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I first believed in the zombie apocalypse in the dark stairwell of a local parking garage. As I started my descent, I could imagine zombies swarming the bottom of the stairs. My heart beat faster, and my palms became sweaty. And then I remembered that zombies weren’t real. Zombies are the reanimated dead, who shamble, moan, and consume human flesh in film, television shows, and books. They are fictional monsters, but, what if they could become real? While I might be unconvinced of their reality, groups of Americans sacrifice time and money to prepare for the zombie apocalypse. They eagerly anticipate this end-of-the-world scenario by stockpiling food and weapons. While most would say that the zombie apocalypse is just fiction, some imagine that zombies could become reality in our future.
Zombies have become popular among civilian emergency preparedness groups like the Zombie Response Team (ZRT) founded in 2010. According to ZRT, the organization seeks to “create the biggest enterprise of individuals ready to fight the undead” and “to help others.” The co-founder, Morgan Barnhart, explained to me that ZRT emerged from both common interests in zombies and the desire to help people prepare for and survive disasters. For Barnhart, zombies prove useful for disaster preparedness because they so often emerge in our popular imagination from a disease “that spreads on a mass scale” quickly. The ZRT has thousands of members from 11 to 65 years old, many of whom are Boy Scouts as well as current and retired military. Their Web site includes articles on how to prepare a “bug out bag,” a bag with supplies that will last 72 hours; a list of necessary items that will help you survive the zombie apocalypse (boots, food, first aid, weapons, etc.); and even a discussion of the “right mindset” for survival (“be positive”).
Barnhart also wrote an ebook/audiobook, Could the Zombie Apocalypse Become a Reality? (2012) that examines the potential ways that the zombie pandemic can occur through variants of known diseases. He assures readers that the ebook was not “written to frighten” us, but rather to “inform” us about what could cause a “real life type of zombie apocalypse.” Diseases mutate, so why couldn’t common illnesses dramatically change in ways that would result in zombification? When I asked him if the zombie apocalypse was a real possibility, Barnhart commented, “Anything is possible.” These monsters might not be just fantasy, so why not get ready for them? When the zombies arrive, it is a little late to learn how to use your equipment or start accumulating what you need. ZRT, then, is part of the prepper community, who avidly ready themselves for survival in the face of any disaster. Preppers generate much media attention, especially so-called “doomsday preppers” who seek to prepare for the end of the world by stocking supplies, ammunition, and other items. Zombie preppers are just one subset of the larger community.
In 2012, the Discovery Channel aired Zombie Apocalypse, which focused on four zombie preppers: Matthew Oakey, a firearms specialist; Patti Heffernan, a mother of two; Shawn Beatty, a high school teacher; and Alfredo Carbajal, the founder of the Kansas Anti-Zombie Militia (KAZM). All four believe that the zombie apocalypse is possible, and they prep for an apocalyptic scenario involving the walking dead. The show marked May 26, 2012 as the beginning of the end, the day that Rudy Eugene destroyed Ronald Poppo’s face in Miami. The so-called “Miami Zombie” demonstrated in the very least that humans could act like zombies. Media coverage of the gruesome attack also pondered whether the zombie apocalypse was upon us. Fiction had become reality.
Heffernan insists that the biggest threat to her family is zombies. She emphasized, “Even my daughter knows we only shoot zombies in the head.” Carbajal proved the most insistent about the reality of the zombie threat. He provided Discovery with a tour of the KAZM’s fenced compound equipped with an underground bunker. This organization stockpiled non-perishable foods, bottled water, water filtration systems, and a variety of weapons. Men wearing camouflage and bandanas displayed the guns, machetes, and grenades. The KAZM was clearly preparing for war against zombies with actual weapons. The fictional monster inspires real world intervention.
Regardless of the actual existence of zombies, the zombie apocalypse is very much real to a subset of Americans. In the absence of a clear threat, there remains the question as to what these fantasies signal in those anticipatory few. For some, zombies demonstrate the reality of American fears about disaster, natural or human-made, disease and epidemic, and the government. Prepping for zombies reflects ambivalence about our political culture and the future of our nation. Imagining the end provides many Americans a vision of a different world where the current social order dissipates.
The zombies are everywhere. Are you ready for them? You should be.
Edited excerpt from The Zombies Are Coming! The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture (Bondfire Books, 2013)