I read Max Brooks’ World War Z about three months ago and am still, at the time of writing, terrified of the dark because of it. Sometimes I even get a bit nervous in public places, and quickly plan out an escape route for if someone starts biting their neighbours in the cinema or whatever. When I go to the bathroom at night I am convinced that zombies are about to burst in on me at any moment, and when I return to my bedroom I have to wake up my boyfriend by saying his name from the doorway to check whether he answers with human words or with a zombie mumble. This is a flawed system, because he is often so tired that he can’t really say real words, thus fuelling my belief that in the time it took me to go to the loo, he was bitten and has transitioned. (Before you pity him, note that he is a deep sleeper and never remembers in the morning that I do this. Also he’s a stand up comedian so it’s not like he has anything to do in the day.) When I was actually reading the book, I had to keep it in the freezer overnight, because as everyone knows, freezing things that are frightening is the only way to keep them from becoming reality and waking you up by eating you.
Boyfriend points out that zombies don’t exist—but this doesn’t comfort me, because most zombie narratives also begin in a world in which zombies didn’t previously exist. How am I supposed to know today isn’t the day when they’ll suddenly show up?
I decided that the best way to get over this fear was to examine, rationally, what it is that zombies represent to the modern West. Zombie culture now contributes an estimated $5 billion to the world economy per year. Why are they so popular? Why I am more scared of them than I am by the concept, say, of a murdering burglar? What does this anxiety, in short, reveal about the world I live in?
When thinking about all of this, it is crucial to make the distinction between fast and slow zombies. Christian Thorne, an English professor at Williams, has written an excellent four-part article detailing how the fast zombie can come to represent the polar opposite anxiety of the slow zombie. Thorne first discusses George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968), pointing out that the disproportionally older, white zombies, dressed in black tie funeral clothes and powdered white to an extreme pallor, when contrasted with the first black protagonist in an American horror film, evoke “what it feels like to be up against a white and all-consuming middle class.” Slow zombies represent the fear of consumerism, of becoming a slave to capitalism, of losing all autonomy in the process of what might almost be deemed excessive civilisation. Interestingly, this is not the kind of zombie I fear at night, nor is it generally the kind of zombie featured in modern films.
Part of the reason that slow zombies are no longer the first choice for films, Doug Walker of Nostalgia Critic Editorial would suggest, is that it takes time for slow zombies to become truly terrifying. Walker shows clips of TV show The Walking Dead to exemplify his point, picking scenes in which the characters have emotional discussions without even noticing shambling zombies in the background. The slow zombie is frightening in part because it evokes a world in which terror has become commonplace.
Fast zombies are a source of constant terror within their narrative, but the terror they invoke is rarely commonplace (a possible exception being the zombie held captive by soldiers in 28 Days Later). In nightmares I have about fast zombies, the emotion that lingers when I wake up is exhaustion. Fast zombies make us consider to what extent life is worth fighting for: can we bring ourselves to survive when survival entails perpetual flight?
More theoretically, Thorne argues that fast zombies represent what 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as “the war of all against all.” Unlike slow zombies, representative of the drudgery of civilization, fast zombies are the antithesis of civilization, allowing the viewer to mourn the loss of the government through a safely imaginary fantasy. They represent riotous mobs, civil unrest, terrorism: the lurking perils of anarchy bubbling beneath the veneer of civilization. Thorne compares the fast zombie movie to a young woman, imagining the death of her lover in order to explore the grief she would experience were she to lose him.
The more vivid our fears of chaos, the more relevant zombies become: as zombie scholar (yes, this is apparently a job we could all have had if we hadn’t made the wrong life choices) Peter Dendle notes, zombies are “a barometer of social anxiety”. Fast zombie films frequently begin with real news footage, representing sites of anxiety at the time of filming. The 2004 remake of Dawn of the Living Dead, for instance, opens with footage of Muslims at prayer, and riots. 28 Days Later (2002) also begins with footage of men in turbans and civil unrest. There is a sense that fast, riot-like zombies are a logical progression from the violent dissent and discord we see every day in the news.
Max Brooks, author of World War Z, notes that zombies are particularly topical now, just as Romero’s zombies were topical in the 60s and 70s:
The implication of Brooks’ quotation is that these are dark times, and so we are prompted to wonder whether this is in fact the end of times. However, if we take a more macro approach to the question of our dark and possibly apocalyptic times, both claims become less and less sustainable. Compared to most of human history, the Western world in the 21st century is one of the most peaceful societies that has ever existed. War has not been waged on Western soil since 1945, 1865 in America: our culture is the result of generations of freedom from commonplace wartime violence.
Moreover, the fear that we happen to be living in the end of times is one that appears to be perennial within human consciousness: the 8th century Old English poem The Dream of the Rood, for instance, draws on apocalyptic fears of Judgement Day when the speaker dreams of a blood-soaked cross filling the sky. In our more religious past, Judgement Day was an inevitable apocalypse, when corpses would rise from their graves and walk the earth again, to be sorted into those who would be elevated to the heavenly New Jerusalem, and those who would be damned to Hell. The mingled anxiety and anticipation that Judgement Day awoke in writers is a strong theme in medieval literature, reflecting the mingled terror and glee with which modern writers treat fictional zombie futures.
If our culture is more peaceful than ever before, and we understand the fear of blanket destruction to have a historically constant place in our literature, why are the early 2000s proving to be such particularly fertile years for a zombie renaissance?
The answer, it seems to me, is the oddly isolated nature of Western peace. The internet, along with many cat videos, has brought violence from all corners of the world into our daily lives. We are bombarded with pictures of international wars, refugees in heart-breaking situations, videos of ancient cities being destroyed, of decapitations. Meanwhile, violence is fashionable in film and TV, and the violence portrayed is frequently built into media representing an approximation of Western history, like Game of Thrones (yes, I know it’s a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy clearly inspired by a Western past). The result is that our peaceful society is at odds with what we see of other cultures, with what we see of our own media, and with what we see of our past. We are the peaceful eye of a violent storm, and it seems inevitable that the peace will pass.
Zombies frighten me because I see my peaceful existence as a privilege, not a right, and I see no reason why I deserve that privilege more than people who don’t have it. One might argue that everyone deserves peace and freedom from random acts of violence, but the fact remains that we in the West cannot remember war, and our parents cannot remember war, and their parents may not even remember war, whilst our facebook feeds are inundated with images of war-torn countries. Peace may be a human right in theory, but in practicality it is a privilege, and privileges can be taken away. Zombies portray the complete breakdown of a society that I see as a privilege: they are the embodiment of that privilege being removed. They are perhaps the most “First World Problem” (problematic as that phrase is): our culture’s nagging anxiety that we are at the top of the wheel of fortune, and that the only way forward must be down. Civilization and peace are great, says our cultural interest in zombies, so great that there’s no way we’ll be allowed to keep them.
In a way, our fascination with zombies is rather touching: it is a $5 billion industry that essentially demonstrates our appreciation for our own reality.
[Image via Columbia Pictures]