A few months ago, I stopped at a traffic light and noticed a bumper sticker on the car in front of me.
“Secretly, we all want a zombie apocalypse,” it read.
I nodded my head. “It’s true,” I whispered to myself.
I’ve been known to entertain fantasies of a zombie apocalypse. I can’t be the only one. A deep, dark, primal desire to be liberated from the confines of civilization and strictures of society drives us to imagine an alternate reality straight out of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
It’s why we love science fiction, Roland Emmerich movies, dystopian novels, the book of Revelation, and the “prophecies” of Nostradamus.
It’s why countless end-of-the-world classics resonate with us, including The Walking Dead, The Road, War of the Worlds, The Terminator, Children of Men, Mad Max, Independence Day, 12 Monkeys, and Snowpiercer.
Though I’m a complete wimp when it comes to most horror movies, I do have a favorite horror subgenre. I adore zombie movies of every kind, from Dawn of the Dead to Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later to Warm Bodies, Zombieland to Train to Busan (Did you hear there’s a sequel coming?).
What I love about zombie movies is, underneath the gory brain-eating and shuffling, reanimated corpses, there tends to be an impressive amount of shrewd social commentary going on. The underlying message is always the same: It’s not the zombies we should be afraid of. It’s the living.
Don’t fear the walking dead. Fear the still breathing human standing next to you. If that doesn’t resonate in the time of coronavirus, I don’t know what does.
In the past, when I imagined the zombie apocalypse, I pictured myself as Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place, a woman with the grit and determination to give birth in a bathtub, alone and silent, as aliens lurk outside the bathroom door.
Or Carol, from The Walking Dead, a ruthless and unbreakable silver fox, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of her trauma.
Or Emma Stone’s Wichita, snarkily strutting around the wasteland that once was America in black eyeliner and big boots, double-tapping zombies as casually as playing a video game.
Or Furiosa (all hail, Charlize Theron), feral and fierce and covered in 10 layers of dirt, a survivor who hasn’t lost her compassion, who bristles at injustice, who risks her life to save others.
(Let’s be real. We all know if the zombie apocalypse comes, this creature of modern comfort and convenience with precisely zero survival skills will be one of the first to go.)
Though I’ve watched dozens and dozens of zombie movies and written about them, talked about them, and thought about them a lot, my passion for the genre failed to prepare me for this present moment, which is not the apocalypse, but feels an awful lot like one. Hopefully, it’s the closest we’ll ever come to one.
Thanks to the coronavirus, labeled COVID-19 — an unknown, unseen, alien creature that has upended life around the globe — we are existing in what feels uncomfortably like a science-fiction film or dystopian novel.
Indeed, when the U.S. finally began to realize the magnitude of what we were facing, even though we’d been watching what was happening in China and Italy, those days felt an awful lot like the opening scenes of a zombie movie. The ones in which unsuspecting people glibly go about their daily lives, while increasingly ominous images of impending doom flash across their television screens in the background.
Over the dizzying course of a few days, Southern California went from wondering vaguely whether we should be congregating in large groups, to hoarding toilet paper and pasta, to “social distancing,” to “sheltering in place” or “staying home” (or whatever you want to call it). The situation escalated with a speed that was impossible to process, leaving most of us overwhelmed and anxious.
It rained a lot during this time. I found myself thinking often of Sara Teasdale’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a poem I was obsessed with as a morbid, Ray Bradbury-worshiping teenager. It describes how nature would endure unfazed if humanity were to disappear in a sudden catastrophe. Its final lines:
“And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.”
A couple days after our city issued an ordinance requiring us to wear masks in public, my little family of three tried on the face coverings my mother lovingly sewed for us in geeky fabrics – porgs, the L.A. Kings, unicorns.
Despite the cheery patterns, I couldn’t help but think of Mad Max, The Purge, and Hannibal Lecter. We posed for a mask selfie, but it felt wrong. I didn’t know I would feel so sad, angry, and conflicted about the simple act of covering my nose and mouth with an innocuous strip of fabric.
