“What is it with you and tombs?” – Why I Write About Zombies

Posted by seanpage on May 03, 2012 in Uncategorized tagged with

It was a pleasant afternoon & my wife & I were having a picnic in a green London Park. Suddenly, I glanced over & realised we were much closer than I realised to the Mecca of graveyard architecture that is Highgate Cemetery. What followed next was an hour of leaning over the fence and snapping photos of the amazing tombs and grave stones.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not the first time I’ve seen the place, I just find something new every time and now it costs a packet to get in, I tend to just lean over the fence like some desperate ghoul trying to get back in.

I’m lucky. I live very close to Highgate Cemetery, which contains some of the most striking examples of funeral architecture in this country. Lucky I say as I’ve always had a fascination with what Professor James Curl aptly terms our ‘Celebration of Death’. There is something which draws our modern minds to these moss-covered tombs and classical mausoleums and it’s beyond the curiosity of an amateur architecture fan boy.

For me, it goes to the heart of the tension in gothic, horror and in particular zombie fiction – that is our fascination with death, ruination and decay.

Now, I’m no academic. I’m a full-time office drone who’s written a couple of zombie books and a gaggle of horror short stories. So, where I think I can contribute to this debate is to consider where the zombie revival fits into this, if at all.

There is no escaping it, from TV’s Walking Dead, to Brad Pitt filming World War Z, zombies are kicking ass at the moment. They are the monster de jour across comics, books, films and games. Now when someone writes something like this, it normally means that the trend is at its peak and even in decline and this may be so but I think this bandwagon is due to rumble on for some years yet.

So, is there a link here between our ongoing fascination with death and the current trend in zombies? I think there is. In contemporary society, I think we are all well-aware that we remove death as far as possible from our everyday lives. We adore statues of people who died hundreds of years ago and worship the great and the good who have passed. We can appreciate the odd plaque or public memorial but other reminders of this ever-present reality are cleaned out. Apparently, no one wants to know. Death is best kept at a distance.

It seems odd then that zombie fiction in particular has been so strong in the last decade. As readers, we have developed something of an obsession with the idea of the hungry walking dead. They are like us but they’re dead. They want to eat us – why is it that they always want to eat us or beat us to death?

The living and the dead have never got on, not since we dragged them out of our caves. They are unhealthy for us and give us the creeps. We, well, mostly they just wanna a piece of us.

But, zombies have a special place amongst monsters. They certainly don’t have the new-found romantic appeal of vampires, none of the immediate terror of the spectre. Zombies are not evil; they rarely have a grand plan. With zombies, it’s never personal…

The thing about zombies, at least for a horror writer, is that they are very much a blank canvas. They offer plenty of scope to build tension. Your survivors can beat a few off with ease. Add a few more, no problem. The challenge really comes when they start to arrive in numbers or when our finite levels of energy are depleted whilst our dead alter-egos just continue coming on.

So, what’s this got to do with Victorian cemeteries? Well, I’ve always assumed that it was the Victorians fixated with death only to have them remark the very same back to me. Virtually all horror involves death. Certainly all zombie books do. Millions of walking corpses, death everywhere…maybe we aren’t so different. (Note to self – must revisit Highgate Cemetery – there are still tombs I haven’t visited yet.)

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