Erin Blakemore is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist. Her work has appeared in publications like The Washington Post, TIME, mental_floss, Popular Science and JSTOR Daily. Learn more at erinblakemore.com.
When you think of zombies, it’s likely you envision something like the flesh-eating, immortal creatures created by George Romero, who defined a new genre of horror with Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Thanks to Romero, who died this week at the age of 77, the zombie movie has become more than a chance to feel scared. It’s also an essential lens through which we can view pop culture, politics, and society. In honor of the great director, here is some our favorite writing about the terror of the living dead.
One of Romero’s most famous narrative coups was casting a black actor as the hero of his 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead. It was a decision that turned a run-of-the-mill horror movie into a complex commentary on the civil rights movement, and imbued other zombie films with the ability to criticize society.
The thing about good zombie fiction (and I say this as someone who enjoys an awful lot of zombie fiction) is that the zombies are never the most horrific thing. Zombies don‘t typically have the capacity for complex thought — they don‘t execute stratagems, play politics, torture people. All they do is feed. The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.
Cameras snap, laptops click, recorders flip on and reporters lean forward. On one side, the White House Press Secretary; on the other, the media — gladiators of free speech or mad dogs out for blood, depending how you see them. The great American press briefing is an ecosystem with its own traditions and its own inscrutable rules that has survived, in one form or another, for more than a hundred years. Under the Trump administration, the White House press briefing may not survive the summer.
It’s easy to forget that the the modern press briefing — in which a member of the government routinely meets with select members of the press — is a relatively new custom in the history of the presidency. It’s also easy to forget its informality has always been an illusion.
In 1989, during a performance of Hamlet at the National Theater, Daniel Day-Lewis walked off the stage. Like Hamlet, he claimed, he’d seen his father’s ghost. He never took to the stage again. With this week’s announcement that Day-Lewis is retiring from acting, it looks like his film days are over, too. And when Daniel Day-Lewis commits to something, he really commits.
Cue the public mourning for one of our most dedicated actors, a man as famous for avoiding the cameras as he is for standing in front of them. Day-Lewis embodied Acting with a capital A, embracing all of its finicky pretense. The end of his career may also be the end of an era for the great method actor — and the brilliant, if reluctant, male movie star.
Dear old Dad. To hear retailers tell the story, he’s a transparent creature, someone who is pleased by the simple things: a shirt, a book, a steak, a new gadget. But the dads most of us grew up with — and without — are a more inscrutable lot. They’re people, after all, whose past lives, present concerns, and future legacies can vex, perplex, and frustrate their children. Can we ever really know these men? Some of the best writing about dads embraces that mystery, confronting the hard questions of what it truly means to know one’s father.
Seven thousand, three hundred days. Twenty years. Judging by the response to the release of Arundhati Roy’s long-anticipated follow-up to her first novel, 1997’s The God of Small Things, you’d think it had been two hundred. Reviews of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness are almost as ecstatic as the ones that accompanied Roy’s first book — and they almost always include a lament that it took her so damn long to produce.
The God of Small Things received a Man Booker Prize, bestseller status, and a whirlpool of accolades, but after its publication, Roy opted out of fiction altogether, pursuing a career as a political activist-cum reporter, unearthing the stories of society’s rebels and outcasts, advocating for a non-nuclear India, the independence of Kashmir, and criticizing prime minister Narendra Modi.
How dare she?
That’s the underlying question in nearly every interview with Roy that’s followed. Who wouldn’t give just about anything for a fawning debut New York Times book review, a public clamoring for the next book? Doesn’t she owe her readers another glimpse into her imagination? Read more…
They came in the tens of thousands, pushing baby carriages and packing roller skates. All in all, an estimated 200,000 pedestrians crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on May 27, 1937, its first day in business. The bridge was already a San Francisco landmark—a flaming, burnt-orange beacon conceived a decade earlier by Leon Moisseiff, who had engineered the Manhattan Bridge. It was a graceful design, but suspension bridges still weren’t entirely safe—the engineer’s Tacoma Narrows Bridge would fail spectacularly only a few months after it opened in 1940.
The Golden Gate also has a dark side. To afford a view of the city, the bridge has a low barrier that is easy to scale. (In “Jumpers,” the New Yorker’s Tad Friend meditates on the bridge’s reputation for death—for the families and friends of those who succeed in their jumps, it’s an indelible monument to their loved ones’ pain.) This month, city workers will finally begin the installation of a new barrier, a grey netting that will blend into the water without obscuring the view. Officials hope it will finally reduce suicide rates on the deadly bridge.
She means well, but I dread the dental hygienist. The judgmental tone in her voice is probably just exhaustion; the only dentist I can afford to see has an office that’s a in perpetual spin of budget-seeking patients. I’m one of scores of people who’ll sit her the chair today, and whenever I leave, I hear someone standing at the dreaded reception desk trying to argue their way out of a bill in an embarrassed tone.
