I read a sad story today about a 16-year-old who shot and killed his father and brother two years ago and is currently on trial for the killings. According to media accounts, the teen’s father, who was addicted to pain medication, had become convinced that the zombie apocalypse was about to occur and had been training his son in the most effective ways to kill the undead, specifically with headshots and decapitation. The entire family, who lived in Idaho, had joined in the father’s madness and were making plans to escape to a rural and isolated area to ride out the coming rise of the dead, according to accused killer Eldon Samuel III’s mother, Tina Samuel.
Tina Samuel told the court that her husband would spend days on end playing first-person shooter zombie games with his son and allowed his son to stay home from school to watch zombie movies in order to escape bullies. By most accounts, the boy’s father had dedicated much of his life to zombie-themed media.
The whole story is impossibly sad, but I can’t help but reflect on the way it represents in microcosm the way the boundaries between fact and fiction blur. In this case, drug addiction, mental illness, and abuse played a role, but it was fiction that shaped the form that the dead man, Eldon Samuel, Jr., gave to his paranoia and delusions.
The story attracted media attention because of the sensational subject matter—doomsday preppers who believe in zombies!—but I can’t help but think that it’s different only in degree and not in kind from people who accept and act on other pop culture tropes that they mistake for fact. How different, really, are the Ancient Aliens fans think that aliens will soon be returning, or the History Channel super-fans who write to me with disturbing frequency to tell me that history as we know it is a lie because they saw something different on TV?
But even if you concede that there is a difference between the obviously fictional and the putatively nonfictional, this case is hardly the first where Americans have taken TV fiction for reality. It’s not even the first time Americans have taken zombies for reality. A few years ago the there was a cable show about “zombie preppers” who were convinced that the undead would soon rise. I think that the impact of fiction on individuals’ worldviews is probably underestimated, and as a species that reacts to stories we tend to infer a level of reality behind even fictional stories. In the case of zombies in particular, the media don’t help things by riding the line between fact and fiction with the “science” of the undead, nor do business catering to the paranoid, which have whole lines of “prepping” materials for the dedicated zombie prepper (like this anti-zombie fort), or even the CDC, which produced a tongue-in-cheek guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse that far too many mistook for the real thing.
It becomes difficult to figure out what to do about the difficulty some people have in separating fact from fiction. There are no good answers. The people who can’t tell the difference would simply latch on to some other symbolic expression of their inner pain if any one particular fantasy went away, but the fact that there are people who have trouble telling fantasy from real life should give us pause about the ability of the average information consumer to distinguish between good and bad nonfiction claims. After all, surveys find that as many as 1 in 5 Americans is “somewhat” afraid of a zombie uprising occurring someday, while 6% of Millennials say zombies are already real.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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