Mariel Garza

Opinion: What zombies and backyard tomatoes have in common

Characters Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) in “The Walking Dead,” which shares viewer appeal with urban homesteading.
Characters Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) in “The Walking Dead,” which shares viewer appeal with urban homesteading. AMC

More than 17 million people watched the Oct. 12 Season5 premiere of “The Walking Dead,” a series about the aftermath of a zombie pandemic. That’s a lot of eyes, a record viewership for cable television dramas.

It’s a well-done show with tightly drawn characters, exciting plot twists and plenty of action. That’s one reason why it is popular. That can’t be the only thing drawing hordes of Americans to this show and the proliferation of other zombie and post-apocalyptic entertainment in recent years. And everyone with a brain has a theory why.

Some people figure it’s an obvious progression after the vampire genre was done to death. Others have opined, variously, that we love zombies because we hate ourselves; that we hate everyone else and enjoy imagining the end of society; and that we just secretly want to kill people and crushing the skull of a re-animated corpse is the only socially acceptable way to do it.

Others posit that the constantly reimagined zombie apocalypse is a societal affliction caused by collective feeling of disempowerment, of our dissatisfaction with the Iraq war or fear of a terrorist act.

Ugh. I was one of the 17 million to watch “The Walking Dead” premiere, and I roll my eyes when I read or hear such suggestions.

As a zombie fiction junkie, I’ve never probed my entertainment preferences too deeply, but not because I’m afraid of what I will find. I’m not a macabre person; I don’t enjoy violence. I cover my eyes during gory movie scenes, and I am certainly not fascinated with death or destruction. Generally, I’m a sunny person who skews Pollyanna. (Laid off? Yay, extended camping trip! Crash the car? Woo hoo, new car!)

Nonetheless, the reason I enjoy this genre hit me quite unexpectedly Saturday while I was thinking about planting some greens for winter salads. It dawned on me, apropos of nothing, that zombie tales aren’t about zombies; they are fables about hope and humanity – people transcending the meaninglessness of modern times and returning to the basics. Zombies are just the tools to get us there, and to keep the literary tension alive.

It started to all fit. Of the watchers of “The Walking Dead,” 11 million were 18 to 49, Generation Xers like myself and the younger millennials. These are the folks, also like myself, who are devouring the urban homesteading lifestyle just as ardently as the flesh-eating corpse genre.

Zombies aren’t my only free-time diversion. I am equally fascinated with self-reliance. This has expressed itself in recent years mostly through growing vegetables in the yard and making household cleaners out of vinegar, though it has been with me way before the current trend of backyard chickens and crafting. One of my earliest memories involves trying to make a pair of sandals out of paper and scotch tape.

The same part of my brain that relishes each new episode of “The Walking Dead,” or now “Z Nation,” also delights when the Baker Creek seed catalog arrives in the mail. Inside there are pages of good things to easily grow with just water and sun that are completely removed from our global food distribution chain. It’s immensely empowering.

A zombie-infested world is also removed from the global distribution chain, as well as every other distribution chain. Once all the trappings of the modern world go away, we have to relearn how to do real things – like grow food, make quilts, raise chickens and build solar cookers. We have to craft our own tools, make our own entertainment, be our own health care providers. Open any urban homesteading how-to book and, with a few updates, it could be a guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse.

I know Halloween is the time to relish our society’s darker side, to re-watch monster movies and dress up as vampires, ghouls, evil clowns. Zombies, too.

But those shambling corpses littering our entertainment landscape don’t reflect a rotten heart of a society. I believe that, like urban homesteading, they indicate a healthy and poignant interest by the generations so completely divorced from the fundamentals of every-day life – food, shelter, survival – to rediscover what it means to be completely and wholly alive.

Follow Mariel Garza on Twitter @marielgarzabee.