Zombie Apocalypse Planning: Preparedness, dry runs and speculative survival strategies that allow us to discuss the unthinkable


Here’s an academic paper I wrote and presented at Plymouth University’s Zombies – Walking, Eating and Performance Symposium in 2013… It’s an oldie but a goodie!

Embedded in the zombie genre and mythos is the immanent threat of apocalypse – the complete and final destruction of the world as we know it via an uncontainable, untamable and ever-growing army of the undead.

Here’s an academic paper I wrote and presented at Plymouth University’s  Zombies – Walking, Eating and Performance Symposium in 2013… It’s an oldie but a goodie!

Zombie Apocalypse Planning: Preparedness, dry runs and speculative survival strategies that allow us to discuss the unthinkable

Embedded in the zombie genre and mythos is the immanent threat of apocalypse – the complete and final destruction of the world as we know it via an uncontainable, untamable and ever-growing army of the undead.


This is the scenario presented to us in films like 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002), the comedy Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009), the novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (Max Brooks, 2006) or the multiplayer open-world survival horror mod DayZ (Dean Hall, 2012). While I recognize that each of these sources is entirely fictional (and it is not my intention to refer to any specific depiction of the zombie apocalypse in this paper), my interest lies in the serious consideration of real-world zombie apocalypse planning. These are the conversations about survival scenarios, dry runs of escape routes, imagined interaction with (or formation of) survivor groups raised by these fictional sources.

This paper sits in close parallel to my arts practice as one half of the collaboration LOW PROFILE, our on-going performative investigations into notions of survival, preparedness and dry-runs and our stated desire to reclaim, rehabilitate and repurpose over-used, over-familiar and over-played sources, that might otherwise be dismissed as trivial, over the top, far-fetched, unlikely, incredible or absurd. (LOW PROFILE, 2012: 5)


What I am particularly interested in is the performative space (generated through speculative conversations) for Z-apocalypse ‘planners’ to safely explore, discuss, examine, evaluate and begin to reconcile elements of their everyday lived experience. It is my belief that (much like the situations created in my practice with the DRY RUN series) these conversations allow for a shift in scale and perspective in the ‘quietly political’ consideration of macro socio-economic situations by approaching the world and the details of lived experience from a local, personal level.

If we take apocalypse here to mean ‘an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale’ (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2005), it becomes important to consider how the zombie apocalypse differs in a number of crucial ways from other apocalypse scenarios. Unlike natural disasters (e.g. fire, flood, earthquake or tsunami) or massive accidents (e.g. failure of colossal power stations or control systems of worldwide air traffic), the survivor’s physical environment is not dramatically changed. There is far less threat of the environmental or political fallout associated with nuclear apocalypse, war or violent revolution, any of which would be the result of a series of state-led political decisions. Within the Z-apocalypse scenario, reasons for the catastrophe are rarely focused on, with often only a cursory explanation ever given. Rather than becoming consumed with a desire to assign responsibility for a fault or wrong, survivors find themselves in a world that very closely resembles their ‘known’ everyday – unchanged physically, but with a dramatically altered social order. The structures of society as we know it begin to collapse – existing economic, family and personal relationships (like work, jobs, friendship, romantic bonds, etc.), the rule of law and organised politics are all thrown into question.


In this situation, the activity of Z-apocalypse planning relies on only a modest knowledge of the zombie genre, what one could term the basic ‘facts’ – the initial outbreak happens quickly, with little warning and spreads at an alarming rate; zombies were previously (until recently) normal humans like you and I but are now driven purely by instinct and have an insatiable hunger for human flesh; zombies will stop at nothing to attack and harm humans and once injured by a zombie, you are doomed to become one of them. This potential survival situation may be particularly relevant to us as inhabitants of western late-capitalist countries like the UK as it deals directly with individualism, self-reliance and self-preservation, characteristics that Adam Curtis (and others) would identify with ‘the century of the self’ (Curtis: 2002).

Z-apocalypse planning requires complex cognitive abilities – engaging in hypothetical thinking, imagination, contemplation of the future, understanding causal relationships, prediction adjustment, simulating or imagining alternative outcomes and the recognition that what agents want not to happen can also happen – which psychologists Carroll, Sweeny, & Shepperd argue do not develop fully until adulthood (Carroll et al 2006:58, citing Nurmi, 1991; Wadsworth, 1996; Piaget, 1972; Harter & Pike, 1984). Therefore, it is specifically an adult activity – one of the increasingly rare times adults are called upon to use their imagination in such a way. In this sense, Z-apocalypse planning involves fantasy – ‘the faculty or activity of imagining (esp improbable and impossible) things’ (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2005) – but is not fanciful. It does not involve magic or happen in a world other than our own[1] and as players of Slingshot’s mass-player zombie chase game 2.8 Hours Later (2010) are reminded in their initial briefing “the laws of physics still apply”.


