What Does Our Obsession With Zombie Stories Tell Us About Our Politics?
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Perhaps we should not be surprised that grim apocalyptic images suddenly saturate the cultural imaginary. The young are often an important gauge of just how entrenched various themes may be. So the question must be asked: Could a post-apocalyptic story about poor children chosen by lottery to kill one another have become a blockbuster hit with the tween crowd at any other moment in American history, or is The Hunger Games a strangely decade-specific phenomenon? It’s hard to answer that question one way or another, but it cannot be denied that visions of apocalypse permeate popular culture nowadays more than they used to.
The latest evidence of zombie fixation hit last week, as mainstream pundits worked fast to sell five recent murders involving cannibalism in the tawdriest possible way – by framing them, however jokingly, as evidence of impending zombie apocalypse. The rhetoric became so widespread that the Centers for Disease Control issued a statement – not quite a parody like the one it issued last year – promising the public that, “[T]he CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms).”
On June 1, CBS News announced, “Face-Eating Cannibal Attack May Be Latest in String of 'Bath Salts' Incidents.” Its opening puts writers of satire to shame: “On May 26, Miami police shot and killed a homeless man who was allegedly feasting on the face of another homeless man in a daylight attack on a busy highway.”
Meanwhile, the Huffington Post ran a piece that milked the gruesome stories for every Internet hit they might generate, from the “self-described ‘asexual’ from Tokyo” who “got surgery to remove his genitals, then cooked and served them to five lucky dinner guests at a swanky banquet in Japan” to the “former employee of a Swedish medical university accused of cutting his wife’s lips off and eating them.” But apparently we’re not supposed to blame the media for indulging their baser instincts. As Carl Hiassen argued in the Miami Herald, “For a non-tabloid headline writer, the perverse facts of the crime make it almost impossible not to sensationalize. The case is grotesque even by the extreme standards of South Florida.” They just couldn’t help it, see, because the facts themselves are sensationalistic.
Zombie jokes, meanwhile, have never had so much play in American popular culture. On Tuesday, John McCain told reporters that daughter Meghan thinks her dad is a “nice zombie.” On his Tuesday show, media satirist Stephen Colbert highlighted the absurdity of the news coverage with a series of television clips that ends with a CNN reporter asking, “Is a zombie-like attack part of a growing trend in an American city?” Without flinching Colbert quips, “That’s right. Cannibalism is the hot new trend. And you thought saggy pants were annoying.” Meanwhile, the twitterverse came alive, with chatter about “zombie apocalypse” trending all week.
This isn’t the only time we’ve seen apocalypse talk trend recently, beyond the fundamentalist Christian crowd. The Left Behind books came and went among secular audiences during the mid- to late '90s. They were moderately successful for a little while, but now they’re nothing more than the names of the only films left to employ the anti-gay and Quiverfull-friendly Kirk Cameron. New additions to the franchise are still being released, but they’re no longer the popular sensation they once were. The non-religious who read the books read them sometimes as fiction stories and sometimes as odd, badly written glimpses into fundamentalist evangelical culture. But beyond Christian culture, there wasn’t a lot of half-serious joking about the end times – nothing like what we’re seeing now.