Monday, June 17, 2013

Why So Many Zombies?

My son Josh took this photo in Detroit a week ago
as we were leaving a Tigers game.

"World War Z" ('Z' = "zombies") comes out this week. Zombies are, culturally, everywhere. Why? Why the proliferation of zombie movies and zombie TV shows and zombie video games and zombie apparel, and why do I even have a tin of zombie mints that I'm carrying with me these days?

Well, every effect has a cause. For the cause of zombie-pop see, e.g., University of Missouri sociologist Todd Platts's "Locating Zombies In the Sociology of Popular Culture." Platts writes:

  • "Commonly understood as corpses raised from the dead and imbued with a ravenous instinct to devour the living, zombies address fears that are both inherent to the human condition and specific to the time of their resurrection. From an evolutionary perspective, zombies engender terror because of ingrained phobia of infectious contagion, loss of personal autonomy, and death."
  • Zombie-pop represents "a monstrous tabula rasa whose construction registers extant social anxieties."  A tabula rasa, or "blank slate," is a term made famous by Descartes and recently debunked by Steven Pinker. Written upon the blank slate of zombieism is a statement about a mindless, decaying infrastructure and an anxious cry for help.
  • "In their modern form, zombie narratives commonly present apocalyptic parables of societies in the state collapse (or have already collapsed) wherein a handful of survivors receive claustrophobic refuge from undead hordes. The survivors’ temporary rampart disintegrates not because of the zombies but because of the survivors’ inability to cooperate despite their differences."
The aftereffects of war, terrorism, and natural disasters closely resemble the scenarios of zombie cinema. 

Borrowing from the linguistic structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure, Platts writes:

"What nearly all understandings and depictions of popular culture zombies have in common is a flexible creature designed to evoke our macabre fascination and whose likeness adapts to contemporaneous tumult,  concerns about man-made and natural disasters, conflicts and wars, and crime and violence. This does not solve the problem of definition, but it is along this logic that the [Saussurean] diachronic and synchronic evocation of zombies should be comprehended."  

In other words, z-proliferation is a manifestation of cultural angst and anomie. Chaos rules, attacking family systems and communities, and there's nothing we can do to stop the advancing of this blind, brainless beast.  "Zombie studies scholars suggest the monster can be “read as tracking a wide range of cultural, political, and economic anxieties of American society”." (Platts)

1. The more zombies we see, the more anxious and uncertain Americans are.
2. We're seeing a lot of zombies.
3. Therefore... 

"Zombie" - all flesh, no spirit. (Thank you Peter G, for this!)

See also:

"A History of Zombies in America" 

And for something really different see the Center for Disease Control's  "Zombies - A Pop Culture Resource for Public Health Awareness." (!!!)