1. Zombies and journalists have a lot in common.
Their personal hygiene is suspect. Their fashion sense is non-existent. They have trouble finding work. And while they’ve appeared in countless movies and TV shows, no one invites them to dinner or wants to have sex with them.
But one week ago today in New Orleans, journalists and zombies had something positive in common: They worked together to train college students how to interview better. It was called Zombie Stories.
But we had a problem…
2. The undead are unavailable.
Zombies may be everywhere these days, but never when you really need them.
I sought 30 zombies to teach interviewing tactics to 70 college students – because if you can interview a zombie, you can interview anyone. The concept was simple…
- We give you a free Zombie Stories T-shirt.
- You interrogate zombies shuffling in the night.
- Ask a dumb question, zombies smear your shirt with blood.
- If your shirt turns red, our judges disqualify you.
- Come up with three good questions and answers, you win.
- Grand prize: Get made up as a zombie for the evening.
…but finding those zombies required investigative reporting. (Try Googling Where to find zombies. You’ll find lots of fascinating but unhelpful crap. Like this.)
We discovered our zombies in (where else?) New Orleans. The Krewe of the Living Dead Social Aid and Pleasure Club is a loose collection of alcohol and latex enthusiasts who pub-crawl through the city until they’re no longer pretending to be zombies. Their shuffling, stumbling, and mumbling becomes real.
But we had a problem…
3. Zombies aren’t punctual.
This might seem obvious in retrospect. But we figured zombies would show up on the Saturday night before Halloween – do children oversleep on Christmas morning?
Instead, we had a measly dozen zombies ready by our start time, resulting in a 15-minute delay. Thankfully, zombies kept arriving throughout our event: a corpulent zombie monk in flowing black robes, a lithe zombie bride in a blood-splattered wedding dress, and a disturbing zombie mom carrying a bloody baby doll.
We had 20 zombies by the end, with a half-dozen more showing up when we were packing up.
(“Dude, it’s over?” one of the stragglers asked me. The most disconcerting part of the entire evening was hearing a bloody zombie address me as, “Dude.”)
Even the zombie tardiness would’ve been OK. But we had a problem…
4. Zombies are way too nice.
We decided to recruit New Orleans zombies instead of corpsifying journalists because we wanted students to interview real people. (Yes, in my mind, zombies are more real than journalists.)
But just to cover our ass, we had four journalists made up as zombies, including Dave Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. SPJ paid for the evening.
Turns out, Cuillier was a better interviewee than any of the “real” zombies. Example…
Q. Have you turned any celebrities?
A. I’ve turned many celebrities. Matt Damon, for one – from his acting, he’s clearly a zombie.
We didn’t expect the zombies to be effusive or articulate, but the ones who were still sober at 7 p.m. should’ve at least been as creative in their retorts as they were with their outfits.
And they were entirely too nice. The zombie bride (above) didn’t smear anyone with fake blood until I reminded her that we spent all morning mixing gallons of the damn stuff and pouring it into water bottles for them. (Like everything else in the world today, this recipe called for lots of corn syrup.)
The reason for the bloody bride’s reserve? “Oh, but these kids are just sooo cute.” I was about to kill her all over again.
Most of the female students gravitated toward a handsome man named “Amen.” (The zombies all wore name tags, of course.) He wasn’t actually a zombie, though. His backstory was simple: He survived the zombie apocalypse but lost an eye in the fight. He was chatty but also too kind with the fake blood.
Most of the guys gravitated to the “zombie triplets” – three young blond women in black tights. The triplets were much more willing to spray blood when asked stupid questions. Like this actual one: “So, uh, what’s it like being a zombie?” How pathetic that young men today can’t deftly flirt even with dead women.
But the triplets also fulfilled a stereotype with their vacuous answers…
Q. What do you look for in a boyfriend?
A. He was to have a hot-looking brain. And be tall.
Still, even that was bearable. But we had a problem…
5. Zombies eat brains and drink everything.
After an hour of interviewing, the college reporters had 30 minutes to email their best questions and answers to our judges – professional journalists around the country, some who were attending their own Halloween parties.
An hour later, we had our three winners: Jyllian Roach from the University of New Mexico, Brandy Nicholson from Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee, and Rennie Patterson from Mount Mary University – an all-girl Catholic school in Milwaukee.
But it wasn’t easy awarding them their prize of zombie makeup for the night. The zombies were already on their pub crawl, and they never made it to the nearby bar where they said they’d be.
Instead, they were far away in a not-exactly-safe section of New Orleans. When we found them, they stumbled outside and quickly made up our winners. But zombies get sloppy when they’re drunk, and Brandy and Rennie ended up looking like clowns.
I’ll figure out how to make it up to them for the bad makeup, but at least they enjoyed themselves. When we asked them how it went, they all used the word “fun”…
Rennie: “It was a lot of fun because I was able to step out of my comfort zone – and the zombies helped a lot with the interviewing process by removing any stage fright I may have felt in the past.”
Brandy: “The zombies didn’t actually help me with interviewing, although it was fun! It was more than a nice distraction, I would say. It was metaphoric of exercising my journalistic muscles.”
Jyllian: “Zombie Stories was a lot of fun. It was a good exercise in asking the right questions and in drawing out good answers from difficult sources – some of those zombies just didn’t want to talk. Trying to find the best quotes and getting them submitted by the end of the 30-minute deadline was fun as well.”
6. College students are smarter than zombies.
Some of the questions and answers were quite clever, as you can see from Rennie’s video above. I won’t reveal more than I have here, because despite our problems, we’re doing this again.
Except not in New Orleans. No way.
We want to come to you. We’re applying for grants that’ll get you all the T-shirts you’ll need, plus some cash for makeup. We’re looking for schools with both journalism and theater departments.
Curious? Interested? Contact me. I’d love to know what zombies can teach you.