In defence of zombie rights

I was asked to say a few words at The Event, a two-day conference about the many ways in which the world might end.

For reasons best known to the organisers, I was put on a panel about the impending zombie apocalypse. Zombies tend to get a bad press, so I thought I’d present the opposing point of view. Here’s the text of my opening remarks – including a few digs at Naomi Alderman, who had kicked off the day with a brilliant (if prejudiced) talk about the history of zombie culture.

I’ve sat here patiently for the past 20 minutes – well, all afternoon really – and I’ve stayed silent. But now I have to say it: I have never heard such intolerant and frankly zombiphobic rhetoric in all my life.

Naomi called zombies ‘brainless’ but I think we all know that if anyone’s brainless it certainly isn’t zombies… for very long.

But there are so many misconceptions about persons-of-very-little-colour that I shouldn’t really be surprised. Personally, I blame computer games. But let me try to explain to you the truth of the situation.

I recently became an uncle. And holding my nephew in my arms and seeing my brother and his wife so happy, it brought home to me the importance of family.

Family is what binds this country together. And in times of crisis – indeed, in the face of an apocalypse – it is family we will turn to.

It’s a sad statistic that 37% of all projected zombiphobic violence will occur in the home. It seems that those closest to us really are the ones we hurt the most.

But just remember that zombies are people too. That zombified person with the bad skin, banging on the bathroom door, panting and howling – that’s your mum.

Those persons of undead extraction shambling down the middle of the street – that’s your brother-in-law and his kids, the ones you played Swingball with at the barbecue last year.

Naomi said that the horror of zombification is realising that ‘People just like you are trying to kill you’ – but I’d turn that frown upside-down and say that ‘The people trying to kill you are just like you’.

Zombification is a disease, ladies and gentlemen. These people need our help, not our headshots.

When you pull out your shotgun or decapitate a zombified person with a hedge trimmer, you’re not just ending the story of that member of your family. You’re giving up on hope. You’re giving up on your family and you’re giving up on humanity.

Because if zombification is a disease, then there must be a cure. Even if it’s only a vaccine or a temporary treatment or a 12-step programme, we must retain our faith in the human spirit and believe that a solution will be found.

The apocalypse doesn’t need to be the end. But if we believe that there’s no solution, if we think that there’s no hope of a cure, if we lose ourselves in a cycle of violence, then we will have truly been defeated.

Non-living people must be treated with restraint – well, restraints.

Violence is not the solution. We should institute a policy of containment and compassion, keeping our zombified brothers and sisters in quarantine until a cure can be found. (I’d also like to see this backed up by proper counselling, but I know there’s a lack of trained practitioners in this area.)

If your first instinct is always to sever the head, then you’re worse than the disease. You lose your humanity and you lose the moral high ground.

I’ve been called a zombie sympathiser, but who are the real victims here? Is it the sufferers of a debilitating disease or you lot with your guns shooting zombified people in the head and taking potshots at them with your vinyl collection? Why should I feel sorry for you?

And this all-too-common violent attitude isn’t based on fact – it’s based on fear. These sensationalist movies and games and comic books are just reflections of basic human fears which these unimaginative ‘artists’ paint with a zombie face. “The Evil Dead”, “Resident Evil” – these poor revenant victims are being demonised in popular culture by people who frankly are in no position to make moral judgements.

They portray zombified people as monsters to be feared. And it’s understandable that we should want to destroy what we fear. That’s instinct, that’s human nature.

But perhaps, rather than fearing the reanimated community, we should try shuffling a mile in their shoes. I want you all to close your eyes…

Go on. You’re in a safe place here.

Put yourself in their position for a moment. You’re hungry. That’s all you know. You just want to feed and perhaps, when you’ve fed enough, you might finally find some kind of respite for a while. All your energies go into seeking food. You have no need of language beyond a wild scream. You have no control over your bodily functions. Your hair is thin, your bowels are like an open tap – and your only thought is to feed.

Does any of this sound familiar? Yes…

You’re my baby nephew.

When I was holding little Andrew in my arms and he reached out to me, screaming, his gummy maw only ever satisfied when it was chewing down on human flesh, I thought: is this tiny child of nature really so very different from a our zombified cousins?

Like a newborn infant, a zombified person’s desires are simple and guided purely by instinct.

Think of that next time you’re setting about the delicate skulls of the so-called ‘zombie menace’ with a chainsaw.

So I hope that now you’ve glimpsed the pro-Z side of the story, you’ll think about whose position would you rather be in when the apocalypse comes?

The childlike zombie, with their simple, innocent needs?

Or the sweaty zombie-killer, always fretting about whether they’ve got enough ammo to get them through the day and where they’re going to flee to next, living in fear, up to their knees in blood as they massacre their way through till dawn? And then again the next day, and the next…

I know who I’d rather be.

