On the Curious Popularity of Zombies
All manner of meanings have been and continue to be plastered onto the zombie. Much can be made of him, because he makes so little of himself.
James Parker, “Our Zombies, Ourselves"
If humanity manages to survive, I suspect the people of the future will look upon the zombie apocalypse the way others once looked upon the great flood; yes, there are a number of parallels here worth considering, not the least of which is the way zombies washed over communities like great tidal waves, leaving nothing but archeological disaster mysteries in their wake, but I’m mainly interested in people’s perceptions of the sources of the two great apocalypses before they happened, such as how those in Noah’s time must have perceived the seas before it started to rain, long before the rising seas swallowed everything and killed almost everyone, because even as the ancients must have already feared the awesome power of water and known it could drown them, there must have also been poets or at least poet-like folk who loved to stand on the shore and gaze at blue expanses stretching out to glimmering gold horizons and puzzle over the optical illusion of fata morgana and ponder the unfathomable lives of the leviathans and surely they must have found something redeeming in the deadly seas themselves, a kind of endless baptismal pool; now consider how the poet-like folk of my own generation, who couldn’t focus on the seas or, for that matter, anything that didn’t involve explosions and camera-angle changes every half-second, would seek out all the poetry that was missing from their lives by shuffling down to the cineplex to sit in dark rooms watching rising tides of the undead and not only watching them but fantasizing about them spilling out of those fictional universes to flood the real one, because, as with the case of their ancestors who fantasized about the sea prior to the great flood, my generation found zombies terrible but also perversely redeeming—as a baptismal of blood. This obsession was interesting in itself, but what is even more interesting, and perhaps more telling, are the myriad explanations people came up with to explain why and how, prior to The Collapse, zombies had already managed to swarm our culture, appearing in nearly every cultural space from novels to movies to erotic stories to games to songs to government blogs to jokes and beyond.
The zombie-popularity theories I am about to present may seem rather naïve in retrospect. After The Collapse, many look back and automatically assume we must have been subconsciously prepping for the harsh reality of the coming plague by consuming as much post-apocalyptic fiction as possible—a culture of people seeking out info about how to stay alive—but there is no truly compelling evidence that our modern reading of our past motivations is correct, nothing more empirical than a gut feeling that the zombie obsession was, perhaps, a bit too uncanny to be coincidental; and yet even if we do assume that the following ideas are all wrong, even adorably naïve, isn’t there something still to be gained by looking back and trying to understand the psyche of nation desperately trying to figure out why it was so obsessed with narratives in which everything was falling apart and neighbors were consuming one another? The prevalence of zombie narratives was one thing, but it might be more helpful for future historians—if any such thing exists—to consider what the zombies meant to a people on the brink of the most rapid imperial decline in the history of the world.
Some believed the popularity of zombies in our culture was largely a tremor in our psyches owing to a long history of slavery in this country and other European colonies in the new world. Some thought it was just a basic fear of enslavement, the zombie being a crude symbol for any person whose autonomy was sucked out by some outside agent; others held a more complex socio-historical view: here, we were drawn to these creatures not because we feared being slaves ourselves so much as we were having a kind of tortuous collective nightmare about how our ancestors had enslaved others, how casually those around the periphery held the institution, how slaves had been treated as commodities, restrained, brutally beaten, made to watch loved ones treated the same, in order to control, to destroy their spirits. The connection to this horrific breach of the sanctity of the spirit realm was made nowhere more explicit than in the way white plantation owners in Haiti had used the threat of zombism: the capturing of the spirit, as a tool to keep destitute slaves from killing themselves by encouraging the belief that dead slaves returned to the spiritual realm of lan guinée but that suicides would remain forever on the plantations as zombies. The only thing worse than being a slave, after all, was continuing to be a slave even after death. There was great guilt in that which manifested itself in insidious ways: lo! we white people didn’t like being reminded of such a shameful legacy and tried to put it out of our minds. Those of us who rightly felt we personally had nothing to do with the actions (or shameful inactions) of our ancestors didn’t want to be told over and over that we must feel guilty and yet, without fully confronting our ancestral shame, without allowing ourselves to accept and make reparations, we opened ourselves up to the supreme reconciling power of the unconscious, left the door cracked for these monsters to slip inside, to resolve the problems of history within the only space we’d allowed—inside waking dreams we called fictions.
