Guest Post: The Zombie Zeitgeist, Ham Radio, and the End of the World

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The end of the world has been preying on my mind lately. Not in a religious, horsemen-of-the-apocalypse way  ‒— but in a more surviving-the-failure-of-modern-amenities way.

One reason for this preoccupation is my generation’s fascination not only with zombie film and literature1 but with interactive zombie games, like elaborate tag variation humans vs zombies, races with zombie-infested obstacles, and training regimes that measure fitness by ability to outrun zombies. Another is the fact that the power has gone out in my northern Virginia townhouse for at least 24-hour intervals no less than three times in the last four months, once for nearly three days in the middle of a heat wave.

And then there’s the emails from the hams. One amateur radio operator (who are known as “hams”) who I interviewed for an article added me to a ham radio email list. Ham radio exists to build a base of volunteer radio experts who can step in and provide a communications network when the modern systems fail, as they tend to do in emergency situations.

The casual email newsletters really strike me. Among mundane club announcements — meeting minutes, upcoming events, announcements for classes, calls for volunteers, and news from the FCC (which regulates amateur radio) —  are matter-of-fact commentaries on emergency preparedness that go beyond functioning radio equipment.

One newsletter asks hams questions about emergency preparedness. Do you have enough nonperishable food and water to last through a long power outage? Do you try to maintain enough fuel in your car to be able to get out of the area and to a gas station with fuel? Do you have enough cash on hand if you can’t access an ATM because the power’s out? Do you have a radio to communicate with if the cell phone service is being too slammed to use or if the entire fancy service crashes?

I learned in one panicky, sticky-hot morning this summer that my answers to all of those questions is “Whoops.”

Whoops isn’t going to be much use to me next time there’s a strong enough storm to take the power out for a few days. Whoops isn’t going to help me when the cell phone service is jammed or — heaven forbid —  down completely. And whoops certainly isn’t going to save me when the zombie apocalypse comes.

Full disclosure: I don’t believe there’s going to be a zombie apocalypse. Well, technically, I don’t want to believe there could be a zombie apocalypse.2 Those qualifiers are telling, in the same way that I am always careful to say that I like stories about vampires, not that I like vampires. These are creatures — mutations of humanity  —  that nobody wants to meet on the street.3

We use the stories and the games, maybe for fun, maybe to say something about society or humanity, or maybe because preparing for a silly fantasy apocalypse allows us to prepare for unexpected, real disasters  —  without having to think about real disasters.

The CDC figured this out. Major kudos to them for their Zombie Preparedness materials: a blog, a novella, lesson plans for teachers, printable posters, and zombie e-cards. They clearly know how to harness the zombie zeitgeist. Silly it may be, but suddenly finding oneself unprepared in the middle or the aftermath of an earthquake, a hurricane, a terrorist attack, or a pandemic is a serious problem. We may joke about first world problems4, but I doubt I am the only person almost completely unprepared for a relatively mild disaster like an extended and widespread power outage.

That’s why I’ve been thinking about the end of the world. Because maybe in order to be ready for scary, real disasters, it’s okay to instead prepare for a fictional apocalypse.

And to all the hams who keep suggesting I take classes and get a ham radio license: that sounds sensible. It will probably be quite useful when the cell services and the internet go down and we need to coordinate efforts to take back the town from marauding zombies. Or coordinate relief efforts when the power goes down in the next hurricane. But I’m going to pretend it’s because of the zombies. In fact, whenever I have to think about aspects of modern life failing, I’m going to think about zombies instead.

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1  Pride and Prejudice got a reboot by adding a zombie epidemic to stuffy, proper Victorian England. Even the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise tried to cash in on the craze with the 2011 film “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”

2  While reanimation of decomposing corpses apparently remains thankfully far-fetched, National Geographic reported on a parasitic fungus that hijacks the nervous system of ants in Thailand.

3  Don’t tell me about the sexual prowess of vampires. They’re fiction, they’re fiction, they’re fiction. I can’t hear you, la-la-la!

4  First World Problems is a meme that purports to mock the trite problems of privileged members of developed nations, like complaining that one must walk to the television set to change to channel due to having lost the remote control. However, the meme is frequently a humblebrag, like if I were to complain my steak is too large to fit in the frying pan, so I had to go buy charcoal for the grill.

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Callie Leuck is a writer, dancer, tea-drinker, amateur photographer, and Oxford comma enthusiast. She is currently daylighting as a proposal writer for an IT company in northern Virginia and moonlighting as a science-medical writing graduate student at Johns Hopkins in Washington, D.C. Callie keeps a blog which she remembers to feed slightly more often than her fish, Frankie II, may he rest in peace and not return as a zombie fish.

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Picture credit:  Office Zombies, which Callie Leuck made her own self.

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4 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Zombie Zeitgeist, Ham Radio, and the End of the World

  1. The fungus for zombie ants is only most widely known such agent. There are numerous viruses and pathogens which adapt the behavior of their hosts so they will more quickly spread their contagion to the masses. True story.

  2. Terrific post, Callie. I just emailed my husband the list from the ham radio guys’ newsletter. We came up embarrassingly short — not a smart thing when one lives in southwestern British Columbia,an active earthquake zone. We’re probably the real zombies.

  3. Liz, yes there are several things that do what that fungus does — very weird! Still none that actually reanimate corpses, apparently, or that cause cannibalism? I couldn’t find any. (And it was freaking me out to search for them online!)

    Heather, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m still short a radio, but I got pretty much everything else down pat before Sandy struck…thankfully without actually needing any of it. A battery-operated radio would be a good addition, as news is often broadcast that way. Even if you’re not a ham and can’t talk over the radio, being able to hear broadcasts could be extremely useful.

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