Zombies: Unearthing the Meaning Beneath the Craze

The Zombie EffectBy Peter Olsen

A strange phenomenon is taking place in modern society: zombies are invading the popular culture. Even classic literature and comic book superheroes have been affected by the zombie takeover. While zombies have been around for decades in one form or another – either portrayed as mindless undead servants, cannibalistic walking corpses, or virus-infected living humans – a contemporary subgenre is the zombie apocalypse. The popularity of zombies continues to rise despite the fact that zombies defy all logic and common sense. So why are people fascinated with zombies? Is this zombie craze the result of an underlying sociological or political condition of the times? Do people identify with zombies in some way, or is it simply another passing horror fad? Researchers have critically analyzed zombies in an attempt to uncover what they reveal about culture, society, and human nature. However, by scrutinizing the subject, critics are attaching too much importance to simplistic zombie mayhem.

Dr. Kyle Bishop, who received his Ph.D. in American literature and film from the University of Arizona, compares the rise of zombie imagery to the events of September 11, 2001. The scenes of death, destruction, people wandering the streets in shock, and the mass exodus of frightened citizens leaving the city is very similar to that of a zombie apocalypse. In an article titled “Dead Man Still Walking: Explaining the Zombie Renaissance,” Bishop states that “Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, zombie movies have become more popular than ever, with multiple remakes, parodies, and sequels. This renaissance of the subgenre reveals a connection between zombie cinema and post-9/11 cultural consciousness” (Bishop 1). Bishop’s dissertation addressing the cultural relevance of zombie cinema was published as American Zombie Gothic. However, zombies are not just an American occurrence. As Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics and author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies, points out: “Beyond the United States, there have been Australian, British, Chinese, Czech, German, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, and Norwegian zombie flicks” (Drezner 1). Drezner’s contradiction to the American connection suggests that there is some other reason for zombie mania.

James Siburt, Director of Educational Technology and adjunct faculty at Lancaster Theological Seminary as well as adjunct faculty and doctoral student at Alvernia University, presented his zombie theory in a paper titled “The Zombie as Sign and Symbol.” He contends, “The majority of Dr. Kyle Bishop’s work in the area of zombies and cinema has been approached from the sociologist perspective and not that of semiology. Where Bishop’s work explores the social anxiety being expressed through the blood, gore, and death in zombie films, he neglects to examine the cultural understanding of the symbol of the zombie and how the symbol functions in such a way as to impress upon us a particular meaning or significance” (Siburt 3). Siburt goes on to propose that the zombie is a cultural metaphor representing the separation of the conscious mind and the body. In other words, it raises the question of what makes one human – the mind or the body. But in reality, it is not likely that many teenagers would ponder the issue of consciousness while eating popcorn and watching Zombieland, or shooting computer-generated zombies in Left 4 Dead.

Zombies are more than just signs and symbols because the characteristics of zombies also show up in human nature. Cornell University psychologist and sleep expert James B. Maas, Ph.D., reports that “Almost all teen-agers, as they reach puberty, become walking zombies because they are getting far too little sleep” (Maas). Insufficient sleep can affect the parts of the brain that control such functions as judgment and movement. Coincidentally, these are the same problems that zombies have. Zombies are not only found in schools, but also in the workplace. Business consultant Stephen Hacker makes the observation: “In organizations around the world, zombies have infiltrated all levels of the labor ranks…. basically doing what they are told, which is often the minimum required to stay on the payroll” (Hacker 1). He elaborates, “…when life’s purpose and meaning aren’t clear, people are at risk of zombie-ism. Some become the walking dead during high school, others with the help of mind-numbing substances (including television), and some after years on the job” (Hacker 2). Director Edgar Wright, in the satirical zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, envisions a zombie infestation that at first goes unnoticed by the average person heading to work, because modern society has already turned everyone into zombies. Likewise, in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, zombies mindlessly migrate to the shopping malls for the almost instinctive consumption of goods. The implication is that human senses become dulled, reducing people to a level where they reflexively go through the motions of life, not thriving but merely surviving – just as zombies do.

