Manuscript vs Myth: Feed
Updated: Jan 2, 2021
“Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens. As if we don’t know what happens when you mess with a zombie.”
The opening lines of Mira Grant’s 2010 novel ‘Feed’ are correct. Everyone knows what happens when you mess with a zombie. Namely, the zombie bites you and, depending on the franchise, you are either instantly turned into a flesh-eating monster, or last just long enough to get inside a highly secure, impenetrable, facility before succumbing.
Zombies have long been a staple of the horror and sci-fi genre. They are well entrenched into the global consciousness as mindless corpses, rabid and rotten and driven by an insatiable taste for human flesh. This interpretation owes a lot to the 1968 film, George A. Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’, widely lauded as the world’s first true zombie movie. This is slightly ironic, as the creatures in the film are never actually referred to as ‘zombies’ and instead as ‘ghouls’ – flesh eating revenants originating in Arabic folklore. But now the shambling, rotting corpses from the film are what most people would associate with the word ‘zombie.’
In modern media, the creation of the zombie, if explained at all, is usually ascribed to some scientific mishap. The zombie may be the result of a military experiment gone wrong, or some horrific new disease, or, in the case of ‘Feed’, a mixture of the two. Specifically, the zombies in Mira Grant’s novel are the result of the unfortunate combination of two artificially created super viruses – one created to target the common cold, the other to cure cancer. Mira Grant carefully combines actual science with the exaggeration necessary for the zombies’ existence and, in the process, creates a gripping twist on the usual thriller zombie:
Unlike most modern zombies, in the world of ‘Feed’ it is not just being bitten that comes with the risk of infection. In fact, all of humanity is already infected. The virus that causes zombies exists in a dormant state within every person, just waiting for its chance to activate. Get too close to a zombie, eat a steak that is a little too bloody, or even just die of natural causes – all of these things run the risk of activating the dormant virus within your bloodstream, and reanimating you as one of the undead. A shambling, rotting corpse with a hunger for human flesh and surprising pack mentality. Like the rest of society, the protagonists of the novel, Shaun and Georgia Mason must undergo rigorous daily testing to ensure that their virus hasn’t become active. Fortunately, there is a quick solution. The zombies of Mira Grant’s universe are at least like the classic zombie in this way – a bullet to the brain takes care of the problem.
The original myths, however, were not quite so simple. In many of them, the zombie was not a threat to be destroyed, but rather to be freed The origin of the word ‘zombie’, or ‘zombi’ is widely debated, however the first records of the zombie myth seem to originate in Haiti, specifically among the folklore of the country’s African slaves.
In its earliest incarnation, the zombie was a deceased person, reanimated to be put to work. Such zombies are created when a person dies unnaturally – either by suicide or murder. Though there was no mention of ‘destroying the brain’ in these myths, it was said that a zombi could be released from their enchantment if they were fed salt.
The zombi of Haitian myth was obedient, soulless, and unending. They were the ultimate fear for slaves in Haiti, embodying the thought that even in death their torment would be unending. They would forever be barred from eternal rest, and would toil endlessly beneath their masters.
Over time, the zombie myth evolved, with some followers of Haitian Vodou believing that the zombie could be reanimated through the use of magical powers, or in some cases natural substances, such blowfish poison and psychedelic drugs. Once the concept of zombies was picked up by the mainstream media, they changed even further, becoming the shambling flesh eaters that we know today.
Throughout history, the myth of the zombie has reflected the deepest fears of the storyteller, and the society in which it is set. The Haitian zombie was a manifestation of the fear that there was no escape from the misery of life, and that even death could offer no release from slavery. The earliest zombie movie, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, was filmed during the height of the civil rights movement. It features a black protagonist who, after a gruelling night defending himself and others from ghouls, is killed, not by a zombie, but by a policeman. The film reflected the civil unrest of the time, where man was more of a threat then the monsters.
Later versions of the zombie film show the dissatisfaction of life under capitalism, the fear that we are already the undead, trapped in the ‘rat race’ and mindlessly walking through life. This is so prevalent a theme that it has been parodied in Edgar Wright’s comedic horror, ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ which concludes with the zombies being redistributed into blue collar work. Other modern zombie films reflect the fear of science, the worry that one day we will go too far and be unable to undo the damage we have done, such as Mike Carey’s ‘The Girl with all the Gifts’ which concludes with humanity being wiped out, having wasted their opportunity on this planet.
If the heart of the myth is that zombies are a projection of the fears of society, then Mira Grant is very true to the spirit of the original lore. Much like how the Haitians were more afraid of becoming zombified than they were the zombies themselves, in the novel ‘Feed’ the zombie is almost incidental. The initial apocalyptic event happened decades before the beginning of the novel, and zombies are an unfortunate, but manageable, part of how this new world works. The true fear comes from the constant monitoring of this disease, and from the people in power, who would use zombies to further their own agenda.
The fears explored within ‘Feed’ are inspired by the fears of today, just as prevalent now as they were ten years ago when it was released. The current generation has grown up in the technological world, aware that we are constantly being monitored and that our greatest threat often comes from people in power. The themes of ‘Feed’ echo the war on terror, and the concern that in trying to prevent terrorism we are merely giving up our freedoms. In the disenfranchised modern day, a novel exploring the creeping powerlessness in the face of authority, the sinister machinations of ‘the man behind the curtain’ is truly frightening.
While the Zombies of Mira Grant’s ‘Feed’ are distant cousins to the first Zombis of Haiti, they could not be truer to the spirit of the myth – a creature that holds up a mirror to the horrors and fears of society, and leaves us terrified.