Why Zombies Won’t Die for Christsake?

Zombies Should Be Done

The general public should probably be sick of the zombies by now. Somebody ought to be. It seems like every possible storyline involving walking dead people has already been overdone: killed, buried, dug back up, resuscitated, and killed again. And unless someone does something to really innovate the genre, there should be an expiration date on when people will stop buying this stuff, right?

Everywhere you turn these days there is a new movie or video game or book… I was prompted to write this blog on this topic after watching a video from 2011 San Diego Comic Con where they assembled a panel of novelists (including Max Brooks) to discuss what we’ve come to know and love as “Zombies.”

At one point during the discussion, they were asked the question, “Why are zombies so popular, anyway?” Some of the panelists’ explanations didn’t quite elucidate the cause. It seems that even the most prolific contributors to the genre are uncertain why they haven’t already faded into obscurity.

Granted, there could be multiple reasons why zombies have permeated popular culture. They’re affordable for movies made with shoe-string budgets. They provide the perfect framework for post-apocalyptic fantasies. But the most compelling explanation for the popularity of zombies is a psychological one.

“Zombies” are a malleable allegory for not just one, but several real-world anxieties. Sometimes the interpretation may be deliberate on the part of an author or filmmaker. Other times the audience may unconsciously infer their own projected meanings on the genre.

And if we take a look at all the basic things we have to worry about as organisms living in the world, we will find that zombies aren’t just an amalgamation of one or two unconscious fears. They darn near represent all of them.

Using Karl Albrecht Ph.D.’s Fear Hierarchy as a template, we can see that the genre covers all the basics:

  • Extinction: This could be simplified as a fear of death, and also expanded to cover the notion of humans no longer occupying a dominant position in the world.
  • Mutilation: None of us want our bodily boundaries invaded. And that’s what zombies desire to do most: to consume the bodies of the living. Not only are we afraid of losing our own body parts, zombies themselves often represent something that has been disfigured.
  • Loss of Autonomy: The idea of being controlled, overwhelmed, surrounded, or smothered is something recurring in horror fiction. Indeed, the idea of falling into the clutches of a horde of biting and clawing zombies strikes a pretty primal nerve.
  • Separation: Abandonment, rejection, or fear of becoming a non-person. That pretty much speaks for itself. Zombies can either symbolize social outcasts, or a derogatory cultural norm that desires nothing more than to infect you with its biases.
  • Ego-death: This is something more personal, and it’s similar to separation, except it has to do with fear of disapproval, a lack of a constructed sense of lovability or capability. It’s clear that becoming an undead ghoul would cause someone to become something of a pariah.

So the Zombie Mythos is clay that can be sculpted convey almost every social issue, from class disparity to religion. From vaccine denial to celebrity cultists. And while these are more complicated social constructs, zombies also remind us of the simple fact that someday we’re all going to die and turn into rotten things also.

This is why the genre hasn’t disappeared yet. While filmmakers, writers, and video game developers try to cash in on the zombie craze, in some cases creating some really awful products, the reason people continue to buy it may elude them. The key interest in zombies has to do with self-discovery. Zombie stories tell us something real about who and what we are, and you don’t have to be a genius to enjoy them.

We actually might be on the verge of Zombie Golden Age, as the genre matures. Some movies and television shows are getting better. Some video games and books are getting better.

In what way have zombies captured your imagination? Please comment below:

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