Zombies are not only associated with individual working and spending habits, but with the economy as a whole. David Sirota, a journalist who writes on politics and pop culture with a special focus on economic issues, explains that the “zombie” term “first entered the colloquial economic lexicon during the collapse of the financial institutions that were cannibalizing the economy. From a balance-sheet perspective, many of these firms were dead. But they were quickly reanimated as zombie banks with trillions of taxpayer dollars.” He continues, “Here we are…with virtually nothing changed, watching the same zombie crises indomitably stumble forward. And so what do we do? We flee to entertainment venues that let us enjoy the campy thrill of confronting the undead — even though we’ve lost the ability to do that in real life” (Sirota). Max Brooks, author of World War Z, concurs: “The zombie is a way for us to explore massive disasters in a safe way. You can’t shoot the financial meltdown in the head, but you can do that with a zombie” (qtd. in Sirota). Again, while “zombie” is a clever term for organizations that have no life left in them, the word is just used as a metaphor in this case.

Looking beyond the metaphorical terminology, some suggest that fundamentally much of the horror appeal of zombies is due to an instinctive fear of death. Since zombies are in an active state of decay, they visually portray death more so than romanticized vampires or disembodied ghosts. “It’s like a reflection of ourselves,” remarks comic book writer Robert Kirkman, adding “It’s kind of a personification of our fear of death, walking around, coming after us” (qtd. in Avila). Joseph Sabo descriptively writes in an article: “It seems shocking that the masses would flock to something as vile as a rotting corpse who hungers for flesh, and that they would willingly sit through a gore filled movie or stayed glued to the violent prose of a zombie novel. The answer lies in the individual viewer. Zombies have one thing going for them that the other classic monsters don’t. People relate to them” (Sabo). On a deeper level, the human fascination with zombies may be an outward manifestation of the culture of death. After all, this is a time when even what counts as life is in significant scientific dispute. Perhaps people fear the loss of humanity, or a cheapening of life’s value and dignity. Zombies are tragic characters who, though disfigured and mutated through no fault of their own, were once human too. One can’t help but pity them, and this sensitivity to the human connection could explain what makes zombies appealing rather than repulsive.

Besides death, people also fear the loss of freedom and individualism. In general, humans enjoy having free will while they hate the idea of brainwashing and being enslaved. Zombies, on the other hand, lack all cognitive ability and cannot think for themselves; therefore they are easily manipulated. Based on this fear is Stephen King’s novel Cell, a chilling morality tale of technological warfare and terrorism in which millions of unsuspecting citizens are brainwashed by a mind-scrambling cell phone signal that turns them into zombie-like killers. Resistance to being a mindless follower also occurs in daily life. Sabo illustrates the conflict this way: “…zombies present a threat to most people who consider themselves individuals; the threat of overwhelming conformity….In essence, everyone has their own version of zombies. Whether it is the cheer leading team in high school, or the group of cubicle workers at their office, everyone can relate to the desperation of self preservation and survival against a seemingly unending horde of singular thinking creatures. Everyday is a battle against a zombie of some sort, and zombies in celluloid or on paper just helps personify the struggles that people have everyday when it comes to being oneself” (Sabo). This is another example of how zombies are a representation of human nature.

In addition to people’s individual fears, zombies cater to society’s collective apprehension of terrorist attacks, war, natural disasters, infectious diseases, and the end of the world. Aaron Alper, graduate student in English Education at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and editor of the short story anthology Zombie St. Pete, states, “I would qualify zombies as the most relevant living mythology. They’re viral and global and there is no safe place anymore. I think a lot of people can identify with those fears” (qtd. in Maberry). He goes on to suggest, “With flu scares and rumors that spread on the Internet and pandemics that can go anywhere because of airplanes, creatures that embody our fears of mortal infection won’t be staggering offstage anytime soon” (qtd. in Bancroft). Grahame-Smith, author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, relates that “We live in an age when it’s very easy to be afraid of everything that’s going on…There are these large groups of faceless people somewhere in the world who mean to do us harm and cannot be reasoned with. Zombies are sort of familiar territory” (Grossman). Max Brooks, author of World War Z, thinks that the concurrent rise of zombie pop and political cultures is no coincidence. “Zombies are an apocalyptic threat, we are living in times of apocalyptic anxiety, [and] we need a vessel in which to coalesce those anxieties,” he concludes (qtd. in Sirota). In a zombie apocalypse, isolated groups of average citizens are cut off from civilization, and have to take the initiative to defend themselves. Seeing the innocent victims succeed gives viewers confidence that they can also be survivors.

