Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Story Springboards Part 5: Explaining Popularity of Zombies by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Story Springboards Part 5: Explaining Popularity of Zombies  
Jacqueline Lichtenberg 

In this series, we've been discussing the mechanism of how to "just write an interesting story" -- so let's ask What's So Interesting About Zombies?

Here are the Parts of Story Springboards and related posts:

The index of previous posts relevant to this discussion:


In Part 3 of this series,
we started sketching out the issues and topics relevant to constructing an Episodic Plot.


And last week we looked at the link between fame, glory and the "interesting story":

Then, on TV News, I heard a guy trying earnestly to explain that the popularity of Zombies on TV is due to the way Zombies represent Socialism. 

He might be right.  I couldn't tell because he really was inarticulate and all over the place philosophically.  All he did was express his personal opinion that TV is garbage and we should change the world by changing TV first.

TV's business model is to sell eyeballs to advertisers -- the fiction is just the "glue" to keep the eyeballs through commercials.  Those delivering TV fiction are trying to make a profit from this business model, therefore they must choose fiction that people want to watch.  They are not in the business of creating the desire, but of fulfilling that desire.

Like editors at big publishing houses, TV moguls buy TV series from Producers (and/or production companies or studios -- who are just contractors who build to suit their customers) all use the very latest in polling and public-opinion surveying (focus groups) to identify trends in what already interests the most people. 

The equation they have to work is all about how much it costs to make and deliver this piece of fiction vs. how much they can sell it for.

So the experiment of trying to run this delivery system mechanism BACKWARDS, is about the same as trying to use statistics backwards (e.g. If 51% of Black Hispanics prefer to wear white underwear, and you prefer white underwear, therefore you are a Black Hispanic.) 

So, I've seen this attempt to use mass media to change public opinion done before, and I have never seen that experiment work without losing tons of money.  It can work with specialty media -- aiming really cheap-to-make items at a tiny, already thirsty audience.  But it can't make a profit with expensive media delivery that needs a vast audience to break even. 

It surely wouldn't work with me.  What entertains me, is what entertains ME!  And nobody can change me by forcing me to fall asleep bored in front of something I  don't find entertaining.

But I do find the zombie popularity intriguing, interesting, even entertaining. 

I am perhaps able to analyze Zombie popularity because though it's fascinating to me, Zombies as a topic don't "grab" me the way Vampires do.  It's probably the Romance angle.

Yes, I've read some Zombie Romance novels - even great writing doesn't make Zombies interesting to me, though the craft techniques used to tell such a story are absolutely riveting!

I love the Vampire genres because they toy with the problem of Immortality -- watching everyone you love die, and going on and on and on. 

There's the "never-learning-or-changing" spiritual position of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's St. Germain, portrait of Noblesse Oblige through the millennia (I love it!).  And there are Romance Vampire types who either learn and grow -- or don't.  And there are Vampires who fight being immortal.  There are even Vampire series that don't address immortality.

The Immortality Problem is what fascinates me about Vampires -- everything else is just a complication.  Humans are not designed to be immortal.

Presenting a person (a Character) with a problem they are not designed to handle is SCIENCE FICTION.  So I like the Vampire series that center on a Vampire who refuses to Kill, and solves his problem with science, say inventing artificial blood, or creating a dimensional doorway and "hunting" in another space-time. 

Zombies also present humans with problems that humans are not designed to handle -- either from the perspective of being a Zombie, or from the perspective of fighting off a rising tide from a cemetary.

A few months ago, I saw a quick item on TV News about the on-time performance of various air ports -- where they noted the SOLUTION to handling the increasing volume of flights was to dig up a cemetery and build a runway over that cemetery.  I think that was Chicago's O'Hare, but it doesn't matter. 

My point is that the city involved could not create a solution that did not violate the code of conduct of part of that city's population -- no "work-around" such as the Vampire's inventing artificial blood or stealing from a blood bank was adopted.  Cost/profit equations rule, just as in Television or Publishing. 

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I think our problem solving mental muscles are deteriorating for lack of training.  The beginning of that training is supposed to be in High School where you learn geometry proofs.  But it has to go on into the twenties. 

PROBLEMS are inherently interesting.

Though different people at different times in life find different problems intriguing, it is the nature of "interesting" to be focused around a problem.

Remember the two plots we've discussed at length that summarize all fiction:

"Johnny gets his fanny caught in a beartrap (problem), and has his adventures getting it out."

