Monday, May 21, 2012

The monster within

What makes a monster?

This was the question I asked myself as I walked out of a play that appeared at my school this weekend and - despite the implications of its name, Night of the Flesh Eaters - was one of the most fascinating and introspective performances I've ever seen on campus.

The number of plays I've been to here is absolutely ridiculous. I have a collection of all of my programs compiled since the beginning of freshman year, and the stack is at least several inches tall now. But there are only a few programs that stand out to me - because they are representative of the shows that actually made me think about something, made me feel something.

A few days ago, I sent a message out to a couple of my friends asking if they wanted to go see this new show about zombies or something. I didn't really know what it was about, but I knew it involved blood and gore. And sometimes I just enjoy blood and gore.

I didn't want to use photos of the characters I mentioned. Too scary.
I grew up on horror films. My mom was obsessed with the macabre. Whenever we'd go to the video rental store, she'd pick up a scary film to watch. We'd set up a fort on the couch and eat popcorn, screaming over Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, Chucky the doll or the ghosts in The Sixth Sense. It was pretty awful - the sheer number of horror films I saw before the age of 10. But it somehow made me develop a masochistic love for the genre.

So I wanted to go see Night of the Flesh Eaters, even if it meant I'd be screaming my lungs into submission, trapped in a room with a bunch of people I didn't know.

When we got to the theater, everything was as I expected. My friend Danielle and I sat down in the front row and, though I immediately felt that being so close to the action might be a mistake, stayed there for the remainder of the performance. We inquired to the girl sitting next to us whether there was a "splash zone" for fake blood or any other concerns. We were told not to worry.

But I still felt anxious...and exhilarated.

What I encountered though, was not a zombie slasher play. It was a thought-provoking piece of prose.

In the story, there are four students who run into a shack on campus to escape what appear to be many many zombies that are chasing them, ready to devour at will. When they manage to make it into the safe-zone of the shack, they search for food and supplies while carrying on ethical arguments about whether or not the supposed "zombies" are still in any way human or not.

On one side are the characters who profess that there are still people inside the zombie-like shells. They purport that killing them is not just permissible self-defense because they are still human. On the other side are the self-preservationists that feel nothing but the need for survival.

The entire play became this jumble of provocative arguments which, at the very least, placed you into the story. You could feel yourself getting caught up with the characters - praying for their survival. For me, the show became a way of peering into my own perspective about what constitutes murder in cold blood and what is considered an imminent threat warranting self-defense through killing.

About half-way through the show, we discover that the character who is taking on the role of humanitarian in the group, Sam, actually has a motive for doing so. When one member of the human group leaves to find a car and a few "zombies" make it into the shack as a result, we watch the three people left over handle the flesh eaters. Sam ends up chaining her flesh eater to a pole instead of killing it like the other two.

At first this causes a lot of tension, especially when we find out that the flesh eater Sam has caught is her girlfriend, Zoe. But in time we also learn that this flesh eater can be used as an experiment to figure out whether these people really are "zombies," or if whatever is wrong with with them is reversible.

When Zoe is somewhat inexplicably knocked back into her senses, we realize that underneath the flesh eater shells are people still alive and still thinking with human minds, just unable to stop themselves from devouring anyone in their path. The ethical dilemma becomes even greater.

And it made me think.

Granted, most of us - I'm assuming all of us, actually - will never be faced with the decision of whether or not to kill a flesh eater. There is no disease that causes people to become cannibalistic zombie-like creatures with no control over their faculties, and thus this is a situation completely contrived.

But in some way, this is an issue many people confront in reality. In the face of danger, people must often make the decision of whether self-defense is warranted or not. Questions like this become even bigger debacles when we have to figure out whether someone is guilty of manslaughter or if they had any right to defense against imminent danger.

As someone who stands firmly on the left of the political spectrum, I very seldom question my own position on gun control. In this world, I believe there is no excuse to kill. I don't even believe in the death penalty and I am a vegetarian, so I take this argument pretty seriously.

False advertising? Not that I'm angry.
When I watched Night of the Flesh Eaters, though, I felt myself siding at times with the character, Mackenzie, who was willing to kill the "zombies" so that she could continue to live on - since she knew they could pose a threat to her and would show her no mercy.

Is it ever right to kill someone because you feel threatened? Even if there are other ways out?

At the very end of the play, Mackenzie starts pounding on the walls and the flesh eaters manage to make their way into the shack. The three other main characters - Sam and the two others, Neil and Doug, who have decided to side with her - are fighting off the zombies, but not killing them.

In the last moments, the flesh eaters manage to kill Doug. Neil is still standing at one door fighting off a group of flesh eaters and Sam is at the other begging Mackenzie to help her. Mackenzie stands and stares at them both, but does nothing.

Then one of them yells out how Mackenzie is the real monster. Suddenly Neil and Sam falter and become victims to the flesh eaters, meanwhile Mackenzie just hides behind a pillar.

She says, "I'm sorry" quite loudly. And all the flesh eaters turn away from their prey, shifting their eyes to her. And the room goes black.

And when it did, along with my piercing tension, I felt a sense of incompleteness. And sadness that none of these characters had prevailed. Even the strength of three of them couldn't save them from the fate secured by one overzealous and self-preservationist character.

Still, the message was shrouded in complications. Was it right for those characters who refused to kill off the flesh eaters to allow themselves to die because they refused to use a gun on their "zombie" murderers? Should Mackenzie have tried to help them defeat the flesh eaters without a gun and proven herself humanitarian as well? What were her motives anyway, and did she realize she was ensuring her own demise?

Was she a monster? And if so, what made her a monster?

I walked away from the theater feeling a plethora of emotions. But none of them were fear. What I had thought I was walking into was nothing like the actual performance that I saw.

And I'm thankful for that.

Because last night I went to sleep with questions. Questions like the ones above, questions about my own political and personal convictions, questions about who I can trust to stand by me and my opinions. I didn't look into the corner of my room - like I would often when I was a kid post-Child's Play viewing - and hide under the covers thinking that a monster lurked there. Instead, I was left to contemplate the existence of real life monsters.

The ones inside each and every one of us.

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