Contributed photo. Zombie paintball, in which human beings try to “bag” zombies, is one of the activities at Fender’s Farm in Jonesborough this month.
For the last couple of decades, vampires — those preeminent figures of the classic horror film — reigned in popular culture. Found in comic books and graphic novels, in movies and on television shows, in trading card games and video games, their popularity exploded in 2005 when Stephanie Meyer’s novel “Twilight” hit bookstores.
Today, though, it’s zombies, the living dead, who are everywhere — inquiring about the unlimited for life guarantee offered by Sprint, toppling armies and governments in “World War Z,” dominating a post-apocalyptic world in “The Walking Dead,” fighting video gamers who choose zombie mode in the popular “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” series, giving emergency preparedness advice for the Centers for Disease Control, roaming the campus of East Tennessee State University, and being bagged by paint ball-wielding visitors to Fender’s Farm in Jonesborough.
The living dead also have entire sections at major bookstores dedicated to them.
Zombies arrived in American culture as early as 1929 with voodoo zombie themes in William Seabrooks’ book “The Magic Island.” They hit their stride with George Romero’s 1968 independent horror film “Night of the Living Dead.”
Zombies are pure entertainment for some people. Others believe zombies are a metaphor for the threats facing this country and an indicator of national mental health.
Dr. Andrew Herrmann, an assistant professor of communication at East Tennessee State University, is a pop culture nut who has been a fan of the zombie-horror-vampire genre for as long as he can remember.
“I’ve been studying zombies and vampires and such for probably 10 years. I became absolutely fascinated when I watched George Romero’s original ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ I guess I was maybe 15 or 16 when I saw that,” he said. “While everybody else saw it as a movie about the living dead, I saw it as something else. ... I went to the library and started reading books about it, its implications about race and other things.’
Season 4 of “The Walking Dead,” which AMC says is the most-watched drama in basic cable history, premiered on Oct. 13, with a group of survivors fostering a thriving community in the safe haven of a prison.
“What’s interesting about ‘The Walking Dead’ is that it’s not really about zombies,” Herrmann said. “It’s about the people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. It’s never about the zombies themselves. It’s about creating tight family units, tight neighborhood communities to fight off the zombies.”
Typically in a zombie apocalypse, there is a global spread of zombies who engage in an assault on civilization, where victims of zombies become zombies themselves. In “World War Z,” it’s up to United Nations employee Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt) to stop the zombie pandemic.
“The zombie apocalypse is part of a really long tradition about the end times, but much different than what St. John [in the biblical book of Revelation] was talking about. One of the things that makes zombies so popular now is you’re talking about the utter destruction of civilization ... and lots of us in American culture today feel like we don’t have any control of anything anymore ,” Herrmann said. “When I think about it, I think it reflects the situation in the United States, like the economic collapse when people didn’t really understand what was happening, but they felt like they were under siege from all sides. There was this cultural thing happening in the U.S., that we were under siege from forces that we didn’t understand. Zombies are almost an embodiment of that loss of control.”
Herrmann has written an analysis about how we use the undead to connect to us and to connect to each other. “Ghosts, Vampires, Zombies and Us” will be published in a future issue of the academic journal The International Review of Qualitative Research.
“For example, I use in this piece the zombie as a metaphor for buried memories that won’t stay buried and keep popping up unexpectedly when we’re not really prepared for them. I use ghosts as an opportunity to explore the way by which we don’t like to talk about certain private issues, particularly issues that have to do with aging and death and other physical attributes about ourselves.
“The vampire part of it is the interesting part. It bounces off the zombie part,” he said. “They’re both undead, vampires and zombies, but vampires maintain a modicum of being able to actualize themselves. Zombies, there’s almost nothing left of them. They just want to eat brains. ... Vampires still have a personality and can actualize themselves and be ethical. Zombies can’t do that. They can’t actualize ever. Once you’re a zombie, you stay a zombie or someone shoots you in the head.”
Zombies, Herrmann believes, stand in for all kinds of different fears.
“In George Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ we might become mindless consumers. In others, the fear is that we’ll become mindless employees at work, or we’ll become like Shaun’s friend [in the 2004 British zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead”] and become video-playing, TV-watching imbeciles. It can stand in for a lot of things, depending on what’s going on in society as a whole,” he said.
For several years, zombies have had a low-key role in fall activities at Fender’s Farm. This fall, they’ve been promoted to a starring role in Redneck Zombie Paint Ball, a new event where participants board a farm wagon with paint ball guns mounted to the wagon. By day, they shoot animatronic zombies ; by dark they fire on live zombies.
“We have the Insane Inn, Field of Screams, Buried Alive and Maniac Maze, and there’s zombies popping up in at least two activities. We were at a maze conference last year, and we had talked with a couple of people who had been involved in the redneck zombie paint ball. We were intrigued by it also. Paint ball used to be pretty big in this area and most of the fields have gone out,” said Carroll Fender.
While September was slow at Fender’s Farm, the zombies began gaining in popularity when the calendar turned to October.
“We have 10 animatronic zombies during the daytime for the kids. We add anywhere from eight to 10 zombies each night to run around and let themselves be seen and for people to take a pot shot of them. People come in and say, ‘We’re here to bag some zombies,’” he said.
While the wagons are rolling, the zombies do their scary zombie thing, Fender said, but when the ride is over, the zombies meet and talk to the riders.
“People seem to really enjoy that. I thought hiring people to be shot at would be really, really hard to do, but it was the easiest thing I’ve done,” he said.
On Saturday, ETSU students enjoyed Zombie Tag, where the living dead chased students, faculty, staff and visitors around campus before engaging them in games of tag. The goal of Zombie Tag was to “survive” the game, in other words, reach six checkpoints on campus without getting tagged and turned into a zombie.
How long zombies will reign remains to be seen.
“It was vampires that were really hot for a while, for probably about 20 years in pop culture, particularly if you start with Buffy [“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”] and you go all the way up through ‘True Blood’ and ‘Twilight.’ That’s a good long run for vampires,” Herrmann said. “Now it’s the zombies’ turn, and I’m really looking forward to what comes next. Are we going to back to ghost stories? Are we going to back to those weird satanic stories like ‘The Exorcist,’ or are we going to be in a good zombie place for the next 10 years?”