The Dissolution of Sanctuary – An Important Component to Zombie Fiction

During any natural disaster, there are emergency precautions people are trained to initiate; from the blare of the emergency siren to the drills we’re taught in school, most of us are taught to respond in an organized fashion. Your state, your county, your city—the National Guard—several contingency plans are in place to help in an emergency. You might have a shotgun or a cleaver; a bomb shelter with the shelves stocked with Aquafina and Spam.

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No matter how much faith we have in our preparedness, natural disasters that make the daily headlines provoke fearful thoughts about the future, albeit momentarily. It’s not wise to live as paranoiacs; we know how to “duck and cover” if a nuke soars overhead, and we know we’re not supposed to text everybody in the universe if we’re trapped in a building that’s under threat of violence (crowds the parking lot, makes it difficult for trained professionals to respond to the emergency).

Let’s face it: FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security aren’t perfect, and current writers of zombie fiction can’t discount their role in the apocalypse if we’re using a contemporary setting.

Here’s a familiar concept to zombie fiction, and anyone who’s seen Night of the Living Dead, The Walking Dead, or nearly any zombie film can identify this theme: survivors will gravitate toward each other to form a microcosmic haven or city state, though it’s doomed to fail. Why?

We don’t have to be too philosophical about the topic, although there’s a lot of room for discussion. Let’s say that the “reality” television show, Survivor, featured a bunch of random strangers thrown together on an island with NOTHING else. Not a single object. Nothing.

What would happen?

The archetypes and social dynamics inherent in the situation are predictable. It’s not unique to us; we’ve seen children used in the same situation in literature vis-à-vis Lord of the Flies, and we’ve seen John Carpenter take his isolationist horror all the way to the Arctic with his re-imagining of The Thing. How about the films in the Alien franchise? The monster or menace which threatens the micro-society in the fictional setting is hardly the penultimate threat; rather, these stories are arguably about the failings of people who refuse to work together to survive. There’s always a special interest, an ego, a radical concept outside of the norm—there’s dissolution from within.

Fans of zombie fiction—whether the preferred medium is film, video games, or literature—are familiar with the sanctuary concept. It’s not a “played out” idea, but rather an essential component to a horror-disaster premise. The end of everything you know, everything you’re familiar with, is frightening: all your bills, your education, your material possession—none of them matter. The majority of it won’t save your life. All that you’ve worked for has led to this moment, and you’re faced with the insurmountable task of facing the world with the clothes on your back. This is a scenario too many people are familiar with, and it’s not something we realize in the world of fiction. Homes are repossessed, children are taken away, bankruptcy threatens. A flash flood or a random act of violence turns your whole world upside-down.

The dissolving-haven idea should be expected, and it should be explored, in any zombie story. The different personalities and coping mechanisms make the tale special. Maybe there’s enough goodness in the human heart for more than three people to unite over a long period of time without ennui and inertia destroying the human spirit; the original Dawn of the Dead showcases this theme by extending the survival tale over a longer period of time.

Safety and comfort are short-lived periods in our lifespan; change is inevitable. In the horror story, death is inevitable, just as it is in life. We’re afraid of these changes because we’re forced to re-think our identities and our goals, something most of us aren’t comfortable with. This is the beating heart of zombie fiction, and the terrifying brain that pumps electrons into the concept of horror that lives in all of us and greets us in the pages of our favorite zombie-laden adventures.

  • Rich johnson

    Great read!

    • Vincenzo Bilof

      Thank you, Rich!