Obsessed with the undead
What's behind our fascination with zombies?
October 27, 2018
You’re running down a deserted street, feet hitting the pavement, as a horde of shambling, groaning, moaning zombies advance. There’s no escape; within moments you will become one of them, your brains spilling out of your split skull.
Zombies are some of the most terrifying monsters in the human imagination. The first conception of a “zombie” has its roots in Haitian culture and Vodou practices as a manifestation of unrest and anxiety around slavery. Recently, zombies have experienced a resurgence in popularity spearheaded by the book World War Z by Max Brooks, which was first published in 2006, from which other texts such as the TV series The Walking Dead and the video game The Last of Us (2013) have arisen. According to English teacher Emily Anderson, who is teaching the class “Literature of Monstrosity” alongside English teacher Matthew Hoven, zombies are popular in part because of their versatility.
“One of the reasons zombies have had such staying power is because they can represent such a host of fears and anxieties,” she said. Climate change, fear of contagion, fear of globalization, fear of overwork, and fear of capitalism.
Zombies have shambled to the front of pop culture as a characterization of a general human obsession with the apocalypse and a fear that humans are motivated only by fundamental, basic needs and desires, and that at any moment civilization could collapse.
“[Zombies] are a part of a cultural trend to imagine humans at their most basic and horrific, reptilian brains,” Hoven said.
According to Angela Becerra Vidergar, a doctoral candidate at Stanford University, the fictional zombie narrative is used to work through ethical and philosophical frameworks that humans have shattered time and time again, especially during World War II. In zombie narratives, such as the television show The Walking Dead, the humans are often more dangerous, insidious, and despicable than the zombies themselves.
“The people who are trying to protect themselves from zombies often tend to behave more despicably than zombies, especially since they have the choice; they’re not these mindless, well, zombies,” Anderson said.
She explained that society has long had an obsession with both individual and societal survival, which can help explain its fascination with zombies.
“It’s fiction, but particularly in the United States, we romanticize the idea of survivalism and frontier culture, and a time when you had to just get by on your hands and your wits,” Anderson said.
Zombie stories are a way to catapult fans back to those days which many people view with nostalgia or romanticism. They are also a form of the popular underdog narrative. In a zombie world, the chaos turns the social order; those with wealth and power suddenly are without, and those with elemental, tactile skills suddenly hold the most power and are the most likely to survive.
“The fascination comes from an individual’s desire to test themselves: this idea of, what would happen if society were to collapse? Would I become one of the people who survive?” Hoven said.
This obsession with survival is also a significant source of anxiety surrounding zombies. In a world infested with zombies, who survives? To what lengths does one have to go to survive? Some of the most real fears stem from how zombies’ inhumanity can push humans to lose their humanity as well. Zombies take the familiar and transform it into the unfamiliar in an uncanny transformation.
“[Zombies] get to a pretty basic fear in most humans that the enemy is not the saber-tooth tiger, or the lion prowling on us; it’s our neighbor. When we see a shambling former human being moving towards us, it’s an uncanny transformation. The thing wants to eat our brains, eat our civilization. I love it,” Hoven said.
What is ultimately the most terrifying, however, is how zombies can strip humanity. In online zombie survival quizzes, Hoven typically survives pretty long, but his downfall is his humanity.
“Ultimately what gets me is [a sense of] community and going back to save the person who’s slower than me. And I think that the zombie apocalypse helps individuals find that line of how far would they go to save only themselves when all of their ethical systems have broken down,” Hoven said.
And that’s what zombies come down to: a test of the very essence of humanity. They test moral and ethical strength and the strength of the foundations on which society is built. The zombie apocalypse is a reversal of the typical survival story, one that asks not, “How far would you go to save someone you love,” but “How far would you go to save yourself?”
This story was originally published in the October 2018 issue of The Rubicon.