What collective neurosis is the American public trying to untangle with its ongoing obsession with the undead?
With Halloween fast approaching and with events abroad and in Washington more than enough to scare the living daylights out of anyone, let us ponder for a moment the nation’s latest obsession: zombies. Yes, that’s right: the living dead have broken from the bounds of nerd memedom and burst — or rather, have shuffled aimlessly — into the American mainstream.
True, it is often difficult to tell the difference between the braindead, slowly decomposing animated corpses that have lit up the silver and small screens of late from the larger American public – especially Tea Party conservatives – but with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control And Prevention now spoofing us with zombie apocalypse preparedness notices and with so-called ‘zombie run’ charity events gaining in popularity, perhaps it is time we examine this phenomenon a bit more closely. Just what is America’s fascination with the living dead, anyway?
To be sure, all things supernatural and creepy have long been a staple of American popular entertainment. After all, ghouls, goblins and other dark creatures have graced the pages of American authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and now Stephen King for many decades, to the delight of both readers and publishers alike. Horror is popular, and the scarier and gorier, it seems, the better.
Along the way, however, the horror genre has evolved from simple tales of supernatural creatures overawing and frightening we simple humans with their incomprehensible, unworldly powers to melding with modernity in a way that can actually make them far more frightening and unnerving. Instead of being some monstrous other, the new undead not only prey upon human society but increasingly are part of it.
Take the recent outbreak of vampire ‘chick lit’ that made it big on HBO in the form of the show “Tru Blood.” The show, set in the fictional Louisiana town of Bon Temps, is a virtual smorgasbord of otherworldly creatures going about their business on the down-low – hidden from discovery by human society via elaborate ruses meant to convince humans that the supernatural and the magical don’t exist at all. Or at least until technology allows one group – vampires – to end the masquerade and so ‘come out’ to the humans they’d lived amongst and preyed upon for so long.
As it turns out, vampires are just like us, though in “Tru Blood” they act more like erotic Übermenschen than people. Indeed, writ large vampires have long been a stand-in for the more predatory elements of human society – cold-blooded seducers and killers who effortlessly charm their way into destroying people’s lives and livelihoods. It is no surprise, for instance, that Bram Stoker’s archetypal vampire Dracula first appeared in late Victorian Britain, a period when industrialization and inequality were making easy prey of the British underclass for those who owned the satanic mills and urban slums they lived and worked in, while today’s vampires make appearances in corporate boardrooms and TV talk shows.
Zombie fiction, though, both in print and in the movies, is different. Rather than being a dark, shadowy part of society that preys upon the unwary, zombies are in fact a negation of humanity itself. In this, zombie fiction stands more clearly in line with apocalyptic fiction of various sorts than traditional, supernatural-based horror entertainment. Like movies about asteroids about to wipe out planet Earth, alien invasions or self-aware robots engaged in a genocidal war against humans, zombies paint a picture of societal collapse and mass death that simply isn’t found in the traditional horror genre.
Indeed, traditional horror as it is contemporarily presented is almost entirely about terrible things happening to a small number of people or even just a single individual. Psychotic killers like Jason in the “Friday the 13th” franchise or the terrifying spirits in “Poltergeist” affect only a small number of people and, like Grimm’s stories, serve more as watered-down, gored-up morality plays than anything else. Only in zombie fiction does human society and civilization come to a bloody, necro-cannibalistic end.
It’s a metaphor, stupid
Once one understands that, the appeal of zombie fiction becomes quickly apparent. It is not so much horror as it is escapist, and how we feel about zombie fiction is more a reflection on how we feel about our own lives and our places in real, existing society than it is about being consumed alive by the undead. Invariably, like all apocalyptic catastrophe fiction, it appeals to two types: those who enjoy intellectually deconstructing the end of the world – how it might happen, how one would survive, and so on – and those who, deep down, yearn to be free from the stultifying constraints of modern society.
That’s because in the apocalypse, zombie or otherwise, existing social structures, class distinctions, rules, laws and everyday routines are ripped asunder, allowing the Walter Mitty inside all of us to come to the fore. Zombie fiction is thus not just about avoiding being eaten by Grandma after she inevitably turns, it is mostly about creating something new out of the collapse of the old, whatever that new may in fact be. It is about, as the villainous General Bethlehem character explains to the title character in Kevin Costner’s post-apocalyptic flick, “The Postman,” about becoming something more than a mere “washing machine salesman.”
The zombie apocalypse thus lets us fantasize about being one of the heroes that saves the group of survivors we’ve become a part of. We think of ourselves not as succumbing to the undead, but in fact thriving in this brave new world so as to become a respected warrior – like the character Daryl Dixon from “The Walking Dead” – or a wise elder leader like Rick Grimes or Dale Horvath, both characters from the same show.
Survivors such as ourselves, we imagine while watching others being consumed on screen, will form new, close-knit bands that will eventually wrest our stolen land away from the animated rotting flesh that has taken it away from us. We will, so says our egos, rebuild society, now cleansed of its corruption, as so become the founding fathers of a new, better America.
As with Stoker and Dracula, then, it is no surprise that today, some 45 years after zombie-flick pioneer George A. Romero first introduced the modern zombie apocalypse to American audiences, that it has percolated enough throughout the wider culture to be grist for the CDC and parodies such as “Zombieland” and, most surreal of all, “Warm Bodies” – essentially “Romeo and Juliet” if the Capulets were voracious, flesh-eating, walking corpses. In our disjointed, post-industrial, post-modern reality, where most feel trapped in a world shaped by future-shock and forces well beyond our individual control, the apocalypse, even one filled with hordes of the undead, can be appealing.
So, sit back, relax, and enjoy the end of the world. Try not to get bitten, or, if you do, let others know afterward so they can dispatch you with a well-placed blow to the head before you turn. After all, it’s what friends are for. If the zombie apocalypse has taught us anything, it’s that in an atomized world where we all feel increasingly isolated and disconnected even as we are woven more firmly into virtual networks of our own choosing, what we all really want is to escape it all with just a few close friends riding – and wielding – shotgun at our side.