It’s the apocalypse part that draws us in. Not the zombies.
By Eric M. Martin
Why is the zombie apocalypse so appealing to our collective imagination? No single, stand-out answer to this question has been articulated despite the fact that The Walking Dead has already aired for half a decade and despite the countless articles penned on the subject of the zombie apocalypse and its hold on the public’s attention.
Here’s one idea that, although kind of obvious, doesn’t often come up: In a day-and-age where humanity’s transition into a cyborg state begins to feel inevitable, it’s charming, almost aspirational, to see that trajectory reversed and watch people unplug — smartphones off — and pick up some old school tools…to kill zombies.
Admittedly, there is no science that can explain why zombie movies and television shows have so fully captured the world’s attention. What is clear though is the advent of the zombie fad has made a deep mark on the cinema and television landscape. The Walking Dead has taken over as television’s most popular show and World War Z made buckets of money in 2013 despite the fact that the market is relatively saturated with images of brainless, stumbling hordes.
Zombies are big business, but that’s not all.
People think about zombies so much that a few years ago the United States CDC (Center for Disease Control) actually issued a public statement saying that zombies are not real, but we should be prepared anyway. Now they keep a blog about it.
“The rise of zombies in pop culture has given credence to the idea that a zombie apocalypse could happen. In such a scenario zombies would take over entire countries, roaming city streets eating anything living that got in their way. The proliferation of this idea has led many people to wonder ‘How do I prepare for a zombie apocalypse?’”
The CDC does not theorize as to why zombies have taken up residence in the popular imagination, but theories do abound as to why the zombie apocalypse has already happened on screen so many times. It’s a fascinating question, maybe just as fascinating as the idea of zombies themselves.
Zombies are us. Or are they?
If answers to this question were canned food, we’d be totally stocked for the apocalypse. One popular view is that zombies function as avatars for a sense of helplessness in the larger culture in the face of wide-spread uncertainty. Writing for the WSJ, Daniel W. Drezner argues that “Zombies thrive in popular culture during times of recession, epidemic and general unhappiness” – a popular theory among pop culture writers and analysts.
Zombies are us, this theory suggests, and they also signify the dangers that threaten us, from bank collapse to terrorism. A compelling argument? Many writers point to 9/11 as a touchstone of social threat and insecurity and suggest that the zombie apocalypse resonates with the cultural imagination in large part because we are immanently afraid of catastrophe. Zombieland is realistic, to this way of thinking, and so is Resident Evil…
Or maybe we should say this theory posits that the zombie apocalypse is psychologically realistic or “figuratively realistic,” granted, a contradiction in terms. Film-as-catharsis is solid analytical ground, but there seems to be something missing from a theory so glossy.
It’s troubling to try to reconcile the duality of the zombie as a human avatar (representing our powerlessness) and as a symbol of incomprehensible threat (from terrorism, societal collapse, science-gone-wrong, etc.).
In a BBC article tackling this subject, Nicolas Barber draws a short historic line to the paranoid-genetic-science zombie movie, 28 Days Later, citing the British film as the ignition point of the current zombie fad. Taking a further step back in time, the article reflects on the origin story of the zombie concept – Night of the Living Dead (1968), by George Romero.
“They could turn their victims into fellow zombies with one bite. And, just as importantly, they were a metaphor for everything that bothered Romero about the modern world.”
So zombies stand as a metaphor. They always have. There are plenty of metaphors out there, many of which have been objectified in monster movies as vampires and killers and in action movies as cold-hearted Russians with great, fake-sounding accents. Why does the zombie metaphor, in particular, strike a chord today? Can it be that we feel hemmed in by threats beyond our control and so we like to see the embodiment of those threats depicted as slow-moving, easy to kill brain-eaters?
While there is some credence to Barber’s claim that “zombies have stood for unreasoning, destructive conformity” and a literalizing of rampant consumerism, my own inclination is to think that the zombies themselves are not actually at the heart of our fascination with the zombie apocalypse.
It’s the apocalypse part that draws us in. Not the zombies.
Brains and Fresh Air
Given the popularity of zombies and a proliferation of explanations for this continuing fad, there is no surprise in finding out I’m not alone in looking at the specific world of the zombie film as a kind of sublimated response to that of high-speed modern life.
“The world is becoming an increasingly complex place with new modes of social interaction and communication, increased globalization, social change, unprecedented technological advances, financial prosperity mixed with uncertainty, and so on.” (Bradley Voytek, Zombie Research Society (ZRS) advisory board)
The apocalyptic setting of zombie tales in films and on television not only allows for an objectification of societal ills, it also presents an escape from the shifting and increasingly fast-paced social landscape that characterizes contemporary life.
Rick in The Walking Dead is not worried about getting the newest iPhone or posting selfies to his Instagram. His concerns are the stark and simple worries of survival.
In most zombie tales, the machinations of contemporary life have come to an abrupt halt. Cars sit idle in the roads. Computers and television screens do not light up. The 40 hour work week is no more. Classes are not in session.
If the argument seems silly that there is an ironic comfort in the ruined and suddenly pastoral landscape of the apocalypse, consider some of the research being published today.
“[P]sychological research confirms that smartphones are indeed creating a new kind of stress for people at home, at work, and in social settings. The advent of these devices is allowing scientists to identify the line between the handiness and the torment of modern consumer technology” (Observer, Association for Psychologial Science).
Psychology Today reports that 40% of the population suffers from Nomophobia, the fear of being without your smartphone. The tools of work and entertainment that make our lives what they are do not only comfort us. They bring discomfort too. Materialism is not merely a perspective on consumption or a set of values. Materialism, in action, is also a set of mandates to keep up!
So, what could be simpler than a zombie apocalypse? Your enemies are many and they want to eat you, but they are kind of slow and stupid. For the most part, you can be sure the zombies aren’t building bombs or preparing an air strike. More to the point, you don’t have to puzzle over the tone of a zombie email.
Obviously, there is more to the zombie fascination than a sudden shift into pastoral living. World War Z poses some quite global and techie challenges for Brad Pitt’s character. But again, it’s worth considering the role of the apocalyptic setting in the zombie story’s appeal to our collective imagination.
In this setting, the basic humanity of the characters becomes their most significant trait. It almost becomes a super-power. There is a pleasant simplicity to the problems faced by the people in most zombie stories. Don’t get eaten.
Looking out at a sea of abandoned cars on the highway, there is a promise that you don’t have to try to keep up anymore. You can stop adapting to constant, ever-increasingly paced change. In the zombie apocalypse there was one big, final Change – the apocalypse. And that was it.
Now you can settle in and just be you.
Bio: Eric M. Martin is a writer and educator living in southern California. His work has appeared at PopMatters, Steinbeck Now, and KCET.org and in It’s not only Rock ‘N’ Roll: Sexe, drogues, et sagesse du rock (2014).