American Culture

A final dispatch from the zombie apocalypse

I am a survivor of the zombie apocalypse.

Or am I?

I spent the spring semester filling my head with a whole bunch of stories about the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine), motivated solely by curiosity. What is it about zombies that continues to capture public imagination? Why are they such a hot pop cultural commodity?

I watched TV and movies (and, frankly, zombie movies gross me out, so it wasn’t all necessarily great fun), read books and comics, interviewed folks, and indulged my inquisitiveness just to see what I could find out. And you know what? I learned something.

I had no clear idea of what it might be that I’d learn, to be honest. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for. I just figured if I’d look at enough stuff, some patterns might emerge and, from those patterns, insights might develop. I felt like Tom Hanks in that DiVinci Code movie, where he just stands there and numerical patterns light up in the air around him as his mind makes sense of it all. (Either that or schizophrenic Russell Crowe in the ramshackle shed out in the woods where he has the walls covered with newspaper clippings, connected by string and yarn in A Beautiful Mind.)

Perhaps, I thought, I’d explore the debate between slow zombies vs. fast zombies…or undead zombies vs. living zombies. Both seem to be hot topics of discussion in the zombie subculture. Maybe science vs. supernatural. Maybe zombies vs. vampires.

And while I did touch on those things in different capacities, I ended up wandering (shambling?) in a direction I didn’t expect.

See, as fun as those discussions are, they don’t serve much purpose beyond entertainment in and of themselves. At the end of the day, does it really matter whether zombies are fast or slow?

Matt Mogk, author of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies, and Daniel Drezner, author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies, demonstrated that such discussions do make great exercises in critical thinking. In that respect, I was highly impressed. World War Z, as a well-realized work of fiction, did the same thing. Matt’s work, while theoretical, has some urgency to it because he does believe it’s not a matter of if but when the undead will rise—so his postulations are not entirely theoretical.

As I read and watched and considered, I tried to figure out what it all means. Much of the scholarship I looked at, such as “A New Lease of Life for the Undead” by philosophers Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad in Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy: New Life for the Undead, suggested that zombies “represent our deepest fear—our own mortality—rendered in the most horrifying way thinkable. They’re not just dead, but hyperdead….” It’s hard to disagree. People fear mortality. People fear death. (Although people tend to fear public speaking even more—which is probably why there’s so little “monologing” in zombie movies.)

But zombies, particularly in the context of the zombie apocalypse, represent more than that. Zombies embody our fears about social conformity. We’re afraid that “The Man” or “The System” or whatever is going to turn us into sheep. We’re going to get sentenced to 9-to-5 jobs, shuffled away into cubicles, tied down on assembly lines, peer-pressured into acting and dressing a certain way, lulled into complacency by our televisions and our video games and our computer screens. We fear mundane lives where we shamble about mindlessly, aimlessly, day after day, hungering for something to feed our lost souls.

Framed that way, we are already living in the zombie apocalypse. Must of us don’t know it. In fact, that’s the real beauty of it. So many people have become zombified that they don’t know they’re zombified.

The zombie apocalypse serves as a metaphor for, and a safe way of coping with, the anxieties that plague us about our own dysfunctional society and where we fit in in that society. The genre exaggerates our anxieties into a safely distorted form that’s different enough from us to not be us any more.

We’re not fooling anyone, though, because our subconscious clearly recognizes zombies as us. Just to be sure we don’t miss the point, people in zombie lit frequently run into family and friends who’ve transformed into zombies. The message is clear: if the people nearest and dearest to you can get infected, so can you. So can we—and we are us.

“As they get fiercer, faster, and more numerous, zombies more aptly continue to describe a grotesque allegory of our own living-dead existence,” say Greene and Mohammad:

[Z]ombies have become yet one more desired consumer object—fantastical distractions from the Real that they reflect. And therein, perhaps, lies their real appeal: what better to help us shut out the things we don’t want to think about than distorted, obviously unreal, and far less threatening versions of those same things?

And that is the greatest irony of zombie lit: The movies, the books, the comics, the video games—they all provide much-needed escape. They soothe and salve. They help us cope. They help us tune out.

…which is exactly how zombification works.

Zombie lit serves as just one more vehicle for propagating the real-world zombie apocalypse.

After the dozens of books, movies, comics, video games, interviews, and articles about the zombie apocalypse I subjected myself to over the past few months, I’m left wondering what my place is in the world. How have I resisted the real-world apocalypse? How have I resisted zombification by the system, by the media, by pop culture?

Especially as a tenured college professor, there’s a real temptation to sink into complacency over time. I have plenty of colleagues on campus who have already. How do I resist that and stay fresh and vibrant and vital?

As a professor who teaches in a school of journalism and mass communication, I’m preparing students for careers in fields that promote zombification, so how can I help my students understand their powers and use them responsibly?

How much do I value creativity and critical thinking? How do I embody those things—really embody them—in my life? How do I enable others, particularly my students, to embody those values for and in themselves?

For a project that seemed, at the beginning, to be such a lark, it raised some profound questions and provoked some of the most useful self-reflection I’ve done in years. These are the very sorts of questions that probe the heart of who I am and who we are. To be a survivor of the real-world zombie apocalypse means ongoing engagement with these questions.

Turns out the zombie apocalypse is far less frivolous than one might imagine. And far more real—and far more scary.


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