Alongside a knowledge of the basic ‘facts’ of the mythos, gained through minimal levels of exposure to the genre, Z-A planners may draw on their own experience of everyday ‘moments of apocalypse’ as a reference point, helping them to imagine the kinds of things that might go wrong. By ‘moments of apocalypse’ I mean experienced glitches that expose the otherwise rarely visible infrastructure of our technologically enabled late-capitalist society. These are moments when we become aware of our individual and collective dependence on contemporary supply chains and communication systems. Artist/theorist Rosa Menkman discusses the glitch as:

a powerful interruption that shifts an object away from its flow and ordinary discourse, towards the ruins of destructed meaning. This concept of flow […] [draws on the writing of] Deleuze and Guattari, who describe flow in terms of the beliefs and desires that both stimulate and maintain society. (Menkman, 2011: 29)


As such, the term glitch (and by association, the notion of ‘moments of apocalypse’) could be used here to refer to ‘a not yet defined break from a procedural flow, fostering a critical potential’ (Menkman, 2011: 27). As Menkman suggests, ‘[r]ather than creating the illusion of a transparent, well-working interface […], the glitch captures the machine revealing itself’ (Menkman, 2011: 30).

Our experience of ‘moments of apocalypse’ might include things like the failure of mobile phone networks at times of high-traffic like New Year’s Eve (that reveal a lack of resilience and capacity in our ways to simply make contact with friends and loved-ones), or being faced by empty supermarket shelves after periods of heavy snowfall (revealing the mechanics of a just-in-time supply chain in the production and consumption of food) or our willing and un-willing participation in (and exposure to the results of) financial crises, civil resistance or social unrest (revealing our own levels of agency in terms of the choices we make in the application of our labour and human effort).


* * *

In their 1986 paper psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius begin to define the notion of ‘possible selves’ as ‘the ideal selves that we would very much like to become’ (Markus & Nurius, 1986:954) arguing that each of us holds onto a series of possible selves as part of the way we create and compile our own self-image and self-concept. They continue by saying that these possible selves:

[…] are also the selves we could become, and the selves we are afraid of becoming. […] They are different and separable from the current or now selves, yet are intimately connected to them. (Markus & Nurius, 1986:954) (my emphasis)


If we take Z-A planning conversations as a moment that we might make public our otherwise internalised ‘possible selves’, we might expose what Markus & Nurius term ‘the cognitive manifestation of enduring goals, aspirations, motives, fears and threats’ (954). If, as they also state, these possible selves function ‘to provide an evaluative and interpretive context for the now self’ (962) and ‘reflect the extent to which the self is socially determined and constrained’ (???), then Z-A planning conversations may (unwittingly) become a vital performative space for adults to explore and reflect on their own knowledge and experience of the world and reconsider the potential of their own agency in ways that may seem untinkable in their everyday lives.

In these conversations, Z-A planners are called upon to identify their basic needs and devise ways to satisfy these. Here we may see a correlation with Abraham Maslow’s 1943 hierarchy of needs, where the satisfaction of physiological (e.g. hunger, thirst, warmth, sleep) and personal safety needs (e.g. protection, order, law) take precedence, but interestingly Z-A scenarios allow these to be ‘satisfied’ through processes of self-actualisation (creativity, problem solving, authenticity, spontaneity etc.), the building of self-esteem and confidence through ‘achievement’ of survival goals and a reconsideration of the role of social relationships in the quest to survive (friendship, team work, trust, affection, belongingness and love). This re-alignment and concurrent positioning fits well with the post-colonial critique of Maslow’s emphasis on the hierarchal meeting of needs and in-built assumption that only those who have sufficient control over economic and resource wealth can achieve self-actualisation.

In the imagined Z-A scenario, this relationship between economic status and the pre-Z-A world (the one that Z-A planners currently inhabit) is irrevocably changed. The dominant features of late capitalism – the concentration of speculative financial capital, globalized markets and labour, mass consumption and the dominance of multinational corporations – are under threat. Rather than going to work as usual, Z-A planners envisage a time when money is worthless, when the notions of possessions, property and access to resources are re-negotiated (things like trespass, theft and looting become commonplace) and when status is defined through demonstrated skill and the application of technique (meritocracy). Not only does this allow for a re-ordering of priorities in terms of universal human needs but also sets up a situation where human qualities like observation, level-headedness, rational thinking, resourcefulness, grit and determination become highly prized.


In my consideration of Z-A planning, I am also interested why is it that people get involved in these conversations – why do they not just resign themselves to their fate and the inevitability of their death at the hands of the overwhelming zombie horde? In their essay Forsaking Optimism (2006) psychologists Carroll, Sweeny, & Shepperd state that:

when people believe they can control their outcomes, they believe they can take actions to increase the occurrence of a desired outcome and avoid the occurrence of an undesired outcome. (Carroll et al 2006:59)

Could the Z-A scenario potentially result in an increased perception of personal autonomy, rather than the feelings of pessimism that accompany the perception of future events as out of your control?


