or the other.

For now, never turn off the lights, especially if you’ve been messing with one of these and somebody or something or (holy crap) Zozo knocks on your window.

Happy Mardi Gras and National Pancake Day!

It must be fate, National Pancake Day and Mardi Gras on the same day!

What an exciting time in perhaps the most haunted city in America.The origins of Mardi Gras go way back to medieval Europe and perhaps even as far back as ancient rituals of fertility that celebrated the coming of Spring. But in New Orleans it’s time for parades, throws (beads and such thrown from the floats), costumes, lavish parties, and reveling in the streets before the penitent time of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

Some say that the excitement and energy of the events attract the dead of New Orleans just as readily as the living. Some of the parade routes include passing by cemeteries, funeral homes, and other supposed haunted locations. According to some, as the parade passes these areas they pick up some otherworldly participants and they have photos to prove it.

I found a few of these photos on line at Haunted New Orleans Tours. I know photos can be faked and manipulated, what do you think?

French Quarter Parade

French Quarter Parade

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If you’re like me and can’t go yourself, books are the next best thing. Ruined, a Novel, by Paula Morris is a terrific choice. It takes place in New Orleans where we follow newcomer Rebecca as she struggles with moving into her Aunt Claudia’s strange and spooky house and navigating the alien social structures of her new life. Ghosts, a haunted cemetery, New Orleans’ lifestyle, a mystery, Mardi Gras Krewes, a cute boy, and some mean girls. What more could you ask from a book? Check it out, you won’t be disappointed.

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If you are lucky enough to go to Mardi Gras take as many photos as you can. If you get anything weird, feel free to share with those of us who can’t be there. By weird, I don’t mean topless folks or broken fingers of those who tried to grab throws that hit the ground but any non-humans or former humans who might be partying with you.

If you can’t go to Mardi Gras you could head over to IHOP to celebrate with some free pancakes and make a donation to Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Having had preemie babies in a NICU for many long weeks this cause is near and dear to me. At any rate, celebrate away! Tomorrow marks the start of the Lenten season.