(This post contains spoilers for the graphic novel Wytches: Volume 1 by Scott Snyder as well as the TV series The Walking Dead. If spoilers bother you and you’re not already caught up on both of these, take heed!)
A friend of mine in college pointed out that there are two principal types of zombie in horror fiction: biological zombies and magical ones. Biological zombies operate under the mode of a disease. The creature is still alive, but thanks to the infection, it’s subject to necrosis of the flesh and uncontrollable violence. Magical zombies are true “undead;” they really are corpses, animated puppet-like by a supernatural force like an evil spirit, lost soul, or sorcerous spell. Biological zombies are easier to kill, in that they are subject to all the laws governing organisms; the infection might numb pain or otherwise force the sufferer beyond its normal limits, but injure its vital organs and it’ll die like anything else. With magical zombies, on the other hand, special measures are required. These are the things that might keep coming at you if you hack them to pieces, the severed limbs still flailing about with the force that animated them. To defeat magical zombies, you must undo the force moving them around, which might mean striking them with holy water or enchanted weapons, dispelling the necromancy controlling them, etc.
These concepts apply more broadly to horror fiction than simply zombies.* Do the events that transpire receive a scientific or pseudoscientific explanation, or are the monsters and their powers paranormal in nature, operating on magical, metaphysical, or religious rules–if, indeed, any rules at all–rather than natural laws? Something like Paranormal Activity falls squarely into the latter category, of course; most of today’s zombie fictions go for the former, with “infection” and “virus” being extremely common terms.
Both of these horror paradigms have their merits. Biological horror has the advantage of being a little more plausible, more amenable to thoughts of whether such a thing could really happen in our world. Supernatural horror keeps us guessing, in that the regular rules of the world may not apply in full, so we have less certitude about what might happen next. But in today’s highly skeptical, secular world, supernatural horror seems to have become somewhat passé. Even when the creators of horror fiction want the flexibility of supernatural horror, where the characters’ mundane solutions to the problem are likely not to help, they slap biological-horror explanations onto the thing, and it ends up creating a muddle.
The Walking Dead, at least as depicted on the AMC television series, is one such muddle. The zombie-making phenomenon is supposed to be a biological agent; the Centers for Disease Control were the hope dashed at the end of the first season, and the hoax errand Eugene takes the characters on regards the development of a vaccine. While these missions don’t pan out (or else the show would be over), the characters don’t react as if they’re unthinkable. Everyone does take the “walkers” to be subject to mundane methods of disease control. But if you think about it for more than a moment, it’s clear these critters are supernatural in their mechanisms. As early as the first episode, you see walkers whose musculature is entirely mummified, but because the skull is intact, the creature still moves around. That’s magic, not biology. It just happens that the spell is broken by head-stabbing, for some reason. While that in itself isn’t enough to ruin the show for me (there are plenty of other flaws for that!), it puts an extra strain on suspension of disbelief.
Another example from recent memory is Wytches, a graphic novel about a species of burrow-dwelling humanoid monsters that abduct and eat people “pledged” to them, and in exchange, give people medicines that cure crippling illnesses, extend life, inspire love, and other wondrous effects. The theme at work is that as horrible as the wytches are, those who would pledge others to them for health and power are perhaps even more monstrous. It’s a great premise, and leads to some seriously disturbing scenes. But Wytches, too, suffers from a biology/magic muddle. It’s revealed toward the end of the first volume that the wytches’ powers are a “natural science” peculiar to their species, and the various phenomena associated with them are chemical in nature. The process of “pledging,” at first implied to be a thing that takes premeditation and cruel intent, turns out to require no more than splashing someone with a bit of green goo that attracts the wytches’ attention. It becomes no more horrific or personal an act than firing a gun, and in fact in some of the closing scenes, one of the characters sprays her enemies with a hose full of “pledge” (like the cleaning spray!) to defeat them. It trivializes the horror in a way that a more ritualistic pledging might have avoided.
The reasons this bothers me so much vary from one instance to the next. In some cases (Wytches), it’s the man-behind-the-curtain effect, where when the story reveals how things work, it’s a letdown from the more chilling hypotheses you’d come up with yourself. In others (Walking Dead), it’s that by claiming a science-friendly basis for the horror, the world raises the standard for consistency and believability, then fails to meet that standard by treating its subject with too many stretches and handwaves. So I suppose my word of advice for horror creators is thus: we may live in a world with a lot of post-supernatural thinking, but when it comes to fiction, we’re looking for our perspective to be stretched. We’re more likely to be frightened by what’s fucked up and unexplainable than things that follow all the rules to begin with—especially when their explanations end up tepid!
* Note that I’m leaving out things that don’t really require a mechanism of explanation, like the stalkers and serial killers of psychological and slasher horror. I’m here discussing horror that has at least a tinge of the fantastical, like some kind of monster or freakish phenomenon.