In reading Zone One by Colson Whitehead, I was met with a concept within horror fiction I am all too familiar with from reading other series and watching media within the zombie genre. For whatever reason, the characters in a zombie movie or a zombie novel never just call zombies zombies. Despite the zombie being one of the most popular and perhaps the most recognizable monster within horror fiction, the characters always behave as though they have no idea what’s going on when their zombie apocalypse starts up.
In every piece of zombie related fiction there’s always some dialogue which goes something like this. “Should we call them Walkers because of their slow rate of movement? Perhaps we should call them Biters because you know, they bite?” They’re zombies. You know what a zombie is! Just call them zombies!
This is important however, for the world building aspects of the zombie apocalypse, to enable the violence which will be done to these creatures. Action involving the slaughter of the shambling undead is only entertaining for a general audience once the creatures have been sufficiently dehumanized and we no longer sympathize with them. Zone One does an excellent job of diving into this and got me thinking about how the names we use take away the empathy we feel towards other groups of human beings.
It connected within my mind to an episode of the award winning psychological horror series Black Mirror titled Men Against Fire. Much like in Zone One, the story follows a military force clearing areas of biological threats, these being diseased individuals or people with genetic weaknesses. The similarity of these stories follow a theme of doing whatever it takes to survive by way of dehumanizing the enemy. Violence against the dehumanized gray horde is easier than it would be to project human characteristics onto these adversaries. However, there is a more interesting and less commonly utilized method of devaluing the enemies present to the characters in Zone One. Characters project the qualities, tendencies and personalities of the people they dislike onto the zombies. The ways characters respectively choose to go about this speaks to who they are and what their background in life has been.
Zone One is a story about rebuilding society. It is a narrative which revolves centrally on the concept of reclamation and the taking back of New York City. New York City is a place containing many different kinds of people from many different classes and backgrounds. New York city is also the place of origin for use of the term Skel.
Some characters choose to imagine the skels as the rich, people with privilege and power that they themselves never had. In doing so, they are easy to think of as villainous and deserving of the dispatching they are to receive from the hunters. Likewise, and in better accordance with the namesake of the skels, other characters imagine the infected as being criminals. They choose to think about the infected people as scum. The name they give the infected is worth paying attention to. As per it’s definition, a Skel, is a homeless, vagrant who engages in criminal activity.
This is the most interesting case I have encountered as to the naming of a zombie in fiction. It is not a simple reference to the behavior of the popular monster, but rather a comparison to an undesirable element of society. In making this the slur of choice survivors use to refer to the infected, Colson Whitehead gives weight to the mindset of his characters. In doing so, and throughout the narrative thread of the book, Zone One transcends the simple tropes of mindless zombie slaying and serves as a commentary about class and dehumanization of those whom society is pitted against.