“This is too dystopian,” I said, over and over. I’m sure I drove my husband crazy.
Fantasy and science-fiction author Nnedi Okorafor pointed out that our initial reaction to the coronavirus bore an uncanny resemblance to the movie Arrival, in which the world reacts to a visitation by extraterrestrials with panic, food hoarding, a stock market crash, and global shutdowns.
“The way the world has responded to the coronavirus is similar to the way the world would probably respond to an alien invasion,” she tweeted.
“We are living through a First Contact narrative.”
Life during this pandemic may resemble snippets of pop culture and sci-fi scenarios but, let me tell you, this is not what I thought the apocalypse would look like.
As it turns out, this not-quite-but-feels-like-an apocalypse does not involve bad-ass shotgun toting, cool leather jackets, nights spent chilling around a campfire, and foraging expeditions to abandoned convenience stores (although a trip to the grocery store does feel an awful lot like this now).
This is what the apocalypse actually looks like:
Days that never seem to end.
Sleepless nights full of panicked thoughts I have dubbed my “COVID spiral.”
Constant or near-constant low-level anxiety that threatens to give way to panic attacks.
Zoom meetings and Google Hangouts and FaceTime sessions. We’re lucky to have these high-tech means of connection, but they can also be oddly draining and depressing.
Wondering if that cough or sore throat is just allergies or something worse. Pausing to check if your sense of taste and smell are still in working order. Praying your kid doesn’t come down with a fever.
Comfort food — so much food! — and stress eating and sourdough starters and distractabaking.
Working from home, which sometimes means you never stop working.
Oh, hey, I’m a home school parent now!
And, apparently, I’m also becoming an agoraphobic germophobe.
I never want to wash my hands again.
Worrying about my 72-year-old mother-in-law who lives alone and feels sadder and more isolated by the day.
Trying not to read or watch the news. But feeling like everything might fall apart if I don’t.
The toilet paper shelf is still empty. When will the toilet paper return?
In many post-apocalyptic books and movies, the government quickly collapses, leaving survivors to fend for themselves, usually while searching for the supposed utopia they heard of over a dying radio signal.
So I was unprepared for the helpless, blinding rage I feel toward our government (though I am thankful for the way our state and local officials have jumped into action). I am endlessly frustrated by their early denial of the pandemic threat, their slowness to act, their failure to make decisions that could have prevented or, at least, minimized the extreme circumstances we now find ourselves in.
I’m furious we don’t have a president we can rely on to make wise decisions, who is unable or unwilling to protect or even reassure his citizens. I am incensed at the lack of testing and medical equipment, the stories of people dying alone at home or because they were denied access to care. We already knew our healthcare system was broken. We’re seeing the consequences of that brokenness in daily death tolls. I’m indignant at the inequality and injustice we already knew existed but has been more glaringly exposed by the virus.
I admit I’m observing and experiencing this moment through the soft filter of privilege. My family’s livelihood remains intact. We’re not essential workers, so we have the luxury of staying home. We have a home to shelter in. We have good health insurance. So far, we are healthy. We have each other.
I send Instacart shoppers to retrieve my kitchen staples and order endless packages from Amazon. I feel paralyzed by guilt. I worry about the people who make the deliveries, the grocery store workers, the Amazon employees (even if Jeff Bezos doesn’t), the medical workers, and countless others who put themselves in harm’s way to help the rest of us.
Sometimes I feel like I’m in The Hunger Games, sitting pretty in the Capitol, watching as citizens in less privileged districts suffer for my comfort and entertainment.
Never has our interconnectedness as human beings been more obvious. Our responsibility to each other, to everyone who lives on this globe of ours, has never been more apparent. I feel the weight of it now, all the time. I think we all do.
I hope the dystopian story we’re living in has a happy ending. The one where we stumble out of the cave, or fortress, or industrial-steampunk sanctuary, holding hands, smiling at each other, blinking in disbelief at the bright sunrise.
Right now, it’s hard to imagine, but I hope we all make it there together.