"A likeable Hero (Save The Cat!) struggles against seemingly overwhelming odds (problems) toward a worthwhile goal."

Those two story-patterns pivot on the central concept of "interesting" being the PROBLEM as presented to a Character who proceeds to solve that problem (or not).  In a long-novel or series, the "problem" first presented causes a failure, which causes the problem to be redefined, solved, only to uncover another problem. 

See the TV Series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode 2 where the problem is an "element" responsible for gravity is mined and used as a weapon.  The solution (as in Horror genre) is to lock it away in an unlabeled vault.  The material locked away had swallowed the scientist who invented the weaponization of it -- the final scene shows the amorphous element extruding a grasping, reaching hand-shape.  They could have left that scene out if they wanted to indicate there was nothing more to be said or done regarding that problem.  But this is a serial in the Buck Rogers tradition of movie-theater serials transformed into Comics.   

Look at the two Plot formulas again.  "The Problem" is part of the structure of CONFLICT, which is the essence of Story (and Plot).  Conflict-anticipated is one of the spring-elements in the "story springboard." 

Anticipation -- knowing what might come and wondering if it will come -- is a core ingredient in "interesting." 

A story-springboard is not about what is there -- but about what might become there.  It's about anticipating what comes next. 

So let's delve more deeply into the popularity of Zombies to see if we can find in that a clue to what comes next.

We've been discussing "interesting" as in the advice in all books about writing that say "All you have to do to sell fiction is write an interesting story."

Keep in mind the question of whether fiction on TV can create "interest" in a topic in a target audience (manipulate masses of people), or whether the "interest" in that topic has to be there first.  Where do we get our mass-interests from?  Where do trends come from?  Can they be created?  Or can they only be magnified like a cowboy creating a stampede of cattle by panicing a few.  

The advice to "just write an interesting story" is very possibly the most frustrating advice -- worse than "Show Don't Tell" -- yet it is so very true, and very possibly as easy to do as creating a cattle stampede! 

Pondering the success of Zombies on TV, in film, books, games -- it occurred to me that there is an explanation for the popularity  of Vampires and Zombies that could allow new writers to predict the NEXT popular trend in fiction, the next thing found "interesting" by huge numbers of people hungry for more-more-more.

In the 1940's -- with the advent of the Atomic Bomb and that horrific potential -- and the UFO sightings of the 1950's, spurring the drive toward orbital space flight in the 1960's -- people were AFRAID OF THE FUTURE. 

Remember the image of the cattle stampede.  That's fear-driven.

At that time as people were becoming spooked over science being destructive or invasive (via hostile aliens), the TELEPHONE was a novelty that didn't appear in every home -- and where a home had a telephone, there was only one instrument centrally placed that seldom rang!  (see the British TV Series Downton Abbey in the two early seasons.)

Science Fiction grew and prospered, broke out of the tiny side-venue it had occupied in the 1920's and 1930's and blossomed into the STAR TREK era in the late 1960's.

That brand of Science Fiction was focused on the future.

People were afraid of the future - the term "techphobe" was coined only later as computers invaded the home, but the prior generation had been displaced from their professions by "automation" (a wave of the future that destroyed lives.) and the telephone was the "tech" that was resisted even as it was accepted.  In the 1950's, teens were allowed to use the phone only for "real" business, and then only a couple minutes per call.  By the 1960's, the TV image of the teenager was a kid sprawled across their bed on the phone for hours -- and parents complained but did nothing to rein in excessive phone-time. 

Alvin Toffler's FUTURE SHOCK explained the over-view of these attitudes toward the future, the speed of change and where it might lead (much of that book's predictions are coming true right this minute, and still coming.)  Toffler predicted the computer and the internet would create telecommuting, cottage industry, and self-employment. 

In the 1950's, Science Fiction was predicting The Welfare State because only half the people alive in the world would have an I.Q. high enough to work the jobs created by technology -- but those jobs would be productive enough that the lower I.Q. people would not have to work at all. 

Readers of 1950's Science Fiction (mostly teens then) could see that trend gathering steam, but didn't want that to happen and regarded it as ridiculous fantasy.  Their fear was not being able to get a job or hold it.  Their parents nearly starved in the Depression, and talked about that and the War constantly, warning teens they had to earn a good living or die starving in the street (which people did.)  They needed jobs that wouldn't be automated out of existence. 

