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The October Incident

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IRA GLASS: It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different stories on that theme. Today's show: In the Land of the Living, stories of the October Incident, the zombie apocalypse and what happened afterwards. We've reached Act Three of our program: A Place at the Table. Moravia is a tiny town in Idaho, population two-hundred and eighteen. And that's pre-apocalypse numbers. But over the course of eighteen months, right from the very beginning of the apocalypse, Moravia's living citizens have received a few unorthodox gifts. Producer Sarah Koenig filed this report.

EMILY RONSON: I just never figured it'd be like this.

SARAH KOENIG: That's Emily Ronson. Like a lot of us, Emily's had to carry the burden of witnessing a dead loved one rise from the grave, except, in Moravia, the zombies are...different.

RONSON: That's the only way to describe it, I guess. (laughs) It's just "different."

KOENIG: You can tell Moravia's a different kind of town just from the way looks. The roads aren't blockaded so you can only traverse over the "safe" ground. The cars on the streets aren't armored. There are no electrified fences anywhere, no guards with shotguns, not even a mandatory firearm law.

But it's okay that I have my 9-millimeter with me?

BILLIE HYATT: Oh, yeah, yeah. But I don't think you're gonna need it. We never had any kind of huge confrontation since, y'know, the very beginning. But people were a lot more panicky back then.

KOENIG: Billie Hyatt is Moravia's sheriff, and she's also the de facto leader of the town since the Mayor died. Not from having his brains eaten out of his skull by zombies, but from natural causes. He was eighty-three. That wasn't the only unusual situation that everyone in town had to deal with. That first evening of the October Incident didn't happen exactly like how you might remember it.

HYATT: Yeah, the October Incident. I got called to the Ronsons' that first night, that first sunset when everything sorta changed for everybody. The call. You think you've heard everything until you hear that call:

RONSON: Oh my God...[unintelligible]...Todd! Todd, don't go back up in there!
DISPATCH: Ma'am, what's your emergency?
RONSON: I-It's...there's a SOMETHING in my house! Oh, God. Oh, God...
RONSON: I think it's my father!
[Dog barks in background; wheezy moaning]

KOENIG: Her father, who's been dead and buried for...what was it? Six years?

HYATT: Six years that August. Emmie was screamin' up a storm and their dog was barking like crazy in the background on the call. So I got to their house and I got up on the porch and I knocked the door. Announced that I was coming in. Door was unlocked. I get in and I see Emmie and her dad. And the dog. The dog was sort of lying at their feet, sleeping away. You think that the movies would prepare you for the sight, and I've seen dead bodies before. But the movies got it all wrong. They don't make you ready for the sound. It was the sound that bothered me the most, you know? There's a rustle and a crack to their limbs and how they moved. Like trees in the breeze.

RONSON: It was awkward.

KOENIG: Emily Ronson, again.

RONSON: (laughs) Because in comes the sheriff, ready to shoot my attacker in the head, but instead of my dead father attacking me or trying to eat me, he just wanted to talk.

KOENIG: That's the thing about Moravia. And in other tiny towns all across the country. The dead, or the undead, or the zombies, or whatever you want to call those walking corpses. They all clawed out of their coffins, dug their way through six feet of packed in soil, shuffled around the town searching for their next of kin. Not to kill them. Not to eat them. Just to talk.

RONSON: I caught him up with my life. How he missed the wedding and how he was a grandfather now since Todd and I had Allison. And all that time he just sat there in his favorite chair - I never got around to tossing it out, didn't want to - quiet and just listening.

KOENIG: And did you think that maybe he was really listening and understanding?

RONSON: Oh, I know he was. There might not have been much of a brain left in his head, but I think there was still a soul.

HYATT: And all those panicked calls we got, not a single one ended in a fatality. People shot at the zombies, sure, but that didn't really stop 'em, y'know? And after awhile, after everyone got at the true motives of what went on, it got a lot less scary. That made all the news reports coming in from around the world a little off-putting. We get the dead walking around and having family reunions, other places get their populations drop eighty, ninety percent. Feels weird.

KOENIG: All the Moravian zombies ended up crawling back into their graves after the reunions were over and done with. And it was like they were never there. Other outbreaks in other towns, you could tell the aftermath of the infestations. Like a swarm of locusts, leaving destruction in their wake. Not in Moravia.

RONSON: Then, after awhile, Dad slipped away just as suddenly as he got here. It was like he was satisfied now, he got to know how things were going with my life, and that was all he needed to know.

KOENIG: He didn't even try to attack you?

RONSON: No, there was no sign that he was hungry for brains or anything else besides...besides my voice.

KOENIG: So maybe it's a matter of perspective, of sheer numbers. Without so many living bodies to feed on, maybe the zombies were drawn by a different kind of hunger. The need for companionship. Humans are social animals, and when everything that makes you you is taken away from you when you die, maybe there's a little spark left that still seeks out that need to be with other people. Moravia was just lucky, or maybe life in small towns is a little different from the big cities.

GLASS: That's producer Sarah Koenig reporting from Moravia, Idaho. We've heard from the morticians, the ones who have most to lose from people rising from the dead. And we've heard from the gun dealers and the thriving underground weapons industry. We told the October Incident from a different, less terrifying perspective, and now we reach Act Four: Absolute Death. About the industry that's now catering to so called "zombie chic." That's up next on This American Life, when our program continues.