The world seems to have a love affair with the walking dead that is only growing more passionate as the years go by. It began with ancient legends and dark fairy tales, warnings and scare tactics of our ancestors to keep straying men at home, women indoors and curious children at the hearth where they belong. Nearly every culture has an ancient legend involving the walking dead and each culture has a different, yet eerily similar spin on the concept.
In the age of the silver screen, we saw the images come to life in a few black and white flirtations and with our first kiss in 1939 with Bela Lugosi in “White Zombie”, we were hooked. After a few more flirtations, we finally fell in love with Romero’s iconic “Night of the Living Dead”. Once bitten, never shy, the affair only increased in severity and complexity after this first taste. While new films have emerged since then, the “Of The Dead” franchise continues to generate revenue with new additions every few years.
The point of my long-winded recitation today isn’t to comment on each picture through the ages, but to comment on the nature of our relationship with this particular subject. What is it that draws us to the focus of our dead rising? What is our obsession with this idea? We are attracted, in sometimes unhealthy ways, to the concept of the walking dead even though instinct should repel us. The scent of death repels living things as a warning, a sign of danger, disease and dis-ease. These instincts are deep within our biology, going back much farther than our appreciation for gore, as a way of protecting ourselves. Mankind has fought hard in the living world to advance and perfect medical science in hopes of elongating life and create a higher quality of living, all the while also creating entertainment which depict the dead in reanimated states, all that we love and have built in this world being destroyed and playing out these horrors in as many ways as we can think of in film, art, comics, books, any form of creative media we can get our hands on.
It’s like our entire species has a bad case of Dissociative Identity Disorder!
SO, why do we do it? What’s our deal? Are we really just sick, morbid beings that revel in the thought of our own destruction? Is it only because we appreciate the gore, the skill of make-up artists and special effects teams? Or does it mean more than this?
Well, I’ve thought long and hard about this and here’s what I’ve come up with. It might be something you already knew or thought about before. Honestly, it’s pretty common sense so don’t think I expect to wow you with my intellectual insight. LOL… anyway, here’s what I think.
Perhaps it’s because of a constant “what if” in the back of our minds. That dark part of our subconscious that longs for a day of reckoning when all who didn’t care, didn’t pay attention, didn’t love the life they were given are driven asunder by mobs of blinded, flesh eating dead and you, being one of the smart ones, were ready and can watch from high on a hilltop, laughing at society’s undoing. Maybe the dark side of our souls long for that “Falling Down” moment and secretly (or not so secretly) hope for the day when we can stand on the hood of a car on the freeway, holding a rocket launcher and screaming at the universe as we unleash glorious, explody death on the undead horde. As silly as that may sound, it’s probably not far from the truth. There is a fair amount of desire for karma in our society and the promise of chaos and a proverbial “restart” button seems to make some people giddy for the thought of a Project Mayhem style wake-up call and all the better if it should come from zombies!
There’s more to it, however and it’s somewhat of a long story.
The simple answer; Man is mortal. What does that mean to us? Our time here is fleeting and no matter how religious or spiritual or atheist you are, no one really knows what happens on the other side. Our obsession with death and the afterlife began the moment the first human experienced death for the first time. Maybe as they killed their meal with spears, maybe it was watching an animal get killed by another, or watching others die of thirst or disease. Who knows, but in that moment, that first human experienced true magic- something was there…. And then it simply wasn’t anymore. We’ve been obsessed ever since.
Now, that might explain our obsession with death and even our belief in a God, but that doesn’t account for the obsession with the undead.
So here’s my theory;
We humans, are really good at lying to ourselves about our true nature. We do our best to hide it; we wear fancy clothes, get “respectable jobs”, live our lives in society and try to make the most of our lives as best we can while repressing most of our base instincts and our pack mentality. We try to be unique, and in so doing, advertize our uniqueness, inevitably ending up in groups of unique people who all look or think the same. Why? Because we love the feeling of safety in numbers. We get a fuzzy feeling when someone shares our perspectives, interests and values. We compare ourselves to others, even if the comparison isn’t any more logical than comparing a dish washer to a Macbook Pro, but we do it. Mothers scrutinize one another, however slyly, to see who has the best stroller, the best diaper bag, the best baby clothes and toys. Men do it, maybe a little less quietly with cars, houses, suits and shoes, pay checks and business cards, watches and garage set-up’s. Women do it with make-up, shoes, handbags, whether we have kids, or don’t have kids and we rate ourselves against our peers in every way possible, from free time to what drinks we like to order at bars.
We hide our age, our rage, our fear, our self-deprecating personalities and smile along as we work only to pay bills and pretend our “stuff” is worth the 10 hours a day away from those we love. Rarely do we find ourselves in careers that we actually, truly enjoy. More often than not, we simply find the least terrible place to spend the better half of every day in order to buy things that make us feel safe and good about ourselves. We hide behind sex, hair dye, nice cars, warm houses and couture clothing to pretend we are more than flesh and bone, meat that will one day return to the Earth and neither the status symbol Audi nor the 100 dollar face cream will change that fact.
