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Getting to the Bottom of Why Zombies Are Showing Up Everywhere in Our Culture Right Now

Explaining our blossoming relationship with the undead.

I thought it was a fad, and it would die out. Three years ago I read Daniel Drezner’s piece inForeign Policy about  his search for an “international relations theory of zombies,” which he subsequently expanded into  a full-length book. Really, this was on the order of devoting an entire university class to the lyrics of Madonna. If I just pretended that zombies didn’t exist, they would go away.

I was wrong. Zombies don’t die, and neither does our fascination with them.

Drezner’s piece came out, I thought, at the apogee of zombie fascination. But since then, we’ve been treated to the Brad Pitt vehicle World War Z, the hit TV show The Walking Dead, the video game Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (previously a parody novel, graphic novel, and soon to be a movie), the literary novel Zone One by Colson Whitehead, and much, much more. We seem to have an unquenchable desire for zombification.

All this leaves the unanswered question: why? Yes, I know, we’ve been fascinated with vampires and ghosts and aliens and the Loch Ness monster for ages. But why zombies, and why now? Here are some conventional explanations:

1) Success sells: It doesn’t matter what the “it” is; if people want some, they must want more. If suddenly  philately became hot, George Clooney would star in Going Postal and there’d be a graphic novel series called Sense and Sensibility and Stamp Collecting. Aristotle said: everything in moderation. But who listens to Aristotle any more? Certainly not Hollywood.

2) It’s all about the apocalypse: We’ve been worried about the world ending ever since the Mayans and the Book of Revelations. Nuclear holocaust has faded from the collective unconscious, and zombies are the new blackout.

3) Freud reminded us, as if we needed such a reminder, that it’s all about sex and death. Vampires satisfy the former fixation, zombies the latter. We knock back a shot of eros from Anne Rice and the Twilight series, and then we follow it up with a chaser of thanatos from Max Brooks and  The Returned.

Those are all good explanations. But I’m interested, like Drezner, in the foreign policy implications of zombies. Unlike Drezner, however, I don’t care about using zombies to explore the intricacies of international relations theory. I’m more concerned with how changes in world politics trickle down into our culture. Our dreams represent our anxieties about what’s happening in our lives. Our culture represents our anxieties about what’s happening in our world.

Take the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film that came out in 1956, at the peak of anti-Communist hysteria in the United States. In the movie, aliens have quietly arrived in California, where they set about conquering the world by creating identical replicas of people minus their individuality. Few people take the menace seriously. As allegories go, I doubt the filmmakers were channeling their fears of Allen Ginsberg and the Beats taking over San Francisco (Howl also came out in 1956). Surely the movie struck a chord with audiences because of the Cold War McCarthyist environment in which it was produced.

Zombies have a relatively recent provenance in American culture compared to witches or vampires. They came to the United States via the voodoo cults of Haiti, themselves an import from West Africa. The first zombie movie came out in the 1930s, and EC Comics nurtured the zombie meme in its comic books in the 1950s. The undead enjoyed a revival with the infamous Night of the Living Dead, the 1968 horror flick by George Romero. Since then, it’s been a steady increase in zombie and zombie-like films, with a significant spike after 2000.

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