When it comes to zombie flicks, Joe Wilson prefers the classics, when gore was gore and zombies were simply the walking undead.
“George A. Romero may have been the best director of zombie movies,” says the 25-year-old former Air Force serviceman, who says he got into watching zombie movies during boring stretches in Iraq. “But he started getting to a point where he was trying to use zombies to point out all of society’s flaws in his movies. Maybe he was always like that,” Wilson allows, recalling the thinly-veiled Vietnam references in Night of the Living Dead, the 1968 Romero film that basically defined the genre. Ten years later, the director’s Dawn of the Dead would liken zombies to brainless consumers of the American shopping mall. “But eventually all those subtle undertones started getting really heavy-handed,” Wilson says, “And I was like, ‘Ah, OK.’”
Wilson is equally put off by heavy-handed interpretations of the organization he belongs to, an international community of horror fans who also happen to be preparedness geeks called the Zombie Squad. The squad was born out of a campfire bull session among five outdoorsy 20-somethings from St. Louis after watching the tense 2003 British horror movie 28 Days Later, in which virus-infected humans voraciously attack survivors and spread their zombie plague. The Zombie Squad started out as a tongue-in-cheek survivalist challenge: Who among the group, all pretty well-skilled in fighting off the harsh elements of nature, could outlast something as unnatural as an attack of the running undead?
Gradually, the group’s zombie-themed camping excursions took off, with an oddball mixture of sci-fi geeks, survivalists and live action role-playing gamers (hey, somebody had to play the zombies!) showing up for what eventually grew into fairly straightforward boot camps on disaster preparation, albeit with an edgy irreverence. Today, some 26 chapters of the Zombie Squad, linked throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe by a lively online forum and the annual Zombie Con convention held in Irondale, Missouri, host neighborhood blood drives and work in tandem with mainstream organizations like the Red Cross and the Centers for Disease Control, drawing a younger volunteer base to a post traditionally dominated by Depression-era retirees.
“The zombie thing is a good hook – kind of a clever way of drawing people’s attention to disaster preparedness,” says Wilson, who serves as president of the Arizona chapter. “But I never looked into it that deeply about what the zombies actually stand for. To me, the zombies simply are the disaster.”
Others in the preparedness community, however, have been a bit more explicit about who the zombies might be in the variety of doomsday scenarios survivalists prep for, which can include everything from a sudden natural disaster or terrorist attack to a run on the banks or a food and water shortage. Survivalists generally refer to such situations as a SHTF scenario – the last three letters standing for “hits the fan.”
“As much as people like to joke about it, there is some truth to the whole zombie metaphor,” says Tess Pennington, a Dallas-based survivalist blogger whose first job out of college was working at the Red Cross command center in New York City on September 11, 2011. “People’s dispositions change when their needs aren’t met. And if you take away their basic needs, like food, water and shelter, after a time, they kind of lose a sense of themselves and become desperate to get those needs met. And that’s what makes being unprepared for an emergency so dangerous. That’s what people are talking about with the zombie effect.”
No one really wants to admit they’re fretting over the approaching so-called doomsday of December 21, 2012, the date marked by the ancient Mayan calendar as the end of the world as we know it – abbreviated on survivalists’ tweets as “TEOTWAWKI” (and occasionally pronounced out loud by preparedness nerds as “Tee-ought-walk-ee”). But given the global weirding of the environment – record tornadoes and heat waves, tsunamis and earthquakes – worldwide political unrest and the constant threat of economic collapse, nothing seems off the table.
“All you have to do is look at recent events to see some of the things that can happen,” Pennington says. “The best we can do is to be prepared for the unknown – as crazy as the unknown may be.”
With 2012 around the corner, a new division is creeping up in America. On the one side, there are those who believe they are prepared to handle any disaster that might come along – “preppers,” for short. And then there are the rest of us: the non-preppers, those who mock the Chicken Littles but who’ll likely end up at their doorsteps, the preppers fear, should disaster actually strike.
