PORTLAND — It started as a prank.
But it tapped into something mythic, something infecting American culture and the public psyche: a fascination – even a fondness – for zombies.
Wednesday morning, the message board on Auburn Street in Portland warning of roadwork and traffic delays was hijacked to read instead: “Warning, Zombies Ahead!”
It was not the first such warning. An Internet search revealed that Austin, Texas, had a similar warning in 2009, and since then it’s appeared on signs in Washington, Illinois and New York.
The search also shows that the message machines are relatively simple to program, though the controls are usually locked up and password protected.
Naturally, city officials warned against the perils of unbridled goofiness and the need for people to realize that safety signs are there for a reason, warning motorists of real dangers.
“They’re not a toy,” a very serious city spokeswoman, Nicole Clegg, said Wednesday when asked about the incident.
In other words, it’s all fun and games until someone’s eye falls out.
Clegg took her share of criticism from readers commenting on pressherald.com, for sucking the life out of the undead. That was before the online debate shifted, inevitably, to politics: Mitt Romney’s zombie economics vs. Portland’s liberal legion of zombies for Obama.
A sampling of other comments about the sign caper:
— “This is serious. When the real zombie apocalypse happens, no one will take it seriously.”
— “There should have been a sign like this in Kennebunk: Warning Zumba ahead.”
— “There really were zombies. And once they were cleared out by the (Centers for Disease Control) forces, the City was ordered to change its tune by the Government.”
— “Maybe they should not make the password “password.”
— “What if there really are Zombies there and this Nicole Clegg is part of the conspiracy!?”
Clegg also got calls from out of state.
“I now have to talk to a New York radio station about why we shouldn’t be alerting the public to zombies,” she said, with a hint of exasperation.
There have been other fake messages locally, but they failed to tickle the public imagination.
Earlier this year, Portland message boards were tweaked to criticize the Red Sox: a little too serious, a little too real. Referencing Saturday morning cartoon characters is a bit esoteric for anyone over 8.
The signs do not lie.
The decaying, lumbering dead that feed on human flesh, infecting all but a core group of survivors, are everywhere.
“They’re hugely popular,” said Rich Lowell, co-owner of Casablanca Comics in Portland.
The hit comic book series “The Walking Dead” started almost a decade ago, and past issues have been compiled into 16 volumes of six issues each. The series has its own shelf at Casablanca.
Zombie fans are giddy with excitement as the AMC television series “The Walking Dead” – what one reporter called “one of the greatest television shows ever” – kicks off its third season Sunday night, promising more zombie kills in the premier than in the entire first season.
There is no evidence that the tampered sign message had any connection to the show’s kickoff, though it’s a good bet the culprit is a fan. There were no reports of widespread sign mayhem elsewhere in the country promoting the show.
Criminal mischief aside, Clegg admits to being fond of the genre.
“I will definitely be watching,” she said of the AMC series. “I’m a big fan of the zombies. Zombies are the new vampires.”
For Bill Duggan, owner of Videoport, it’s a trend dripping with nostalgia.
“It all started with one movie, George Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead,’” he said. Duggan was one of a small number of people who saw the original in black and white at the drive-in in the 1960s. There was no VCR or Internet. If you missed it, you waited years until UHF channels started showing late-night horror movies, he said.
Coming to theaters soon is “World War Z” featuring Brad Pitt, a movie adaptation of a book about the zombie apocalypse, due to be released next year.
Now everyone can share in the gore, though not everyone is amused by Wednesday’s sign caper.
Portland’s acting Police Chief Vern Malloch said he didn’t know how much effort the department was putting into finding the sign hijacker. He seemed annoyed.
“On a serious note, when we pay too much attention to these kinds of things, it just encourages more behavior like this,” Malloch said. “While everyone would agree it was humorous, there are certainly instances when it could have put people at risk.”
Society needs limits and order.
Without them, the zombies win.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: email@example.com