Why Zombies? The Significance of Zombies in Contemporary Culture
They're Coming to Get You
The Walking Dead
The Rising Horde
They're gruesome, odorous, and want to eat us - and we love them.
Yes, we are in the midst of a veritable "Zombie Renaissance,” a fact that has already garnered its fair share of attention. In fact, Columbia College Chicago even offers a course entitled "Zombies in Popular Media."
Zombies are undeniably at the apex of their popularity, but why?
They Won't Stay Dead
The Modern Zombie Emerges
First, let's be clear in our definition of a zombie.
In early films, such as White Zombie (1932), zombies were portrayed as puppets under the control of a voodoo master. Then, in 1968, George Romero revolutionized how zombies were seen with his film Night of the Living Dead, which created the zombie sub-genre as we know it today.
Romero's zombies are slow, mindless shuffling corpses that have risen from the grave and want to eat human flesh. It is from these ghoulish creatures that today's zombies are descended (modern permutations such as "fast zombies" notwithstanding).
We Can't Consume Enough of Them
So What's the Appeal?
So why are so many people today finding the living dead interesting? Is it just that they make good entertainment?
Well, sure, they often do, but the forms of entertainment we choose as a society are relevant - and telling.
There are a few popular theories about what zombies in contemporary media really represent. In the broad sense, all of these theories relate to societal anxieties. Popular entertainment media, such as books and film, can act as a barometer for measuring these concerns; its common motifs are a reflection of the current mentality and concerns of the masses.
Just as, in the wake of the A-bomb, Godzilla gave form to post-WWII Japan's societal fears, zombies resonate deeply with American audiences today, and the reason for their mass appeal can be found by examining societal trends.
Alone Against the World
Survival: Zombieland Rules
Zombies as "Others" - Growing Isolation in the Age of Information
So what does the immense popularity of zombies really mean?
The answer may lie in the threat that zombies pose. A single zombie is typically just a pathetic, shambling sack of bones and rotting flesh. But while zombies are easy to pick off one at a time, they become an insurmountable threat when in large numbers. They will surround and consume you.
In the standard zombie apocalypse scenario, there are a few living struggling to survive against hordes of the undead. Essentially, in this universe, the world is against you, and your existence is a constant struggle for survival. This sounds a bit like the way someone with a severe social anxiety disorder might perceive the world, doesn't it? The protagonist and his or her immediate circle are individuals, and the bulk of society appear as nothing more than a potentially menacing herd of Others.
As people grow more isolated in the Information Age, nestled at home behind their computers, it becomes easier to adopt this view of the world. In fact, this premise is at the center of all "survival horror" - a sub-genre that originated with video games such as Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil, and is now widespread throughout film, literature, and other popular media.
Why Do We Love Zombies?
Zombies as Metaphor: "Eat the Rich"
Some sociologists attribute the rise in zombies' popularity to the effects of global capitalism. In On the Origin of Zombies, David Stohecker observes that the common zombie scenario, in which mindless masses invade an individual's home and eat them, can be viewed as reflection of bourgeois fear of the proletariat -- playing out as a gory revenge-of-the-working-class allegory.
Certainly, George Romero has not shied away from using his zombie films to make social statements; Dawn of the Dead, set in a shopping mall, made a clear statement about consumerism, and his later film, Land of the Dead, emphasizes issues of socioeconomic disparity.
When analyzing the significance of the living dead in popular media, however, not all zombie works are the same. While some may make intentional social or political statements, others appeal to viewers on another (more visceral) level.
Zombies as Archetype: Symbols of Shadow
Archetypes, as described by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, are universal patterns and images that are are common to all people.
The theme of people rising from the dead and eating human flesh is far from new; it can be found throughout history (appearing even in The Epic of Gilgamesh). Therefore, it could therefore be argued the zombie is an archetype - a recognizable symbol common to all man.
So what about zombies strikes a cord deep within us as human beings? What do they symbolize to us?
In What Do Zombies, Jungian Archetypes, and IT Have In Common?, Rand Fishkin asserts that zombies represent “the shadow” -- all the things we’re afraid of and yet have a hard time fighting, such as terrorism and pandemics.
On some level, that's probably true, but zombies can also symbolize something more personally frightening to us. For instance, when loved ones become terminally ill, they sometimes become mere shells of themselves. The former person is lost, much like a person loses the identity he possessed in life when he becomes a zombie. In this way, zombies can represent loss or the defilement of memories that were held precious.
Zombies are dangerous, but although they may kill you, they do it without malice. Their motivations are basic and transparent. They're just hungry. It's the very base of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs; you can hardly even blame them for trying to eat us. But although zombies aren't inherently cruel, they are inevitable, like death itself. After all, in a zombie apocalypse, the dead used to be us, and we will become them. Eventually, all human beings die and are consumed by decay - so perhaps our fascination with them is as simple as our fear of death?
Younger Generations Are Worse Off Today
In a Zombie Apocalypse, Even the Zombies Are Unhappy
Zombies as Reflection of Historical Trend: Generational Disillusionment
But fear of illness, death, and mankind's own dark side are constants in the human consciousness, so they don't explain the temporary surge in popularity for all things zombie.
The primary answer probably lies in something more pervasive - an underlying sense of disillusionment that permeates American society.
Consider the typical zombie story. Before the outbreak, life seems good. Then the dead start to rise. Suddenly, there is a contagious cannibalistic horde just outside the door. The dead, shambling and hungry, are a harsh, ugly fact that can't be hidden. They are rotting monstrosities for all the world to see. Generally, we (the audience) learns that the apocalypse has come about due to human error or greed. Man has invariably orchestrated his own destruction. If that weren't harsh enough, as the article What Does the Zombie Genre Say About the West? points out, these tales also rarely have happy endings, and their protagonists often die.
The dark, deeply pessimistic zombie sub-genre reflects a current, almost nihilistic, historical trend in American thought -- one of dissatisfaction and disillusionment. Generation X is the first American generation since to the Great Depression to be less financially successful than its parents' generation, and Millennials (or Generation Y) are following in their footsteps. On top of that, thanks to the American diet, these generations could be the first to have shorter lifespans than their predecessors. Couple all of this with a distrust of government and industry and a sense of growing social isolation, and what you have here are lost generations, frustrated and unheard. They are a collection of individuals who feel that they have been lied to -- they once believed in the promise of the future, but their expectations have been summarily shattered. They often feel that they are struggling simply to survive. It only makes sense that a zombie apocalypse, and survival horror in general, would strike a cord with this disaffected demographic.
Ultimately, when you deconstruct the apocalypse, what you are left with is an undercurrent of societal malaise - a bleak metaphor for generational struggle and resignation.
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© 2014 Alisha Adkins