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Jul 23 2012

Notes for the Zombie Apocalypse… Presentation

The author of The Brain Ingredient addresses the next generation of zombie hunters.

I was asked to address a summer teen reading program for their zombie event earlier this month. Without a spiel prepared for “zombie awareness” public speaking engagements, I put together some notes, which I kept on my phone and referred to as I spoke.

What I didn’t know going in was that the audience for the “teen” event turned out to have an average age of about 8. I scrolled past my information on the recent bath salts attacks, which I could have sworn I would get a bunch of questions about, and glossed over some of the more gory details that I thought teens would be into, leaving a presentation focused more on general disaster preparedness — because if there’s one thing kids like to hear, it’s what to keep stocked in their family’s pantry in case of power outages.

Now I’ve organized and expanded those notes, and I provide them here as a broad overview on zombies, with a little sense of humor to it.

You never know, this advice may just save your life…

Meet Your Average Zombie

Zombies are undead bodies that don’t think or feel. They’re back from the dead for one reason, to eat the living.

Zombies may look like us, but only from a distance. Maybe you recognize someone a ways off you think you know, but when they start to get closer, you notice there’s something strange in the way they’re walking. Their clothes are messed up. There’s probably untreated wounds on their face or body. Instead of talking, they moan. They get closer, and you see that they’re skin is pale. Their expression is blank. Something is horribly wrong. They’re not your friend anymore.

This is where zombies change the rules. In any normal situation, you should do what you can to help someone who’s hurt or in trouble. On the other hand, if they’re a zombie, you’ve got an entirely different problem to deal with. You gotta kill them.

The good thing is, you can be mean to zombies. They don’t mind. You can call them names, because they’re monsters. What are they going to do, decide to be mean back? Even killing them is okay, because they’re already dead.

The key is to destroy the brain. That’s what takes them down, so cut off the head, bash in the skull or use a gun to splatter their gray matter across the wall.

Another thing is, zombies are dumb. They don’t know what’s going on around them, but they also don’t know when to be scared. If you threaten a zombie with a gun, they don’t know what that thing in your hand is for. If you threaten them with fire, they’re just going to walk right into it. Then what do you have? A zombie that’s on fire, and they don’t feel pain. They’re still not going to run away. Eventually, they’ll burn up, but in the mean time, they’re even more dangerous than when they were trying to eat you.

Garlic… doesn’t work against zombies. That’s vampires. Vampires know a stable food source when they see one, and they’re usually together enough to know its better not to eat all the fish in the pond. They’ll come in, acting all nice, ask if you “feel like something to drink,” then, “Bla!” they suck your blood and leave you weak, with a story nobody is going to believe.

Does anyone know how zombies spread? They bite people, then those people die, and they come back as a zombie. Now you all know that, but if a zombie catches you, they’re not thinking about that. They’ll tear you apart if they get the chance. They’ll eat you right there, destroying the zombie you might have turned into.

Zombies don’t think about long term survival, but we can’t be like that. We need to plan ahead. I’ll get to that in a second.

Outbreak

There’s a few different ways zombies could be let loose on the world. If terrorists are out there somewhere working on biological weapons, could they make something super advanced, which could spread mind-altering devastation across the globe?

Or there could be an accident with our own military. If the government has a secret program to create super-soldiers that don’t have fear and don’t feel pain, and the soldiers mutate and break loose, it’s all over for us.

Or it could be a drug company lab developing a bacteria or virus that’s supposed to be helpful, but something goes wrong, and it gets out. Actually, the idea that zombies are caused by bacteria or a virus has become a widely used zombie origin in the past few decades. Sanitation came a long way in the 20th century, but the bacteria in our own bodies outnumber human cells 10 to 1. It’s impossible to sanitize the world completely.

Before the virus idea, when things like radiation weren’t as well understood, people imagined that might have all kinds of effects, up to and including the walking dead.

Before radiation, it was black magic. The original zombie stories from Haiti were about voodoo priests kidnapping people and turning them into zombie slaves, which brings up an important point about modern zombies: they have no leader. Whether it’s military order falling apart, terror taking control, or a virus too small to see, there’s nobody to negotiate with who can turn to the rest of the zombies and say, “It’s okay. I talked it over with the humans, and I decided we’re going to stop trying to bite them.”

About ten years ago, stories popped up with zombies who run, starting with a movie called 28 Days Later. In all the old zombies movies, they just moved like this: [shamble across stage] “Urrrr, I’m coming to get you.” In 28 Days Later, the monsters weren’t even dead, just victims of a disease that made them go crazy and try to eat people. Those can’t technically even be called zombies, but they changed what people came to expect, and the idea of zombies changed to keep up with the times, because everything moves faster these days.

Real Life

There are real organisms that turn other animals into zombie-like creatures. There’s a fungus that lives in the rainforest, which gets into the brains of big carpenter ants and controls their actions.

The fungus drops its spores from the bottom of high tree leaves which, if they’re lucky, land on the heads of these ants and grow inside the ant’s brain. The fungus makes the ant march mindlessly up the trunk of a tree, then clamp its jaws onto the bottom of a leaf, and the fungus grows all through their body and sends off more spores, starting the cycle all over again.

It’s a huge leap in complexity between ant brains and ours, so don’t worry about a fungus coming along and controlling us like that for a while, but there have been some stories in the news lately that sound like human zombie attacks.

Someone in New Jersey cut his stomach open and threw his own intestines at the police. Then, someone in Maryland killed his roommate and ate part of the guy’s heart and brain. They’re unfortunate, horrifying incidents, but those people aren’t zombies.

