This past Sunday I watched the season finale of The Walking Dead, and, yeah, I cried when A Certain Person got killed off in the last few minutes of the show. But it also inspired me to do some thinking about zombies and the zombie apocalypse theme, and why it is so popular.
A major factor is that the zombie, as he has been developed since ‘Night of the Living Dead’, is in many ways a perfect enemy figure for modern fiction, for the following reasons:
- The zombie isn’t human. The zombie is someone who has died, and whose corpse has been reanimated by anything from micro-organisms to demons to alien forces. The human essence or soul of the person reanimated is gone, just as surely as if he’d been died and then been buried or cremated. The zombie-creature that results from reanimation is nowhere near at the mental level of a human. The zombie brain can barely ‘drive’ the human body it possesses— hence the stumbling zombie gait. The zombie functions at the same mental level as a poisonous snake or a plague-carrying rat. Killing a zombie, therefore, does not have the moral significance that killing a human, even in self-defense, does. You can exterminate one hundred zombies before breakfast, and not even have to go to confession.
- The zombie has a human aspect. The zombie isn’t human, but he looks like a human. In fact, he looks like a specific human— the one who died and was reanimated as a zombie. As humans, we may need to kill dangerous animals, but we don’t consider them as an enemy. True enemies, for us, need to be human (or human-like, as in alien invaders). Zombies look like shabby, poorly groomed humans, and so therefore the idea of a zombie as ‘the enemy’ is possible.
- Zombies are our family members. One thing that humans find frightening is the idea of an enemy infiltrator— someone who is passing as a member of our community but is actually a deadly enemy. The zombie apocalypse scenario stimulates that fear by positing that any friend or family member that you have can be transformed into a zombie who will then try to kill you. In ‘The Walking Dead’ there was the episode in which a young man died of an illness during the night, was reanimated as a zombie, and started attacking people in their sleep. The lesson— during a zombie apocalypse, don’t close your eyes. Ever.
- The zombie scenario leads people to redefine human life. And redefining human life is scary. Think of Nazi Germany. First they redefined human life to exclude the ‘useless eaters’— institutionalized people with mental or physical handicaps. At first the Nazi euthanasia project killed the severely disabled— the first victim being a retarded child who was both blind and deaf. Later, people suffering bouts of depression or temporary shell-shock got euthanized. Finally, Jews, gypsies and political opponents of the Nazi regime were declared subhuman. In much zombie fiction, it’s not just the reanimated who are considered non-human and killable. Just being infected, or being bitten or injured by a zombie and being presumed to be infected, is enough to make you killable in the eyes of others. But what if you are one of the few that know that zombie bites can be survivable?
- The zombie apocalypse causes people to reject Christian values. It’s funny. Christianity— and the related religions Judaism and Islam— quite clearly explain that though God is good, very bad things can be expected to happen to humans. But in secular society, bad stuff from the AIDS epidemic to earthquakes to serial killers are held up as proof that Christianity (and other religions) are wrong. In secular zombie fiction, the existence of zombies is often considered the ultimate proof. But Christian values (and related Jewish and Muslim ones) have a strong survival value for humans. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and ‘thou shalt not steal’ prevent a great many conflicts, and the Biblical calls for charity on the poor and on widows and orphans have kept a great many vulnerable people alive. When people reject these established moral values to do what is right in their own not-well-informed opinions, people suffer.
- The zombie apocalypse causes people to prey on other people. If you’ve watched ‘The Walking Dead’, you may remember the case of the Termites— the inhabitants of Terminus. They started off as a refuge, but after encountering some bad guys they decided to start being bad themselves, by killing other humans to butcher them for meat. (Remember what they did to Bob?) In a less extreme way, people in a zombie apocalypse situation start to look on one another as competitors for the limited supplies of food, medicines, and ammo.
In the real world we currently live in, we go to war (or attempt to) without defining our opponent as ‘the enemy’ as a group, but as victims of their Evil Leader (Saddam Hussein), and then get all surprised when those ‘victims’ don’t enjoy being ‘rescued’ from that leader. The zombie gives us the ability to create a fictional war in which the political correctness rules of our day no longer apply, and we can hate the ‘walkers’ as an earlier, more innocent generation hated the ‘krauts’ and ‘Japs’ of World War Two.