"What you don’t know can eat you": A conversation with the world's leading zombie expert

Matt Mogk knows zombies.

Not personally, of course—only theoretically. “All zombie research is theoretical,” he reminds readers in his excellent Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies.

But as director of the Zombie Research Society, no one in the world knows more about the walking dead than Mogk. If anyone could give me insights about the looming Zombie Apocalypse, I figured it’d be him. I knew I had to talk to him.

“Zombies capture the fears of our modern existence in so many ways. There’s so much room to project those fears onto them,” Mogk tells me. “Zombies are a blank canvas.”

We connect by phone on a Monday afternoon—still morning for him on the West Coast, still a full day of zombie research ahead of him. “Happy to connect for a phone call,” he says. “Always fun to talk zombies.”

I wouldn’t necessarily put “zombies” and “fun” in the same sentence—but then I think about it: they are fun. People like to be scared. Beyond that, though, people have laughed aplenty at the walking dead. Think “zom-coms”—zombie comedies—like Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead.

“A lot of people don’t understand what zombies are,” Mogk says. “There’s a wide range of interpretations, from very scary to funny. Zombies are a very scary notion—but it’s also so freaky that it plays to the comedy. Some people do that more successfully than others.”

That wide range of interpretations helps fuel the pop-culture appeal of zombies. “There’s not an entire industry of vampire video games,” he says, pointing out by inference that there is for zombies.

That’s not to say the world’s leading expert on all things zombified “gets” it all. He scratches his head, for instance, over zombie walks—groups of people who dress like zombies and then shamble together through a city or town. Sometimes they shamble from one bar to another.

“Zombie walks freak me out,” Mogk admits. “Being surrounded by a horde of shambling undead…. It sounds like an actual nightmare—the kind of nightmare I wouldn’t want to have.”

Mogk is committed to the study of zombies on all levels, but he concedes that he sometimes has a tough time balancing such pop culture angles against more serious scientific study. Even though he got hooked on zombies as a kid by watching every zombie movie ever made, “I lean more toward the serious side,” he says. After all, it’s serious business. One of the main premises of the Zombie Research Society is that the dead will rise up.

“It’s a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if,’” Mogk says. “I would rather be wrong. I’d absolutely love to be wrong. But I only have to be right once.”

Saying “I told you so” after the fact, when the world is a smoldering ruin of undead carnage, doesn’t have much appeal to him. He’d rather assemble as many plausible theories now, in advance, while he can, hoping all the while that no one will ever have to use them.

“I’m not living in a bunker, stocking food and refusing to build social relationships or anything like that,” he explains. “It helps to have a sense of urgency to take the research seriously. It provides a reason to drive the research.”

“It’s fun, too,” he points, “so it works that way, too. There’s no downside.”

That’s what I come to like so much about Mogk as we talk: this is all obviously great fun to him. He’s the kid who can’t believe someone is actually paying him to have all the candy he wants while he’s working at the candy store. Could his luck get any better?

Mogk is energetic yet self-effacing (he’s not above slipping in a few bald jokes at his own expense). He’s versatile in his knowledgeable, hitting on fields as diverse as physiology and sociology, microbiology and ichthyology.

His enthusiasm is as infectious as a zombie bite.

As fun as it is, he is dead (undead?) serious about it, too—so serious, in fact, that for the last year or so, he’s made a full-time living as a zombie researcher: working on his book, maintaining the Society’s website, and hitting the lecture circuit, particularly on college campuses, where he talks about science and survival. “It’s still very strange,” he admits.

But it’s also been very exciting. Being a professional zombie researcher is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. “I’ve always been obsessed with zombies,” Mogk says.

As a kid, Mogk would try to think of scary things before bed so he could give himself scary dreams. “To me, it wasn’t scary; it was kind of thrilling,” he explains. “It was like getting a free movie in my head.”

He got hooked on zombies by watching horror movies. By the time he was a grad student at NYU, he had parlayed his fanboy fascination into legitimate scholarship. While there, he wrote his master’s thesis on zombies.

His subsequent experience working at a disease research company, where he worked with diseases including HIV, hepatitis, and Parkinson’s, helped deepen his conviction that zombies deserved honest scientific examination.

“I got to see how infectious diseases got passed on, and how all the pieces of that process fit together,” Mogk says. He began to apply that real-world knowledge to the hypothetical problem of zombies. Possibilities began to unfold.

He built his zombie research around one simple premise: “If a zombie showed up at my front door, what would that look like?” What would happen if it didn’t blink, for instance, or what would keep blood from pool in its feet? What is it about them that freaks people out?

“I started doing research into human decay theory, brain function, all sorts of physiological areas,” Mogk says. “I started calling around and asking for help. It turned out, some of those experts were interested in zombies, too, so [The Zombie Research Society] kind of grew from there. It was really very organic.”

The fact that zombies are science-based phenomena sets them apart from other monsters. “You don’t try to use science to explain a vampire or how they turn into a bat,” Mogk says. “One of the reasons zombies are so popular is that they’re really grounded in science. They don’t spring from ancient superstition and myth. There’s no romance in a zombie.”

Although scientifically more plausible than other monsters, zombies still get little respect. “I want zombies to get respect the same way vampires do,” Mogk says. “Vampires, as a monster, are a highly established cultural phenomenon.” The literary tradition of vampires goes back more than a century and a half, and their folkloric tradition dates back even further.

Although modern zombies have appeared in several books since their genesis in Romero’s movie Night of the Living Dead, they really didn’t get any serious literary treatment until Max Brooks’ Zombie Survival Guide in 2003. “What Max did…is that he was the first person to give zombies the respect they deserve,” Mogk says. “Zombies are the least respected monsters. Max paid them enough respect that he wrote a whole book about them and how to survive. He was the first guy to try and get all that down.”

The Zombie Research Center has tried to carry on that work. Recent stories include pieces on “Electric shock zombie weapons,” “Hairworm makes zombie crickets,” “Fight zombies with a rifle or a shotgun,” and a discussion of slow vs. fast zombies (a topic of heated debate). “The site’s mission is to advance zombie knowledge and respect in the arts and sciences,” Mogk says.

“I want a zombie movie to win an Oscar in my lifetime,” Mogk says, realizing it might be an impossible dream. “I want to see them get high-brow treatment, not just slash-‘em-up.” He points to the AMC series The Walking Dead as evidence of movement in the right direction. “Three years ago, I never would have guess there’d be a TV show,” he says. “It’s a well-made, well-budgeted show on a respected network.”

In the meantime, Mogk will continue to do his part to advance the cause. The website features new content daily, and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies was recently nominated for the 2011 Bram Stoker Award for best nonfiction book. As a follow up, he’s working on a graphic novel that features board members from the Zombie Research Society working as a covert special ops team to stamp out zombie outbreaks (IDW, Image, and a French publisher are all vying for the rights). He’s also at work on an anthology that would feature the work of board members writing in their own areas of expertise as if an outbreak were happening—a sort of manifesto issued by a Blue Ribbon panel of experts.

After my conversation with Mogk, I start checking the site almost every day. “What you don’t know can eat you,” it warns. Good advice. I particularly love how I can interpret that slogan with a bit of a chuckle or I can interpret it straight.

Matt Mogk, it seems to me, represents what’s best about pop culture—and certainly what’s best about the study of zombies. It’s entertaining, but it’s more than entertainment. There’s substance behind the style. There’s something to learn.

And that’s important. Matt Mogk has seen the enemy, and it is our own ignorance. We need to learn all we can. After all, what we don’t know can eat us.


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