Thursday, November 05, 2009

About Wausau's recent zombie infestation

I have mentioned that I am a fan of Twitter. Some time a couple of weeks ago, I began following a Twitter user named Wausau Loner, who was writing about life in rural central Wisconsin. A typical tweet was something like, "Walked down to the river along the path we neighborhood locals use. It's strange to see it so low, especially in the rain." An interesting person, but nothing too out of the ordinary.

As the month went on, Wausau Loner's tweets started to get ... weird. He wrote about a domestic standoff that never appeared in the newspaper. He wrote about a massive traffic crash, also undocumented: "We’re at the scene. Cops. Another ambulance. Fire trucks. Big fire. The rig fell a long way down. No survivors. Damn damn damn." The story got stranger and more violent. "We’re going back to Wilmuth’s to tell him his son is dead. It’s been a bad night."

At some point, I figured out that Wausau Loner was telling a fictional story. But even then, it was hard to get a bead on it -- just someone making stuff up? Some kind of elaborate hoax?

It all became clear the day before Halloween, when the story blew up: There were zombies loose across central Wisconsin, and Wausau Loner, along with fellow Twittering story participants Professor Pierson, Carl Phillips and Ramon Raquello all played a role in relating the story. By noon on Thursday, the zombies were all over the Wausau area, and the story was in full swing. I was refreshing my Twitter page every 15 minutes to see how Wausau Loner and Prof. Pierson were doing. Ramon Raquello and Carl Phillips, sadly, didn't survive the day.

To me, it was a great idea to use Twitter for this sort of fictional storytelling -- especially since, at the beginning, it wasn't clear that Wausau Loner was a fictional creation.

I emailed Wausau Loner with some questions about his Halloween story.

First of all, who are you? Name, age, town you live in?

My name is Dave. I’m 43 and live in Rib Mountain, close to where WausauLoner lives in my story.

What gave you the idea to create this Twitter story? I am not sure I've ever seen something like this done. And why Twitter as opposed to a blog, novel, comic book, etc.?

I work in advertising and marketing. We’ve been doing a lot of social media projects for clients lately, but for my own account, I didn’t feel like being _another_ marketing advice guy (do we really need more?). Tweets from characters of The Office gave me the idea of having a fictional character. At first, my plan was to have WausauLoner do what he’s doing now: tweeting a few times a day about life after the zombie apocalypse. Then I hit upon the idea of kicking it off with a big event.

I ran across a saved mp3 of 1938’s War of the Worlds and it all clicked: I had to do an homage to the show on Halloween Eve 2009, the show’s 71st anniversary! I’ve enjoyed listening to that show since I was a kid. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it would be fun to do use the tempo of live tweets to replace the original’s we-interrupt-this-program bulletins.

How far in advance did you map out what you would do? When did the story actually start?

WausauLoner was a fictional character from the beginning. I thought about my plans for a week or so before starting the account in late September. At first, I concentrated on establishing who he was, where he lived, and that something strange was happening in his neighborhood. All the mysteries can now be explained by the start of the zombie plague or what might be causing it, if you look at them knowing what we all know now. Some of the details have yet to be filled in. Farfel’s demise is part of that storyline.

I also decided to leave some hints for fellow fans of War of the Worlds. I opened accounts for ProfPierson, RamonRaquello, and CarlPhillipsTV and figured out how to incorporate other hints as well. Having a cast of characters helped the story develop rapidly from there.

I typed up some story bits and pieces now and then, figuring out how the outbreaks would happen and wrote backwards and forwards at the same time. It was a challenge to put things out there early and know I had to make it all fit with what I hadn’t yet figured out would happen later. It was fun breaking important story elements into 140-character chunks.

Did you make any on-the-fly changes to what you had planned?

I realized early on that the only way I could run multiple accounts and a rapidly advancing story was to automate the process. There’s a site I recommend to our clients that you can pre-load tweets onto for release at specific times. I used it several times during the run-up to play tweets at different times of the day and night. For Friday, I had everything programmed in until mid-evening. I’d intended to have the whole day set, but getting around some anti-spam policies had me up late Thursday fixing the timeline. I ended up going into Friday without knowing what would happen in the last 5 hours. I wrote those on the fly Friday night.

I have noticed (with the help of Google) that you put little clues/homages into the story -- Wilmuth is a character from War of the Worlds, WGON is in Dawn of the Dead. Are there others? Why did you want to include those?

Grover’s Mill, the Wilmuth Farm, Ramon Raquello, The Meridian Room, Professor Richard Pierson, and Carl Phillips were all included as hints for astute readers who might know the War of the Worlds story (or hear it as Halloween approached). The WGON-TV helicopter appeared in both the original Dawn of the Dead and the re-make. I included all those hints as treats/tips for fellow fans.

I also wanted the reader to be able to pick up the fact that WausauLoner wasn’t real – but I didn’t want to make it too easy. As I got closer to Halloween Eve, I pushed further. Obviously, there’s no WGON in Wausau, no traffic chopper, there is no Grover’s Mill in Wisconsin, and there were no high school playoff football games on Friday. I thought I made it really obvious when I directly contradicted news reports about the WIAA rescheduling the Grover’s Mill game due to H1N1 right after the real WIAA said that no rescheduling would occur. If anybody caught any of those hints, they didn’t say anything until late Friday morning.

It seems like a big part of what you were going for was that sort of War of the Worlds-type "is this real?" moment. With some of the early tweets, it worked on me, and I know it did with others, too. Why approach it in this way? What makes that better/scarier/more interesting than just a straightforward story?

I did it that way to salute the original. I quickly realized that the brevity of the tweets and the anticipation of the next one would ratchet up the tension. The principal applied to both the live action and the earlier unsolved mysteries.

I also had Pierson deliver a couple of lines from George Romero’s movies that have become key zombie lore (they can be stopped “by removing the head or destroying the brain,” and so on – I just had to get that out there!) Pierson’s final speech modified a phrase or two from Orson Welles’ closing lines in War of the Worlds and incorporated some of the more unusual word choices from that script. It was preachy, but it felt right for the character.

Where do you go from here? What happens in the story, and what happens to the concept?

WausauLoner’s story will continue. He’ll be reporting from the Zombie Apocalypse as he’s able, but on a much more infrequent basis. A few tweets a day at most.

Last question: Why did you want to tell THIS story? Why zombies?

Zombies are fun! I’ve always been a fan of movies and books about various apocalyptic scenarios, and zombies are one of my favorites. They’re hot now, too, so people have a good general idea of how they work. It means I don’t have to explain very much in the tweets about basic zombie facts.

[crossposted from What's Your Beef?]

1 comment:

Robert said...

Thanks for the story Rob, this guy began following me on WausauBob and so I picked him up on my account and on the Beef Cave page. At first I just assumed it was a Wausau resident but it quickly became apparent this was not the case. I have often wondered about the back story to these Zombie Apocalypse tweets that pop up on my tweet deck a couple times a day and I finally decided to google it. A very interesting story, I only wish I could have been following him from the start and shared in more of the adventure.

Wausau Bob