Zombies: Horrific psychic manifestations of death or just misunderstood?

Taking a slight detour from the historical I recently played through two games, The Walking Dead and The Last of Us. Both are set during or after a zombie apocalypse and naturally they got me thinking about the continuing popularity of zombies, whether it’s through zombie walks through cities, films or video games, zombies have remained consistently popular while vampires, werewolves and other mythological nasties have largely disappeared. At the ACIS conference in Chicago I made the mistake of laughing at a Dracula panel whereupon a girl nearby said I’m giving one of those papers and asked me what is so funny. Feeling I made a faux pas I apologized. Thinking about it later I should have explained why I laughed. It was because there’s nothing scary about an ancient aristocrat hunting after the blood of virginal girls, vampires have become largely object of ridicule. Now while zombies have often been part of a joke, Shaun of the Dead for example, or that time JFK, Nixon, Castro and Robert McNamara fought zombies in the Pentagon, they have managed to avoid becoming the joke that vampires have in the last twenty years. Even though I am a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and it’s spin-off series, Angel, the conclusion of inverting the vampire relationship (as happened with Buffy and Angel) was to lead us down the sad, slocky, cul-de-sac of the Twilight Series. It will probably take a (good) television or film adaptation of the vampire apocalypse classic I Am Legend to rehabilitate them in some way.

Zombies Invade San Francisco!

Zombies Invade San Francisco! (Photo credit: Scott Beale)

The zombies stands alone, but why? Well two reasons off the top of my head. Popular media love them because they give them a license for gratuitous violence on a humanesque figure. That man just drove an axe into that other guy’s head? No problem, he’s a zombie. Another person is getting ripped to shreds and eaten alive by a group? Zombies done it, guv. Another reason is that it allows the Western world to fantasize about an apocalyptic setting where they are struggling to survive. People like to think and hypothesize about how they would survive a zombie apocalypse. Almost everyone talks about what they’d do, few say “Well, I’m dead in the first wave!” destined to join the moaning mindless crowds. But enough about Fox News viewers. This fetishization about society’s disintegration is possibly an internalization of the external horrors of news around the world. Part of a collective guilt over trying to understand how we can live here (in the West) and do nothing when there is such terrible human suffering there? It may also be a result of the subconscious realization of increasing social division in Western society and the continuing decline of the middle class. A feeling of powerlessness over this change might lead people to think this is part of an inevitable process terminating in complete social chaos.

Still it surprises me how often people miss the point of zombies. Some highlights of what they have meant. Their origins lie in a fear of occultism and black tribal magic, and they’ve been used to interrogate social problems, notably race relations in Night of the Living Dead (1968), as well as being portrayed as rampant consumerism in Dawn of the Dead (1978) (love that mall music by the way). But lets look at zombies at their most basic. Whatever form they take, they have had their humanity stripped away and they become insatiable husks that hunger for human flesh. We see society broken and humans hunted, we are suddenly no longer the top of the food chain, we are food. But all this is secondary.

A poem on a gravestone in England should help  make the point, it reads:

Remember man, as thou walks by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now so must thou be,
Remember man that thou must die.

This idea is as old as the Bible itself, just take a look at Genesis 3:19, which talks about our inevitable deaths. In the zombie scenario they are not shambling monsters after our flesh, they are us. Reflections of us or what we will soon be. That also explains who the title The Walking Dead is referring to, it’s not the zombies, it’s the people. That is where the real terror of zombies comes from. Whenever I hear people saying how unlikely a zombie apocalypse is, how humans would easily defeat the slow horde of the undead if there was an outbreak, I know they are missing the point. No matter how far you go, or how fast you travel, or how well prepared you are, eventually you will become a corpse. Maybe not a shambling flesh-eating zombie but that’s beside the point, that’s only a perversion of the  immutable result. That is why the slow shuffling zombies are scary, because we actually cannot fight them forever. We can face our mortality but we cannot defeat it.

This is why I particularly like The Walking Dead iteration of zombies. Firstly, The Walking Dead (comics, television show, video game) returns to the slow as opposed to the fast zombies of 28 Days Later (2002) (infected technically, but basically fast zombies) or Dawn of the Dead (2004), both excellent movies but by taking away their slow nature they also strongly undermined the implacable nature of the monster, they started making them more alive than the living. You know that someone out there, seeing the sprinting horde, thought becoming a zombie might not be too bad if they get to run for ages like Hussein Bolt.  Secondly, the Walking Dead keeps the pace up against the survivors by changing the spread of the zombies. Zombie “infection” is traditionally through biting. In The Walking Dead the characters eventually find out everyone is infected (a bite does speed you on the path to graduate zombie college in a day or two though), so everyone who dies will become a zombie. This link to inevitable zombification returns the focus to the original inevitability of corpsification and our own mortality.

I would strongly recommend The Walking Dead the game to anyone with even a passing interest in zombies. The five episodes trace an excellent storyline with some great character writing, including one of the best written child characters that has ever appeared in videogames, Clementine.


About Alan Noonan

Alan Noonan is currently a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He received his PhD in history from University College Cork, and has experience as a historical consultant and researcher. He has been awarded several fellowships including the Glucksman Government of Ireland Fellowship at New York University, a Mellon Fellowship at the Library Company in Philadelphia, and a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American History.
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