Zombie walks and the public sphere

Brendan Riley

Columbia College Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This brief essay considers the phenomenon of zombie walks from a personal perspective, exploring the experience and practice of collaborative cosplay, as well as some of the theoretical and political implications of this widespread practice.

[0.2] Keywords—Collaboration; Cosplay

Riley, Brendan. 2015. "Zombie Walks and the Public Sphere." In "Performance and Performativity in Fandom," edited by Lucy Bennett and Paul J. Booth, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 18.

1. Introduction

[1.1] I lurched toward the escalator in the Clark & Lake subway station, legs aching from a long walk around downtown Chicago. As a couple approached, the man did a double take and gasped, "Oh, God, buddy, are you all right?"

[1.2] I groaned in reply, reaching my bloody hands out toward them.

[1.3] His date gave me a disgusted glance and pulled the man along by his arm. "Come on. He's a zombie."

[1.4] I was limping home from my first experience of Zombie March Chicago, a massive group cosplay that shambles through the city each June. I played someone who had succumbed to a George A. Romero–style plague, complete with blueish skin, a vicious bite on my arm, blood all over my face, and a hunger for human flesh (figure 1).

Color photo of a zombie with bloody hands, mouth, and ears.

Figure 1. Image of zombie participant in zombie walk. [View larger image.]

[1.5] My interaction with this couple highlights in microcosm the range of reaction we zombies encounter when we're out lurching around. Like the zombie texts that inspire these gatherings, zombie walks serve fans and participants in diverse ways. This brief essay chews on the multifaceted nature of zombie walks, offering conceptual morsels from a number of intersecting cultural spheres. Like the walking dead themselves, what follows eschews easy categorization; the activity is neither and both ethnography and cultural studies.

2. Community and cosplay

[2.1] "Zombies are camera whores," a photographer said to me as we walked toward Daley Plaza, surrounded by moaning hordes of the undead. Like all cosplayers (costume-wearing pop culture enthusiasts), the individuals who show up for a zombie march do so to be seen. But whereas general-interest cons often include many plainclothes participants, zombie walks generally do not. Markus Montola, Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern describe it this way: "[The] primary audience is made up of the participants themselves. The community built by the shared experience of transgression is important. Simultaneously, most of these events are documented fully with photographs, videos, and blog posts" (2009, 263). Everyone in a zombie walk is a cosplayer, and we're all taking pictures of one another.

[2.2] Zombie walks occupy a liminal space between communal gathering and performance art. In many cosplay events, the location for the shared experience is a private one. Granted, this private affair might be a convention with tens of thousands of people, but the bystanders have usually opted in. They're a self-selected community that appreciates the cosplayers' source texts. This mutual contract creates a defined space—similar to what game designers call a magic circle (Huizinga 1955)—in which both costumed and plainclothes individuals understand the event as it occurs.

[2.3] Zombie walks function somewhat differently. At the staging area—Grant Park for the Chicago Zombie March—participants are both audience and performers. Nearly everyone who gathers for a zombie walk is dressed for the occasion, some with a simple spatter of blood, others with elaborate makeup or full-body costumes. We shift roles between viewing and being viewed, taking pictures one moment, posing for photos the next. But we also gather in a busy public space filled with tourists and locals alike. The amused stares and photograph requests we get from bystanders echo the interaction between plainclothes con participants and cosplayers, but they also come from a place of surprise. It's common, during this part of the event, to hear bystanders ask a zombie, "What's going on here?" before asking if they can take a picture.

[2.4] Zombie walks also differ from other cosplay activities in the subject of the costumes. Most cosplayers try to find a recognizable character or combination of characters to inhabit at the event. They hope to be recognized as a specific individual and to be admired for their attention to detail or creativity in remixing the character. Zombie costumes, in contrast, rarely attempt to evoke a specific cultural referent, leaving aside the occasional Ash (Evil Dead, 1981) or Shaun (Shaun of the Dead, 2004). Instead, zombie cosplayers aim for humor—like a zombie chef carrying a plate of brains (figure 2)—or a broad category. For instance, at the 2013 Chicago Zombie March, I joined three other individuals to become a zombie bowling team (figure 3). At a big zombie march, one sees zombie police, waitresses, lifeguards, and even the occasional undead baby. These costumes echo most zombie movies—following Romero's lead—which identify zombies via blunt cliché. Such costumes gain notoriety for their wearers not by their individuality but by contributing to the group ethos, by becoming part of the mosaic of former humanity that now shambles along the streets.

Color photo taken outdoors of several zombies, with a zombie chef, wearing whites and a chef's hat, holding a plate of bloody remains.

Figure 2. Zombie chef, Chicago Zombie March 2010. [View larger image.]