There’s violence in the world every day, and some people are just crazy. These stories only got national headlines because they happened so soon after a naked guy in Miami tried to eat someone’s face and supposedly ignored gunshots from the police.

Then, later that week, a guy in Georgia went crazy on a golf course, threatening to eat people, and he was pepper sprayed and tased several times before he finally went down. He tested positive for a drug called “bath salts,” a synthetic amphetamine that’s been linked to a number of violent crimes in the past year.

See, when people take bath salts, their bodies flood with adrenaline. They feel themselves overheat and sometimes tear their clothes off, with crazy delusions that can cause them to attack the people around them.

That’s what investigators expected to find in the system of the face eating guy. When the reports came back that they didn’t find bath salts, it was a surprise, but it’s still possible that the drug labs designing new synthetic chemicals are working faster than the police labs that try to detect them.

Then there’s the poor San Francisco Bath Salt Company, who had to go on the news and explain that they make products for relaxation in the tub, that none of the violence had anything to do with their products.

It’s important in life to be ready for anything. You never know what might go wrong, but I’m here to talk about the zombie apocalypse, so let’s get back to that.

The First Few Days

Real life may be tough to handle sometimes, and it seems like zombies are only going to make things worse, but a world full of zombies removes a lot of life’s distractions and complexities. Survival becomes a simple bottom line, and that means keeping your focus down to shelter, food, water and weapons.

Actually, except for weapons, a lot of emergency preparations are going to be the same. If it’s not zombies, it could be an earthquake or a fire, and it’s important to have a plan in place.

Organize an emergency meeting place with your family, or whoever you choose to help you survive the end of the world. Know the layout and be ready to defend it. You’re going to want to stay put and avoid crowded places for the first few days, while everyone panicking and fighting their way into the local Safeway is going to get picked off and eaten.

Inside your shelter, you need to stock a gallon of water per person per day for each of the first few days, and make sure to have plenty of non-perishable food ready. That means granola and cliff bars and plenty of canned goods (with at least two can openers). Remember, with the gas off, you’ll need your own heat source, like a compact propane grill, in order to cook anything.

You’re also not going to have any electricity when things start to fall apart, and that means anything in the freezer is going to start to thaw right away, so it’s time to start eating all the ice cream. Just don’t overdo it, kids. You’ll make yourselves sick. Then, how are you going to outrun a zombie?

Another thing to keep stocked up is first aid supplies. If you get bit, you’re dead, but there are a million other injuries which you would survive and, if you don’t treat them, could slow you down when it counts.

Once you’re in your shelter, lay low. Stay hidden, stay quiet. Because you’re going to be there for a little while, make sure you have access to a change of clothes and some soap. Also, duct tape is one of the more versatile survival tools you’re going to find.

The internet is going to go away too, so you’ll need something called a “radio” (ask your parents) to know what’s going on. Having a battery powered radio is essential to any kind of disaster, and there are also some that you can power with a hand crank, which is cool.

Finally, you’re going to need something to defend yourself. The hunting and sporting goods stores are going to be among the first places to get raided, so again, anything you need, you’re going to need to get beforehand.

Without training and practice, a gun can be just as dangerous to you as to the zombies. It’s up to your parents whether you’re all old enough to use them, but an important lesson of survival for the zombie apocalypse is this: guns can run out of ammunition, but anything with a blade can keep killing zombies as long as you can, so grab an axe or a machete. Zombies aren’t going to shoot you from a distance anyway. They’re gonna come right at you, and that’s when you aim for the head and swing hard.

Survival

The more complicated question is the bigger one, not just surviving moment to moment but surviving long term.

Cities are going to be dangerous. Zombies in highly populated areas will have a lot of people to recruit, and houses are built into the city grids for power and gas, and those are going to stop working when the apocalypse hits.

Houses in more rural areas are more isolated, and you might even find somewhere that has its own generator and propane tanks, but be sure to use a water filter on any water source that isn’t flowing.

When the conveniences of modern life go away, like internet and cell phones, you’re going to have a lot of time to spend with these [point to display of zombie books], but you might want to read a few of them before things go totally wrong, for extra preparation.

One thing to notice is, a lot of zombie stories aren’t about the monsters. Many of them are about the humans in those life-or-death situations making bad decisions. Maybe they think they can make a run for it through a parking lot full of zombies. Maybe they think their friend is going to be fine, even though they’re about to turn into a zombie, so they barricade themselves in together and get eaten.

Don’t try to be a hero. Stay safe, run when you can and fight only when you have to. That’s the way to stay alive.

Most importantly, stay calm. There’s nothing like panic to make a bad situation worse.

One more thing: the bottom line is, zombies aren’t real. They’re a story we tell ourselves so that when real things go wrong, at least we know they’re not as bad as the zombie apocalypse.

Make up your own rules. Tell stories about the monsters that scare you. [point to face painting station] Paint your face and be the monsters that scare you. Whatever you decide about zombies is the way your zombies are.

That’s what I did when I wrote my book, The Brain Ingredient. In that, there’s a chef who becomes a zombie, but when he eats brains, he starts to remember who he is. The other zombies eat people whole, and they don’t know anything, so he thinks if he cooks the brains up really nice, they’ll all see the world like he does, but it doesn’t exactly work like he plans.

Yeah, I put that plug here, but I didn’t have the heart to give it in front of the audience that day. Go ahead and check out The Brain Ingredient. It’s a good story with lots of comedy and gore and some romance. What more could you want?