Monday, March 11, 2013

The Cultural Significance of Zombies in Contemporary Society

It's funny how certain horror subgenres achieve prominence for periods of time.  During the 1970's Satanic possession was all the rage; in the '80's it was slasher movies; vampires had a strong resurgence a while back, and these days zombies are the new hotness.

Part of the reason for these trends is that Hollywood will jump on any bandwagon that looks likely to pay off, so all it takes is one popular film to spark a host of copycats.  But they wouldn't have become popular to begin with if they didn't appeal to the fears and insecurities of people living at that time.  So, in a way, horror trends gauge what we, as a society, fear at particular points in history.

It is widely regarded, for example, that the suite of Japanese monster movies (Godzilla et al.) reflected the fears of a society subjected to nuclear holocaust, while the popularity of alien invasion movies of the 1950's represented America's fear, at the time, of the spread of communism.  So what does the current popularity of zombie fiction say about us as a society?

I'm quite a fan of zombie fiction and cinema, and I've had them on the brain quite a lot, lately (if you'll pardon the pun).  I wait anxiously for each new episode of The Walking Dead, and I'm currently besotted with UbiSoft's recent survival horror video game, ZombiU.  Consequently, I've been spending a lot of time pondering why this subgenre has suddenly become so popular.

Zombies, in the modern context of cannibalistic undead as opposed to the classic voodoo automatons, have been around since 1968 when they were introduced by George Romero in Night of the Living Dead.  But only in the last few years have they become the popular culture phenomenon that they are today.  In other words, whatever it is that zombies represent has now achieved currency in our society - they strike a chord that they didn't before.  There's something about them, beyond the ghoulish flesh-eating, that frightens us more now than ever before.

I think that what we are currently afraid of is ourselves.  There are now more than seven billion people in the world, and the number continues to grow.  And, like a mindless horde, we consume everything in our path and leave nothing behind.  It is no coincidence that Romero set Dawn of the Dead in a shopping mall; it was a rather pointed critique of our consumer culture.  But this is nothing new; the human population has been growing steadily since the end of the Black Death in the fourteenth century, and it has been exploding since the 1950's.  What is new is that we are finally beginning to experience the repercussions of growth: our resources are being rapidly depleted, we are polluting our environment, global temperature is rising and sea levels will soon follow.  And we feel helpless to stop it.

I think helplessness is one of the most prominent themes of zombie literature.  It is positively Lovecraftian in its nihilism - perhaps more so than any other modern literature.  There is very rarely a happy ending to a zombie story.  In most of them, survivors struggle to find safety, fail, and then die.  The only exception that I can think of is Max Brooks' World War Z, which is writtten as an after-action report at the end of the zombie apocalypse when civilization is rebuilding.  Most zombie stories don't have such happy endings.  Among the most disheartening is The Rising by Brian Keene, in which a large-hadron collider accident tears a hole in reality allowing demonic spirits to possess the bodies of the dead.  They are infinite in number and have only one purpose: to create more hosts for their limitless brethren to inhabit.  Likewise, in Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, every person on Earth is infected with the virus and when someone dies, by any cause, they rise as a zombie.  In both of these scenarios there is no hope of eventual victory.  Mankind is ultimately doomed.

Even in Night of the Living Dead, where the zombie infestation was short-lived - the product of radiation from a passing asteroid - the protagonists all died.  The one man to live through the night was mistaken for a zombie and shot by the clean up crew.

Like any other fad, zombie literature will soon reach its zenith, if it hasn't already, and will fade into the background.  But, for the time being it allows us to confront the likelihood of human extinction - probably at our own hands - and somehow come to terms with it.


Porky said...

I think you're right in pinpointing the key source where you do. I'd say it may have two more major aspects.

First, that contact between people is ever easier and number of contacts in a given period ever greater thanks to the continuing developments in IT, which can be a drain on personal space, space people need for rest.

Second, so many decades of relentless selling having stroked egos to the point that people are less willing to acknowledge others fully. The other becomes more other.

There seems at times to be almost a willing of the zombie apocalypse on, as a release.

Sean P. Robson said...

That's an interesting point, Porky, and one I hadn't considered. The rapid rise of the internet and its complete integration into our society leaves us 'plugged in' and part of the collective at all times. There is no longer space for solace.

veenotph said...

Interesting thought, thanks for for that. Do you have any external sources? I'm looking into how genre films reflect social fears. What do you think of the films that deal with the financial collapse - starting with Enron, the Smartest Men in the room, continuing with The Flaw, Margin Call and now the Big Short. What o you think they reflect, and could they be called a financial horror story, oe juat an ant-morality play.

Sean Robson said...

Thanks for your comment, veenotph. I'm afraid most of my posts are just me musing out loud; I haven't done any research, and I don't have any external sources, but I suspect one could explore this subject more deeply to produce a really thought-provoking essay. I haven't seen the films you mention, although I think the notion of financial collapse works really well as a horror story. As I've written in a previous post, I regard any story that explores our fears to be horror:

I think that horror is speculative fiction that explores the most visceral aspects of human psychology, making it one of the most important branches of literature for understanding who we are and what makes us tick. We are the sum of our fears. Horror fiction explores those fears and drags them screaming into the light where we can examine them like foetal pig guts at lunch time.

Horror is also problematic not only as a label, but as a distinct genre, because if you accept my definition of horror as fiction that explores fear then it crosses all genre boundaries. Instead of asking ourselves, what is horror, we now have to ask, what isn't? Many works that are generally regarded as 'literary fiction' can just as easily be labeled horror novels: William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, George Orwell's 1984, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange to name just a very few.

I can think of few things that terrify people as much as the fear of losing everything they have - so I'd definitely consider financial horror to be a worthwhile theme for such stories.

Unknown said...

I like this.