Well, the current generation of teens has never known a world that was not automated, and that kept people from instant communications (even pictures in color).  The current teens all know someone on Welfare or Food Stamps, and it's no stigma at all, nothing to be afraid of if you can't get or hold a job.  You can still have internet access -- after all, it's a right, no?  If you can't afford an iPad, get an Android -- they're better anyway!

What scares the current teens? 


The current teens are scared by the idea that their parent's generation's values (get a high-skilled job and hold it) will come back to haunt and overwhelm their every effort to live an easy life. 

Grandparents are dying off so aren't a source of presents -- or they're retiring to become a burden on "the system" -- Social Security and Medicare are fingered as the source of demands for enormous tax on salary checks.  Teens with their first unskilled labor jobs feel this the most and are convinced we have to raise the minimum wage because those deductions from wages leave nothing to live on. 

The idea that low I.Q. people are unemployable in a tech-based world, and their labor is not only not-needed but not-wanted is unthinkable. 

The idea that having a low I.Q. (that of, say a Zombie?) condemns you to having no internet, no cell phone, no Nikes, no Pizza delivered during The Big Game -- that wouldn't be Justice, and therefore can't happen.  The idea that low I.Q. makes you worthless has been shoved off-stage, into the subconscious where Horror Genre seethes and regenerates. 

Today's teens are not capable of replacing the elder generation workers now retiring (most employers will bemoan this given a chance) -- because today's teens did not master the older, basic skill sets which are still required in the workplace. 

But at the same time, the skill sets of the elders do not seem potentially useful in the future the younger people envision. 

The past rising from the grave Zombie fashion is a subconscious, unconscious, nebulous (NEPTUNE) terror that can't be articulated or faced.

The present is trying to dig that grave to bury the pre-internet way of organizing society.

We are in the throws of a revolution in which Capitalism, the Republic of the USA, the independent person who works for himself (farmer feeding one family out in the middle of nowhere and barely having produce to sell to buy what he can't produce), has become the dependent getting food stamps etc. -- and those who get government subsidies really have no idea where that money comes from, or why it buys less and less at the store. 

But if Toffler was right, our future is one of self-employment. 

Remember I.Q. is a measure artificially invented to prove a socio-political point -- making the point incontrovertible because it was proved by "scientific" experiment.

What if I.Q. is irrelevant, or even non-existent, a mere figment of the imagination?

That would be a good theme for a science fiction series.  If there is no such thing as I.Q., then how do we sort people? 

Do we have to sort people? (Harry Potter's Sorting Hat???)  Do we have to group people into herds and stampede them (like Zombie mobs?) in the direction one or a few people choose (such as people who decry what's on TV and want to change things by changing TV entertainment?) 

Way back before the Industrial Revolution, there was no such thing as "a job" -- there were peasants who worked the King's land, there were self-employed craftsmen who made things (saddles, wagon wheels), and there were Aristocrats who owned things and people. 

Women bred and died young, and men had to master a CRAFT young to raise a family. 

People worked, but there were no jobs and no "bennies."

The Industrial Revolution (1700's and 1800's) changed that, giving us an entire worldwide population whose highest ambition is to "get a good job with good bennies."

We then shifted to relying on "the government" to 'create jobs' just as the government 'creates money.' 

Once Upon A Time we were all self-employed and without pensions.  When you couldn't work, your children supported you or you just died. 

Then we were mostly all employed, and demanded more and more vacation and pensions.

Now we are shifting back to being all-self-employed where we will work-or-die without bennies.  Will "aristocrats" own us all?

THAT TRANSITION IS SCARY not because it's "the future" but because it's "the past."

We are being sucked back into the insecure, benefit-less existence of humanity's far past -- long since buried.  Now it is RISING AGAIN, a Zombie from the grave.

That sense of "something" horrible rising from "the grave" (like the HAND extruded from the gravity material locked in a vault in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)  could be symbolized by Vampires and Zombies, and other "things" that can't be killed, that come back to life again and again. 

Note that the pre-industrial society respected and revered The Aged.  The elderly were supported by their children or just died when they couldn't work any more, and children did consider it a point of personal pride and even joy to support their elders. 

Today every TV show seems to showcase a rift between parents and children that could be called hatred.  Much eye-rolling accompanies the interruption by a phone call from a parent.  Stressful difficulty and personal rejection are the keynotes between elder and adult child. 

That unreasonable burden that parents and grandparents have become has not only accompanied the discarding of supporting your own elders in age (they become the government's responsibility), but has discarded the idea that the Elder Knows Better If Not Best -- Elder Wisdom is now Elder Stupidity (like a Zombie). 