Besides providing an outlet for human emotion, the entertainment value of zombies is shown in the overwhelming popularity of zombie movies, music, and games. White Zombie (1932) was the prototype for early zombie movies featuring mindless dead people brought back to life by voodoo magic. Most modern zombies are patterned after the cannibalistic walking corpses from the classic 1968 horror movie, Night of the Living Dead. In the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy role-playing board game, the undead zombie was one of the earliest creatures introduced in the 1970’s. In 1983, Michael Jackson produced his widely acclaimed zombie music video Thriller. More recently, the zombie theme has found a particularly captivated audience due to the interactivity of computer games. Zombies in computer games date back to the 1990’s with Wolfenstein and Doom, although those zombies were limited in scope. Biohazard, the first true zombie computer game subsequently renamed Resident Evil, appeared in 1996. Since then, computer games based on the concept of a zombie apocalypse have been well-received. In Half-Life, a portal opening to an alien world lets in parasitic creatures that prey on humans who consequently turn into zombie-like mutants. Left 4 Dead is set during a widespread pandemic in which humans are infected by a mind-destroying earthly pathogen. These games often have an obscure backstory that enhances the feeling of anxiety.

The fear factor, mixed with the interactivity of game play, is what makes zombie games so popular. The zombie genre relies on a tried and true formula in which zombies suddenly descend upon an unsuspecting community, resulting in plenty of gore and violence as the players fight for their lives. Ted Backman of Valve Software writes: “A lot of times in games, developers play the ‘horror card’ and try to make something that has big pointy teeth and make it as scary as possible. I have never been satisfied by that; it seems a little too heavy-handed … I really like to make it more revolting, something that is just disgusting….It is that sort of response that we are always trying to play up” (qtd. in Hodgson). It is fun to shoot monsters and zombies, especially when they are soulless creatures controlled by the computer. This view is supported by Capt. Insane, Staff Writer at Planet Half-Life, who admits: “A common and staple character in the first person shooter video game world is the zombie…. There’s nothing I like more in a game than a zombie. It’s much more fun … than battling any other enemy in a game. It’s one of the few creatures that are both harmless and deadly at the same time: on the one side they can only hurt you with their hands, but on the other hand they’ll give you quite a deadly thrashing if you’re unfortunate enough to be struck by one” (Insane). People like to be scared, and zombies fulfill that craving.

The success of the zombie theme is due in part to its appeal to a wide range of audiences including gamers, survivalists, performing artists, and horror fans. By the mid-2000’s, the zombie genre had developed an international cult of dedicated followers approaching the passion of a Star Trek fan club complete with conventions, forums, fan fiction, and other spin-offs. There are zombie blogs, Facebook pages, virtual zombie worlds, and online zombie communities. A zombie get-together can be a playful yet macabre diversion like a Halloween party. Various groups host zombie walks for charity and just for fun, as well as special events for World Zombie Day and Zombie Awareness Month. Organizations such as the Zombie Research Society discuss serious topics such as the science behind zombies, safety tips, and survival techniques (Zombie). The latest trend on college campuses is the Humans vs. Zombie games in which a zombie’s goal is to turn humans to zombies by tagging them, while a human’s goal is to survive. Human contestants use wadded-up sock grenades and Nerf guns to defend themselves against the zombie participants. The International Herald Tribune calls Humans vs. Zombies an “antidote for the ailments of a generation” (Humans), but the primary aim is to have fun.