Sometimes I’m in that corner too, wheeling and dealing for a way to swing basic treatments with money I don’t have. To my shame, I often go months or even years between routine cleanings, opting to spend money on debt or bills or food instead. Read more…
Yes, it was only last week—nine days to be exact, but who’s counting?—that President Trump committed the historical equivalent of hurling a live grenade into a crowd when he ventured into an improvisational analysis of the Civil War during an interview on Sirius XM radio. “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?” he said to the interviewer. “Why could that one not have been worked out?” It was a comment that poked the bee’s nest of public opinion and pushed the Civil War back into feverish public debate.
It’s been easy to dismiss President Trump’s comments as ignorant non-sequiturs or a childish attempt to divert attention from more pressing political issues. After all, there’s an entire field of inquiry devoted to asking exactly those questions about the Civil War, and scholars have devoted their lives to that question—but given Trump’s staunch anti-intellectualism, it’s not really surprising that he’s never bothered to notice. “Donald Trump has always acted in the moment, with little regard for the past…” wrote Marc Fisher in the Washington Post a day after the firing of FBI Director James Comey. But the Civil War, it seems, is an endless trauma to American democracy. As the republic reconsiders it again and again, it continues to mirror our understanding of the country we currently live in.
Perhaps, as Jon Meacham suggested in TIME after the president’s remarks, Trump was simply looking for himself in history—a plausible theory given the president’s perennially self-centered worldview. But by overlooking the war’s relevance and refusing to acknowledge slavery’s role in its birth, the president wasn’t merely sidestepping the issue; he was using tactics similar to those employed by “Lost Cause” revisionists and Confederate holdouts for generations, in which the cause of the war is questioned, reimagined, or willfully forgotten.
Our current decade marks the 150th anniversary of the war. Biographies, histories, and reconsiderations have come in measured steps and harsh reckonings—and discussions of memory, cause, conflict, reparation, and reconciliation have made it clear this war must continue to be discussed.
Conflicts rarely have only one cause, just as more than one thing can be true at a time. As Tony Horwitz wrote in The Atlantic in 2013 on the anniversary of the war’s start, slavery may not even have been central to Northerners’ experience of the Civil War. It was a kind of midwife, though, a stage on which a nation barely a century old played out its conflicts over sovereignty, autonomy, and national identity. Slavery as an institution concerned itself with just those questions. It used the bodies and labor of people stolen from their homes, excluded from equal society, and refused a personal identity.
In the summer of 2015, after Nikki Haley, then governor of South Carolina, announced the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol, Ta-Nehisi Coates collected the words of Confederate leaders who stated clearly that slavery was central to the identity of Southern states, which viewed it not just as an inalienable economic asset but as the very basis of white equality. The existence of slaves meant that white men could sidestep industrialized slavery of their own; the institutions’ proponents freely admitted that it upheld and enabled their quality of life.
Once slavery was abolished, the certain supremacy of Southern white men was threatened and the institutions it propped up were no longer guaranteed. The Confederate cause went from vaunted reason to fight to a heroic struggle that was snatched from its champions, spawning Lost Cause revisionist rhetoric that centralized the white Confederate experience. And as soon as the war ended, another one began, this one concerned with textbooks, memorials, and the “official” historical narrative.
Revisionists knew what they had lost. They knew that it would do them no favors to admit they had fought and lost a war over the right to oppress others. And so they turned toward telling their own story through the lens of states’ rights, a perspective that made room for the Confederacy to reintegrate into the union and still maintain face.
Trump’s no-big-dealism is a more plausibly deniable form of that same beast. Downplaying slavery, whether in textbooks that omit it or comments that ignore its existence with wide eyes, calls 150 years of historical reckoning into question without saying a word. It invites people to start from square one—sidestepping, perhaps, the abundance of historical evidence and analysis that already exists.
If Civil War history is a graveyard, it’s one still strewn with fresh graves. It will haunt us until we face it down collectively, reconciling its truths with the world we have constructed around its gates. The president is not the first person who’d rather avert his eyes than look inside—even though Trump whistles blithely by, it doesn’t mean the cemetery ceases to exist.
When President Obama walked out of the Oval Office earlier this year, he left behind more land protected under federal law than any of his predecessors. President Trump appears intent on challenging that legacy, recently ordering a sweeping review of national monuments with an aim to “balance” the protection of these lands. (The Bureau of Land Management also recently added banners to its website to evoke the wondrous vistas of coal mining and oil drilling.)
It’s not yet clear whether Trump will actually try to revoke Obama-era designations—or whether he’d succeed if he does—but the land protected under federal law has been a mix of majesty and mystery ever since Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act designating the nation’s first national park. Writers have used their craft to ask fascinating questions and expose the weird underbellies of national parks, monuments, and federal lands since long before Trump ever expressed an antipathy toward them.
