Dr. Geek: Do Zombies Have Your Brains?

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”

If you know that line, where it comes from, what the “they” are, then there’s a good chance you are a zombie fan.  If you’ve ever argued which is better, the slow zombie of George Romero fame or the fast zombie of Danny Boyle fame – or even which is the “real” zombie — then there’s a good chance you are a zombie fan.  If you’ve ever, even ironically, considered what you might do if face-to-face with with a “real” zombie, then there’s a good chance you are a zombie fan.

But why?  Why do these decaying, blood-spattered, empty-eyed harbingers of disease and death seem sexy to so many people?   They are not pretty to look at: they don’t have a werewolf’s lovely fur coat, or a vampire’s smoldering gaze.  They have no agency: they stumble or rage around, driven only by that most basic animal instinct of eating by killing.  There’s no sense of humanity left in them for us to identify with: with a werewolf, there is the human’s struggle with the wolf, and with a vampire there’s, well, sex.  But no one wants to have sex with a zombie, right?  Because that’s one of the most taboo of sexual fetishes.

And yet, there’s a zombie sex guide.  There are people who gleefully dress up as zombies and stagger around for charity in zombie walks.  Ask any budding film-maker, and most likely s/he will tell you about the zombie movie they’d love to make as a way to break into the biz.  And they’d be in good company.  According to a list compiled at Wikipedia, there have been over 600 movies that in some way focus on or feature a zombie.  That list doesn’t include all of the television shows, books, video games, comics, songs, board games, card games, and other pop culture products that feature the undead or the infected.

Even the federal government, “jokingly”, has gotten into the craze, believing that if you are prepared for the zombie apocalypse, you’ll be prepared for real emergencies, like earthquakes and flu epidemics.  The Center for Disease Control, which even features in a zombie pop culture hit, The Walking Dead, blogged about what citizens should do to prepare for the (unlikely) event of Z-Day or World War Z, and have even produced media to promote this path towards preparedness.

The first zombie movie is said to be the 1932 film White Zombie.  The film depicts a woman becoming a zombie due to a Haitian voodoo potion: this depiction is one of the rare few that link zombies to their etymological origin (“zombi”) in African mysticism and religion, like the Voodoo that emerged in Haiti with the influx of African slaves.   And while there were other zombie movies in the interim, Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead is commonly referred to for generating the zombie culture that followed, which received a resurgence with the emergence of the “rager” zombies in Boyle’s 28 Days Later in 2002.  For the past decade, both the slow and the fast zombies have made their way across the pop culture landscape, devouring their fans’ hearts, brains, and wallets along the way.

But the question still remains: why?  To get more of an understanding about what drives zombie fans, I spoke with fellow fan Shawn Beatty, who organizes zombie marches in the Midwest.  In fact, if you are in the Iowa area of the corn-belt around October 6th, he has an upcoming Zombie March, featuring undead Zombie Elvis.  You’ll find the flyer for this event at the end of the article.

Shawn has been in love with the undead since he was a kid: he fell in love with the skeletons animated by Ray Harryhausen in the fantasy classic Jason and the Argonauts.   I come from a different angle into the fandom: I don’t like the undead, and didn’t really get interested in zombies until Boyle’s interpretation.  Which explains the difference in what about them appeals to us.  For Shawn, there was something about the unstoppable nature of the slow zombies: “Zombies are scary because they’re relentless. They may be slow, but they will probably get you in the end.”   I find the slow ones kinda dumb, easier to manage, a la the onset of the apocalypse as experienced by Shaun in Shaun of the Dead.  The ragers, who come at you with unnatural speed and ferocity, scare me more: those are the ones that haunt my ever-too-frequent zombie dreams.

But we both agree on why they are so prevalent in our culture, and perhaps especially for why they have been so popular for the last decade.  As Shawn put it:

“They are prevalent because of all the mindless consumerism, maybe it’s the disconnect from our fellow man….. perhaps it’s because of our blind following of dogma or ideas…..”

What makes zombies, the slow or the fast, scary is the idea of the unrelenting, mindless, single goal-oriented mob: creatures that used to be thinking, feeling humans who have had their judgement ripped from them by some event, be it Hell filling up or a mutated rabies virus or an electronic pulse that wipes everyone’s higher brain functions.  Something traumatic has happened to change people, and they turn on those who they otherwise may not have even noticed.  The fear of zombies is the fear of this happening to those around us, strangers and loved ones alike, shattering the normal social bonds that lead us to move relatively predictably through life.

And why is this fear resonating with people these days?  Think back over the past decade: Boyle’s film came out in 2002, but the world, especially for Americans, changed in 2001.  This week is the 11th anniversary of 9-11.  It has been a long time since the country has seen such a turbulent decade; indeed, Romero’s film came during another turbulent time, and the zombie craze that it spawned in the 1970s and the early 1980s was likewise indicative of the mindset of people experiencing war, civil unrest, and economic upheaval.

Since 9-11, we’ve had all of those, plus the added anxiety inducers of domestic terrorism and extreme political partisanship.  We are no longer sure who we can trust to be “one of us”, to not be planning to do us harm at a flick of a switch.  Either extreme in the political/cultural “war” sees the other as mindlessly following its evangelical leaders, creating mob mentality.  And during all of this, we are increasingly physically isolated from one another, with virtual communities replacing geophysical communities, and people so plugged in to one or another digital device that they are completely tuned out to their surroundings when walking down the street.  We don’t know who our neighbors and fellow community members are, which only makes us more afraid of them.  We are not connecting to our fellow humans like we were decades ago — and people are afraid that when they do physically connect, it will be some type of violence, perhaps even cannibalistic (such as in Florida, ChinaMassachusetts, Pennsylvania…).

When you are afraid of the people around you, of sudden and dramatic violence occurring, of mindless masses disconnecting their hearts and brains from the world around you, then it is not a huge leap to likewise be afraid of zombies, who embody all of those characteristics.  This potential for realism, Shawn and I agree, makes zombies scarier.  It’s harder to believe that something like a vampire or a werewolf could exist, even as pop culture has struggled with developing realistic reasons for why a vampire would die when exposed to sunlight.  But zombies, especially with the rise of the infected zombies, feel more real because it is easier to believe that some disease or trauma could remove the humanity from humans.  We don’t have to look too far to see real world analogues of this: from suicide bombings to shooting massacres, we unfortunately see far too many empty-eyed humans who have no regret for killing.  We ponder the why question then, too: what had to have happened to them to turn them into such soulless harbingers of death?

And it doesn’t help that science is finding parasites that not only infect and kill their hosts — usually an insect — but then go on to manipulate the body, moving it under their command to do their bidding.  It’s not hard to imagine this getting into the human population by some misguided experiment or intentional infection.  So perhaps the CDC should stop joking around about preparing us for the zombie apocalypse and start making sure no mad scientist gets his hands on those parasites.

I asked Shawn if he ever thinks about what he would do in the event of a zombie apocalypse.  He said he has, but only “in the same way that people think about what they would do with 10million dollars.”  In other words, it’s a game to fans like Shawn and me.  Sure, others may take it very seriously, but you can find people who are very seriously preparing for just about any type of apocalypse.  We humans seem to have a macabre interest in the idea of the end of days — perhaps because we have a hard time thinking about time and civilization stretching far out ahead of us.  We think it has to end sometime, just like everything else.  A zombie apocalypse could just be another one of those ways.

So, should we prepare for it?  Well, if doing so helps you prepare for other emergencies, then there is nothing wrong with it.  But if doing so consumes your mind such that you start stockpiling weapons, then perhaps you need to step back and remember, zombies aren’t real.

Zombie ants, on the other hand…



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