On another popular online discussion board, the Survival Podcast Forum, a moderator posts this definition: “Zombies are the brainless ones who feed on the labor of others, the savings of others, the preparations of others, or the freedom of others.”
The preppers have seen the face of the upcoming zombie apocalypse. And the zombies are us.
Although her website bills her as “The Survival Mom,” Lisa Bedford actually considers herself more of a prepper. It sounds better, for one thing: You can’t help but hear the bouncy old cola jingle whenever somebody with a spare bedroom full of Spam and peanut butter proclaims, “I’m a prepper!” (Inevitably, they always get around to inquiring, in so many words, “Wouldn’t you like to be a prepper, too?”)
“When I hear ‘survivalist,’ I do think of someone who lives in a more secluded area,” says the Peoria mom, a former teacher turned home-schooler who, until she discovered preparedness blogging, ran a Pampered Chef business at home. “Preppers are pretty much stuck where we are – in suburbia.”
It’s a TV-ready image, to be sure: SUV-driving soccer moms packing portable water filters and .22s, helping the kids prepare their “bug-out bags” – 72-hour emergency kits ever-ready to “bug out” with should the poop HTF – along with their daily lunchboxes.
“I know that all of the major cable networks are planning shows [on preppers],” Bedford says. “It’s not like hoarders,” she adds, distancing the strategic stockpiling of preppers from the habits of last season’s reality TV fixation. “That’s a mental illness,” she scoffs. “Prepping is the growing trend.”
Business is getting onboard, too, Bedford notes, and the ads on her website illustrate that assertion. Companies with names such as Emergency Essentials and PrepareWise pitch specials on one-month supplies of “just-add-water meals” and free shipping on bulk orders of emergency food storage products. “Businesses that are related to this are booming,” she says.
Ironically, it was the floundering economy that led to Bedford finding her own successful web niche. “About three years ago, I started noticing things happening with the economy that shouldn’t have been happening. People losing homes. People not being able to find work.” Bedford says she had always been a “be prepared” type. “When we’d go on vacations, I always had a case of water and blankets under the back seat. But I really began to take it to another level when I saw what was happening to people around us. I thought, ‘What if it was our family that was suddenly out of an income?’”
Before long, it was. Bedford’s husband, Steve, an electrical contractor, saw a dramatic drop in business in 2009. “But by then,” Lisa adds, “we had already jumped on the preparedness bandwagon. By that time, we had already collected five or six months of food.”
Today, Bedford offers savvy survival tips on her blog and weekly podcast, along with her own line of signature t-shirts proclaiming, “Survival is a mom’s job!” She loves sharing vital information with her more than 3,000 subscribers but is beginning to worry her high profile may ultimately force her family to move if something wicked really does this way come. Apart from natural disasters, financial collapse and political uprisings, one of the preppers’ biggest fears is that everyone in the neighborhood who now laughs at their garages packed with two-liter soda bottles filled with white rice will descend upon their houses in the event things really start looking like a disaster movie.
“Because I’ve been so ‘out there,’ talking about what we’re doing, what do I do if this big extended family shows up at my door?” she wonders. “I have planned and prepared for my family, but I really don’t have the resources to provide for all these other people. Really, the smart thing is to not tell people what you’re doing.”
To keep things at least a little on the down-low, Bedford takes precautions like having her bulk shipments of freeze-dried and dehydrated foods from Honeyville Grain in Chandler, a restaurant supplier that now caters to the prepper movement, delivered late at night. And she’s noticed other “closet preppers” in her neighborhood doing similar things.
“There are some red flags that can help you spot a fellow prepper,” she says. “One is if your neighbor all of a sudden has a vegetable garden in their yard. Or if you suddenly hear chickens! If you start seeing 55-gallon water drums in their driveways – they might be a prepper!
“You never know who’s out there thinking the same things but keeping quiet about it,” she adds. “Truthfully, I think there’s a lot more preppers out there than we realize.”
