When I was a little girl I had a recurring nightmare in which a slow, shambling creature would chase me with deadly intent. No matter where I hid, no matter what I did, it kept coming. I could not escape, and sooner or later it would get me, though I would usually wake before I could feel its cold, clammy hands rending me limb from limb. The fact that in this dream the creature was a mummy (inspired no doubt by the Universal Mummy films) doesn’t diminish the horror nor does it negate the striking similarity between this nightmare monster and the zombies we’re seeing everywhere. The shamble. The rot. The inexorable nature of the beast.
The cannibalistic dead have been around for a long time, referenced in the epic of Gilgamesh when Ishtar, enraged by Gilgamesh’ refusal of her advances, threatens to “…let the dead go up to eat the living!” They’ve waxed and waned in popularity since. Zombies first appeared in popular film in White Zombie, released in 1932 and starring Bela Lugosi. Zombies as we think of them were defined by George Romero in his Dawn of the Dead and subsequent sequels. And these days they are everywhere.
So what is it about zombies? What are we so obsessed with them?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as have lots of other people. Philosophers love zombies, because it allows for different kinds of speculation about human behavior (a human being without full consciousness allows for thought experiments against the concepts of identity and the mind).
Frankly, I think this philosophical discussion is just what film makers and social activists are engaging in, only with more gore and humor. They are exploring, and we are exploring with them, what happens when masses of people stop thinking and simply react, driven by basic, consuming needs. Zombies consume mindlessly and their need to consume is contagious. They spread fear. They are the ultimate expression of group-think without independent motivation or action beyond consume.
Let’s see, what other entities are consuming mindlessly, promoting mindless consumption, and are using fear as their weapon against those that don’t want to consume? I’ll leave that as a rhetorical question, because several entities fit that bill to one degree or another, and they all are ubiquitous, surrounding us every day and urging us to join them, stand with them, watch them, vote for them, etc.
I suspect our obsession with zombies also rises from a desire to belong. If you’re a zombie, you don’t have to think, you just shamble along with everyone else. It’s not like being a werewolf, where you have that whole lone wolf issue to contend with. If you’re a zombie you can go outside during the day or night, not like those elitist vampires. If you’re a zombie you’re part of the group. And you’re already dead, so it doesn’t matter if someone kills you. Your whole mission is to make more zombies, not hide any annoying secrets (can you imagine how much werewolves spend on clothes?) or deal with politics (the way vampires have to). It’s a simpler, more inclusive way of life. Or death.
And zombies are safe to fantasize about. They capture our fears about group think and brain washing, not to mention cannibalism and contagion, but we’re pretty sure we’d be able to beat them if they really showed up. We’re smarter than zombies right? We can use them for social commentary (nothing like shambling down the street or through a mall with a political sign accompanied by other zombies to make a point) but it’s commentary done with humor and fake blood, so it’s not too threatening to the powers that be. But bystanders see the zombies and read the signs.
Zombies are an excellent nightmare for the early 21st century. Fearful, inexorable, contagious, and visible. They are not terrorists but the fear terrorists seek to create. They are not our government but the control our government is trying to invoke. They are not our media, but the way our media sponsors try to drive us to behave. They are the perfect metaphor for these creeping, inevitable times.
But just in case: To kill a zombie you must destroy its brain. Fire won’t work, a bullet to any other part of the body won’t work. Destroy its brain and if you have the time, burn the body. If all else fails, run and don’t look back.
(c) 2007 Laura S. Packer