Our Cultural Obsession With Zombies: The ‘Living Dead’ and The Return of The Repressed

Part I- Introduction
“The only modern myth is the myth of zombies…” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari,

‘Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia ( 1977).

“To be sure, American audiences receive what Hollywood wants them to want; but in the long run public desires determine the nature of Hollywood films.” (Siegfried Krakauer, ‘From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of The German Film,’ 1947.)

Zombies are the ‘monsters’ of this historical moment. New York Times columnist David Carr reports that in the fall, 2012, the series ‘The Walking Dead,’ “was the highest rated show among viewers 18-49.” Furthermore, he tells us that in February 2013, the show “attracted 7.7 million viewers in the 18 to 49 range, more than any other broadcast in the land.” Additionally, ‘The Talking Dead,’ a spin-off program wherein guests and series actors discuss episodes “drew almost 2.8 million viewers ages 18-49, trumping NBC not just for the night, but for all of February,”

On June 21, 2013, in an online Lit Reactor column by Kimberly Turner, we are informed that the Today show reported the ‘zombie economy’ is “worth more than $5.74 billion”- includes video games, films, books, clothing, assorted merchandise, etc.

In one form or another zombies have been around for decades as a pop cultural trope- as mind controlled slaves of a Voodoo master in White Zombie (1932) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943)- to Ed Woods, ‘Plan Nine From Outer Space ( 1959), ’ wherein hostile aliens are planning to invade earth by creating an army of reanimated dead to George Romero’s, cult classic trilogy, Night of The Living Dead (1968); Dawn of The Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead ( 1985).

Since September 11, 2001, zombie themed films and books are no longer a cult sub genre of horror fiction but have now become a cultural phenomena- a zombie mania.

What accounts for this fascination with zombies? How is this zombie obsession a reflection of deeper psychological concerns? How do zombie themed fictions reflect our post 911 consciousness?

Part II- The Zombie Revenant, The Uncanny, The Abject, and The Uncanny Valley
Growing up in the 1950’s I spent many Saturday matinees watching Sci-Fi films that dealt with mutated nuclear monsters that go on rampages destroying cities with a flick of their prehistoric tails. People died and we knew that they were dead because they didn’t get up again. Implicit in most of these films from Godzilla (1954) to Rodan (1958) to Invaders From Mars (1953) was the message that some external force- nuclear fall out or space aliens were about to destroy the planet. However, much like a western, the cavalry (in the form of the American military) came in the nick of time and saved the city, or country or the world. The ‘threat’ to the safety of the world was contained and we all breathed a sigh of relief despite the fact that we were still doing ‘duck and cover’ drills in the classroom!

I stopped going to such films in my teens and turned my attention to other films- adolescent stories of heroism, love and romance- one might equally credit these as Sci fi since they bore little connection to anything real.

However, in 1968, a friend asked me to join him in going to the movies to see this weird, low budget film, ‘Night of The Living Dead.’ While sitting through this film, I realized that this horror film was unlike any I had seen before. For one thing, I was really frightened by the story- the dead coming alive and wanting to devour the living. These ghouls were killing machines that obeyed no rules- children devouring parents, siblings cannibalizing each other and there seemed to be no stopping them.

But the most frightening aspects of the film included the realizations that: (1). no one had any idea of what caused the reanimation; (2). there was no telling if we, the living, would ever find a way to prevent and/or contain this from happening again; and (3). these zombies (ghouls) looked like us only they were dead yet not.

The idea that there are beings that are ‘undead’ or ‘living dead’ is unsettling- these ‘revenants’ are “animated …corpses” that “return from the grave to terrorize the living.” At first glance, they look alive and human but on closer inspection, they are neither- they are undead doppelgangers – doubles of ourselves yet not ourselves.

We are now in the realm of ‘the uncanny.” In the 1919 essay, ‘The Uncanny,” Freud delved into the meaning of the word ‘uncanny’ and explained that it is related to the feeling that something is familiar when it is not, as well as to the feeling that the familiar has become strange and frightening. The zombie is our uncanny doppelgangers- all our primitive impulses that have been repressed by socialization and civilization – they are ‘ID’ with no ego or superego to restrain them. They devour everything in their path with no guilt or understanding of consequences.

Zombies are a reminder of our infantile, psychic past- a regression to primal narcissism. In the essay, “Mourning and Melancholia (1917), Freud writes, “ the way in which the ego first adopts an object and the ambivalence in which this is expressed … … the ego wishes to incorporate this object into itself, and the method by which it would do so, in this oral or cannibalistic phase, is by devouring it. (P.169).” Additionally, in ‘So The Witch Won’t Eat Me (1978),’ psychoanalyst Dorothy Block delves into the subject of infanticide and the fear that children have that their parents want to kill them. She goes on to state, “ … the wish to kill is one of the most deeply repressed feelings.’ Furthermore, “ after a period of agonizing denial that patients may gradually and reluctantly acknowledge that they not only hate, but that they want to kill those whom they hate.” She adds, ‘that such wishes are directed toward both the analyst and the people they love is an equally repugnant and frightening concept.”