Armageddon for Dummies
With his noob-friendly, common sense approach to preparedness training, Fred Henss could write the ultimate Idiot’s Guide to Survivalism. “You don’t have to be MacGuyver or Rambo to do this,” he says with a smile. “There are a lot of practical things that the normal person can do to be prepared for most emergencies.”
Henss makes his living as a field training officer for Trident Security in Tempe and uses the company’s facility after work to conduct free monthly meetings of an Arizona group he formed online at Meetup.com called “Preparedness 101.” The former Navy submarine crewman began seeing the need to educate average folks on basic survival skills while working as an emergency operations manager at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
“Five or six years ago, we had a contamination issue at one of the main water treatment plants in Phoenix, and people couldn’t use the city water without boiling it first,” he recalls. “At the time I was working at Phoenix Children’s, and we had to get special deliveries from one of the bottled water companies because the doctors and nurses couldn’t even use the water to wash their hands.”
Seeing how just one unexpected event could throw even a well-trained hospital staff into a minor panic, Henss began wondering what might happen to a city the size of Phoenix in the event of a prolonged water shortage or electrical outage.
“It wouldn’t have to be a doomsday scenario or a zombie apocalypse,” Henss says. “There are lots of little things that can happen. When that transformer went out in Mesa a short while back and some neighborhoods lost their power, I heard from people who had to go to six or seven hotels before they could find one with a vacancy. So it doesn’t hurt to have things like a generator on hand in case the power goes out, or a $49 hand-cranking radio that you can use to power your cell phone.”
Of course, sometimes prepping for the little things can be a gateway drug to becoming a full-scale survivalist. Chandler software developer Toni Simon says she never put much stock in disaster scenarios (“Y2K was way overblown”) until she was invited by a friend to one of Henss’ meetup sessions. Now she says she’d like to live off the grid and raise chickens.
“The first meetup I went to, they did an exercise where they set up a scenario: It’s mid-July, 115 degrees in Phoenix, and the power goes out,” she recalls. “And then they went through a timeframe of what would happen if that situation continued. The freeways out of town would become gridlocked, society would start breaking down after two or three days, with people looting and going crazy from the heat. What would our personal plan be? It was really fascinating.”
Since then, Simon has gone with the group to a local manmade lake to learn how to purify water for drinking, learned the best bug-out routes in case of a mass exodus (“Find out where the train tracks run,” she reveals, “because you can always drive your car on the tracks”), and has become a stockpiling shopper. “Every time I go to the store now, I’ll pick up 10 cans of food with an expiration date at least two years out. And I do keep a lot of extra water on hand.”
Next up? Firearms training. Preppers say it’s a necessary skill if you need to hunt for food. Privately, they also talk about scenarios where guns might someday be needed to fend off starving and desperate non-preppers. Us zombies, in other words.
“I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that,” says another member of the Preparedness 101 meetup group, George (he prefers not to give his last name), who works in the risk management field. An avid news watcher – as are most preppers, on constant global disaster alert, thanks to 24-hour cable news channels – the 20-year military vet says he’s been stockpiling gold and silver in the event that rising inflation and continued unemployment send the economy into an irreversible tailspin. If that happens, he predicts, there could be violent civil unrest on our streets – possibly within the next six months.
“When Egypt went through its revolution and even the police abandoned the cities, people got together and formed their own militias to defend their neighborhoods with bats and guns,” he says, replaying global news images now ingrained into our collective psyche. “I can see something like that happening here.”
George is a man who laughs easily; he roars when relating how he learned to warm MREs – military Meal Ready-to-Eat rations, a survivalist staple – by storing the packets in his pants. But for all his military experience and preparedness, could he actually shoot an invader circling in on his family’s food or gold stockpiles?
“If it came down to defending my family, probably,” he says, although he’s confident his sons could protect themselves.
