They offer all that is negative about humanity, but oddly alluring
Aim for the brain, and don’t get bitten. Everyone knows that’s how to survive a zombie attack. The monsters are so pervasive in pop culture that you don’t have to be a die-hard Dawn of the Dead fan to know the basics.
But what is it about them that keeps us hungry for more? Is it the rush of fear, break from reality, or morbid interest in what the collapse of humanity would look like?
The word “zombie” is borrowed from Haitian culture, in which it refers to people’s souls1, but our modern understanding of the undead is a joint effort of authors and filmmakers who never even used the word. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein introduced us to resurrection, and HP Lovecraft’s twisted tales of mad professors and their experiments gone wrong ignited the idea that the reanimated will be hungry for flesh, but it’s George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead that we owe for the relentless, decaying monsters we love today.
Perhaps the scariest thing about zombies is that they’re still evolving. When Lovecraft’s violent, demoniac animals exist in the same world as the personable protagonist of Isaac Marion’s “zombie-romance” Warm Bodies, there is no limit to what a zombie can be. As our society develops, so do the reflections we create of ourselves.
Although the original zombie came from cultures we may not understand or relate to, the trope has always served as a mirror for society, a way of expressing the ultimate fear of losing our humanity and autonomy. Stephen King’s technophobic novel Cell explored this, with mobile phone users turned into mindless killers by a signal sent across phone networks. Our modern concerns of the effects of capitalism, consumerism and ecological collapse feed directly into the themes we see crop up in zombie pop culture. What would happen if the systems we so heavily rely on now disappeared? Are we special? Would we survive?
Losing the world as we know it and having to contend with something unimaginable is a horrific yet fascinating concept. You may have watched every season of The Walking Dead to prepare for the apocalypse, but are you convinced you’d survive?
MACKAYAN: UNDYING LOVE FOR zOMBIESTweet
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By Joanna Davies: Literature Columnist
According to psychologist Paul Bloom it doesn’t matter if you believe you would or not: we simply enjoy using zombie fiction as:
“practice for bad times, exercising our psyches for when life goes to hell.”
More than the realistic likelihood of survival, we focus on training our mind to understand and react to the potential trauma of losing control. Because we know that the threat of a zombie apocalypse is unlikely, we can experience fear under the guise of excitement. We consume things that allow us to vicariously experience the emotions and situations we encounter, before going back to our normal lives feeling hypothetically better equipped to survive.
Most of us like to think we’re good people. A world where zombies exist is one in which people are constantly confronted with their morality and the implication it has on their survival. More so than the monsters, we are captivated by human beings’ capacity for good and evil, and the conditions in which one overpowers the other. Post-apocalyptic fiction has transfixed us for centuries, framing the same question a hundred different ways: are human beings the real monsters?
Although this has become more of a platitude than a radical concept, humanity’s capacity for cruelty and moral degeneration is what draws us in. Zombies become the “background” material, says Kate Murphy, a philosophy professor who uses zombie fiction in her teaching. She suggests that “people have always been concerned about the end of the world…the real issue is “Can you trust other people? And if you can’t, then what does that say about humanity?”
So, at its core, our love for zombies has nothing to do with them, but everything to do with us. We are fascinated by the fragility of a world we put so much faith in, limits of the our condition and the moral truisms we can take from seeing humans navigate a world devoid of humanity.