There has never been a more lively interest in the undead. Books, TV series, and films are all satisfying a public craving for zombies, preferably delivered in large quantities in an apocalyptic setting. Such widespread interest in a peculiar vision of horror invites speculation as to the cultural causes of this phenomenon. I offer two explanatory theories for zombiemania in this article: a simple one involving license to kill, and a more complex theory grounded in widespread fear of a menacing and uncontrollable future.
Zombie lore has been around for a long time, derived from the myths of African and Haitian cults, but tales of zombies in modern popular culture first emerged in the 20th century in stories by H.P. Lovecraft and H.G. Wells and in early films, such as “White Zombie” (1932). The Zombie apocalypse concept, hordes of zombies threatening to destroy all human life, is a more recent phenomenon, pioneered by George Romero’s 1968 film, “Night of the Living Dead.” Today, apocalyptic zombie stories are everywhere: in “The Walking Dead,” a top-rated cable TV series; in “Word War Z,” a best-selling novel; and even in “Game of Thrones,” a popular medieval-themed sci-fi TV production. Why are these dark fantasies so compelling? Here are my theories:
A license to kill. Civilization has made substantial progress in inculcating a reluctance to kill in the general populace. Widespread violation of this taboo can only be achieved through sustained propaganda that de-humanizes the intended victims.
We have made such strides in globalizing a multicultural vision of the family of man that it is now very difficult for mass entertainment to whip up American bloodlust aimed at Redskins, Huns, Japs, Gerrys, Ivans, Gooks, Slopes, Dinks, or other historically slurred human adversaries. Thus Zombies provide an invaluable supply of dehumanized hateful creatures that can be killed with abandon.
For many readers and viewers, particularly younger ones, watching deadly violence inflicted on deformed and malevolent near-humans is highly entertaining. We should be grateful that mankind has progressed beyond the murderous spectacles of the ancient Roman arena, but the realistically depicted fictional slaughter of zombies shows us depths of horror, such as the killing of (zombie) children, that even the bloodthirsty Romans were unwilling to witness.
Firearms figure prominently in the destruction of zombies. A bullet to the brain is usually sufficient to dispatch one of the undead. The exceptional lethality of firearms is a perfect match for the unambiguous necessity of killing a zombie. One need have no concern for deterrence or measured response. Zombie killing is an aggressive gun nut’s ultimate fantasy: an unlimited license to shoot to kill. But fans of deadly weaponry need not stop at the deployment of ordinary firearms. In the novel “World War Z,” the entire military arsenal of conventional weaponry is unleashed on the zombie hordes, with predictable effects. That’s entertainment!
Future phobia. The license to kill explanation is an important contributor to zombiemania, but I believe it is insufficient to account fully for the recent popularity of the apocalyptic strain of Zombie horror. Surely localized zombie outbreaks would provide plenty of action for the splatter-addicted. So why do we thrill to modern Zombie epics, like “World War Z” and “The Walking Dead,” that show us zombie hordes threatening human extinction? I believe that the zombie existential threat is a cultural expression of a deep fear of relentless and uncontrollable change.
There can be little doubt that the tempo of change is accelerating. Futurists like Ray Kurzweil maintain that we are approaching an inflection point that will radically transform the nature of humanity.
This onrushing tsunami of change may be exciting for futurists, but it is deeply disturbing to the general population. How is this ill-defined future menacing to the common man? Let me supply some adjectives that describe the fearful aspects of impending hyperchange:
Incomprehensible: Because future transformation in our era is largely technology-driven, and because the underlying technologies are highly complex (e.g., microelectronics, intelligent software, robotics, networked telecommunications, bioengineering)even experts can comprehend only a fraction of the driving forces transforming the modern world. Most people are mystified and uneasy.
Inexorable: Progress and modernity have been cherished for so long as deeply held values that the onslaught of technological change is deemed inexorable and unstoppable. Even if a Luddite movement were to arise, blocking specific advances, the inter-linked character of the advancing technologies would make it almost impossible to arrest their cumulative development and deployment.
Ubiquitous: Unsettling change is everywhere. Our children increasingly inhabit virtual worlds of gaming and socialization. Our workplaces are morphing as jobs disappear and permanent offices melt away. Our confidence in government and mass media is eroding as more credible information channels arise on the Internet. Everywhere, all around us, devices and systems are becoming smarter, and our relationships with them, and with each other, are altering in unpredictable ways.
Merciless: There is no appeal from the verdicts of technological change. When your job is outsourced, or your finances bankrupted, or your relationship upended, there is no course of remedy. This pitiless march of disruptive transformation is terrifying to those who cling to the myth of a compassionate society.
Destabilizing: The most profound fear of sweeping change is the destabilization of life. Our psychological well-being depends on fundamental assumptions of order in our environment. A tide of change that simultaneously disrupts all existing models of education, careers, residential life, and family relationships is deeply frightening to the vast majority of people.
We can’t kill impending change with a bullet to the brain, but we can live for a short time in a fantasy world where we destroy horrible threats and restore orderly life.
If these adjectives remind you of a zombie horde, you will have some sympathy for my argument. We can’t kill impending change with a bullet to the brain, but we can live for a short time in a fantasy world where we destroy horrible threats and restore orderly life. We can dream of halting the terrifying zombie onslaught and restoring a safe, comforting, human world. The protagonists of zombie apocalypse tales are supremely concerned with arresting destabilizing change and restoring order, but it is an old order, a primitive pre-Internet order, in which staying alive, protecting loved ones, and securing food, water, and shelter are overriding concerns. Zombie killers don’t surf the web.
It is as though mankind had climbed the pyramid of Maslow’s needs hierarchy and found the view from the top, a zone enabling radically empowered self-actualization, so bewildering and terrifying that many of us seek escape by imaginatively retreating to the comforting foundation of meeting basic needs. At the bottom of the pyramid - seeking physical safety, food, shelter, and companionship - are the only important goals. Cultural historians will not consider the current outbreak of zombiemania our finest hour.
When I began investigating the zombiemania phenomenon, I viewed the effort as a mildly amusing task, but after immersing myself in the ugly details I see this cultural fad as a dark mirror held up to modern society, reflecting its deeply rooted craving for killing and its irrational fear of uncontrollable change. The poet Tennyson wrote some memorable lines about mankind’s future:
Arise and fly.
The reeling Faun, the sensual feast;
Move upward, working out the beast,
And let the ape and tiger die.
Zombiemania shows that we are very far from “working out the beast.”
(And for a review of World War Z, by Editor Ellary Eddy....)
Haig Hovaness has been observing and writing about information technology for three decades. He has worked as an IT professional in Fortune 500 companies and was a columnist for Corporate Computing Magazine. As an IT consultant at KPMG Consulting, he worked with media and Internet clients and headed KPMG's Digital Media Institute. Haig was a speaker at Harvard University's first conference on the Internet and Society. His current interests center on emergent cultural phenomena in a hyper-connected world.