A Quick Psychology of the Zombie Genre
Picture from AMC’s The Walking Dead.
Zombie movies and other zombie related paraphernalia have, over the past decade seen, a resurgence in popularity among people of the West. From AMC’s “The Walking Dead“, to the BBC’s “Dead Set” on TV, and “World War Z“, “A Cabin In The Woods” and “La Horde” in the movies, we have seen the zombie genre go from a specialised interest to one which occupies a place in the minds of the mainstream public. Not only is our viewing plagued with zombies, but our computer games have also seen the undead rising; From the iPhone game “Plants vs Zombies“, to console games like “Dead Island” and the “Undead Nightmare” add-on to the wild-west game “Red Dead Redemption”, people around the world spend copious hours killing the zombie hordes, albeit inside a microprocessor. There’s even zombie clothes (I own several zombie themed teeshirts), zombie food (you can by zombie skin snacks at Think Geek), zombie toys (I also own a zombie monkey plush toy which sits on my desk at work), and zombie survival manuals (the book by Max Brooks is seen as the definitive guide to surviving a zombie apocalypse.) There is even a “real-life” shooter game called “Patient 0“, not unlike laser-tag, where an entire warehouse has been kitted out to resemble a hospital, and where hundreds of actors in zombie garb chase down teams of people armed with realistic automatic rifles.
Before I go into my explanation for the outbreak of zombie madness in our societies, let’s have a look at the zombie genre and its many incarnations.
What is a zombie?
There are many different types of zombies portrayed in zombie films and shows. There are slow-zombies, which shamble about moaning the word “brainsssssss” as they do so. There are fast zombies, which can move as quickly as you or I only with the added advantage of feeling no pain so as to be able to keep running once you or I would run out of breath. There are toxic zombies, whose affliction has been caused by toxic waste or industrial poisons. There are genetically engineered zombies, including ones who can grow tentacles at will. With as many different kinds of zombies as there are represented in the media, all zombie creators agree on one thing; Zombies are basically reanimated dead people who hunger for the flesh of the living.
Most, but not all, zombies can infect the living with their “disease” by biting the victim, and whether this victim dies instantly or succumbs to death later on, the victim will quickly join the throngs of the living dead within hours. In the case of the toxic zombie, sometimes contact with the zombie is enough to cause the transformation. In the case of “The Walking Dead”, a person simply has to die, by any means, to become a zombie.
Zombies for the most part are considered to be brain dead; The cerebral cortex has ceased to function, and the body has died, leaving only the basest need to feed. Zombies are rotting as they walk about, their wounds not healing, their blood-loss and injuries causing no ill effect, except in cases of losing limbs whereby travel becomes difficult. Their eyes still function, their ears still work, and they are capable of making noises with their throats, that is, if their throats are still intact. They can live for as long as their heads remain somewhat in one piece. They have no need for internal organs, other than the brain, but eat relentlessly anyway.
So is it possible for zombies to exist?
In short, no. A human body with no brain, no matter what the virus infecting it, would not be able to be animated without a functioning brain. The brain is required for the body to move about, and for sight and hearing. This kind of zombie could not exist except by magic. Even in the reasonably plausible scenario of The Walking Dead, where they give an explanation for the zombification of humans, these people could not move about as they do.
A cousin of the zombie genre is the “28 Days Later” scenario, where a virus causes similar effects but with people who are still living. The virus is still transmitted by bites, but the host does not die. They simply become affected by the virus which causes them to attack others. This is a much more believable scenario, but cannot truly be called a “zombie movie”.
In Haiti, according to folklore and some studies, there exists the closest thing to a “real zombie”. These people have apparently died, returned to life in a semi functioning state, and are then controlled by a “witch-doctor” to carry out tasks for them. This has been accredited to not a virus, but a specific poison administered to the zombie before they “die”, which causes death-like symptoms, convincing enough, and lasting for long enough, that the person is interred. They later awaken from their induced coma, and the reduced heart and lung function during their “death” has caused brain-damage serious enough to deaden their brains, but not kill them completely.
So if zombies can’t exist, why are we so obsessed with them?
One only need look at the culture of any given society to see why anything becomes popular. The last time zombies were popular was in the 60s and 70s, when America was in the grips of the Cold War. The zombie threat was a metaphor for the fear that many Americans felt about the communist threat. Because the zombies appear to be normal, live among everyone else as normal until they are turned, it meant that the threat was every-present and all around. Anyone could be a zombie, and everyone was a potential zombie. This returns today because of a mistrust, in America particularly, but also here in Australia, of the perceived threat of Islamic terrorism; They are among us, and any one of them could fly a plane into a skyscraper. Of course this is unfounded, but the climate in which this fear arises is pandered to by the politicians, and used against us as a society to be ever fearful, and more apt to believe what they say to us. The media also love the Islamophobic nature of the current trend, as it makes them an invaluable source of information in these uncertain times.
It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).
Not only is the zombie genre popular because of the zombies themselves, but also because it is an end-of-the-world scenario. This genre of films became increasingly popular in the last two decades as problems like climate change and other environmental concerns reached the status of “front of mind” in most people worldwide. When we started to see the impact humans have on the environment, so the film-makers started producing films about various doomsday scenarios such as “Deep Impact” where the world is almost destroyed by a giant asteroid, or “2012” where a combination of unfortunate events causes cataclysmic destruction around the world. The Zombie genre is another in these apocalyptic fantasies, but hits home in a different way, for the threat doesn’t come from without, it comes from within. It is a far scarier idea if the potential threat is sitting next to you on a bus, or could be your own mother, than a scenario where the world looks on hopelessly as an asteroid collides with the earth.
Along with the trend of apocalypse films, we have the religious and the conspiracy theorists waving their banners and proclaiming dates for the end of the world. If it’s not The Rapture, where everyone except God’s chosen few have to suffer on earth while the whole thing turns to chaos, it’s the threat of a massive coronal mass ejection from the sun, which will destroy all our electrical circuits and trigger off a nuclear war. Not to forget of course that the Mayan calendar apparently “runs out” in only a few days time, as if the ancient Mayans had some kind of knowledge of the future that nobody else could foresee. (They couldn’t even predict their own demise, so what does that say about the end of the world?)
The zombie genre shows outwardly the fear we have of a society destroying itself, not by some huge disaster, but by whimpering to a halt and consuming itself. The zombie represents mankind, and mankind eating itself, an uncontrolled cannibalistic apocalypse, where we consume so much that all that is left is to consume each other.
The beauty of zombies, as opposed to “people”, is that by dying and feasting on the living, the zombies are much easier to kill than it would be if asked to kill normal humans. They have been stripped of their humanity, and become nothing but a shambling monster with only your brains on the agenda. We lack empathy for the undead, therefore dispatching them becomes a much less emotional task. This is quite frightening when applied to the apparent Islamic terrorist scenario, for if we are stripping Muslims of their humanity in our communities, what does this say of us as a society?
But I love the zombie genre!
It’s true, I’m a bit obsessed by zombies, but this is more for the psychological thriller aspect than the dehumanisation of others. The zombie genre has so much to offer; Action, suspense, zombies, drama, fear, zombies, remorse, gore and of course zombies.
Now that AMC’s The Walking Dead, my weekly dose of zombies, is taking its mid-season break, I hope that this little piece has tied you over, at least for a little while, and given you your much needed dose of all things zombie.