As you may have noticed, zombies are incredibly popular these days. They’re neck and neck (no pun intended) with vampires in terms of Google searches and kicking the crap out of werewolves, which is made all the more impressive by the fact that vampire-based fiction is currently responsible for approximately 78% of the American economy.
There are numerous articles written about the zombie apocalypse, and my friends even have a route planned out in case of zombie attack. Now, granted, Cracked.com isn’t a leading scientific journal, and my friends are…well they’re the type of people who make zombie maps, but the point remains that zombies are certainly on peoples’ minds. But why?
As this article points out, the idea of the living dead has been around since Babylonian times. Our modern conception of zombies is mostly shaped, however, by more recent texts like “Frankenstein” and authors like Edgar Allen Poe. This, plus the Haitian practice of voodoo has led to what we now think of as zombies. But the question is, why is this idea so persistent? Why does it resurface again and again, across time, space, and cultures? One thought is that they were the living (or not) embodiment of our unconscious doubts over our own humanity. That is to say, they are an outlet for deep uncertainties about what it is that defines personhood.
Of course, what an object represents can change over time. There is an element of bricolage, or placing something that already exists in a different context to create an entirely different meaning. For example, vampires were originally portrayed as diseased, bloated corpses that fed on the living. However, as people began finding the whole neck-sucking thing sexy (I guess?) vampires became synonymous with eroticism. Similarly, an army of mindless zombies have represented Communist hordes, rampant consumerism, and corporate greed, just to name a few. So what do modern zombies represent?
To me, the most interesting thing is that the focus seems to be on the aftermath of a zombie outbreak, rather than on the zombies themselves. There’s both a lengthy Wikipedia article specifically on the zombie apocalypse and a Zombie Survival Wiki, not to mention an academic paper about the effects of a zombie outbreak. Of course, the zombies could still represent Communists or terrorists or killer bees or whatever, but the fact remains that the focus seems to rest more on the apocalypse and less on the zombies. So, again, we have to ask why.
Going back to the article I mentioned earlier, there are several reasons listed for why people are fantasizing about a zombie apocalypse. Some of the reasons are obvious. I mean, in some respects, life would be like a giant game of Grand Theft Auto. You could go around, stealing cars, running over zombies, and doing missions for the Yakuza (or looting stores or whatever). However, there would be a more serious side, and that’s where all this obsession and preparation would come in.
You’d need to provide your own food, shelter, and whatever other amenities you would want. So, really, the zombie apocalypse could stand in for any large scale disaster. Say there’s a terrorist attack. Or some global warming-related weather event. Or the electrical grid fails. Or SARS makes a comeback. Or genetically modified plants gain sentience and go on a killing spree. Or any of the dozens of things the news threatens us with every night. What would you do? Of course, nobody’s seriously preparing for all these events, and with good reason. You’d go crazy from the stress, or at least people would think you’re extremely paranoid for acting on what seems like a very unlikely possibility. And yet the anxiety remains. So preparing for a nuclear holocaust makes you seem crazy, but preparing for the zombie apocalypse? That’s hilarious. Or is it?