When Cliff and Wilma Derksen’s thirteen-year-old daughter didn’t come home one afternoon in 1984, they faced every parent’s worst nightmare—the eventual discovery that their child had been abducted, tortured, and left to freeze to death in the harsh Winnepeg winter. They could have chosen to dwell in the unendurable sorrow of that new reality, but the Derksens took another path, writes Jana G. Pruden for The Globe and Mail: They decided to forgive the man who tormented and killed their daughter.
Their 33-year-long journey may be almost unimaginable to anyone who struggles with forgiving others. It’s hard enough to forget an imagined slight or overlook a harsh word, much less extend anything but hatred to a person who destroyed another human’s life. But strangely enough, the Derksens are not alone. Though the road they walk is largely uncharted, they do so as part of a long line of victims who have not just forgiven, but embraced the perpetrators of unthinkable acts—people who somehow find grace in the darkest human emotions.
How did they do it? For the Derksens, the answer was part religion, part personal resolve. After speaking with the father of another murdered child, they decided to forgive no matter what, even though they had no idea what that might mean. And as the years go by, their seemingly simple choice becomes more and more complex.
There was so much to forgive, and it went far beyond forgiving the brutality of a stranger they did not yet know. There were the police, for not believing them when they said Candace wouldn’t have run away, for implying that they were bad parents, and for focusing so long on Cliff as a suspect. For not finding her when she lay in a shed not more than 500 meters away from home. There were their own actions and choices, for the small things said and done, for not picking her up that day. There were the friends and family that disappointed them, the media that sometimes got things wrong. The strangers who piled on more hurt with false confessions and crank phone calls. There were the years Cliff spent under suspicion, even after a polygraph declared him a truthful man.
Forgiveness was not something to be done only once. It had to be a constant choice, letting go as a way of living.
The Derksens’ forgiveness is not an event, but an endless process that has changed over the years. Now that their daughter’s killer could walk free, they are once again being forced to confront their decision to forgive—this time at much closer quarters than the decades they spent having no idea who murdered Candace. Forgiveness allowed the Derksens to survive, yet Pruden paints a picture of mercy that, no matter how radical, is under continual threat.
But what if forgiveness is also an attempted shortcut at healing? In a November 2015 cover story for TIME magazine, “How Do You Forgive a Murder?” reporters David Von Drehle, Jay Newton-Small, and Maya Rhodan interviewed the families and survivors of the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Just days after Dylann Roof gunned down their loved ones at a Bible study, a few of the family members stood before Roof at a bond hearing and told him they forgave him.
Somehow—perhaps the idea was planted by the judge’s remarks—Nadine Collier was able to recognize the wreckage this man had made not just for her and the other survivors but in his own life. “I kept thinking he’s a young man, he’s never going to experience college, be a husband, be a daddy. You have ruined your life,” she recalls thinking.
What she said at the podium, while choking back sobs, came out like this: “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again—but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
Since that day, Collier has had many hours to reflect on those spontaneous words, and she says she has no reason to regret or revise them. They expressed a sense of loss and absence that remains unfilled months later, as well as her desire to move beyond the horror—a desire she still feels keenly. And she believes that her mother might have said something similar if she had lived.
For those who forgave Roof publicly, the choice to do so was a matter of freedom, of refusal to be bowed by a 21-year-old’s racially-motivated hate crime. Their decision to forgive—made in a split second in an emotionally harrowing moment—gained national attention. But for those who did not or could not make that choice, both the forgiveness and the fame that came along with it are discomfiting. If forgiveness really is a choice, their story suggests, so is the refusal to reconcile. The Charleston families who are less ready to forgive suggest that to do so might lead to forgetfulness—and lay claim to a path that is theirs to direct and experience.
Not everyone occupies the place of forgiver, though. When Darin Strauss struck and killed one of his high school classmates in an unavoidable car accident, he was saddled not just with his own guilt, but also with the ramifications of a community’s unwillingness or inability to forgive.
Strauss, who discussed his experiences on a 2008 episode of This American Life, and later in the memoir Half a Life, has lived with his actions for more than twenty years. And though he has eventually forgiven himself for what he now sees as a freak accident, his interactions with the family of the girl he killed—including their years-long lawsuit against him—illustrate the tense gray area of life without reconciliation.
Should we forgive? Not everyone is cut out for mercy and certainly they’re not required to be. Whether an act is unforgivable depends entirely on the circumstances, and the victims. But the experiences of those who have lost everything raise intriguing questions about the choices we do and do not have—and what might change if we walk a largely uncharted road.
“A Radical Grief,” Jana G. Pruden, The Globe and Mail, April 14, 2017. (5100 words / 20 minutes)