The living dead — fact or fiction?

The dead walk the Earth, devouring the living.

The living cower, fight back, turn on one another or get eaten.

A scene from a popular television show or a glimpse into the future?

It never occurs to two local 6-year-olds that there could be any reality in the existence of the walking dead. Aidan Johnson and Abby Makuh know zombies aren’t real.

Describing zombies as “scary, creepy, spooky and bloody,” Aidan said they can come into a person’s house and eat and kill them. At least that’s what he saw in a game once. Abby has only seen zombies in her imagination, where they are green-horned creatures.

Throughout history, zombies have lacked personalities and the complexity of drama with just one goal driving them in their existence — brains.

Traditionally, zombies, such as those depicted in George A. Romero’s classic 1968 movie, “Night of the Living Dead,” didn’t move with a lot of speed or agility, although they were persistent in their quest to eat the living.

They fed on the flesh and multiplied by a contagion, such as a virus, with a bite so lethal that even those not killed in an attack turn into the hollow-eyed, flesh-eaters themselves.

“Night of the Living Dead” marked a turn in the zombie tale as until then most resurrected cadavers had been pretty placid. The main character in Jacques Tournerur’s 1943, “I Walked With a Zombie,” didn’t eat flesh and was completely unthreatening to those around her. The horrifying part of the story then simply was her unnatural existence.

It’s no longer enough and zombies have evolved with the times.

In the 21st century, wave upon wave of mindless semi-beings can be found going after their victims in movies. While a shot or stab to the brain can kill them, zombies’ strength lies in their numbers, a convenience for low-budget filmmakers who don’t have to break the bank on highly skilled professional actors to vacantly shuffle through the scenes.

In many of the tales, there is some monotony. The zombies advance, are repelled, advance again, and so on.

The stories are harder to tell in fictional books where zombies, void of personalities, are less appealing than other threatening entities such as vampires and werewolves.

One of the more popular written accounts of zombies, Robert Kirkman‘s comic, “The Walking Dead” in 2010 was turned into a popular cable series chronicling the lives of survivors of a zombie apocalypse. The show recently began it’s third season on AMC.

An important lesson coming from most of these storylines is that the threat from other living humans is much greater than that from zombies. In a society where shoppers  trampled a Walmart employee to death as they fought for the best deals on Black Friday, imagine what humans would be capable of doing to each other if their lives were actually at stake.

Modern-day zombie stories often read like plaque narratives, in which a panicky populace struggles to deal with a threat that’s overwhelming, unceasing and apparently uncontrollable, according to “The State of Zombie Literature: An Autopsy.”

Since zombies are by definition not interesting and way too numerous to ever be defeated, in the plague chronicles at least there is hope for a cure, as even the more inventive zombie stories tend to be static tales of hard-won, provisional survival.

Of course, zombie stories feature scary characters, including arguably the most frightening of all, Karen Cooper, the first film character to ever turn into a modern zombie on screen, and who later went on to kill and eat her parents in 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead.” But there are also the more likeable zombies from the title character of 2008’s Colin and Ed from 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead” to Fido of the 2006 movie of the same name and the Hare Krishna Zombie of 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead.”

So, what is it about zombie stories that both fascinate and terrify?

Some say the answers are more unsettling than the stories themselves.

Sine horror fiction aims to produce the deepest kinds of fears, the genre tends to reinforce some uncivilized ideas about self-protection in a time of limited resources. It’s not a state of mind that brings out the best in human nature, Terrence Rafferty writes in his study of zombie literature.

“The zombie concept is a flexible idea to work with. Zombies can serve as an allegory for all sorts of problems facing society, or for death itself,” said Dr. Brendan Riley, an associate professor of English who teaches a Zombies in Popular Media course at Columbia College Chicago.

The intense course which has been featured widely across the Internet explores the history, cultural significance and horrifying circumstances of zombies as they appear in cinema, comics, literature and elsewhere.

“They (zombies) facilitate apocalypse stories, survival stories, adventure stories, morality tales and more,” Riley told the Wapakoneta Daily News.

“Zombies have long been my favorite horror monster,” Riley said. “As an academic studying popular culture, it was a natural subject for me to pursue.

