Today’s guest post comes from Morgan A. McLaughlin McFarland. She has worked on all of the Chill 3rd Edition projects as a writer and/or editor. When not writing (for publishers like Growling Door and Onyx Path or poetry nobody will publish) and editing (mostly genre fiction), she lives with one husband, two domestic cats, and three feral children. She didn’t get this job through nepotism; she met the husband through the job.
We love an undead redemption story. The redeemable dead have become pervasive in contemporary zombie media, monsters that can be made human again, lost children returned, hearts mended and love restored. Zombies aren’t just a metaphor for mindless consumerism or the terrifying plague-of-the-moment (AIDS, mad cow, etc.) any more, but for feelings of isolation and disconnection from other people. If the monsters can be saved, so can we, right?
Consider narratives centered around individual redeemable “human” undead and how they differ from those of shambling or sprinting zombie hordes. In The Flesh’s Kieran Walker was perceived as a threat to his community due to his queerness long before he rose from the grave and killed humans; his undead “condition” is medically manageable, and the real danger he presents is to cultural norms. Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies novel series (the movie is cute, but the novels are the real gem) offers us the protagonist R, whose earnest, fumbling journey back from zombieland happens through the power of human connection.
Have you seen The Girl With All the Gifts? Put a pin in this post and go watch it now, then come back, because it’s a great example of a story going horribly, horribly awry because of a person’s attempt to redeem the undead. (If you don’t have time to watch today, this summary of the book on which the movie is based hits the important plot points.)
Back with me now? Good. Let’s proceed.
Even in The Girl With All the Gifts, when Dr. Caldwell (who wants to dissect and study the “Hungries” to develop a vaccine) repeatedly warns soft-hearted teacher Ms. Justineau—and by extension the audience—that sweet and intelligent Melanie and the other half-Hungry students are not human children, but merely monsters who convincingly mimic the appearance and behavior of children in order to manipulate potential prey, the narrative still suggests Melanie’s humanity is real and Ms. Justineau’s love and trust are not misplaced…
Right up until the point that Melanie intentionally unleashes fungal spores that will end all human life on earth, that is. The monster’s motivation is not the same as human motivation. Its goals are not the same as our goals.
The undead of Chill are like Melanie and the feral, non-verbal Hungry “children” luring in and trapping humans to eat. They aren’t sad-eyed Kieran Walkers who just want to be accepted by their community or perky Liv Moores (from iZombie) who can stave off their eternal hunger through morgue work and hot sauce. The undead of Chill are not redeemable. They can’t regain their humanity, no matter how hard the envoys try, because the undead of Chill have no humanity to regain. They are creatures of the Unknown, and the Unknown has its own agenda and rules. Some may still look human. Some may behave in ways that play upon the envoys’ sympathies. Some may even be motivated by the events or memories of a human life. They are not human, however, and they never can be, but the envoys may not realize or accept that, and therein lies a whole new potential for undead-centric horror.
When introducing the undead into a game of Chill, remember that Dr. Caldwell was right (and would have fit in quite nicely at SAVE). The zombies don’t want to love you; they want to eat or kill you. Try to make your players forget that. Any team of envoys has at least one potential Ms. Justineau. Show them a monster that looks like person, that exhibits human-like traits such as speech or a recollection of memories, that is driven by a seemingly relatable need or desire, and watch envoys begin to sympathize with the undead. A botched Information check could easily yield a False Lead that suggests a particular undead has complex, human-like motivations that result in envoys anthropomorphizing a creature of the Unknown that still very much wants to kill, eat, or otherwise destroy them.
And that moment when the undead’s true nature reveals itself—when Melanie releases the spores—and the envoys finally understand that the undead are not redeemable and that restoring humanity was never an option? Realizing that the monsters can’t be saved (and thus, maybe, neither can we) may prompt a Horror Resolve check. Not realizing it in time might be fatal.