Zombie: Don’t worry. Only people with brains
get eaten. You’re safe.
They aren’t sexy. They aren’t romantic. They aren’t tragically doomed.
In fact, they’re ravenous, violent, and virtually unstoppable. They ooze all sorts of bodily fluids. And they want to eat your brains.
So how come zombies are getting such mainstream media treatment?
As a culture, we love and loath things that go bump in the night. We have to have boogeymen, for all sorts of reasons. Because they touch deep psychological fears in profound ways, our boogeymen serve as a kind of moral check on behavior that laws and rules just sometimes can’t. At the other end of the spectrum, we seem to have a lot of fun being scared. Boogeymen do that for us, too.
For centuries, vampires used to serve that function. Bram Stoker’s Dracula serves as the very best example, but vampires existed in folklore long before Stoker immortalized the legends on paper. Fewer things unnerve the living than the dead, which is also why fewer things have been more taboo.
Since Stoker’s 1888 novel, vampires have enjoyed a rich literary tradition (and the web is full of armchair essayists trying to sound erudite by expounding on that long literary tradition). But then along came Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat, a tragic, sultry, sexy fellow who broke nearly every vampire stereotype. Lestat made vampires sympathetic—which was a huge game-changer for the genre. As a result of that impact, Entertainment Weekly recently named Lestat as the greatest vampire ever. (The Bela Lagosi fan in me nearly choked since all vampires have ever been measured against the stereotype Lagosi established.)
Since Lestat, vampires have made a smooth transformation from being terrifying to being sexy. The fact that every teenage girl in America now wants to be Edward Cullen’s undead bride serves as perfect proof. (Guys aren’t immune, either. Check out Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld movies if you think female vampires aren’t hot.) I applaud Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan for trying to reverse that trend in their new novel, The Strain, which tries to make vampires creepy again—but I fear they’re fighting a losing battle.
And so, zombies have shambled in to take the place vampires once occupied in those dark, irrational corners of our psyches. Zombies now serve as that psychological boogeyman that vampires, through their own sheer attractiveness, can no longer serve as.
There’s one key distinction, though. Vampires represented a certain kind of calculating evil. They made conscious choices about who they preyed on and why, which seemed unnerving and sadistic. It’s evil of the nastiest kind.
Traditionally, we think of zombies as evil, too (Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead is a perfect example)—but in fact, zombies are mindless engines of hunger-driven carnage. Sure, they’re bloody, gory, disfigured, disheveled messes, and they act with single-mindless purpose to wipe out people. But they do it because that’s what zombies are wired do, not because they make intentional choices about it. There’s no willful violation of moral codes because zombies have no will. They are essentially forces of nature. A zombie basically represents Jack London’s impassive hand of Nature writ large and ugly.
In that sense, then, is the zombie any different than the financial collapse or the random act of violence or climate change? You can’t reason with those things any more than you can reason with a zombie. And when people feel as though they have no control over a situation, it shakes them in ways few things can. A zombie represents that same feeling, amplified to the Nth degree.
That’s a feeling most people can relate to these days. Zombies are tapping into the cultural zeitgeist.
Pop culture has latched onto that the way a zombie latches onto flesh—and fans have been feasting on it, too. It takes something terrifying and makes it fun (even being scared at the movies, even being creeped out by a book, are still basically forms of fun). As the trend continues, zombies actually become “safer” because people become desensitized. Believe it or not, that’s another reason why pop culture latches onto something like zombies: The process serves as a sociological “coping method.”
Eventually, Zombies will lose the primal power they’ve had (the same way vampires have). Their popularity will diminish, too, although it’ll never go away.
Who knows what’s lurking under the bed to eventually take their place.