In a special collection of zombie literature the previous occupant of this library put together, I found a printout of a 2008 essay titled “Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism” in which its authors, Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry, frame these dual positions in no uncertain terms:
The zombie is currently understood as simultaneously powerless and powerful, slave and slave rebellion; this is central to our understanding of it as a boundary figure. The dual potential of the zombi to represent both slave and slave rebellion is key to its capture of the Western imagination. In acknowledging its appropriation—and potential misappropriation for ideological purposes—we must not disconnect the zombie from its past.
The U.S. had a long history of tension between ideologies re: collectivism.
On the one hand, we always had our rugged individualists, those who liked to dress up in buckskins and tri-cornered hats and talk about personal freedoms and liberty as if they alone knew the definitions of the words—these were soundly mocked as willfully ignorant charlatans by their opponents; on the other hand, we had those who liked to imagine a world where everyone pulled their weight and added something essential, their unique talents, to the commonwealth so that the great mass of humanity buzzed along into the future as efficiently as bees—these were soundly mocked as cucks and libtards by their opponents; but these were only a few, as most people actually fell somewhere between these two polarized perspectives, mocked by both sides, perhaps rightly so at times, shifting in their views from day to day and minute to minute depending on how well either collectivist or anti-collectivist policies were paying off for them in the particular instant so that, for instance, one might praise the new highway onramp in the morning (when you’d left early enough to beat traffic) but rail against the offramp in the evening (when you left the office a couple minutes after five). It’s precisely this inner conflict between pro-collective and anti-collective attitudes that some saw as underpinning the zombie phenomenon: love public works in the morning, hate them in the evening, and dream of the horde in the night.
Could there really be anything more horrific than running and fighting endlessly against this undifferentiated mass of bodies so like our own but, unlike ourselves, devoid of consciousness? And yet, consider the other side of it. Consider how often, in zombie books, or in zombie films, we used to see characters give into the draw of the collective. They’d run and run and fight and fight and lose everyone they’d loved and fought to defend until finally coming to a point when they’d just accept what was happening and had been happening all along. It wasn’t just that they’d “lost their spirit.” They weren’t just “too tired to keep fighting the good fight.” No, couldn’t it be said that they weren’t resigning themselves to a terrible fate but recognizing something about it wasn’t so terrible after all: that what the attrition of humans and the ever-growing zombie hordes really represented was the end of violence, of strife, of pain, of solitude, and the full embrace of brother-and-sister-hood? What good was individuality anyway if it meant endless wars? What good was personality if only reflected in slogans and a person’s preferred trinkets and doodads? Sure, a horde seemed so dreadful until it was upon you but then…. release. As Lauro and Embry, mentioned above, wrote of the bite: "the urge of the individual body is [rendered] the same as the will of the collective."
I saw more than one person drift into the most blissful, most human state once they were turning, as if some inner voice had just told them they had been looking at things all wrong, that the promise of (un)death was that they could return to the warm embrace of their family again. Moreover: the violence wasn’t a zombie problem at all, but a human problem, one that would disappear just as soon as the last person turned. Perhaps that was the deeper meaning of what an actor named Bill Murray said in Zombieland when asked why he was dressing up and acting like a zombie during the apocalypse: “Zombies didn’t mess with other zombies.”
