Why do we like zombie apocalypses so much? It’s not a new idea; Shakespeare’s age was obsessed by the idea of Judgment Day, which was much more morbid then than we tend to think of it now. People painted the dead walking out of their graves. My professor says you can see the fear and morbid fascination with the idea in Shakespeare’s plays. Think of all the bloody ghosts; think of Romeo’s and Juliet’s statues; think of the improbable resurrections.
Resurrection is there, too, of course; America is a predominantly Christian nation, and even those who aren’t Christian are often shaped by Christian culture and ideas, as I have been, and Christianity revolves around one particular member of the walking dead: Jesus Christ himself. Every schoolchild who learns about the resurrection of Christ must have, deep down, a slight, niggling wonder: if Jesus can come out of his grave, well, who else might? Is death really permanent? What if we come back not in the heavenly, angelic sense, but in the physical, putrefying sense? Zombies combine familiar religion with the adolescent fascination with death and the grotesque for a dazzlingly disgusting effect; no wonder so many people watch The Walking Dead.
The zombie apocalypse appeals to a particularly American way of thinking in more ways than the religious, however; it’s a violent fantasy world wherein every man really is for himself, independence is paramount, guns are requisite and killing one’s neighbors (once they’ve been infected, of course) is more than necessary, it’s heroic. Zombies are human, but not really; to kill a zombie is to murder, but without the guilt. It’s a first-person-shooter fantasy that absolves the human being pulling the trigger: not only are zombies the enemy, they are no longer human. It’s putting them out of their misery. It’s us versus them, and they are blatantly cultureless, blatantly soulless, blatantly mindless. The protagonists of zombie apocalypse stories can be antiheroes that are really just heroes; they can kill without losing the moral high ground. There’s the illusion of moral complexity without real ambiguity.
This isn’t to say that that’s all all zombie movies or shows do, not at all; I simply think that this is why the general idea thrives. The Walking Dead, for instance, delves into complexity when it examines the human-human relationships under the stress of the end of the world, with the threat of a member of us becoming one of them, and so no longer him-or her-self, dead but not dead, ever-present; it asks what makes us human, civilization or something more intrinsic, something we carry with us (it’s also brilliantly materialistic; humanity is, quite obviously, lodged in the physical brain and destroyed when the zombie virus hits the brain, physically). It asks whether moral absolutes exist, and doesn’t always give us a clear answer.
But why are zombies so popular right now? Perhaps because of the economy; perhaps because we as a culture harbor secret Fight Club fantasies of destroying all the debt, equalizing everyone. Perhaps we dream of a world that involves physical and moral work, and that invokes necessity if not certainty. Perhaps it is a response to the cultural critiques that call us metaphorical zombies, enslaved to our 9-to-5 jobs or our electronics or the Internet or Facebook or TV– all the things a real zombie apocalypse would destroy. We live with the threat of an epidemic of a strange and deadly disease (which makes us afraid of proximity to each other; epidemic diseases are communicable); we live with the fear of bioterrorism. We are concerned that we don’t know what the government is up to, and we haven’t trusted it since Fox Mulder first started investigating the paranormal (or perhaps not even since the 1960s). We are afraid of our own dependence on technology; we are afraid of globalization; we are afraid of being too disconnected from family and community; we are afraid of being too far from our roots; we are afraid of nature and that we don’t know how to survive “in nature.” We are afraid of medication and the loss of it; we are afraid of machines replacing people. We are, as we have always been, afraid of death.
I think the fear of and fixation on zombies in Shakespeare’s time was probably a result of the trauma of the plague and of a rapidly changing society; for us, it’s largely the same thing, only the plague is terrorism, or something. We are filled with a nameless anxiety about the shifting contours of the world. I’m not quite 22, and I’ve seen the world change immensely in my short lifetime. When I was small, we didn’t even have a home computer; no one did. No one really needed one. I remember cassette tapes. I remember dial-up Internet. I remember the reign of AOL and AIM. Facebook didn’t exist until I was a teenager; neither did smartphones. Tumblr didn’t exist until I was in college. And so quickly, these things have become indispensable to so many of us. My younger siblings don’t know what cassette tapes are. They barely know what flip phones and CDs are. They will probably never use a physical library card catalog. They have no idea what it is to be without a world of information in the palm of their hands or the pocket of their jeans, instantly accessible.
This kind of change, so fast and so apparently irreversible– it is exciting, but it also evokes fear and nostalgia. And a zombie apocalypse at once titillates us with terror and shows us a world that, paradoxically, soothes the fears of those of us who knew a different world. It shows us that older skills and technologies (like a bow and arrow, a Stone Age technology curiously ubiquitous in 2012’s blockbusters: younger kids had Brave‘s Merida, tweens, teens, and adults had The Hunger Games‘s Katniss, in a dystopic world requiring skills not unlike a zombie apocalypse, and everyone had The Avengers‘ Hawkeye, whose archery skills make him stand out, positively, in a world with Tony Stark’s technology) could still be relevant and necessary. All one has in the zombie apocalypse is family and memory. Communities are forged and draw close under threat. Globalization is firmly over; one can’t even contact the next state without walking there. The government might still exist, or might not, but it isn’t relevant; all one has is oneself, one’s survival skills, and, most importantly, the people around one. Watching The Walking Dead is like doomsday prepping lite. It simultaneously stirs and calms our fears about the churning uncertainty of our wild world, a world constantly on the brink of various collapses, metaphorical and literal: the fiscal cliff, the Mayan apocalypse, the point of no return for climate change. It’s a conservative, reactionary fantasy world, where we are reduced to the far-distant past and must cling to moral universals that may or may not really exist, while using a personal arsenal of guns to defend one’s family against unquestionably bullet-worthy intruders who literally want to eat your family– but it also reflects a certain reality. We are on the brink of immense social change on a global scale, like it or not; the way things are economically and socially is not sustainable. Paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a college degree that may not be worth even a minimum wage job is not sustainable. Our actual planet is not sustainable. The two-party system as it stands in the US isn’t sustainable, nor is the cavalier way we treat guns, nor is our prison system, nor is post Citizens United electioneering.
What with all the problems we’re facing, no wonder some people think a zombie apocalypse is nigh. Perhaps dealing with that– a solution that mostly involves pointing, shooting, and exploding zombie brains– would be simpler than coming up with workable solutions for our complicated real life problems on which we can all agree and cooperate.
Too bad. It’s what we have to do. This is how we keep humans going, guys. I suggest grabbing a book. As a Doctor who would be of enormous usefulness in a zombie apocalypse once said, they’re the greatest weapons in the world.
Arm yourselves. Trust me, the impact will be far more positive than doing so with a gun.