Let’s get one thing straight right away: Zombies aren’t real. The government knows it, the police know it and even so-called “zombie preppers,” the subject of Discovery Channel’s new special “Zombie Apocalypse,” premiering Tuesday night, know it. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t all taking steps to prepare for the onslaught anyway.
“Something is coming down the road,” says Shawn Beatty, a Missouri high school teacher and zombie prepper who appears in the special, stockpiling supplies and weapons. “I don’t think the Earth is supposed to have 12 billion people on it. Preparing for the zombie apocalypse is really preparing for almost everything. Earthquake. Flood. Zombie apocalypse.” The current population is actually around 7 billion, but Beatty’s precautions would seem justified based on a glance at the media.
In pop culture terms, zombies are having their moment in the sun. AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is grabbing record ratings and several zombie-themed movies are on the horizon, from the romantic comedy “Warm Bodies” to the Brad Pitt actioner “World War Z.” But unlike other fantasy monsters that have grabbed popular attention, such as those lovelorn, sparkly vampires, the zombie fad is having a disturbing ripple effect on the public consciousness.
There were the spate of cannibal attacks early this summer, which started with a man chewing another man’s face off on the MacArthur Causeway in Miami. Though a designer drug known as bath salts was initially believed to be a factor in the attack, that was eventually ruled out by the medical examiner and the ultimate cause of the cannibal attack remains unknown. This event and similarly disturbing incidents led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue an official statement denying the existence of any virus or condition that would reanimate the dead or cause zombie-like symptoms.
This fall, the Department of Homeland Security issued a tongue-in-cheek alert urging people to prepare for the zombie apocalypse (actually, it was to encourage preparedness for any disaster). And on Halloween, a counterterrorism summit in San Diego, attended by hundreds of Marines, Navy special ops personnel, soldiers, police and firefighters ran a zombie disaster drill titled Zombie Apocalypse.
And Beatty, who recently moved from Wisconsin, where he was filmed for the special, to a new job teaching high school Japanese in Columbia, Mo., discovered when he arrived at his new school that a “Zombie Defense League” club already existed.
“I took control of it right away,” Beatty says. “We mostly play out zombie scenarios with Nerf guns, we read Max Brooks’ ‘Zombie Survival Guide.’ It’s fun and light-hearted, but I’m trying to get the Red Cross to come in and teach them some skills. Anything to keep them proactive.”
Is it any wonder that people like Beatty are getting ready for the worst?
“Increasingly we feel disconnected,” says Dr. Steven Scholzman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an avowed zombie fan. “All the technology in our lives put barriers in between us. It’s so darned impersonal. With aliens and vampires or whatever, there’s usually a personal side to it. They’re seducing you. Zombies could care less about me. It’s not about me, it’s about my guts.”
Scholzman, who last year published the novel “The Zombie Autopsies,” chronicling in graphic detail the causes and effects of a fictional zombie virus on the human body, has spent many hours playing intellectual exercises with himself and friends in the scientific community, speculating on how a zombie virus would actually work.
“Among our monster movie tropes, the zombie scenario, especially the slow, shambling zombies, lend themselves to neurobiological inquiries,” Scholzman says. “It makes the science a lot easier to apply.”
The most plausible scenario, according to Scholzman, is a mutated flu virus creating the symptoms we traditionally ascribe to zombies. However, he cautions, this isn’t an imminent fear, just a speculative what-if.
Beatty also views preparing for a zombie onslaught as a bit of a game. He comes up with a post-zombie plan and constantly revises it. That thinking has led him to have some handy rules of thumb in the event of a disaster. For instance, he recommends, avoid the supermarket and make a run on the local pet store; there’s still plenty of food and water there. And don’t the forget the nearest bookstore.
“Knowing how to fix an engine, especially if you’re not mechanically inclined, is a good book to have,” Beatty says. “No one is going to think to break down the door to Barnes & Noble when the zombies come.”