Or.... perhaps the other way around, an isolation of self and tribe from any broader collective or coalition? Many thought zombie stories were primarily allegorical of our fear of unfamiliar others, an extreme version of what was called “othering”—that is, establishing and validating your own ingroup by framing certain identifying characteristics of outgroups as subhuman, by whatever name polite or grossly offensive. Refugees. Immigrants. Thugs. Environmentalists. Atheists. Drug addicts. Wastoids. Lunatics. Idiots. Whores. Sluts. Criminals. Niggers. Spicks. Chinks. Osamas. Redskins. Faggots. Trannies. Liberals. Bums. Anyone the right found subhuman. But so too did some on the left wholesale deride uneducated hicks. Rednecks. White trash. Trailer trash. Backwoods hillbillies. Evangelicals feeling the spirit by the thousands before the cameras of megachurches, tastefully appointed as any Walmart. Anyone, in other words, who had drank the Kool-aid. Anyone, above all, not us. Did the right do it more than the left? I am convinced it did, as a point of pride. But so too did the left to a perhaps more charitable degree. But this was a feature of our culture before The Collapse: reducing to invading cannibal hordes all those we found wanting. Automatons devoid of values. Monsters (others) hell-bent on destruction of everything good and decent and pure (us). Why did we—who were about to be plagued by actual zombies—so love pretend-zombies? According to this “othering” view, it was pretty simple: there was great pleasure in blowing the heads off people who were different than us but after the same stuff we were after—so long as we could preempt our own guilt by first stripping those people of their very personhood.
End of Empire
Considering all the previous suppositions, it’s probably easy to see that there was already lot of hostility brewing in America well before its Collapse; indeed, maybe it had been stitched into the very fabric of the nation. So it was that a lot of people took as a given that zombies’ popularity owed to anxieties about imminent institutional and systemic breakdown—at least in part because infrastructural ruins were what nearly every piece of zombie fiction reveled in. According to Zara Zimbardo in an essay titled “It is Easier to Imagine the Zombie Apocalypse than to Imagine the End of Capitalism”:
Zombie movies are almost always set during or shortly after the apocalypse: established infrastructures—and the reassurances they can bring—cease to exist or crumble quickly amid obligatory scenes of disorder, and authorities who are looked to for protection themselves fall victim to the erupting mayhem…. Law enforcement, government, communications systems, family structures, and all supporting infrastructure are shown to be impermanent, forcing survivors to dive into deep reservoirs of resilience and self-reliance.
It may seem quaint now to think that Americans of the late 20th and early 21st centuries were so worried about this stuff, considering how that place and time saw a relatively small chunk of the world populace using up most of its resources. Not all of us were well-off. Many suffered. But the median lifestyle was one of extreme luxury by world historical standards. And yet there was something going on beneath the hedonism of this materialist lifestyle, something very dark and dangerous. It was almost like even those in greatest denial knew the high times were about to come to an end. Maybe it was the massive protests, waves and waves of people marching and shouting and demanding what was rightfully theirs and some off to the side breaking windows and flipping over cars and setting fires in the streets as well the scenes in the news of these crowds coming at last face to face with police behind plastic shields and their body armor and armored vehicles and the tear gas and water cannons and batons crashing down on bare heads and overflowing prisons and courthouses. Maybe it was the realization that the seas were rising and were about to drown out coastal communities, sending refugees inland to vie for homes and jobs and resources. Maybe it was the lead and arsenic in the water or the water supply that was suddenly missing because the aquifer had been pumped and bottled and when the people asked how it happened were told it was their fault, that there was a meeting back on such and such a date that they must not have attended.
Some argued that we gravitated toward zombie fictions in the new millennium because of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that the uptick in the number of zombie films in particular after 9/11 owed to existential fears caused by the troubling flashbacks to scenes from zombie movies people got when they saw bloody, dead-eyed New Yorkers shuffling out en masse from clouds of dust and debris. Or that it had something to do with the government ineptitude in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the gutted neighborhoods, the deaths and disease, the teams of security mercenaries patrolling like warlords. Or rampant drug abuse among the dejected class featuring new hordes of twitching zombies, stupefied zombies, catatonic zombies, unclaimed bodies in morgues, loved ones left behind asking Why why why? and getting no answers other than those that turned the societal question back toward the more personal So and so was a fuck-up. Or a constant cable news state of emergency—every story more explosive than the last. Or maybe it was the spike and then the steady growth in the numbers of suicides. Or the general tension feeding over from the internet to the streets to the internet.
