Where are all the monsters coming from? If movies and novels were real, we’d all be blood-sucked, brain-eaten, flesh-chewed former humans by now.

(insert joke about your favorite politician here). We love us our zombies, vampires, shape-shifters and evil-doers, and there must be good reasons for it. In three frightening parts, we’ll attempt an organized and erudite excavation of our necessary monsters. If we don’t get eaten first. Appropriately, first up: zombies.

Zombies

Wikipedia lists 649 full-length feature movies about zombies. The zombie film site ZMDB.com, with a more liberal definition of “zombie” and “movie”, has 4400 films in its database. To get to the bottom of zombie-ness, we could spend months exhuming zombie narratives, digging up an undying body of filmic zombie lore, unearthing their real meaning. Watching all those movies would slowly eat away at our brains until we finally emerged, pale, stiff, blank-eyed, and single-mindedly determined to spread our zombie theories to anyone we can grab on to.

But I don’t want to do that, too much time in the dark.

Let’s cut to the heart of the matter. Are you afraid of zombies?

Reasons Not to Fear Zombies:

They’re stupid, they move really slowly, they’re pretty easy to kill. You can trick them, taunt them, mow them down en-masse, and beat them in any kind of race. They don’t know how to use weapons. Not even a butter knife. They can’t drive. No moral consequences or qualms about pulling the trigger on them. They’re already dead! And as we finally admitted to ourselves in the film Shawn of the Dead, they’re funny.

Reasons to Fear Zombies:

They eat brains. They’re relentless. If they bite you, you’ll become them. There are so many of them. They keep coming. Where are they coming from? They’re horrible. Ugly undead oozing lurching creepy evil never stopping. There’s more! I’m running out of bullets. Run this way! No, oh no, stop, they’re everywhere. We’re surrounded. Aaaaagghhh!

OK.

Take a deep breath.

That wasn’t real.

We’re OK.

We see the essential dilemma though. As an actual monster, any one zombie poses little worry. As a concept of monsters, they are the essence of terror. To conceive of their imaginary existence is to allow their expansion in imagination. Their number is legion: all who have died. They are hegemony of the netherworld. Their act is to claim dominion over consciousness, with their insatiable appetite to literally consume our brains and take over existence.

But they’re not real, are they?

This is an inside issue. Zombies are an inner narrative, not a real-world threat. So here, we’re interested in why we’re so fascinated. Why do we love us our zombies so much?

A necessary part of the human social experience is managing our fear. Belying our ecological dominance, we are physically among the weakest and most vulnerable of creatures. Our bellies are soft, exposed; our offspring are defenseless for several years; we can be killed in our sleep. Our worst enemies are ourselves, and our primary defenses are mental and social, not physical. To deal with social threats, we use reason and language, emotion and collaboration. To cope is to find a balance between vigilance and trust. Our psyches constantly calibrate and organize the fear in our inner world.

Living in civilized society resolves a lot of the existential threats that we are conscious of, but our primal fear mechanisms are never fully at rest. Consciously and unconsciously, we remain fearful. Monster narratives pluck those strings of fear, and we are drawn to those that resonate with our own inner themes of threat and safety.

The Modern Zombie Narrative

The modern zombie is a mindless, fearsome horde. A mob of the “other”, outside of our in-group, yet inside our borders. Social defenses are useless – they have no reason or recognition. There are several essential components of a resonant zombie narrative:

– We can (re-)kill them, one by one, but…
– Zombies always outnumber us.
– Their number is seemingly infinite, no matter how many we kill.
– The individual human must join with a last, small band of brave, morally worthy humans to survive
– The survival of the human race is at stake
– Some member(s) of the last group will become infected, and must be rejected or killed to protect the rest.
– There is a last, risky hope for salvation that becomes our final quest.

The Last of the Humans

For the remaining humans, there are also a few common, consistent strategies for survival:
– Utilize strong physical barriers (any cracks or weak points will be breached, and the entire zombie horde will rush in)
– Constant vigilance, taking turns to keep guard 24/7.
– Find distant and remote havens
– Stay united in purpose and resolve – individual defectors are doomed
– Zero tolerance for infection – no social bond matters more than enforcing the ultimate penalty for those who get bit.

Do you love Zombies?

Our working hypothesis is that there’s a correlation between world-view and zombie-love. The more your psyche experiences the world in narratives of a threatened few against the mindless destructive hordes, the more you love your zombies, because they resonate with and affirm those narratives.

Remember too, that zombies are the proverbial chicken, not the egg. Zombies are made in man’s own image, a story created by us to reify (if not vivify) an abstract inner fear. They can be seen as one manifested part of a reinforcing loop of social and psychological constructs. In other words, people don’t need zombie movies to have zombie beliefs, to believe –even unconsciously — in this zombie model of human experience. Zombie narratives are outside the loop; but they can reflect, shape, and reinforce the structure of those beliefs.

I promised a more interactive Evening Focus, so I’ll stop here and get the conversation started with a few questions.

  • Who needs zombies, and why?
  • Are zombies political? (Corollary: Are zombie movies political?)
  • Where do they come from?
  • Does it matter how the zombie narratives end?
  • What makes zombies more or less frightening?
  • Why are there zombie toys and zombie children’s books?
  • Favorite zombie movies?
  • Would speeches heard at CPAC and on Fox News make more sense if they substituted “Zombie” for “Liberal”?
  • Why does it seem that BPI Campus lectures keep building on each other?
  • Are you still afraid?