The zombie is also all that is abject- all that is not ‘I.’ In ‘The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection,’ ( 1982), Julia Kristeva writes, “ the abject has only one quality of the object- that is being opposed to I.” She goes on to say, “ on the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me…

… There, abject and abjection are my safeguards… The primers of my culture..”

The zombie defies the boundaries of life and death. Death is invading life or as Kristeva states, “ it is death infecting life” and therefore “abject.” Abjection is not about illness or about those who stay dead, it’s about, “ what disturbs identity, system, order… … the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”

Zombies threaten all that is known. In recent portrayals, a movie such as ‘World War Z’ and the television series ‘The Walking Dead’ depict zombies differently from their past incarnations- much more ravenous and infectious- they are shown as unstoppable. This goes beyond the uncanny familiar and into the realm of total abjection wherein nothing is familiar.

When this happens, we enter the world of the ‘uncanny valley.’ In 1970, Masahiro Mori, then a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology wrote an essay wherein he discussed people’s reactions to robots that appeared and behaved almost human. He suggested that an individual’s response to a humanlike robot would go from connection to total revulsion if the robot looked like but failed to have a lifelike appearance. He termed this change of perception the ‘uncanny valley.’

Zombies are residents of the uncanny valley. They terrify us because they don’t fit into any recognizable category- are they dead? Alive? Human? Alien? Virus? What? They present to us a vision of an alternate life form that we do not understand and that lives by feeding on the living.

Part III- The Catastrophic Imagination and Glimmers of Light in a World of Ruins
We are fourteen years into the new century and the monster of this millennium is the Zombie. Our vision for our ‘brave new world’ is not some utopian society wherein we follow the blessings of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock and “live well and prosper.”

Instead, our popular imagination is filled with fears for our survival. Practically every zombie film opens with a panoramic shot of a major city in total desolation. Abandoned cars left on major highways, smoke rising over colossal skyscrapers and the ever- present newspapers flying around in the wind. The TV series ‘The Walking Dead,’ begins each episode with the above scene serving as a constant reminder of the zombie apocalypse and that all we can hope for is bare bones survival at best. This is reminiscent of the days post 911 when the news endlessly repeated showing images of the Twin Towers liquidating- etching in viewers minds the magnitude of the horror.

In an interview with New York Times reporter, Taffy Brodesser- Akner (June 21,2013), Max Brooks, author of the hugely successful ‘World War Z’ and ‘The Zombie Survival Guide,’ states, “since 911, people have been scared… there’s been some really scary stuff that’s been happening- 911, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, anthrax letters, global financial meltdown, bird flu, swine flu, Sars. I think people really feel like the system is breaking down.” He goes on to say, “ it’s Hurricane Katrina, it’s neighbors knifing each other for food, women being raped, cops not showing up, children dying of starvation, an old lady dying in a wheel chair.”

He suggests that the reason for the popularity of zombie films is that, “ many folks can’t cope with real -life dangers; they (like him) would prefer to metabolize their anxiety through science fiction.”

Our pre-occupation with zombies has gone so far that the CDC (Center For Disease Control) has set up an online web site as a template for how to deal with a pandemic. Also, the University of California, Irvine offered an online course that ran in conjunction with this past season of The Walking Dead. The free non credit course, ‘Society, Science, Survival: Lessons From AMC’s The Walking Dead, had as its course description the following, “from following social identities to modeling the spread of disease, this eight week course will span key science and survival themes using AMC’s The Walking Dead as its basis.” Subjects covered included a discussion of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to ‘nutrition in a post-apocalyptic world’ to ‘managing stress in disaster situation.”

The zombie –personification of death and decay is a monster that no one has sympathy for- they are an externalization of our fear of death. Yet, they once were alive and yes, human. They live as ambiguous and pitiable figures within our psyche- they are ‘us’ in a perpetual struggle between Eros and thanatos- life and death.

We use the metaphor of the zombie to connote how we deaden our brains with gadgets, drugs and the diseases of toxic consumerism and conformity. The cohort 18-49 has come of age in a world dominated by computers, virtual reality celebrity culture, AIDS and other catastrophic diseases, climate change, economic crisis, terrorism, and endless wars. Additionally, medical advances have so blurred the line between life and death that we increasingly do not know when life ends.

We are now inhabitants of a culture obsessed with catastrophe. Films produced today reflect our deeply felt anxieties and concerns.   One recent film, ‘Warm Bodies (2013) based on the book of the same title by Isaac Marion offers us a glimmer of hope in the desolate zombie landscape. The film is a love story between a living teen- age girl and a recently reanimated teenage boy. Through the art of fiction, this variation on Romeo and Juliet presents us with the possibility that love- Eros will bring both the living and the undead back into life through the power of empathy and connection.

In the conclusion to ‘Civilization and Its Discontents (1931), Sigmund Freud states, “the fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.” He goes on to observe, “ it may be that in this respect precisely the present time deserves a special interest… … Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man… … they know this, and hence comes a large part of the current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety… …Heavenly powers, eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary.”

In 1931, as Freud witnessed the rise of the Nazis to positions of increasing influence and power, he added a final sentence to ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’. He wrote, ““But who can foresee with what success and with what result?”

Freud’s question is yet to be answered for our uncertain times. But what is clear is that within our popular imagination, the war between life and death is being played out between the living and the living dead.