Left, right, and center: we all knew shit was about to fall the fuck apart. We blamed each other but maybe the real problem was a total paucity of imagination so deep and pervasive that none of us—townie or gownie—could imagine anything to head-off the pending Collapse. Indeed, our only answer was eerily like a very old answer: like God restarting humanity with a flood, only more terrestrial. You could almost hear this collective thought like a distant moaning: what if almost everyone died and a few survivors could start this FUBAR bullshit all over again? The most fucked-up aspect? How many Americans entertained this thought experiment imagining, as they almost always did, that they, of all people, would be among the few who survived?
Return to State of Nature
Many attributed the popularity of zombies to a deep desire to return to a state of nature, to inhabit a state of purity or normalcy or authenticity from which advanced post-industrial society seemed so far removed. What was more basic than to be facing a terrible thing and speak to some spirit in the cosmos, “I don’t want to die”? To what extent were visions of zombies inherent in such prayers? Similarly, what could chill a person more than seeing disease breaking down the bodies of those around him, the insides coming out, the outside leaking in? What was more fundamental to our nature than to seek shelter with those of our own tribe against an invading horde? How nice would it have been to know exactly who our foes were because they were no longer hiding behind facades but were actively trying to eat us? What happened if we unleashed our id from its cage? Didn’t something denied and caged very deep inside our dreams entail the spilling of great quantities of blood? Which is all to say that some people held that zombies had been little more than projections of the dark side of humanity. We may have denied it. We may have told ourselves we were better than other creatures, calling others’ aggressions “beastly” or “animalistic,” but this was only a matter of convenience and deep down we knew our own truth. Fictional zombie sieges were, in a sense, a way to admit the truth of what we were while simultaneously pretending to fight it off.
There was, of course, a multitude of somewhat less-ascribed-to theories seeking to account for why my fellowpeople, in our relatively halcyon days, got off on watching zombies attack, each theory proposed having the curious quality of immediately spawning twice as many more, so that such pet theories themselves, provided en masse, might present as a motley horde, among the many: the theorizing was just a fun way to think about survival strategies; or touched on lingering philosophical questions of body and mind, materiality and immateriality, consciousness via the philosophical-zombie, etc.; or the particular imaginative exercise was accessible to a wide audience, posed the kinds of intellectual and logistical problems virtually anyone could engage to the point of entering into a so-called psychological “flow state,” that is, the sweet spot of optimized experience where one is testing one’s skillset but not pushing so hard as to create anxiety; it addressed a basic existential dread by forcing us to accept death as preferable to an in-between state; and it offered an acceptably playful tableau on which a distinctly anti-intellectual population to ponder rudimentary philosophical questions like what we actually are/are not and the nature of good/evil; others yet were convinced that we were drawn to zombies in times of plenty because of the proliferation of prescription psychotropic medications and the emotion-leveling effects and, to a greater degree, the fear we had in seeing some poor basket case shambling along in catatonic state, no longer rambling and ranting on street corners, but only shuffling along dead-eyed and vacant—and the cold realization that we not immune to it, that this sad zombic state was only ever a regimen of pills away; others still were fairly adamant in arguing that the whole zombie craze was basically religious in nature, a rather predictable cultural manifestation of a people who ceremonially consumed the flesh of their god and drank his blood and maybe even more fundamentally that Christianity had thrived in part by consuming the corpus of many another world religion (saints and angels/demons absorbing other pantheons, Atrahasis as Mesopotamian prefiguration of Noah, etc.); and there was a small contingent of people, like three separate hermits I met in my travels, who thought the undead had taken off in our culture because our evolutionary brains were freaked out by the fact that our parents were living so long in those latter days, that western medicine had kept them from dying while we were long past that moment in the lives of most humans in the history of humans who would have had to bury or burn their parents. I thought these people made a fine point. It seems like, barring some mass calamity, most people won’t really process their own mortality until the godheads that are their own parents pass on. Watching our parents stagger into their seventies, eighties, nineties, so many of them fragile-boned as birds, barely able to walk through a store much less walk through the great outdoors, keeping their