Wednesday, April 17, 2019

It's Not About The Zombies. It's About Us.

I was talking with a friend recently about monsters and the prevalence of zombies on our screens. For better or worse, this got me thinking. There are three types of fantasy monsters that keep recurring in our cultural storytelling: vampires, werewolves, and zombies. The history of these legends and the ways in which the stories change over time is a fascinating study on its own. I’m more interested about what is happening right now in American culture, and what our take on the stories - particularly the zombie genre - reveals about us.

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I think it's worth making a general distinction between how these three monsters have been used as archetypes or stand-ins for the monsters with which we wrestle in the real world. I am painting with a broad brush that is dipped in the stories with which I am familiar. Indulge me. If you would like to broaden or brighten my pallet with your additional observations, feel free. I am exploring this topic, not closing it.

Vampires generally represent cold, calculating, intelligent evil. They know what they are doing. They are often beautiful and alluring, even sensual, but they drain us of life. In some ways they show the classic trap of abuse: people often love their abusers even as they hate them. They keep going back to someone they know is killing them. The best vampire stories are those in which someone who has been turned recognizes the horror of what has happened and uses their intelligence to find ways to use their powers in such a way that they do not harm others (see Justin Cronin’s The Passage, both the book and the TV show).

Werewolves represent the animal side of our nature. If vampires are about cold calculation, werewolves are about raging emotions and instincts. It’s us giving into the call of the wild for feeding, fighting and, uh, fornicating. Werewolves are rational in their human forms and self-aware in their bestial forms, but if they embrace this transformation, they become the friendly neighbor with a hidden life who would feast on you if given the chance. The best werewolf stories are those in which victims recognize this and fight or channel the burden (Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves Of Mercy Falls).

Zombies are mindless consumers. Zombies are not smart; they do not feel. They are victims that don’t even know they have been turned.They are relentless and unstoppable. Their only desire is to consume you, and it’s not personal. You can’t talk them out of it or expect empathy. They have no plan. They have no emotions. They just are. Zombies rule the day currently: The Walking Dead on AMC; Black Summer, iZombie, Cargo and Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix; Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies and Max Brook’s World War Z (both the books are remarkable; the movie for the latter diverges almost unrecognizably from Brooks’ vision); Jonathan Maberry’s exceptional Rot and Ruin series; BBC’s unsettling In The Flesh.

So, why do zombies stagger through our pop culture landscape more than the others right now? I have three theories. Feel free to respond with your own.

1. Zombies are standing in for an unacknowledged human monster

Vampire stories help us wrestle with intelligent malevolence. In some ways, I think they stand in for crafty mass murderers, cruel dictators, human traffickers, drug cartels, etc. Werewolves highlight the Dr Jekyll/Mr. Hyde duality of our nature. Sometimes, people act like animals, indulging instincts no matter the cost. In both cases, we have plenty of real world depictions that already make the point. The fantasy world is creative, but it’s not ground-breaking.

But wrestling with the idea that some people just stumble through their lives consuming everything and everyone around them? How many times do we discuss how people consume and use people thoughtlessly, indifferently, and relentlessly? It’s a different kind of villain, one with no emotional investment, no thought or feeling, no internal struggle, no moments of clarity, no sense at all that anything is wrong. They feed when they aren’t hungry. They have drives that can never be satiated. Nothing will stop them, dissuade them, concern them.

 It’s the pathological liar who robs everyone around them of trust; the emotionally abusive family member who sucks the emotional health out of everyone around them; the cheater of tests, marriages, and taxes; the friend who takes what is not hers to take; the sexual conquistador who mindlessly ravages his way through the local bars; the employer whose blunt use of his power feels dehumanizing; the parent who helicopters; the spouse who emasculates…the list goes on.

And in every case, they don’t see it. If they did, they couldn’t tell you why. In the worst case scenario, you are surrounded by people who don’t even know that their mindless hungers are being satiated at the expense of your life.  

2. There is a fear that we are going to be overwhelmed by the slow but relentless collapse of evil around us.

All the werewolf stories I’ve seen involve only a few werewolves. You may be impacted by them, but you can get away from them. Most vampire stories are the same, though some of them (like The Passage) explore what it would look like for the world to be overrun. Zombies, though, are everywhere. They are flood of evil rather than a trickle. Isaac Marion's zombies are allegories for human nature. We are all consumers of others; we just usually do it in ways that are socially acceptable. What would happen if all of us collectively gave up being civilized and gave in to the basest part of our nature?

And then the ultimate fear: what if we are already part of the problem. Werewolves and vampires are well aware of their monstrous nature. What if we are dead inside and don’t know it? It’s the fear realized in both The Walking Dead and Black Summer. Our fate is sealed. We will come back as the undead. The virus already lurks within us. We are doomed to run in life and hunt in death unless someone mercifully crushes our skulls.

3. There is a philosophical angle. 

Read up on something called a P-zombie, or a philosophical zombie. Basic idea: if there were a zombie of me that you experienced to be exactly like me, would there be any really significant difference? Some philosophers say 'no'. Perhaps we are all zombies, with no soul and no real “self.” Evolution has tricked us into thinking we have a rich internal life, when it’s actually just synapses firing and chemicals routing and rerouting. We are meat puppets, chemicals running around in a biological bag. If that’s true, that’s part of the horror as well. What if we don’t know that we are, for all existential purposes, dead inside?

4. Of the three monsters, they are consistently used to reveal the depth of evil in humanity.

Nobody can match the evil of a rampaging werewolf or a hunting vampire, but one can be human and be the real monster in a zombie story. 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead, Black Summer - in all of these, people have to make a decision about which monsters are the most appealing: the mindless ones powered by viruses beyond their control, or the mindful ones powered by lust, greed, and violence. 28 Days Later made this point powerfully; The Walking Dead has revisited this dilemma season after season.

5. Zombies are the only monsters that deserve sympathy.

They are usually victims who aren't even rational enough to understand their victimhood (Santa Clarita Diet and iZombie excepted. SCD is stupid, and iZombie is a zombie detective show). They did nothing to deserve their state; they are not immoral because they are not capable of being moral agents. (The BBC's In The Flesh offers a world in which a cure is found, but former zombies can't be prosecuted for this reason).

Is this part of the allure? What if our zombie-like indulgences are beyond our control? Does this give us an out for our own monstrous consumptions? Maybe I am that P-zombie, a Pavlovian puppet, salivating to the bell rung by my nature and nurture. Hurt people hurt people, right? Bit people bite people. I'm not bad. I'm just sick.

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There is something going on. Stories don’t rise in a vacuum. Pop culture reflects popular sentiment; the superheroes and  monsters of the moment reflect something deeper in that moment.

Right now, we seem to be culturally running from something that looms like a zombie apocalypse on the horizon. But it's not about the zombies, or course.


Here, my friends, is where I would love to hear your opinions.

1 comment:

  1. I think you can draw a parallel to our characterization of our political opposites. We frequently see opposing political leaders and icons as "vampires" (intelligently malicious) but their followers are viewed differently. They're mindless or stupid, they surround us and threaten us, they can't be reasoned with, they are monsters because they've been taken in by a virulent ideology they can't resist.

    I think that zombie stories speak to the parts of is that see the "others" as frightening. If we're safe in our like-minded bubbles, we fear that the infection will get a foothold and spread, eradicating our world and replacing it with the Others' world. If we're living among the "Others" already, then zombie movies speak to our perception that we're under siege, the last heroic survivors who still retain their right minds.