Color photo taken outdoors of four zombies, two men and two women, wearing matching blue shirts. One of the women is holding a bowling ball bag.

Figure 3. Zombie bowling team, Chicago Zombie March 2013. [View larger image.]

[2.5] Once the zombie walk begins, the event shifts into performance art, with most people acting the part of zombies, groaning at passersby and staring hungrily into cars (figure 4). Bryce Peake (2010) explains this experience as a shared trancelike state of flow. The cosplay event engages with the public at large, eliciting stares and scowls, laughter, irritation, and sometimes fear. For instance, one year, a couple having wedding photos taken at Grant Park took the opportunity to pose in the middle of the horde, capturing images of themselves cringing in fear as a massive mob of zombies swarmed around them. Many people laugh and point at the mob of zombies, or they stop to have their picture taken like the newlyweds did.

Color image taken outdoors of zombie staring at a municipal bus, one hand extended.

Figure 4. Zombie staring at a bus, Chicago Zombie March 2013. [View larger image.]

[2.6] At the same time, the journey into the streets leads to some less pleasant encounters. Occasionally drivers will scowl or honk at the mob, little children will hide behind their parents' legs, and harried pedestrians will shout at the zombie mob to make way for faster pedestrians. At the 2010 Zombie March, Grant Park was host to a Baptist gospel choir event. While I had a pleasant conversation with some singers (who insisted they would return the following year in zombie makeup), I also saw a minister, distressed and angry at our irreverent behavior, shouting religious exhortations as we paraded by; he was literally attempting to cast demons out of us. Further along, a restaurant manager was hollering at the passing horde to "keep the blood off the windows, guys!"

[2.7] Simon Orpana argues that zombie walks evoke Mikhail Bakhtin's ([1965] 2009) notion of the carnivalesque by providing "a temporary and imaginary dissolution of modern power structures. The walks create a spectacular performance that cathartically addresses social anxieties regarding contagion, exclusion and the increasing incursion of the modern state into the bodily, collective life of its citizens" (Orpana 2011, 154). The rupture of the walking dead into the streets of Chicago unsettles and bewilders the city itself, even if just for a moment. Sasha Cocarla makes a similar point focused on the disruptive aspect of a zombie march: "Because our urban spaces are highly ordered and regulated places, the purposeful disruption of the zombie walk—the performance of the living dead in public areas—affords the opportunity to reclaim urban spaces and disrupt dominant ideologies, even if only momentarily" (2011, 114). This effect became most clear to me in 2010, when the water in the fountain in front of Daley Plaza had been dyed red in honor of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team. My fellow zombies waded right in, making the water appear not red but bloody (figure 5).

Color photo taken outdoors of a crowd of zombies playing in an ankle-deep pool of water, with plumes of bloodlike red water fountaining up.

Figure 5. Zombies in Daley Plaza fountain, Chicago Zombie March 2010. [View larger image.]

[2.8] The cynic in me remembers, however, Michel de Certeau's (1984) dictum that power inevitably uses strategies to co-opt the tactical protests of the powerless. I was not surprised to discover how quickly the Chicago city authorities developed official processes for handling the Zombie March, including issuing rules (something Peake 2010 noticed for the Toronto zombie walk) and providing police officers to direct traffic.

[2.9] Though the rebellion against power is minor and short-lived, the overall tenor of the zombie crowd remains collegial and jubilant. We share an enthusiasm for zombie role-playing and take pleasure in the shared performance. While one zombie by itself is an amusing costume, a massive mob of zombies becomes an event. One moment in particular was telling for me as I tried to understand how a zombie walk differs from individual cosplay. As the 2010 Zombie March was getting underway, the mob leader used his megaphone to exhort the crowd into movement. After explaining the route we would take, he shouted, "What do we want?"

[2.10] "Brains!" the crowd answered lustily.

[2.11] "When do we want them?"

[2.12] "Brains!" we answered again.

[2.13] Our unity in perceiving and making this joke struck home to me—the crowd at a zombie walk draws on shared understanding of the subject. Our experience of the event gives the Zombie March a universality that few other pop culture subjects can support.

3. Politics and the meaning of zombies

[3.1] Zombies in cinema and fiction often serve as a metaphor for society, for social interaction, and for the relationship between insiders and outsiders. Zombies in stories arise in many ways, from toxic chemicals to magic or disease. Usually these causes reflect an underlying ill that the author worries might doom our society.

[3.2] In political conversation, the zombie has become synonymous with the mindless rabble. This is an image advocates for both major American political parties (not to mention independents) have used in characterizing their opponents. It reassures their audience that they, and not their opponents, are the thinking, rational ones. Those other people are just doing what they're told (figures 6 and 7).