eyes open with multicolored handfuls of pills; so there is some reason in thinking that maybe our evolutionary brains couldn’t process it, like the most primitive part of us was in there screaming out in panic when Father’s skeletal hand suddenly changed the channel, or when Mother, a mere husk of her once powerful self, came in for a hug smelling almost of formaldehyde—and so we could only deal with their slow demise by blowing thousands of their kind away in movies and videogames and thereby reaching our own primal adulthood. There were plenty of other ideas wending their way laconically through the throng, of course, many interesting ones I am sure I am forgetting, but another two deserve special mention, as any unusual individual ghoul does, uncannily pale or otherwise, those being 1) that we might always flee them into the most all consuming loneliness of the wasteland they created, though we might expend every last ounce of energy in our attempts to avoid their common fate, all the while it lingered in the back of our mind that, should they take us, should we fail, we would not be alone in our losses, and in fact would find ourselves welcomed not as failed visitors to their land but as equal brothers and sisters in the greatest victory in history, a victory so great that history might cease to be; and 2) some believed the fear of zombies was evolutionarily coded into humans, serving much the same role in our minds as stories themselves. Consider: a corpse, like everything else, acts as a kind of evolutionary lesson, telling survivors a story about what will kill them (old age, drowning, getting smashed by the flukes of a whale, etc.), but if that story, that corpus, that corpse, that thing we've been telling ourselves in stories does not open its eyes, if that thing should suddenly open its eyes, it instantly becomes another story altogether, a story about itself. It is only natural to lean-in, to inspect death for whatever meaning it may provide, especially the death of a loved one, someone whose own failed life so resembles our own, to lean in and have a close look in order to learn what lessons the particular death has to offer, but the lesson you get when the alleged corpse opens its eyes, when it lunges at you? Well, now the most basic things you understood about life and death turn out to be wrong! and all your old supposedly solid belief systems suddenly require new scrutiny! The zombie, here, is just a kind of meaning bomb, a complete, immediate, chaos-inspiring rewrite of every narrative of human existence: BOOM! ZOMBIE!!! Quick! deconstruct everything! Believe nothing!
Yet, on the heels of this last consideration, there remains one important categorical perspective that has so far gone unmentioned and that has to do with the general pliability, mutability, fungibility, user-friendliness of the zombie as symbol. Even before The Collapse, there were those who refused to accept that any single (or even any few) theories truly explained why people liked zombies so much, and they were wise beyond their time to recognize that there were probably lots of reasons why this was the case, that the zombie, at least in our naïve cultural depictions, was capable of holding almost as many meanings as we were willing to assign. Perhaps Zombi didn’t start out that way back in colonial Haiti, but, once he escaped to America on a rickety raft, we collectively decided to act as morticians, scooped out all the slave’s guts, threw his entrails down with a splat on the shiny tile at our feet, filled him up again with whatever was eating us at the time, stitched him back together, and renamed him Zombie. How could we have known what horrors lay in store for us? We couldn’t. And yet even those egg-headed academics of the old world displayed a kind of metaphysical prescience in this regard, not only pointing out that zombies were popular, but that something else was afoot here: the unique mutability of this metaphor, that malleable nature that led us to so many zombotypes. People were people and symbolized nothing; zombies, however, were capable of symbolizing almost anything. Somehow, in the years before The Collapse, we were starting to realize that our supposed inferiors had somehow outgrown us, as if all the fictional monstrosity that had once contained them was no longer enough to do so, as if they needed to shed the limitations of lore, page, and screen, and stumble from the womb of human consciousness, from the immaterial realm, into the realm materiality, actualizing as embodiments of their own uniquely manifold nature. As Kyle William Bishop wrote in the introduction to the 2015 book How Zombies Conquered Popular Culture:
The contradictory nature of these various and changing zombies—dead but alive, conscious but lacking consciousness, animated but decaying, alive but infected—makes them the perfect figures to explain an apparently inexhaustible host of natural occurrences, social interactions, technological advances, psychological and physiological anomalies, economic structures and relationships, political dynamics, and more. In other words, modern zombies are now more than just fictional monsters … they are “meaning machines”….
That is, before they even existed, they were everything we wanted them, nay, needed them, to be.