“My younger son is actually a pretty good shot. I don’t know if he could actually take action against another person. But my older son...” he adds, turning chillingly serious, “I’m convinced he could do it without thinking for a second.”
Julian Kibby and his wife, Elaine, contradict the old perception that survivalism is just for crazy, white right-wingers. Under the name Afroprepper, the appropriately coiffed Julian videoblogs about prepping three or four times a week on his YouTube channel, while Elaine, whose parents hail from the Philippines, writes a cooking blog called SheChef, offering tips on how to shop for organic food at the 99-cent store, canning chicken and pork chops for long-term storage and fertilizing your “ghetto garden” with “funkaceous earth.”
“To put it in black or white is a mistake, because I think it’s just a lack of information within minority communities about what prepping is that keeps people away from it,” says Kibby. “As soon as you say ‘prepping,’ most people think gloom and doom. But it’s really about love. If you really love your kids or your wife or yourself, you’re gonna put something away for a rainy day.”
Kibby grew up outside Detroit, where, at 10 years old, he saw the devastating effects of the Flint auto plant closures. That experience, coupled with an upbringing that stressed self-reliance and thinking ahead, formed what he feels is a natural instinct for prepping that many in minority communities already share. They’ve just never attached a trendy name to it.
“When I was a kid, I used to work at a baseball park for Parks and Recreation in Michigan,” Kibby says. “And my mom would tell me before I left the house, ‘It’s going to be cold tonight, so you might want to take a jacket.’ Of course, I’d say I didn’t need one. Then about the time the second game rolled around, I’d call and say, ‘Mom, it’s getting kind of cold. You think you could bring me a jacket?’” He laughs. “And she’d say, ‘What did I tell you before you left the house? So here’s your life lesson: It’s better to have it and not need it than it is to need it and not have it.’ Well, that’s prepping, in a nutshell!”
One trait Kibby does share with almost all preppers and survivalists is a general distrust of the government and authorities. When asked what he would take as a sign that it was time for he and his wife to bug out of their home in west Phoenix, Kibby says with a laugh, “If they started saying on the news, ‘Everybody go down to University of Phoenix Stadium, we’ll help you’ – I’m outta here!”
For many preppers, the 2005 news images of the thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees huddled in squalor and even decomposing corpses at the Louisiana Superdome, waiting for relief that never came, still resonate.
“Katrina was a turning point for a lot of us,” says Zach Pyle, another member of the Arizona Zombie Squad, who was living in Longview, Texas, at the time, where a lot of evacuees fled after the shelters in Shreveport filled up. Not long after that, a hurricane in Houston led to more evacuations, creating a gas shortage in his town. “Before then, I didn’t really keep any extra food at the house. Just beer and mustard.” (Pyle has since married and, in April, had his first son.) “But after that, it started looking like a good idea to be able to fend for yourself if you had to.”
For its part, FEMA (preppers derisively translate the acronym as “Foolishly Expecting Meaningful Aid”) has made steady progress since Katrina in improving the delivery of federal disaster assistance, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Still, its new director, Craig Fugate, has admitted it wouldn’t hurt for more citizens to become preppers themselves. The agency’s “Resolve to be Ready” campaign urges Americans to prepare an emergency supply kit, make a family emergency plan and stay informed – the top three rules of prepping.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourages similar self-reliance, although the federal agency would like us to know the government is on the case. “We’re definitely going to be there in the event of an emergency,” says Maggie Silver, of the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. “But I think it’s important that everybody on a personal level is prepared.”
To that end, the centers have created accounts on Facebook and Twitter, where preppers trade tips about such things as what to pack in a bug-out bag. Just for good measure, Silver has also gotten on the zombie bandwagon in her Public Health Matters blog, offering such tongue-in-cheek reassurance as, “If zombies did start roaming the streets, CDC would conduct an investigation much like any other disease outbreak.”
“We kind of coined the term ‘Zombie Task Force,’” she says, with a laugh. “It’s an unofficial CDC team.”
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