I have watched all the zombie films that I should watch for someone who wants to understand the zombie genre on film. Aside from reading and rereading and reading once again World War Z and I Am Legend, I have done the zombie specific readings in Tell My Horse from Zora Neale Hurston and read some very good zombie stories from H P Lovecraft—my favorite was The Outsider. Chilling. I have checked out The Serpent and the Rainbow, but found both it and Hurston’s novel unnecessary for my paper—that said, well worth looking into for you zombie aficionados out there. I have read Frankenstein—the original zombie story…well, kinda. On top of all this, I have completed related readings from scholars and journalists all over the modern West, who have interpreted zombies from studies in geopolitics, to environmental metaphors, to representations in a Marxist reading of the genre. It goes on and on,,,literally. I know about zombies now. Further, I think I am beginning to appreciate how zombies are vital to the here and now.
I understand why the relatively new “Zombie Studies” offered at several Universities in North America are important. And the more I am immersed in topics that strongly influence pop culture, the more I see the need for “Popular Culture Studies.” I know some of you will agree with me on this. I don’t think that either “Popular Culture” or “Zombie” studies are frivolous pursuits because I believe they treat issues that are pertinent to the cultural zeitgeist that springs from the trauma of September 11. After all, when did, you may ask, the resurgence in zombie movies begin? The answer, not surprisingly, is shortly after 9/11. We need a new monster to embody this particular terror. And pop culture tends to fetishize monsters. We know this is true…because vampires.
Remember in the 1970s and early 80s when gays and lesbians began to venture out of the darkness? When “gay is okay” became a public thing, and a new dialogue was beginning to open? We heard about people struggling to or coming out of the closet. Right around this time Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire. A fantastic, eerily sensual book, that spoke to identity, freedom, and issues that leaned toward moral relativism with…tolerance. The two main characters of the book, Lestat and Louis, were locked together in a heated debate that spanned decades, both as passionate as the other. Lestat celebrated the mystery and nuances of his identity, while Louis struggled violently against admitting to an identity that would, to his mind, fling him beyond all repentance into the outer darkness of “otherness.” The idea of “community” was unknown to him at first, but when he did learn of them, they were just awful reminders—other “others.” He could not see that he was already “in” his identity, and to fight it was as futile as shaking his fist at God. He had to come to terms with himself if he was ever to find peace again. In the end, Louis came out of the closet as a vampire, and found his place in the world.
The vampires, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga have all stood at Western society’s lectern and treated the issues of their eras. Competently, I might add. Now, while the vampire enjoys a hiatus from the public spotlight, the zombie has stepped up to the podium. The topic? Fear. Plain and simple.
The entire genre roots itself in fear. The vampires did as well, but theirs tended to center on specific fears. And sex…lots of sex. So, for a while I thought zombies examined unspecified fear. After completing my readings, and watching the films, and looking at the genre in general, I have discovered that, in the zombie genre, fear is fear is fear. It actually doesn’t need to be specified to be what it is, and then behave as it does. Fear always does the same things. There are ways that it manifests itself every single time. Fear is self-centered. Fear is contagious. Fear is paranoid. Fear is mindless. Fear is the product of uncontrolled thinking…or incorrect thinking.
To qualify—fear can also be healthy. For instance, we look both ways before we cross a road because the “fear app” in our brains tells us that being hit by a bus will ruin our day. When we are hiking and see fresh bear scat, our “fear app” tells us to start making a bunch of noise…or to go back the way we came…because getting beaten up by a startled bear is another way to ruin our day. Fear helps us identify and avoid danger on a planet that is sometimes hostile toward us. It helps us stay a step ahead. However, if we look closely at this brand of fear, we will see that it operates best under the guidance of reason. We don’t stand beside the road, or on the forest trail, shrieking in fear and wringing our hands helplessly. We take logical action that diverts us from danger’s door. This is the good kind of fear, and not the kind I am talking about here.
Cornel West talks about “Truth” in Examined Life. One of the notions he focuses on is the smallness of the human being who, to live successfully, must come to terms with the truth of his/her smallness. To my mind, it goes something like this: You’re gonna die, my friend. Without a doubt, you will die. And in the scale of things, you will die soon…sooner than you care to think about. You may be reading this blog right now and only have a few hours before your final moment on this earth. Then you will be over, forever. For a very short time, a few people will remember you. Some will cry and grieve and water your grave—some for as long as they live. But eventually, they too will die, and then you will become another gravestone, until that also crumbles. Someday, and someday soon according to the cosmic clock, it will be like you never even existed. You will pass out of memory. That is the truth of every single human being on this earth. When considering the estimated 108 billion people who have ever lived on this earth, we remember a mere handful of them for longer than a millennium or two, such as: Jesus of Nazareth, Siddhārtha Gautama, Mohammed, Abraham, Gilgamesh, Plato, and Aristotle. People like Isaac Newton, Da Vinci, and Galileo don’t even qualify for this list—they have not stood the test of time yet. It’s kind of hard to come to terms with the notion that someone like William Shakespeare has only been important for a short time, and may pass into oblivion in another five hundred years. Because I ponder the Minoans.