Color photo of a dense crowd of zombies holding various pro-Obama signs and an Obama banner. Text has been dropped in reading 'OH BAH MAH' and 'hoooope.'

Figure 6. Political image widely disseminated on the Internet of Obama zombies.

Color image of a dense crowd of zombies holding up a 'ZOMBIES 4 ROMNEY' banner, with a Romney zombie in the foreground.

Figure 7. Political image widely disseminated on the Internet of Romney zombies. [View larger image.]

[3.3] But aside from the occasional protester dressed like the walking dead, zombies have not become a wide-scale vehicle for protest events. Groups might perceive that the ironic distance needed for protest cosplay will diminish their ability to be taken seriously. For instance, does one dress up as a zombie and use satire to profess a message opposite of one's views, or should one express one's authentic views, just in a zombie costume? And how can the bystander be sure which intention the zombie has? The effort made to show up for a protest then comes into question if the protest embraces costumes or cosplay.

[3.4] At the same time, it's worth remembering a lesson learned by the counterculture in the 1960s: humor in protest effectively undermines authoritarian power. Merry Prankster Wavy Gravy recalls, "One day I had to go to…a political demonstration and didn't have time to take off my [clown] makeup. That's when I discovered that the police didn't want to hit me anymore, because clowns are safe. They don't feel threatened by clowns" (Lee 2003). Perhaps zombie makeup could have a similar effect.

[3.5] The biggest benefit to imagining a political action based around zombies springs from the inherent counterintuitive nature of zombie walks themselves. Most costume play is individual and empathetic, aimed at characters the players love, admire, or enjoy. As such, creating a costume built around a particular character works well, but it does not afford a particular political view; it is linked too closely to the source text from which the character springs. In contrast, zombie walks are anti-individual events. While participants each craft their own costumes (and value the attention they receive for them), the walk itself is a communal event, and it is received by the public as such. In addition, this community has adopted the losers—the least desirable roles in the story. The hero gets the girl; the zombie just gets killed.

[3.6] Zombie mobs inherently parallel protest movements. Protesters perceive themselves in opposition to power; they gather in numbers to show those in power that they have political will, to make themselves seen. Zombie marchers embody characters with the same lack of access to power. Zombies (particularly those in the Romero films) are the powerless, the disenfranchised. Like the powerless in our society, one by itself poses little danger, but a mob sets the powerful quaking in their boots. It's not surprising, then, that the Occupy movement used zombies in protesting against the financial status quo. Tavia Nyong'o writes, "The zombie is a complex icon…for capitalism and for the protest of capitalism. As David McNally usefully argues, zombies are potent symbols because they work simultaneously as agents and victims of rapacious capitalism" (2012, 140). Zombies, after all, are the 99 percent (Wessendorf 2013).

[3.7] The optimist in me imagines zombie walks as a potential source of political action, a phenomenon both fun and significant, attractive to popular culture fans and providing a good hook for media coverage. I'd love to see more orchestrated political action using zombie walks. Alas, the perceived frivolity of the source material and the difficulties regarding satire versus straightforward messages make it unlikely that we'll see mobs of zombies advocating a living wage any time soon.

4. Postmortem

[4.1] In the last decade, zombie walks have become a common tradition in cities around the world. There are zombie pub crawls, zombie marathons, zombie LARPs, and zombie ice-skating parties. Like the zombie plague itself, such events are becoming ubiquitous, perhaps even endemic. For scholars, this growing popularity provides an opportunity for further, fuller inquiry into why this unusual brand of costumed revelry has infected so many and to try to find meaning in understanding fans, fan communities, and their interaction with the public sphere.

5. Works cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1965) 2009. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Cocarla, Sasha. 2011. "Reclaiming Public Spaces through Performance of the Zombie Walk." In Braaaiiinnnsss! From Academics to Zombies, edited by Robert Smith, 113–32. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Huizinga, Johan. 1955. Homo ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lee, Virginia. 2003. "Wavy Gravy: The Clown Prince of Consciousness." Common Ground.

Montola, Markus, Jaakko Stenros, and Annika Waern. 2009. Pervasive Games: Theory and Design. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Nyong'o, Tavia. 2012. "The Scene of Occupation." TDR: The Drama Review 56 (4): 136–49.

Orpana, Simon. 2011. "Spooks of Biopower: The Uncanny Carnivalesque of Zombie Walks." Topia 25:153–76.

Peake, Bryce. 2010. "He Is Dead, and He Is Continuing to Die: A Feminist Psycho-semiotic Reflection on Men's Embodiment of Metaphor in a Toronto Zombie Walk." Journal of Contemporary Anthropology 1 (1): 49–71.

Wessendorf, Markus. 2013. "Zombie Walks and Economics." Journal of Contemporary Drama in English 1 (1): 92–102.