How Zombie Culture Shaped Homesteading Today
Are Shows Like The Walking Dead Responsible for the Recent Amassment of Homesteading Blogs?
We can thank apocalyptic fiction and zombie mania for a giant surge in self-reliance and homesteading today. It’s amazing how people grow when they question, “What if?”
Mainstream society gained interest in apocalyptic fiction after World War II, with the possibility of nuclear disaster. Spurred on by the literature, the survivalist movement increased during the Cold War. Civil defense programs advocated bomb shelters and religious organizations advised families to keep a year’s worth of food storage for emergencies. Survivalists cited the Great Depression as an outstanding example of why households should stay prepared and continue homesteading today.
Zombies did not enter the scene until a couple decades later. The first zombie movie to focus on the dangers of conformity and being unable to rely on people to do the greater good was Night of the Living Dead in the 1960s. It also focused away from the grim realities of economic depression and encroaching communism. The idea of the zombie apocalypse allowed people to imagine how fragile society is, and to deal with their own anxieties about the end of the world, while distancing themselves and reveling in the padding of fantasy.
Most zombie-related plotlines follow small groups of survivors that deal with shock and denial as they try to make their way through the ravaged world. They must survive the dangers. Then they must rebuild. Both the survival and the rebuilding have caught public attention as fans imagine how they would survive in an apocalypse.
Side by side, zombie fiction grew with modern times, riding speculation of real-life disasters and fueled by terrorist attacks and talks of irreversible global climate change. Hardcore preppers argued about economic downturn or a Malthusian population crash. Zombie fans discussed what would happen if the dead came back to life.
The zombie genre has become so popular that organizations and companies crafted tongue-in-cheek weapons, protective gear, and literature aimed toward dealing with an apocalyptic setting. But it was still just fantasy.
Then the world shifted within a few years. As talks of climate change ramped up, so did problems closer to home. Food Inc., released in 2008, informed the public that we could no longer trust our food system. Then the Great Recession struck in 2008-2009, causing an economic and housing crisis. The public turned from apocalyptic fiction and paid attention to reality. And what they saw scared them. The same tropes described in their books and TV shows lay before them as irreversible climate change, economic downturn, and proof that mankind would not support the greater good when tempted by personal gain. People grappled with the question, “What if?”
“What if the recession gets worse?”
“What if I can’t find a job after college?”
“What if I can’t trust anyone anymore and have to take care of my family by myself?”
This dilemma especially affected ages 20-40, the same demographic targeted by zombie fiction. Younger adults, whose grandmothers had canned food or whose great-grandfathers had homesteaded the wilderness, acknowledged that skills were dying. Somewhere in the last century, self-reliance had faltered. Children had walked away from their homestead heritage, had turned their backs on the ability to feed and clothe themselves without depending on a corporate infrastructure. These younger adults wanted control back. Control over their lives, their food. They wanted to stop feeling helpless.
But when they voiced their concerns, saying, “When the economy collapses,” they faced laughter from naysayers who called them paranoid and irrational. If they instead used the language, “When the zombies come,” they won amusement from other fans. So they focused on zombies.
In May of 2011, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used a fictional zombie-based scenario to teach survival techniques for possible real-life scenarios. The idea came about when directors acknowledged that the public is unlikely to pay much attention to tips on surviving natural disasters. A campaign focusing on zombies reached an audience that normally ignored warnings from the CDC. The directors argued that, if you could survive zombies, you could survive anything. The blog became so popular that the CDC then offered a contest for YouTube videos portraying the best and most creative ways to prepare for an apocalypse. They also released a graphic novel stressing the importance of homesteading your house; laying aside necessities such as food, medical supplies, and clean water in case of an apocalypse…or any other disaster.
In October of the same year, The Weather Channel published an article titled, “How to Weather the Zombie Apocalypse,” which discusses how temperature affects zombies and if they were easier to outrun in the heat or the cold.
When Max Brooks’ novel World War Z became a New York Times bestseller, readers turned to his previous work, The Zombie Survival Guide, a satirical book based on real-life guides published by prepper groups.
As zombie mania took society by hold, so did modern homesteading. Back-to-the-land movements have occurred since Roman times but this one was fueled by the media. New works such as The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan, published in 2009, and Urban Homesteading, by Rachel Kaplan, in 2011, taught readers that through homesteading your house you can take little steps back to having control of your life and environment.
In 2013, AMC’s The Walking Dead became the highest rated show on television. Zombie fever had struck mainstream. The audience was larger than ever. People saw themselves in fictional characters, humans just trying to survive in a world gone wrong. They imagined they could thrive as well as the toughest heroes and heroines.
Zombies’ contribution to the homesteading movement was optimism instead of fear. The fantastical edge allowed enough distance to keep people moving forward. Rather than hunkering down with supplies of food and water, believing the world was doomed, people took steps toward self-reliance. They believed they could survive situations through their own hard work, whether they faced zombies, societal collapse, or natural disasters.
Jean Booth, an author of three zombie novels, writes about a small group of people that find a farm and defend it in the Nevada desert. “When writing Zombie War,” she says, “it really brought to my attention how completely and utterly unprepared I am for an apocalypse on any level. As an American, I feel spoiled—if I want or need anything, I can just drive to my local store and pick it up. I didn’t even know how to properly identify a ripe avocado! As I age, I yearn to learn more about becoming self-sustaining, independent of the world around me. Not just in case of an apocalypse—which could happen—but for my own satisfaction of being able to provide the absolute necessary things for my families’ survival.”
Jean has since identified strengths and weaknesses within her lifestyle. Though unable to farm, she and her husband can offer defense to her survival team. She has already considered whom to invite in the event of an apocalypse.
Other creators of zombie fiction are focusing more on the rebuilding aspect. J. Whitworth Hazzard penned a quartet of stories about Jeremy, a teenager trying to survive within a complex of apartments in Lower Manhattan as a sea of zombies fills the streets below. Within Dead Sea Games, the zombies are less of a threat than lack of food, bad sanitation, and untrustworthy humans. In between helicopter drops from the government, the Colony survives on rooftop gardens they built after the Emergency. But nothing is a sanctuary.
As with all fads, readers and viewers tire of repeating tropes. Zombies will someday go the way of vampires. But the modern homesteading movement is on an upswing. Households and communities still respond to questions of, “What if?”
“What if the food system never gets better?”
“What if another recession hits?”
“What if my husband loses his job and I can’t go back to school?”
And optimism builds. People devour information on homesteading blogs and pass it along. They want to know how to start living off the grid and regain their homestead heritage. Communities form. Children turn toward their grandparents’ talents instead of continuing their parents’ slow journey away from sustainability.
Even after zombies have shuffled out of literature and into history, their contribution remains with a revitalized generation that can, once again, take care of themselves through homesteading today in the event that “What if” actually happens.
*Photos from the family collection of Josie Beaudoin