Wednesday, February 20

Why America Loves Zombies

The Walking Dead is immensely popular on TV and Warm Bodies is cleaning up at the box office. The venerable London Science Museum hosted a festival last month focusing wholly on the epistemology of zombies.The popularity of this particular metaphor continues to grow beyond the wildest dreams of horror enthusiasts.

I must admit that I've pondered this particularly bizarre phenomenon a good deal. Like most complex occurrences, I'd argue that the explanations for zombie-mania throughout the United States (and beyond) are multi-faceted and inter-related.

Start by examining the mindless trek we all make in our relentless march toward the unique depersonalization that modernity affords.

Consider your GPS device. Sure it speaks soothingly to you, but it speaks to everyone in that same soothing voice, with the same precise words, and we as individuals matter not a wit to the GPS itself. Add to this the increasing time we spend listening to "muzak" while we wait to talk with a computer help desk, or stuck in traffic with other bedraggled commuters, or, perhaps worst of all, standing in line at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and it is no wonder that we identify with and perhaps even envy a set of creatures who just don't care.

Zombies don't mind, after all, if you never bother to text them back. As long as zombies have something to eat, they will wait forever – FOREVER – at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. A zombie is never righteously indignant.

Zombies appeal because they represent the excruciating pains of our vanishing sense of being special. Nobody says "it takes a village" for a zombie to be happy. Zombies no like villages. Zombies like food (and they aren't that picky about it).

Think for a moment of that village in a zombie flick. Think of the poor schmos who still cling to humanity as the zombies start to over-run the barricades. None of the humans are particularly special to the zombie. One guy's guts are as good as someone else's.

After years of being told how unique we are by all facets of American culture – by vampires in our movies, by evangelists in our churches, by politicians on our pedestals and advertisements on our computers – perhaps we have grown tired of the disconnect between these messages and the experience that the Registry of Motor Vehicles affords. The zombies help us to confirm our experience.

So, what do we Americans do when we don't feel special? We turn to our own mythology.

Here's how one kid put it to me:

"If there were a zombie apocalypse, man, it'd be SO cool. It'd be like the Old West. We'd square dance every night and hunt for food during the day. As long as we keep our guns trained on the woods we'll be safe and happy."

That's almost word for word what I've heard at every gathering of zombie enthusiasts. It seems to explain the absurdly intricate planning that zombie survivalists embrace.

I'll admit that the unique freedom of a zombie Armageddon is itself strangely appealing. Our lives would be quickly and cleanly simplified in a zombie scenario, and this of course jives with the enduring American mythos that that "the old days were better". In the old days, the story goes, we got by with just a few honest folks. That sentiment is a uniquely American theme.

And here is where I like zombie stories most of all. Ultimately, the zombie tale is a cautionary tale. It is an allegory about what not to do. If there were a zombie outbreak, should we really go shooting every zombie in sight? Not really. We shouldn't arm ourselves with guns. We should arm ourselves with humanity.

Everyone I know in the zombie world uses the human reactions to zombies as examples of how folks can either royally screw up or instead do a whole lot of good. At the end of the day, a good zombie movie, like the best of American values, is about finding a way to get along with each other and move forward. In our vast and polarized nation, it is now more than ever vital that we fully embrace these lessons.

In other words, we love our zombies because they just might bring us together before we go and tear ourselves apart.



Eric (Bubba) Alder said...

I think the basic appeal of zombies, at least for me, is one of an allegory about the current state of society.

Everywhere, I see people walking around, oblivious to the world around them, mindlessly focused on their phones and tablets and other gadgets. I want to grab them by the shoulders and shout "Wake up!"

These real world 'zombies' can be quite irritating, especially when they're driving.

(Not to mention the underlying fear some may have of becoming one of them)

So watching people battling zombies is, on one level, an extension of my wish to retaliate against the 'zombification' of society.

Also - and I think this has a wider appeal - there's the element of camaraderie among the people who struggle to survive against the zombies. Sort of a "we're all in this together" unity that's all too often missing in these days of electronic isolation.

YeamieWaffles said...

Great piece of writing that definitely explains why I love zombies so much let alone America although as a Western country I can relate to Americans, I love the concept of zombies myself and genuinely can't wait to see Warm Bodies.

Random Girl said...

poetry to my ears baby...

T. Roger Thomas said...

I believe that all good zombie fiction contains a lesson about what it means to be human and how to get along with others. 28 Days Later, for example, presents lessons about making friends in a cruel world and in several instances points out the problems of going alone rather than working together.