It’s about peace of mind.

So relax. Listen to your conscience. Keep faith in the great family that is humanity. And gaze without fear on the sweet, baby face of the zombie.

Thank you.

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The Seed: Facebook Fictions and Immersive Theatre

This piece first appeared on The Literary Platform on 20 August 2012.

 

Making a live, interactive story work across different platforms sounds daunting, but for the creator it can be just as thrilling as going up on stage yourself.

My name is David, and over the summer of 2012, I spent 10 weeks pretending to be a 27-year-old botanist called Helen Furnival. Helen was a fictional character in a project called The Seed, which incorporated four site-specific plays, a treasure hunt, and Helen’s online story, which unfolded in real time on Facebook. It was produced by Goat & Monkey Theatre as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

Helen’s Facebook profile clearly marked her as a Fictional Character – Facebook has a specific type of page for such entities – but that didn’t stop her striking up some very strong friendships and attracting a marriage proposal from somebody in Pakistan. The gallant gentleman refused to be put off by Helen’s insistence that she was fictional.

The transmedia writer Maureen McHugh has described this kind of work as “stories that come at you the same way life does” – and so many of our modern friendships are maintained through social media that it’s easy for us to suspend disbelief and engage with a fictional character on Facebook as though we were chatting with a friend. While Helen was portrayed in videos and photos by the actress Tam Dowsett, her words were mine. Almost every day, I would post long diary-style status updates and field comments and messages, replying to them all in character. It was a 10-week live performance.

Online improv

There is a unique joy in this kind of live interaction. Its closest equivalent is performing stand-up comedy, where the audience’s reaction is immediate and there is often an open dialogue with the performer (welcome or otherwise). And as in any part-improvised performance, there is huge pleasure in spontaneous creation.

Creating a realistic life for Helen meant that she was writing and replying to messages at all times of the day and night. Her insomnia mirrored mine, and when she was apparently in Shanghai, the timing of my posts had to suit her time zone. It was a 24-hour job.

Performing on a platform like Facebook has the additional thrill of analytics. There is something oddly addictive about racking up more and more ‘likes,’ seeing where your fans come from, and figuring out which posts have the most impact. By the end of the 10 weeks, Helen’s page had over 5,000 followers from all over the world.

Stretching the truth

This is all the more remarkable because The Seed was a very local and particular project. It was based on the true adventures of four Victorian plant hunters, who risked their lives searching for plants and seeds which they brought back to Britain for profit and the advancement of science. Robert Fortune, George Forrest, Frank Kingdon-Ward and Ernest Wilson all led incredible Indiana Jones lives, but many of their collections are gathered in the stately grounds of four gardens clustered together just outside London. That’s where the site-specific plays about each of their lives were performed. One of the gardens, Wakehurst Place, is also home to the Millennium Seed Bank.

While their biographies are incredible enough, I added a small layer of fiction suggesting that all of them had been looking for one seed in particular – and that Helen, a modern-day researcher at the MSB, had now stumbled on the trail over a century later. And that trail would lead to the resting place of the eponymous seed, which happened to be encased in a rather lovely piece of gold jewellery for whoever found it.

Face to face

This story was literally rooted in the soil of a small corner of England. This limited the likely audience for the plays, but there are some types of interaction that can only happen in person. The one-to-one experience of a really immersive theatre production is hard to match any other way.

The plays were not typical Shakespeare in the Park outdoor productions. These were promenade shows that surrounded the audience. At one point, we had them running across a smoke-filled battlefield at night, dodging snipers and artillery fire.

Taking theatre out of the auditorium helps to break down that barrier between the audience and the actors, which can be extremely powerful if unpredictable. When one audience-member encountered a villainous character in the woods, he was so taken aback that he pushed the actor to the ground and ran away. He was very apologetic afterwards, saying he’d got carried away by the atmosphere. That’s a pretty wonderful compliment.

The surprising audience

This very unpredictability is what makes interactive projects endlessly entertaining to write. During The Seed, the biggest surprise of all came from a French-Canadian audience member named Ginette Racine. After complaining about the quality of Facebook’s automatic translation, she took it upon herself to translate everything Helen wrote into French, within hours or sometimes minutes of it going live. She also translated the scripts of the four plays as they were released, free of charge and in her own time.

Ginette is a playwright and drama teacher, and she is now drawing up plans to write and stage her own adaptation of The Seed for a Quebecois audience. I’m delighted to let her – and anyone else who wants to take it on in any other country or language. The Seed was a one-time-only, site-specific show designed for a particular audience. It was only supposed to live on in memory. But now it seems that it will stay alive far longer than we ever intended.

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