Communicating with an Elder on TV is very much like trying to reason with a hoard of Zombies trying to eat your brains.  Hopeless.  Run For Your Life! 

You see it in almost every TV show now -- people get killed before your eyes, declared dead, buried, mourned, and RISE AGAIN to return to the show as a Character.

See Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. where one of the characters died in The Avengers and is now resurrected (cogent and heroic, easy to communicate with - but resurrected.)  It's a theme.  That which dies rises before you again.  No deadline is real. 

If Reincarnation is real -- we all may have some subliminal memories of the horrors of self-employment without pension benefits.  We may be subliminally "feeling" the rise of that Zombie we thought buried and rotted -- old age without pension.

You can see this in the drumbeat of "safety" everywhere. 

You can't do this because it's not safe.  You can't send soldiers to fight because it's not safe.  You can't send your kids to school without armed guards because it's not safe (tell that to the kid who rode a mule 5 miles to school in a blizzard!).  You can't carry a gun because it's not safe.  Now cars that drive themselves are coming - because driving is not safe. 

We are obsessed with safety (while being interested in Horror on TV)  -- perhaps because we seek security.

Perhaps we seek security because we remember the deaths we died over and over in poverty and pain, old and decrepit at age 45.  Lifetime after lifetime, we have clawed our way out of that horror, and now we're being sucked back into it.

The "show don't tell" for that vision, that subliminal feeling, is "Zombies."

The fascination with Zombies is bottomless, endless, a true "deer in the headlights" watching death approach and unable to move.

So, OK, then what will the NEXT TREND be?

Well, if Toffler was correct, half of us will be in "cottage industry" and "telecommuting" while the half of humanity that's incapable of mastering the mental agility necessary to do modern work will be supported by those who can work.  Those who work will be self-employed -- AND SECURE. 

With very small invested effort, we will be able to produce all humanity needs in food,  clothing, shelter, entertainment, and healthcare.  So everyone will feel secure.

What will entertain that population that feels no threat from any direction? 

What will fuel a thrust into space exploration?  What will pay for scientific advances to conquer space?  Why would anyone do that?

If we don't fear the past and we don't fear the future -- what will we fear?

Or Love?

Or Desire? 

Love, Desire, Curiosity -- maybe Fear, too --  are the story springboards that will work after the Zombies die off. 

Remember, now we are not only discovering planets around other stars, but also spotting asteroids that can wipe Earth out -- on inevitable collision course.  So once again, maybe it's Outer Space that will be feared more than the deeply buried Past.

Do you think this "karmic memory" concept is what is fueling the Zombie popularity?  Is that what's interesting about Zombies? 

If it's fear that's interesting now -- then is love next?  Love in Outer Space?  Love from Outer Space? 

There is a famous story about how Science and Fact swamp out morality in decision making -- titled The Cold Equations.  It was about low-orbit space travel.

Do you think the next famous story that creates a trend will be titled The Warm Equations - about how Emotion is the only valid basis for decision making?

Remember, above, we noted how there seems to be a dearth of decision-making-training in our schools. 

Do you suppose the primacy of Emotion in decision making will become the next scientific breakthrough?

Or maybe it'll be "superstition rules" -- as the airport runway over a cemetery racks up statistical anomalies in crashes?  The Bermuda Triangle of Airports?

What will be afraid of next? 

Or will the predictions in this article come true, and we'll live longer because of increasing health -- and not be old, debilitated and dependent on grandchildren to take care of us?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. My parents in the 1960s certainly reined phone time! We were restricted to 15 minutes (and my impossible-to-live-with stepmother -- her "own" daughters agree that she was -- once took that to the extent of forcibly taking the phone from me and hanging up on a person I was politely trying to get off the line). When our kids were phone age, my husband decreed a limit of 5 minutes, which in retrospect I think was excessively strict.

    "The Immortality Problem is what fascinates me about Vampires -- everything else is just a complication."

    Interesting! What fascinates me about vampires is the predator-prey relationship versus an intimate symbiotic model, with blood-drinking as a symbol of sharing one's essence, the ultimate intimate and erotic act.

    Some vampire novelists downplay the blood-sharing aspect so much that their vampires might as well be "Highlander" Immortals -- a series I love, but that motif isn't central to my interest in vampires.

    The wonderful thing about vampires is that they're the most versatile of traditional monsters, able to embody many different themes.