In a snowball effect often produced by such fads, many people have jumped on the zombie bandwagon, hoping to cash in on the popularity. A quick search on Amazon.com shows at least thirty-two zombie books, both fiction and non-fiction, which were published in the last two years. Besides books, there are zombie websites, computer games, survival guides, comics, anime, costumes, t-shirts, toy figures, plush dolls, trading cards, greeting cards, and various other novelty items. A zombie parody group called The Zombeatles sings “All You Need is Brains” and “Hard Day’s Night of the Living Dead.” Zombies also keep popping up where least expected, such as in advertising. Zombies are featured in a Microsoft Windows 7 commercial from Best Buy, and in a Ford Fiesta commercial touting a quick getaway. More recently, Toyota took advantage of the current craze with the company’s latest ad featuring zombies crowding around a red Corolla, with an ad copy that states: “Equipped for a zombie attack or just…life.” The Little Tikes Scream Beams Zombie Flashlight and animated cartoon Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island indicate acceptability with all ages, even young children.

Scholars have presented critical analyses of zombies in an effort to explain the cultural, social, and psychological implications of zombies. However, trumping up simplistic zombie mayhem with in-depth correlations and comparisons may prove irrelevant or bogus. Zombies are an easy metaphor that can be used for many purposes, representing any number of different themes. In general, writers who specialize in allegory tend to make a clear connection between the fictional elements and the real message in their stories. Furthermore, since an audience interprets stories according to personal experience, it is probable that individual preconceptions can force meaning into something that may not even be there. Michael Avila effectively sums up the zombie craze as follows: “Zombies offer no layers, no complexity. They are what they are, they do what they do, they eat what they eat. That kind of straightforwardness can be somewhat refreshing in an age of irony, cynicism and double-talk” (Avila). The zombie effect, whether for fun or temporary escape for the human psyche, has become a ubiquitous part of pop culture. Ironically, after analyzing zombies to death, the underlying reason for zombie popularity is that they are simply mindless entertainment after all.

Works Cited

Avila, Michael. “Pop culture is becoming a ‘Zombieland.'” Newsarama.com. 30 Sept 2009. Web. 13 July 2010.

Bancroft, Colette. “St. Petersburg becomes an undead zone for zombie fiction fans.” St. Petersburg Times. Sunday, February 21, 2010. Web. 13 July 2010.

Bishop, K. “Dead Man Still Walking: Explaining the Zombie Renaissance.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 2009:37(1), 16-25. Web. 13 July 2010.

Drezner, Daniel W. “Night of the Living Wonks.” Foreign Policy. July/August 2010. Web. 13 July 2010.

Grossman, Lev. “Zombies Are the New Vampires.” Time. 9 April 2009. Web. 13 July 2010.

Hacker, Stephen. “Zombies in the Workplace.” The Journal for Quality and Participation. January 2010. FindArticles.com. Web. 13 July 2010.

Hodgson, David. Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar. Roseville, CA: Prima Games, 2003. Print.

Humans vs. Zombies. Home Page. Web. 19 July 2010.

Insane, Capt. “Valve’s Zombies: A Refreshing Deviation from the Norm.” Planet Half-Life. 28 Dec 2006. Web. 13 July 2010.

Carpenter, Siri. “Sleep Deprivation May Be Undermining Teen Health.” American Psychological Association. October 2001, Vol. 32, No. 9. Web. 13 July 2010.

Maberry, Jonathan . “Why Zombies? – Part 1.” Jonathan Maberry’s Big, Scary Blog. 15 June 2010. Web. 13 July 2010.

Sabo, Joseph. “Why Zombies?” Examiner.com. 3 July 2010. Web. 13 July 2010.

Siburt, James. “The Zombie as Sign and Symbol.” Web. 13 July 2010.

Sirota, David. “Zombie Zeitgeist: Why Undead Corpses Are Dominating at the Box Office.” AlterNet. 8 October 2009. Web. 13 July 2010.

Zombie Research Society. Home Page. Web. 13 July 2010.

Did You Know…?

The University of Baltimore is offering a new English class called “Media Genres: Zombies.” The course is taught by Arnold Blumberg, author of “Zombiemania.” Students watch 16 classic zombie movies, write scripts, and create storyboards for their own zombie films. Collegiate zombie study is not without precedent. Brendan Riley, an English professor at Columbia College in Chicago, introduced a “Zombies in Popular Media” class in 2007. He thinks his was the first all-zombie course.

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  1. Very thorough analysis. Makes me wonder why I did my analysis — still, I have a few points that are slightly different at http://trentdejong.com/?p=815, if you are interested.

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