With their .45 and 9mm handguns cocked and ready, two PBS engineers turned zombie hunters crept through a door in the Shenandoah Valley and into madness. A dozen bloody and undead faces stared back.
Steve Wynn and Eric Timmerman, who’d taken vacation days to kill zombies, put dozens of bullets in their brains, which turned out to be plastic.
These were zombie targets and dummies, not the flesh-eating ones, and Wynn and Timmerman encountered them at a gun range at the end of a gravel road in Winchester. They were students in “Zombie Survival 101: Surviving the Horde,” a class offered by a Virginia firearms training company that has, like much of the gun world, become infested with zombies.
Around the country, gun enthusiasts are turning pop culture’s fascination with the undead into a fun — and socially acceptable — target. They are joining zombie eradication teams and snapping up zombie targets, zombie ammo, zombie gas masks and even zombie-killing textbooks, which correctly illustrate the only way to execute a zombie: with a head shot. (Aiming for the pelvis will at least slow them down.) Late last month, nearly 1,000 people gathered on 200 acres in Minnesota for Outbreak Omega, an annual event of simulated zombie attacks where shooters even rode in a local SWAT team’s armored truck.
“It’s politically incorrect to shoot human targets,” explained Larry Ahlman, the longtime owner of Ahlman’s gun store, the host of the Minnesota event. “And it’s getting politically incorrect to shoot animal targets. It’s a little boring to shoot circular rings all day. But nobody can find a place in their heart for a zombie. So it’s really the perfect thing to shoot.”
Cultural historians and gun world observers say there are deeper societal forces at work. Zombies and guns are a perfect match, they say, especially for a new generation of gun enthusiasts raised on graphic video games and movies and TV shows such as “World War Z” and “The Walking Dead” that feed a quintessentially American hunger for end-of-the-world fantasies.
“The perennialness of zombies is really fascinating,” said Kelly J. Baker, a religious historian and author of “The Zombies Are Coming! The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture.” “Zombies are so malleable. As a metaphor, they are really effective for just about anything.”
The prepping community, which encourages people to save and prepare for the apocalypse, is using zombies for recruitment. “To protect and sever” is the motto of the Zombie Response Team, a Texas prepper group. “How do we accomplish this?” the group’s Web site says. “Through educating each other about how to be prepared for any disaster that may come our way, including a zombie apocalypse. As they say, if you can survive a zombie apocalypse, you can survive anything.”
Zombies have even become a freaky metaphor for disease outbreaks and mass-casualty attacks, with both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Defense Department having used zombie hordes in training documents and simulations. A group of math professors published a paper titled, “When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection.”
Their outbreak in the gun world has helped bring new shooters — especially women — into the sport after the metaphor took hold a couple of years ago. The Pistol Packing Ladies, a Northern Virginia gun club, offers a monthly zombie target night. Shooting zombies in the head, said co-founder Erica Quinley, “is challenging and gets the ladies to focus on fundamentals. It’s just fun, too.”
And for firearms training, Wynn said “shooting at an undead psycho clown is just slightly less scary than imagining that black silhouette serial killer/mugger/rapist coming at you.”
Timmerman, 39, and Wynn, 50, began their training in a tiny wooden classroom that looked and creaked like an old one-room schoolhouse. A zombie dummy leaned up against the wall, his face riddled with bullet holes. Their teacher was Blake Isham, a local sheriff’s deputy, expert marksman and owner of Northern Virginia Tactical, a school.
After a brief safety discussion, Isham played a clip from “Zombieland,” a 2009 film in which Jesse Eisenberg’s character comes up with rules for fighting zombies. One is “beware of bathrooms.” Another is “check the back seat.” Wynn and Timmerman giggled.
“Classic,” Wynn said.
There was, of course, gore.
“If you have issues with gory movie clips, this is probably not the class for you,” Isham says.
The class, which typically has about eight students, was one of three that Isham taught during a long weekend last month. The students watched a big-screen presentation and followed along in an 11-page handout that included lessons on zombie brain anatomy (the best shot is actually a nose shot), zombie threat identification (“decomposing flesh”) and auxiliary zombie killing tools. Wynn brought two of his son’s baseball bats — just in case.
Isham allowed that some of the material had not been fully vetted.
“I’ve never met a zombie,” he said. “I’ve got a teenage brother. That’s the closest I’ve gotten to one.” Even still, he aimed for practicality. “While bulletproof gear is good,” he said, “biteproof is better. Zombies don’t have the fine motor skills to shoot a gun.”
More giggling. Timmerman and Wynn, like most others who stalk zombie dummies, do not actually think they pose a tangible threat. The danger is tongue-in-cheek, a fun way to learn advanced shooting tactics. “It’s more interactive than just going to the range,” Timmerman said. “You can move around. It’s a good way to learn more.”
After class, the students moved outside to the range, with its tall trees, chirping birds and zombies. Timmerman and Wynn shot for a couple of hours at paper targets: a clown zombie, a Nazi zombie and a zombie that looked remarkably like President Obama. They practiced shooting walking backward and forward, side to side and even with guns in each hand, Old West-style.
After examining a target suffering multiple head wounds, Isham said, “All in all, that’s a dead zombie. He no longer wants to bite us.”
Bursting through the door was the last drill, and it ended with a large melon. It was on a stick, substituting for a zombie head. Wynn, nearly out of ammo, bashed it with his son’s baseball bats. He raised both hands, and both bats, in triumph.
Whether Wynn and Timmerman realized it or not, experts say the zombie threat plays into a never-ending fascination with the end of the world.
“We all believe that we’ll be the one who survives,” said a University of Ottawa professor and author of the mathematical zombie infection study who writes his name as Robert J. Smith?. (He said he spells his name with a question mark to differentiate himself from other Robert J. Smiths.)
But the professor questioned whether firearms were a suitable defense.
“One zombie versus one human, humans are going to win that,” he said. “Humans are smart, they’re agile and so on. But it’s not usually that. It’s usually a thousand zombies versus 10 humans.”
Those aren’t good numbers, even for an Uzi.
“They don’t need to sleep and they don’t need to eat,” he said. “All they want to do is feast on your brains. We have to sleep. We have to sustain ourselves. So that’s where zombies tend to have the advantage.”
But there is a but.
“We have something they don’t,” the professor said. “And that’s intelligence. We can think up biometic fences, use tanks, build moats.” And so the real lesson of the zombie metaphor is this: Teamwork is paramount.
Isham’s final class of the weekend seemed to acknowledge that reality. Its title: “Zombie Survival 303: Teamwork.”
Isham and others think the zombie metaphor will remain undead for a while — unless a better symbol comes along. That prospect came up during class, when Wynn mentioned a possible “robot uprising.”
“I am far more concerned about Terminators than zombies,” Isham admitted. “Terminators are really, really hard to kill.”