No doubt about it: zombies are hip. From flash mobs to calendars to movies to comics to tv, zombies have seized our popular imagination between their bloody teeth and show no sign of letting go. Their popularity is similar to the explosion of radioactive monster movies of the 50s, but the zombie phenomenon seems even bigger, generating a fear and fascination that has gotten into our very entrails. IO9 recently posted a chart that showed how peaks in zombie entertainment match periods of social stress. There is, of course, nothing surprising about this correlation, but the undead seem to have a pretty big chunk of our attention these days.
I would argue that this is partly because there aren’t many monsters left that can really terrify. Vampires these days are more sensual than scary. Werewolves and their ilk—symbols of unstable identity and the darkness within—are not nearly as frightening in a postmodern world. Besides, there is something of the fairy tale about stories about vampires and shapeshifters that allows us to keep them from really getting to us, from really dropping our hearts into our stomachs and filling us with dark dread. Giant monsters seems quaint in a world where we are more frightened of the bomb on a subway or biological warfare than massive atomic warfare. All the city smashing of a Godzille or Mothra is far less frightening than the steady and mindless approach of zombies. Aliens can still sometimes trigger real fear in some stories, but the don’t pack quite the same punch when it comes to really scaring the bejeezus out of you.
It is the twisted reflection of ourselves that most frightens us. It is the Jack the Rippers, the cannibals, the serial killers and sociopaths that show us horror in ways that sink into our flesh, that make our blood run cold. We cannot turn away because we are seeing ourselves as monster. What’s more, we recognize that this is a monster that we can never stake through the heart or kill with a silver bullet or destroy with bombs or powerful guns or even destroy by jettisoning into the deepest interstellar spaces.
Our monsters, ourselves.
We live in a world of chaos. We live in a world that constantly threatens the integrity of our very bodies. How can we pretend that we can keep ourselves and our loved ones safe when terrorism might explode around us with no warning? With the planet melting around us, how long can we pretend that we even have a future? The real-life scary things seem so damned inexorable that it’s hard to believe that we as individuals can do anything about them. Add in the fact that our information age has produced a world that is far more complex and detailed than any individual can process and that our political system seems to have spiraled out of our control and that we are all working longer hours for less pay and that most of us either have no health care or have crappy health care and so our very bodies—in addition to possibly breaking down from all the crap we consume—become a significant economic threat; add in the fact that most of us are sleep deprived, running on caffeine or other stimulants on a daily basis and that we have cut ourselves off from the natural rhythms of night and day and is it any wonder that we fetishize the zombie.
There is never just one zombie. Even if there is a “patient zero,” the terror of the zombie lies in the fact that there are always more dead people than living people. Like every employee of a large corporation, each zombie is expendable and, in some cases, even relatively easy to kill. But like a corporation, zombies have no leader, no heart, no humanity and it doesn’t matter if individuals fall by the wayside, the zombies press on, hungry for more, consuming every living thing that they can get their maggot-ridden hands on. The symbol of desire and consumption carried to its ultimate conclusion, zombies are as faceless as Walmart, as implacable as Exxon, as soulless as Monsanto. No matter how brave and strong the hero of a zombie story might be, the best he or she can achieve is a delaying action. Life cannot win against death. In the history of our world, life has never beat death.
So, the zombies win. The zombies always win.
Even if they don’t win in the movie or the tv show, even if the living beat them back and pick up the pieces of humanity and start to build a new future, we know in the marrow of our bones and in the pounding muscle of our hearts that the zombies will always win. Zombies bring us face to rotting face with the simply fact that there is no beating death. Perhaps even that we are our own death. Do we blame ourselves for being mortal? Do we blame our bodies for not being able to resist the ravages of time and of our environment? Do we blame our skin for tearing so goddamned easily? Our organs for rupturing and our muscles for failing? Do we blame ourselves? De we, on some level, believe that we truly deserve a grizzly and brutal punishment for failing to be the immortal gods that we were supposed to be? Do zombies reflect our willingness to give up our individuality and rationality, to give up hope in the future?
Just like most good monsters, zombies can be read in myriad ways: manifestation of our fear of dying, symbol of rapacious capitalism, capitulation to chaos, sadistic desire to punish ourselves for not really bothering to live while we had the chance. What they are not is mindless or scary fun. We are telling story after story of zombies for a reason. We are trying to tell ourselves something about our lives by revisiting these shambling, rotting bodies that have no grand evil plan, no world-dominating goal. The zombie is simple—we might even use the term “pure”—in its desire to consume living flesh. What it is we are trying to tell ourselves, I’m not entirely sure, but I do believe that its important for us to try and understand just what zombies mean and why we keep pulling them out of the grave so we can scare ourselves to death.
Metaphorically speaking of course.