I think the Minoans were a lovely people, now tragic and irretrievable. I remember studying them during my undergrad years and discovering that archeologists have never uncovered much beyond ceremonial knives—it seems that these people had no weapon industry to speak of because they were not a warring culture. Instead, they built huge sea-going vessels (no one else did at that time) and sailed, well, it’s not known for certain how far they went. Some people think they went everywhere. They were merchants, you see. They were hugely into their national sports of boxing and bull-leaping. They had a female deity. They were a society of artists, artisans, and art-lovers. They also had running water and indoor plumbing in their homes, and their people were literate. Some people think that they were the Atlantis spoken of by Plato, because for their time, they were an advanced and peaceful society. They also had the benefit of living on an island away from the negative influences of the rest of the world, and where invading armies couldn’t reach them. And they were for hundreds of years. No doubt they had poets and philosophers and historical figures, long dead, that were taught to the next generations of students—the same way Shakespeare is taught to twelfth graders. They had written laws, cases that changed their thinking, and an outlook on their world and their place in it. Then a volcano erupted on a neighboring island, and now practically all that was the Minoan civilization has fallen through the cracks of history. All that is known—or can be reasonably assumed—is what has been uncovered amid the ruins of their capital city. They had a complex written language—Linear A—that cannot be deciphered yet, and may never be. Yet, they were great in their time—great in the way we think we are great. And now they are all but vanished. But what, you may now be wondering as you roll your eyes, does any of this have to do with zombies? Well, everything.
Zombies symbolize our fear of dying. Individually and collectively. Dying, dying out, dying off…fading into oblivion…as we probably will someday soon. We will have our time, and then we will all of us die. And zombies will take over the earth. That is to say—what we perceive as zombies will take over the earth. All things being equal, to the dinosaurs, the mammals might have seemed like zombies—strange, hairy, ugly things, that invaded every corner of the earth and could not be exterminated. We have been playing with this idea of losing the earth and having it bequeathed to others for some time now… “Planet of the Apes” anyone?
Zombies are our fear of the “other” in this world…those who want to get in and take over and change us. Those who squat among us “in here” and mean us harm. Those “out there” who hate us and plot to destroy us. These enemies have no fear of death and they cannot be reasoned with.
Zombies are our fear of the pollutants that will make our earth unliveable. They are the plague of climate change caused by coldly aloof corporations. Of seeping radioactive spaces. Of super-acidic seas. Of species of plants and animals becoming extinct. Of new contagions we cannot control. Of an ozone we are destroying and a nearby star we can neither escape nor live without. And all of these seem to be beyond our control. It is as though Nature has issued a decree against the human race saying, “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN…You are weighed in the balances and are found wanting…Your world is divided and given to another” Popular culture has received this climate of fear and interpreted it. In response, it has produced the zombie. Frankly, it is easier for most to look at a zombie—a hideous, decaying, terrifying zombie—than it is to look at what is actually terrifying in the real world. You see zombies, like vampires, don’t exist. Do they?
Cornel West suggests that we accept what we are, and then adjust our thinking accordingly. Basically the adage, “we need new thoughts.” This climate of fear that has infected every corner of Western culture is, in turn, rotting it from the inside out. The evil intent that slammed airplanes into the Twin Towers over a decade ago, planted a terror virus that has grown out of control until, for example, television channels that used to be programmed with enlightening, instructional, scholarly series, have been replaced by apocalypse preppers, survivalists, gun-toting fanatics, quack scientists, self-proclaimed experts, conspiracy theorists, and zombies. The CDC has performed and published their zombie apocalypse scenario. So did the US Strategic Defense in a project called “CONOP 8888.” Zombies have been discussed in Canadian and British parliaments as well—not because our politicians (as whacky as some of them tend to be) actually believe the dead will rise up and eat us, but because they understand what zombies represent—contagion, invasion, social chaos, and the collapse of infrastructure. Now THAT is what should be discussed, but some politicians would rather stand up before parliament and go down in history as the guy who said “zombie” than actually name our fears. Just…really?
In any case, learning about the far-reaching fearfulness that has spread like an oil slick over Western pop culture until a decomposing cannibalistic thing that was once human is the only monster horrible enough to characterize this fear has been, well, unnerving. I think that there are some good zombie text books that are waiting to be written, and I use the plural of text book because I think there is too much for just one. We need to work on this, at any rate. To, as one researcher put it, “use our brains before the zombies do.” Basically, do as Mr West suggests and get new thoughts. Because let’s face it, no one wants to be eaten by a zombie.