When I was in college, I signed up for a popular lit and culture class. Not because I wanted to or I thought it sounded interesting. Because I needed more English credits and I’d already taken Comp 1 and 2. In reality, I thought it was going to be a big waste of my time.
I was strongly opinioned back then.
I thought it was going to be a ‘cake’ class where we read whatever was popular at the time and talked about it. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. The professor posed a different approach to how we look at pop culture – which was that it tended to reflect our biggest fears and misgivings about the progress of any one generation.
We watched Blade Runner, for instance, and talked about the fear of AI. We watched and read sci-fi movies and stories from the 50s that seemed to clearly reflect fears about radiation and nuclear technology. We read Vampire stories from the 70s that paralleled drug culture and how it seemed to be all-consuming. We read short stories from African authors that explored magic that was supposed to represent the darkness or purity in all of us.
I ended up thoroughly enjoying the class and it’s helped me look at popular culture and media in a different way. Fast forward to the end of last year when I was having a casual conversation with a colleague of mine – I was telling him about my book, Colony One, and how it explores overpopulation’s impact on our future.
And my colleague, who has roots and family in the South, informs me that his uncle always used to say when a squirrel population became too large, they would all go insane. This intrigued me, and when I inquired into what, exactly, he meant by ‘insane’ he explained that they’d kill and eat each other. I found this fascinating, if not a little traumatizing. It was the first I’d heard of it, and being the kind of person I am, I went home and Googled – trying to understand if there was any known science around this, or if it was just an observation of rural living.
I couldn’t find anything substantial about squirrels, but I did find this concept of Behavioral Sink, which describes the collapse in behavior in overcrowding situations as observed in rats through experiments. When a population of rats was purposefully overcrowded, maternal behaviors plummeted – mothers were not taking care of their young (if their young survived birth), while males displayed sexual deviancy and cannibalism.
Now, my Popular Lit and Culture class predated the zombie craze that was most recently popularized by The Walking Dead. So this discovery of Behavioral Sink got me thinking about the implications of speculative writing where overpopulation is a huge factor. And while many zombie stories do not always speak to the element of overpopulation, the ‘zombie craze’ feels like a direct ripple of the innate fears of overpopulation. We use mice and rats in experiments because we can parallel many of the behaviors between theirs and ours. If we take the overcrowding experiments on rats as reflective of what could happen in the same situation with humans, zombies make a lot more sense.
This is the part where I admit that I am not all about the zombie craze. Zombies have always been 100% terrifying and unappealing to me. It’s one of those story tropes that really get under my skin – I always used to assume it was because having a bunch of mindless, brain-obsessed people-shaped things that had no hope for redemption running around was terrifying enough. But now I’m beginning to think it speaks to a deeper psychological fear that reflects the natural inclination to go insane in overcrowding situations.
And while I can promise that the subsequent sequels to Colony One will not feature zombies, there will be plenty of evidence of insanity – when populations are pushed to the brink, terrible things can happen. Group think, combined with discontented desperation and competition for resources will always be a recipe for disaster. As I write this, and as I’ve had these revelations, I find it increasingly ironic that a class I so resisted at first, I am now possibly contributing to future iterations of. My books could easily be toted as cautionary tales, a clear indication of present-day speculative fears and underlying unease.
Most zombie lore involves some kind of virus and a ‘Patient Zero’. I pose a more horrifying supposition; which is there will be no virus. Nothing that strips us of our agency – rather a tipping point of psychology and circumstance.
Those zombie books, TV shows and movies may never be the same again…
Eve is the founder of Some Nerd Girl and the author of urban fantasy novel Children of the Fallen and science fiction novel Colony One. She has been writing since the age of 13 and has been flying her nerd flag for the past 16 years. Fandoms include Star Wars, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. Basically if it has ‘star’ in it, she’ll give it a shot.