What’s in a Name?
Exploring the Use of the Word “Zombie”
By Patrick Williams
Deciding whether or not to use the term zombie in the novel Dead Meat was not difficult for my brother and co-author, Chris, and me; in fact, we knew that it would be best for the story if we avoided the term. The decision wasn’t initially made with hopes to strike a new vein of zombie-narrative ore but to address concerns we had regarding the reader’s constraints. We felt that if contemporary American culture is saturated in media relying on the Romeroesque zombie trope, we needed terminology that allowed us to invent our own antagonistic creatures, giving us the imaginative freedom to present a narrative based more on the characters’ interactions than on meeting the standards of current connotations of the zombie.
Zombie brings up a connotation that has been snowballing for decades. For example, when we initially use the word, Romero’s zombies may pop into our heads: the walking dead lurching towards their next victim, ready to devour the flesh of the living. Due to these films and others, our contemporary culture has a very clear understanding of a zombie, even if that understanding doesn’t completely align with the word’s formal definitions. Understanding the reader’s constraints is imperative to the writer’s craft since the reader must be able to suspend disbelief and maintain that suspension. For example, when we use the term zombie, we have to expect that the reader will bring his or her interpretation, most likely the current cultural definition, and carry that throughout the story, thus making it difficult to deviate from the cultural connotation. Not to mention, when a character establishes the label of zombie, the author then has to decide how much zombie knowledge is present in the narrative: Are the characters aware of the history or folklore regarding zombies? Are we focusing on the Romeroesque zombies, and if zombie lore is a prevalent in the story as it is in our current culture, why is it that so few people may recognize the issue or understand what’s happening? When the Pentagon and the CDC have taken up the topic in public, I think it’s safe to say that the cultural connotation of a zombie is pretty well-known across varying demographics, and that may pose a problem for some narratives and the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. By avoiding the term, writers are able to explore the monstrous with more imaginative freedom, possibly creating even a new horror trope that goes beyond the readers’ connotations.
While some may not see this reframing technique as original, Dead Meat employs the zombie trope with a refreshing purpose: to help weave complex characters into one cohesive narrative presented through one person’s experiences. Dead Meat’s protagonist, Gavin, initially creates the label used throughout the book. Gavin, at the start of the story, lacks the grit to survive; he’s a bit meek, lost, indecisive, and lacking confidence. Having Gavin label the creatures bees, instead of zombies, allowed us to start his transition from victim to survivor: “Bees. Think of them like bees and maybe fighting them—killing them—will be easier. Killing a person is murder; killing a bee, well, that’s a measure of defense, a tool for population control. One by one, we’ll have to swat them dead. ‘Bees,’ I mutter. ‘Maybe I can stomach that.’” This excerpt shows how Gavin reframes the enemy in a sense to establish control so that he can defend himself and others from the creatures without guilt. In Dead Meat, the characters struggle to balance humanity, morality, and violence in order to survive. They are unsure of what they must battle, learning little about society’s collapse as they push through River’s Edge and into another town looking for Gavin’s family. Thus, by simply changing the term from zombies to bees, we were able to focus more on the story and characters and less on working in the cultural baggage that the word zombie can bring into the writing process.
In the end, for Dead Meat, the story is about much more than zombies, or bees as we call them; the story focuses more on a grounded evaluation of how humanity and morality play vital roles in a post-apocalyptic setting. As Gavin says about midway through the book, “We say a bullet or a bite will kill us. We just forgot to add ourselves to the equation.” The characters, the humans, create more suspense and horror than the bees. To us, that makes for a great post-apocalyptic story.