Anger and sadness are our natural reactions to a baser, more powerful emotion; Fear. Fear governs a great deal of our actions. Mazlow’s pyramid provides an example of this fact. We fight for our base needs and if these are not met, we cannot move forward in our cognitive/emotional development. We need food, shelter and safety. Without these three things, we cannot progress as individuals. Take for instance, a shopping mall on Christmas Eve. The experience is absolute madness and depressing chaos. How do we describe the scenes on the evening news on Black Friday or December 24th? We might say people become an angry mob, or crazy and blind to others, or biting mean, or … mindless zombies. See, it’s my theory that zombies represent the very base needs of human desire; the mindless, thoughtless driving force that demands satiation and the overpowering drive to win above all others and all things until there is nothing left to conquer. We see this every day in the news. We see it on the roads, angry people driving and rushing to their destinations, selfish and unwavering in their pursuit of purpose. They have somewhere to be and that is more important than the speed limit.
We put ourselves and others at risk every day with our need to be the best. We “eat one another alive” in the corporate world every day to get ahead and make the most money, have the best status and as slaves to the light, we devour all who may keep us from it.
Simply put, zombies are us and we are them. The apocalypse is now and we fight them every day outside as well as within ourselves. Every one of us has a little zombie in them and once we realize this, the connection and the love affair we have with the genre is all the more clear. We are frail, flesh and bone and without the spirit to keep us believing we are more than fate’s accident, what are we to become? Lifeless, wandering, lost and hungry.
So many of us feel this way at some point in our lives, but the scary and familiar quality zombies have is their blindingly complacent attitudes. Now, the cause of a zombie’s state of being is dependent upon the author’s preference, whether it be zombie powder from Haiti, a rage virus from England, corporate experiment gone wrong or a barrel of Trioxin-245, the concept all boils down to a few solid facts. Reanimated dead people are scary. People who act like reanimated dead people are equally if not more scary.
Zombies are a blinding truth. We all decay. Within the stories of zombies, we can witness our greatest fears play out in another person’s imaginary world. Not just that, but in these stories, we see not only the mob mentality which destroys our society and breaks apart the fundamental parts of what makes us who we are but we also see those who have not turned overcome just about every obstical possible. The classic story of the zombie apocalypse surrvior is strong, powerful, aware, compassionate, has killed to survive and has saved those who could not save themselves. The survivor unites opposing sides, rights wrongs, helps build relationships and creates foundations for new generations of survivors to flourish in the new world of the aftermath. We see in the survivors all that we wish for ourselves, knowing the unfortunate truth is the fact that we are much more like the zombies than the survivors most of the time.
The other factor to consider is that zombie apocalypse stories are a fables. They’re modern folk tales and as all folk tales do, they teach us lessons. Zombies are the embodiment of blind thinking and blind action. They are the decayed, disheartened and broken spirit within our culture that breaks free and mobs the world with chaos, fear and eventually either death, or a doomed, lifeless existence. The survivor shows us the heart of man, how strong it truly can be when it fights against the horde to show us what we can do differently in the real world to prevent the infection from spreading to far.
We have the ability to see these stories not as terrifying horror filled with the worst parts of man, but as statements of optimism for the spirit of mankind. The zombie isn’t here to teach us to be afraid; it’s here to teach us to fight. Through compassion and appreciation of ourselves and those around us for what they individually contribute to the world around us, we can fight the apocalypse of complacency. The classic formula demands it- the survivors only do so if they work together and fight as one, united people. A small band of comrades against a dying world and a mass of dead adversaries gives us hope and reminds us not only to appreciate what we have, but focus on how much we can change what we don’t like… before an “apocalypse” actually happens. The problem is, has it already? Are we already too late?
Next time you’re in a group of people, at the movies, in a mall, grocery store or even on the freeway, take the time to really look at the people who pass by you. How many people are actively participating in the experience, talking with one another, noticeably joining in and how many are blindly walking with a glazed look in their eyes, headed toward their next, predictable destination.
Our love affair with the walking dead on camera will continue to capture the essence of our struggle in the real world with our real life (hah!) zombies. Couple this struggle with our desire to start over and burn away the past to start a new future and you have a perfect recipe for zombie appreciation on all levels of our psyche.
So what can we do to avoid the apocalypse? If it’s happening now, how can we avoid it? Live in the moment. Be.Here.Now. Actively participate in the experience of your life and don’t wait another day to achieve what you know you are capable of. Don’t let others make choices for you. Learn all you can, live all you can and revel in the lessons, both good and challenging.
Fight the zombies by always being as alive as possible. That’s the formula for surviving the apocalypse. Sound easy? Prove it.