In their book A Theory of Human Need (1991) Len Doyal and lan Gough argue that ‘basic needs are linked to the avoidance of serious harm’ (Doyal & Gough, 1991:50). Doyal & Gough go on to identify physical health and autonomy as the universal prerequisites necessary to enable sustained and critical (social) participation in one’s own life, which they define as ‘the capacity to situate it, to criticize it, and, if necessary, to act to change it’ (Gough, 1994:28). This linking of physical health and autonomy could be seen as cyclical – when our level of physical (and mental) health or wellbeing falls below a certain standard, our autonomy becomes impeded and similarly when our level of autonomy falls below a certain level, our physical (and mental) health or wellbeing also suffers. In contemporary Western society the ‘avoidance of serious harm’ could be expanded through a complex set of negative or un-ideal consequences related to our economic participation in a capitalist system – joblessness, homelessness, loss of freedom of movement through imprisonment, loss of monetary resources or possessions, loss of social status or capital. Although these situations may not be direct translations of what Doyal & Gough mean by physical health and autonomy, again we could identify a strong correlation between the ‘losses’ experienced above and their impact on achieving the ‘standards of living adequate for health and well-being’ as detailed in Article 25 [2] of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the socio-economic re-positioning of the individual as dependent [3] (on the state, charity, family or other individuals).

In the Z-A scenario, the threat of serious harm (physical injury, infection or death) is ever-present and much of the Z-A planner’s conversation circles around the avoidance of situations where they may be hurt or killed. At the same time, the scenario bypasses our aversion to loss [4] of property and financial resources, removing severe negative consequences as listed above (homelessness, joblessness etc.) and places death, the loss of life and humanity at the fore. Arguably, this places Z-A planners in situation where they have little or nothing to lose – apart from the greatest loss of all – non-survival.

* * *

I would argue, therefore, that the performative space generated during ZA planning conversations and the attraction of the very particular situation of the Zombie Apocalypse (rather than any other type of apocalypse) is based on the following points:

  • These conversations set up an imaginative adult activity that is inclusive and applicable/accessible to many without the perceived need for specialist knowledge or complex information.
  • The conversations use, draw on and explore the individual’s existing knowledge and their own awareness and experience of glitches in the flow of capitalist society – those things I termed earlier as ‘moments of apocalypse’.
  • They allow communal space to reflect on individualism, self-reliance and self-preservation by creating spaces of critical potential – allowing a serious rethinking and re-positioning of ideas of basic human needs, use and value and, most importantly, reveal the level of human agency often suppressed in our everyday participation in a late-capitalist society.


The fictional scenario also allows for a serious reconsideration of things we might often deem as unthinkable – situations that are ‘too unlikely or undesirable to be considered a possibility’ (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2005) in our comfortable Western position. These things include societal breakdown or collapse, making life or death decisions, possible alternatives to our current capitalist system and this system not existing at all, which for many might remain the most unthinkable of these points. It forces us to closely examine and unpick the prerequisites of our current societal system (what it needs to survive and thrive) and reassess our relationship to resources and consumption, the interrelationship of individuals, and the social and environmental impact of the way in which we live our lives today.




[1] Importantly, this takes Z-A planning out of the realms of fantasy role-playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons (Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, 1974). However, Z-A planning conversations share many of the characteristics of RGPs – players/planners engage in processes of structured decision-making and character development (through discussion with other group members) within a fictional realm where actions have consequences – but Z-A planners are unlikely to see or categoize their activity as RPG.

[2] Article 25 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (United Nations, 1948)

[3] See : Fineman, Martha Albertson (2000) Cracking the foundational myths: Independence, autonomy, and self-sufficiency for discussion of the position of dependency as a universal and unifying human experience.

[4] In their essay Forsaking Optimism (2006) psychologists Carroll, Sweeny, & Shepperd state that:

Numerous researchers have noted that people are loss aversive; they find losses more aversive than they find gains of equal magnitude attractive (Kahneman & Tversky, 1984; Taylor, 1991). According to cardinal utility theory (Bernoulli, 1738/1954z), the loss aversion stems from the implications losses can have for comfort. Financial resources are extremely important until basic needs are met. Once basic needs are met, the need for additional resources drops significantly. A loss of resources, however, could translate to a decrease in comfort and a failure to meet basic needs. (Carroll et al 2006:59)





Rachel Dobbs is one half of LOW PROFILE, an artist and educator based in Plymouth, UK. Rachel is an Associate Lecturer with Falmouth University, Plymouth Univesity and Plymouth College of Art. She is involved in researching and writing around ideas of dissemination (of contemporary arts practices) and examinations of things that may be over-looked, over-used or over-familiar. For more writing, take a look here…


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