“The class explores the history and depiction of zombies in popular media over the last century,” he said. “We take a three-track approach, studying the Haitian voodoo mythology and its presence in Hollywood films from the 1930s through the 960s, the ‘Romero’ zombies most people think of when they hear the term, and the ‘philosophical’ zombie, an idea from philosophy that helps us think about the mind/body problem. In a broad sense, students in the course learn about why popular culture is important, and how studying it helps us learn more about ourselves.”

In looking at the Voodoo zombie, Riley helps his students explore questions of colonialism and primitivism as they surface in films and stories. Several different cultures around the world have religious beliefs that include some form of zombies, all though many are more spiritual types of possessions.

The Hollywood zombie serves as an allegorical engine with which to explore cultural issues and a storytelling device for ideas of ethics and survival, while with the philosophical zombie, Riley asks questions about what it means to be human and how to understand humanity.

Riley typically has to turn people away from his course, which relates to themes ranging from capitalism and individuality to the information age and xenophobia.

“I think the last decade has seen a sharp rise in the level of sympathy or empathy people have for the zombie,” Riley said.

 “A cheap and dirty read of this situation might be to suggest that perhaps, in these hard times, people can empathize with a creature who just stumbles along, going after its most basic needs, and doesn’t have any higher ambitions,” he said. “Zombies don’t care about the rat race after all. They just want brains.”

The origin of zombies in these fictional tales can be traced back to viruses, radiation, and mutations of existing conditions and the rise of zombies in pop culture has given credence to the possibly of an apocalypse with zombies roaming city streets eating anything living that gets in their way and taking over entire countries.

See ZOMBIES, Page 3B

Dr. Tara Smith, an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology for the University of Iowa, said the reoccurring theme of how zombies come to be relates right back to her area of expertise as someone who studies infectious diseases.

“Many of the zombie movies have similar themes — future is destroyed by some kind of zombie-forming virus, survivors have to figure out how to continue moving forward when most of humanity now wants to eat them,” Smith said.

She cited that storyline in one of her favorite books, Stephen King’s “The Stand,” about a post-apocalyptic future following an influenza pandemic.

Smith said while zombies typically depicted in classic zombie movies are slow and shambling — truly dead, resurrected and stupid — the fast zombie, depicted in such movies as “28 Days Later” and “Resident Evil,” are more plausible medically from some kind of biological infection (a lab accident gone wrong or the intentional creation of a “super virus” by the government or a corporation).

These fast zombies can still run and don’t really die and come back to life, but instead become infected with a virus that turns them into “rage monsters” who spread the infection almost instantaneously by biting.

The possibility of a zombie outbreak affecting a large portion of the population actually would be harder than it seems as the faster an infection spreads the less likely it would affect so many because it would draw too much attention in its early stages to pose a serious global

threat. To be successful, a zombie virus would likely need to have a long latency period, allowing it to infect a wide range of people across the planet before any symptoms appeared, according to the international Zombie Research Society.

While there are no documented zombie cases in history, the Zombie Research Society does cite 10 potential zombie cases. They date from the 1st century A.D. to 1872 and include U.S. locations in New Mexico, Illinois and the Roanoke Colony in North Carolina, as well as Ecuador, South America, England and Rome.

Smith said recently there have been a number of cases worldwide that have gained attention with individuals on drugs (such as bath salts) becoming extremely violent and in some cases biting and eating people, but they don’t really fit the definition of zombies.

The Zombie Research Society, to which both Smith and Riley serve on the 12-member advisory board, was formed in 2007 with the belief that it’s not a matter of if, but when a zombie pandemic is coming.

Looking at the possibility of something like a zombie pandemic in the future, Smith said “never say never.”

“Biology can do some crazy things,” Smith said.

“There are examples of parasite ‘mind control’ in other species (such as a fungus which invades an ant brain and directs the ant to a cool place where the fungus can reproduce,” she said. “In mammals, the rabies virus is the most cited example of a potential ‘zombie’ virus, since it matches many zombie attributes: it makes animals hyper aggressive and it is spread via saliva during bites.”

In the spring of 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an online “Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide” in a playful attempt to stimulate interest in the dull subject of emergency preparedness. It got so many hits, the Web site crashed.

“The nice bonus is that if you’re prepared for a zombie pandemic by having an adequate store of food and water, emergency radio, first-aid kit, camping supplies, and an evacuation plan,” Smith said, “you’re also prepared for other disasters that are more likely to occur.”