I wish I didn't know the precise moment when my 2 1/2-year-old son became obsessed with the undead, but I do. He'd been napping when his seven-year-old brother, Freddy, begged me to let him watch Shaun of the Dead, the 2004 British zombie parody filmed in North London, not too far from where we live. My husband looked at me skeptically as I pressed play, and I assured him it was a PG comedy, a contemporary classic. Where was the harm?
Half an hour later, while his older brother hid his eyes, James was up and jumping on the sofa, pumping his tiny fists and shrieking with glee as the slacker zombie hunters bisected ghoul heads with vinyl records. We turned the movie off, but it was too late, the damage was done. A ghoul-hunter was born.
By "obsessed" I mean my son has not gone a day in several months without speaking of zombies every second or third sentence. In the morning we play "zombies under the covers," and at night I tell him zombie stories before bed. At his nursery school, he's infected all his friends; they scream "zombie!" when he walks in to class, and run from him in mock horror as he does his best impression of the Michael Jackson Thriller dance.
If you had told me when I was an undergraduate minoring in women's studies that I would one day spend my weekends skulking around a Victorian cemetery with a toddler clutching a Nerf Super Soaker and a cricket bat, I would have laughed with scorn. (I have to keep him away from mourners, since he once ran at a funeral party swinging his weapon and shouting, "Go back to your graves!")
As responsible parents we are taught to encourage – rather than squash – our children's interests, and so my husband and I have decided not to fight James's new-found passion for the revived dead. We let him sleep in his brother's zombie Halloween costume, and he has a box of zombie figurines. What bothers me, though, is not the supernatural aspect of his fantasies but the fixation on conflict, killing and dismemberment.
My son is a gentle, affectionate boy, well behaved in nursery school. He's never been a hitter, a biter or even a snatcher of toys. And yet his childish fantasies are consumed with epic battles and graphic violence. "Mummy?" he'll say sweetly as we cuddle before bed. "Zombies chop your head off and then they eat your brains, right?"
As a feminist and a mother, I am torn. I have always subscribed to the view that gender is a social construct, and yet I am now bombarded with evidence to the contrary. James isn't interested in tea parties or tucking in dollies or baking in his toy kitchen. He wants cataclysmic explosions and imperious good guys waging war against monstrous evil. I can see this, but I reject the notion that "boys will be boys."
The idea that males will invariably fulfill an essential biological mandate to dominate and destroy has been used since the beginning of time to justify everything from murder, rape and war to workplace sexual harassment and verbal assaults on female sports reporters. As crap excuses go, it's pretty much top of the heap.
That's why I'm resolved as a mother to try to temper my son's need for conflict-based play with as much talking and snuggling as I can. And he isn't completely single-minded: When he is tired, I notice, he'll choose Winnie the Pooh over Goosebumps, and he helps in the kitchen – if I convince him the egg is a zombie head, he will happily crack it, then mix the "brains" into cookie batter. Mostly, though, my husband and I just try to monitor the fine line between playing rough and being rough, a key distinction for all kids.
I don't believe men are naturally violent or are all risk-taking idiots (as has been suggested by some scientists and media), but I do believe as parents that it's our responsibility to encourage gentleness and respectfulness in our sons.
To do this without taming their spirit and imagination is the tricky part. I don't mind that our boys are wild – I like to see them run and tumble like spaniels, and I accept that there will be some black eyes and bloodied knees in the process. But I don't accept rudeness or shouting over people or the inability to sit at the table and eat a meal while having a conversation as part of the package. It's possible to be rambunctious without being barbaric, and naughty without being bad.
My son is a stone-cold zombie killer and I'm okay with that. Because, when the dead rise, he's going to save his mother first, just like any good boy-feminist would do. Now where's my cricket bat?