Five Ways To Make Zombies Scarier

2014 Artwork Scarier Zombies article sketch

Well, since my old article about writing zombie fiction seems to be one of the most popular articles on this blog, I thought that I’d re-visit this subject today. After all, it’s been ages since I wrote a zombie-based article.

So, today, I thought that I’d look at how to make the zombies themseleves scarier. Because, let’s face it, zombies in and of themselves aren’t scary. They don’t exist in real life and, more often than not, they can end up just being vaguely creepy cannon fodder in action games (like the “Left 4 Dead” games, some of the modern “Resident Evil” games, the “House Of The Dead” games and, of course, the early levels of the good old “Doom” games).

So, how can we make zombies scary again? You’ve probably already seen most of these tricks in horror movies, horror stories, horror comics and/or horror games before, but I thought that I’d list five ways to make zombies creepy again.

So, let’s get started.

1) Recognisable zombies: This is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but a sure-fire way to make the zombies in your story or comic creepy again is to show that at least one person that the main characters know (it’s usually a family member or a close friend) has been turned into a zombie.

This makes the zombies in your story creepier because it reinforces the fact that they were once human and it will also mean that your main characters face a moral conflict when it comes to deciding whether to fight or flee from the familiar zombie that they’re faced with.

The only drawback with this trick is that it has been done before quite often and it’s almost a cliche. So, it probably won’t really have the same level of shock value or emotional impact that it might have done a couple of decades ago.

Plus, if you’re making videogames, this trick probably won’t work that well. If you don’t believe me, then just look at Marvin (I think he was called Marvin) and the secret Brad Vickers zombie (play on normal difficulty or higher and don’t pick up anything until you reach the police station and you’ll find Brad in the tunnel/underpass outside the station) in “Resident Evil 2”.

2) Traces of Humanity: This technique is also something of a classic and, at the very least, it goes back to the classic Romero zombie movies of the 70s and 80s (but not the original “Night of The Living Dead”, if I remember rightly).

Basically, one technique for making zombies slightly creepier (or funnier, it can go either way) is to show that they have at least some vague memories of their human lives. Like with the previous technique, this can make your zombies scarier because it reminds the audience that the zombies used to be people and it turns them from generic “evil” monsters into actual characters, albeit rather minimalist ones.

For example, in Romero’s “Day of The Dead” there is an ex-military zombie who can just about remember how to salute and, in one brilliant scene, how to use a pistol too. But, apart from these traces of human behavior, he is pretty much a zombie like all the other zombies. Although this zombie is kind of used for dark comedy near the end of the film, he’s surprisingly creepy when you see him for the first time.

3) Animal-like behavior: This is pretty much the opposite of the previous two techniques. Basically, you show your zombies to be little more than animals who act entirely on instinct and have absolutely no traces of humanity left within them.

This will make your zombies creepier for the simple reason that it subtly reminds your audience that everyone (including them) is essentially an animal. Humanity might have far more intelligence, more developed linguistic abilities, a plethora of different cultures, better luck and far more technology than every other type of animal. But, without all of this, we’re no different from any other types of creatures that inhabit the earth. Pretty creepy, right?

Plus, another well-used way of using this technique is to show actual zombie animals in your stories. You’ll have to be slightly inventive here, since zombie dogs and zombie crows are something of a cliche (in videogames at least). The best example of a zombie animal (well, technically an insect) I’ve ever seen was a colony of zombie ants in Toby Venables’ excellent “Viking Dead” novel.

4) Fast zombies?: I think that this type of zombie was invented in Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” film, but it might have appeared in something else before this. Basically, “fast zombies” are just ordinary (but often slightly more intelligent) zombies who have the ability to run.

When they first appeared, fast zombies revolutionised the zombie genre by making zombie movies, games and stories much more suspenseful and fast-paced, since the main characters couldn’t easily escape from the zombies by just walking away from them.

But, at the same time, they’ve become something of a cliche and they’ve lost most of their dramatic value thorugh sheer overuse in films, books and games. Not to mention that there are also many zombie fans (including myself) who prefer the old-school “slow” zombies to their faster modern counterparts.

5) Zombies in all but name: This is probably the best way to make zombies scary again. Don’t use “zombies” in your horror story – use a type of monster which is fairly similar to a zombie, but has enough differences from classic “zombies” that it will shock and surprise your audience.

For example, although I’ve never actually played any of the “Dead Space” games – I’ve seen an animated movie based on them called “Dead Space: Downfall(Warning: It’s very gruesome – like any good zombie movie should be! It’s also really cool that the studio itself put the film on Youtube too) and I’ve also read a novel based on the games too (“Dead Space: Martyr” By B. K. Evenson) – these games are basically zombie games in all but name.

However, instead of the zombies that we all know and love, the “Dead Space” games contain creatures called “necromorphs”. These are basically surreal David Cronenburg-esque undead mutants and they’re about three times scarier than traditional zombies are because they aren’t zombies. They’re something new, different and unexpected.

And, because they’re so unexpected and original, they’re a lot scarier than the traditional zombies that we all know and love.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

(Now, where did I put that ink ribbon?)

One comment on “Five Ways To Make Zombies Scarier

  1. […] Don’t write horror: Yes, zombies can be gross, disgusting or gruesome – but they usually aren’t really that scary. Even modern fast-moving zombies are no scarier than any other type of monster. And, as any fan of […]

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