In 1996 I lived in fear of nuclear and/or biological warfare for an entire summer. To this day, I can’t tell you why this is. It is entirely possible that I just learned that year what these things were and that they didn’t just exist in movies. It also could have been some kind of reaction to the transition between jr. high and high school; perhaps fears of potential global catastrophes was my way of being able to say, “Cliques might not be that bad after all.” It also could have been the fact that everyone was kind of pesimistic in 1996. Teens had Nirvana and alt rock to express their own pessimism, but adults seemed to have weird, negative predictions about the future as their coping mechanism. I remember a science teacher making the prediction that by 2010 we would no longer live in houses.
Whatever the reason for my irrational fear, I think it’s telling that when I think of 1996, I can immediately name two movies that were released that summer: The Rock, and Independence Day. These were the most important movies I saw that year because they addressed (and, perhaps helped cause) my immediate fears; that the world as I knew it would end because of the horrible weaponry that we had available to us. The Rock depicted a crazy extremist getting his hands on biological weaponry and holding the world hostage. This was the most terrifying thing anyone could have presented to my fragile mind that summer. (Author’s Note: A few short years later, my fears about extremists and WMD would be replaced with an equally great fear of Nicholas Cage movies.) I could not have cared less about the aliens attacking in Independence Day, but when the U.S. military decides it’s a good idea to nuke Houston…it actually gave me shivers. BUT, the good guys win, order is restored, and everyone goes home happy (except…you know…if you live in Houston).
So, when I see Zombies being so much apart of American pop culture recently, I have to wonder if there isn’t something similar going on. Does the Zombie story provide for a lot of Americans in 2010 what movies about WMD did for me in 1996? However you want to frame the question, I am intrigued: Why all the zombies lately?
I was amused and delighted last month when I saw that there are professional academic types asking the same question. And I enjoyed when I turned on my computer this morning to finish typing this blog entry and I saw this Newsweek article which also asks the same question. And even though no one asked me (or maybe…because no one asked me?), I offer my thoughts on the Zombie story and what it means. And by that, I mean, what it means to me.
I am not what I would call a “fan” of zombie fiction, but I have been rather obsessed with small pockets of it over the last few years. Hands down one of my top four favorite movies of all time is Shaun of the Dead. If I am in a bookstore with time to kill, I will read the latest Walking Dead graphic novel from cover to cover. The Road by Cormac McCarthy is not really a “zombie” story, but the post-apocalyptic universe it depicts shares pretty much everything in common with a zombie story except the “un-dead” bit. It is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. 28 Days Later remains one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen, World War Z is one of the smartest fiction books I’ve read, and there’s one particular zombie story I read over the summer…I’m not even going to name it because it really was one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. All of this is to say: Zombie stories scare the youknowwhat right out of me. And I have to think that the reason they scare me is, at least partially, the same reason they are so popular.
The Zombies are us.
Back in the day, Zombies were given some kind of origin story; either magic, or nuclear waste, or the broad and theologically irresponsible statement, “The seas of hell were full so the damned returned to Earth!” Most modern (read 2003-present) Zombie stories, or possibly all of them, don’t waste time with exposition. Zombies simply ARE. I think this is why you see the zombie story serving so well as the premise for both horror stories and comedies, both romantics and shoot-em-up survivalists, and I think it’s why it translates so well from book to graphic novel to movie and back again; Zombies are a terrifying yet revealing metaphor for probing the dark side of the modern American character. Keep in mind, I’m not saying we ARE zombies, but I am saying that zombies are definitely modeled after us. I’m saying they are popular because we can relate to them; or, rather, we are scared that we COULD relate to them. I see zombies as mindless consumers. I think we are in a kind of existential crisis as a culture where we are looking around and thinking, “Is this it? Is this all we’ve got? Shopping and buying and reselling and spending and earning…consuming…is this it?” We HOPE that this is not it. We HOPE that we find something more. We HOPE that we can make our lives about something beyond that. And that is why zombies are so completely terrifying, because they don’t just suggest that there isn’t anything else in this world, they actually suggest that there’s not anything BEYOND this world either. Your options are to consume or be consumed. And obviously the only thing more frightening than this would be if even death couldn’t make it stop.
But there is also the fantasy side to the zombie apocalypse; exploring our fears also allows us to address our hopes, when we delve into terror, we bring wish fullfillment along for the ride. The zombie universe is almost blissfully simple. There is no moral ambiguity really, no need to worry about complex issues or geo-political unrest, no more guilt about being a privileged people while knowing that 2\3 of the world’s population lives in poverty, ALL of that goes away. Now there is only one issue at stake, and your are either PRO Zombie or ANTI-Zombie, and it is very easy to know where you stand and what is required of you. It is also an exciting place to be. No more boring desk jobs, no more planning for the future, no more living for tomorrow; we are suddenly thrust into a jungle in which we are no longer top of the food chain, and that brings chilling, immediate, deadly excitement. And your enemy is the best kind of enemy, one that is CLEARLY and unequivocally evil.
So really it should be no surprise that the zombie story is a favorite among 21st Century Americans. It allows us to explore the most dark, terrifying aspects of our own psyches, and in a society that doesn’t really tell the truth about itself but ALSO is completely narcissistic…I think that is what we want from our monsters. And it plants us in an ethically simplified universe…which, I think is what we fill equipped to handle.
As much as I enjoy the carnage and craziness of a solid zombie story…I rarely find it fulfilling. I think this is because we have yet to see a zombie movie in which the heroes fight for something other than merely surviving. We have yet to see a zombie story that aims for something more from humans than simply dying without becoming a zombie. There is no higher ideal in the zombie story, there is no one fighting FOR something. The closest any zombie apocalypse hero seems to get to having a cause to fight for is, “I am for NOT eating brains.” The zombie story promotes the idea that in the face of unequivocal evil, human beings revert to their base instincts and play surival of the fittest. Wouldn’t it be a lot more interesting to see a story in which our heroes do not shed their beliefs just because the world appears to be ending, but they are actually forced to live out their beliefs BECAUSE the world is ending? I think that’s why Shaun of the Dead holds such a warm spot in my heart. It is silly, it is absurd, but it is also the only zombie story I can think of where humanity in the form of love, service, and laughter is preserved. So I guess there is a satisfying zombie story…it’s just silly.
We owe it to the world to explore our fears. We also owe it to ourselves to find a way of rising above those fears, so we can tell a more interesting story. I would love to see what kind of story pop-culture comes up with if we move beyond zombies, but that only happens when zombies don’t scare us quite so much. Or, perhaps, when we don’t identify with them so much.