Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Monsters as Metaphor: Zombies

The monster has been with us for a long time. From the very start of stories the monster has been there; in Gilgamesh the wild man Enkidu is arguably the very first monster, though it is equally likely that he is only the first monster to have been written about. The same culture and those close to it, also gave us depictions of half man, half animal people, mostly famously as the gods of ancient Egypt. Tales of djinn and ghouls originated from the same region later on in later eras and arguably served as a crucible for myths and stories that spread across the globe.


But there are stories of monsters in every part of the world, heroic traditions that paint horrors into the darkness. A natural aspect of the human psyche mythologises things we do not understand, and for most of our history the night has been the great barrier. Seen as the harbourer of evil, it was the great unknown, where the Devil and his minions dwelt. This is the root of much of the antipathy directed towards cats and other nocturnal creatures too. Being comfortable in the night meant they must embrace a cosmological as well physical darkness. Frequently, modern narratives will use monster to make a point. werewolves, for example, are often used to illustrate parables about puberty or about war and conflict. Vampires, in the modern sense that began in literature with Polidori, have often been connected with predatory sexual behaviour, especially that of men. Dracula and Ruthven inhabit the same pattern, inspired by the exploits of Polidori’s employer, Lord Byron.

Vampires were not always portrayed this way. The Medieval version of the monster was much closer to the zombie, a corpse that digs its way out of the grave to feast upon blood. Whilst at face value this seems to be the same as the modern myth, it is worth remembering that this kind of vampire was seen as driven by its thirst; incapable of the plots and plans, and above suaveness of the various literary vampires. No violin playing here, nor even the powers and magic Dracula employs, just mindless ripping and rending to get to the blood. Just like today's zombies.

By contrast the zombie’s original Haitian form arose from fears of a Bokor, a Voudon priest that
follows the left handed or dark path of that tradition, raising the body of someone who had died and binding them into service. The real practice is believed to involve ingredients to bring on brain damage in the victim, whereupon they are stood in a grave and told they have returned from the dead and must obey the Bokor. This tradition does have its roots in African belief, in a way that much of the things associated with Voudon do not.  For instance, the Voodoo Doll is believed to have originated in European Christian attempts to smear West African beliefs; rather than find something new they fell back to the poppets of  Europe's Witchcraft. Somehow these were absorbed into Haitian belief. Part of me wonders if part of the original European vampire tradition did too.

Prior to Romero's films zombies made a small mark within cinema and culture. The most obvious example is White Zombie, but others did exist. The DC comics character Solomon Grundy most definitely qualifies, for all that he was raised by the magic of a place rather than the machinations of an evil sorcerer. It is probably fair to say that this was a small slice of culture before the 1960s however. Zombies may have flooded New Orleans with tourists trying to tap into the short-lived Voodoo craze of the 1930s, to the extent that genuine practitioners were driven underground, but even Bela Lugosi's presence could not generate sequels for White Zombie the way it could for Dracula.

It was not until the 1960s that the idea of the zombie as a creature of mass terror took off. Within horror, this may have been inspired by Richard Matheson’s I am Legend and John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, a piece that has certainly inspired the beginning of a number of apocalyptic stories, and where the strategy to deal with the foe is similar to the measures used to defeat zombies. Both rely on the idea that the horror derives from the sheer number of horrifying creatures, rather than the more Gothic exclusivity of the Voudon zombie. It is also an inhuman horror, almost turning the terrifying events into something out of human control to begin with. These were monsters for the age of mass production, even with the shadow of King Mob behind them.

Perhaps this has its root in the fear of Communism that drove George Lucas' films THX  1138 and Star Wars (where the Empire was a pretty obvious codicil for the USSR). There is a strong narrative too which suggests that Romero's films were tapping into the idea of consumerism. I can see the connection, there is something zombie like about trudging around shopping centres with nothing to do but buy things that aren't needed. This may be the root of Steampunk's fascination with the zombie too since the subculture has a somewhat confused relationship with Capitalism, both using and reviling it at the same time.

It's really only in the last decades that the zombie has become part of the cultural mainstream however. It would be foolish to deny that it is part of the Zeitgeist. We have zombie walks, running apps that keep you going by telling you zombies are after you. Zombie apocalypse media proliferates across our culture. Even Game of Thrones has the White Walkers, zombies in all, but name; whilst The Passage by Justin Cronin was lauded in literary circles as well as geek ones.

This suggests that the zombie touches something deep in our culture; but what? It has to be more than just a desire to see the shambling dead, though I grant you that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. 

My gut feeling is that it is in response to something in the world today. This might be my background as a social scientist, but to me it seems as if the world has grown steadily more panicked over the last fourteen years in an almost paradoxical fashion.

Perhaps it is a hangover from the Millennium, coupled with a sort of survivor's guilt that nothing happened (after all the predictions of the end of the world, the apocalypse has become something of a damp squib). Zombies may be a sort of panacea for that, allowing the fantasy of what we might do in such a situation. In America, where the zombie craze is bigger than in the UK, it may be tied to the survivalist culture and militias in general. The sort of people who pray for the Rapture. Could the zombie apocalypse tie into the idea that when the good and faithful have been taken up to heaven only zombies will be left? It seems to be something that is supported in the Left Behind books and in popular television series like the Walking Dead.

Outside of that context though, I am not sure it actually makes sense to view the phenomena through a religious context; though the metaphor of 'fear of the end of the world' holds if we expand our criteria away from the religious and into political and environmental areas. As our democracies become more like autocracies, the economy tanks, and the state of the environment worsens; the sense of control. The system judders on and nothing gets better. There's a sense of futility as the control we feel we should have over our lives slips.  The media report the slips and errors, but nothing changes. Could this relate to our desire for apocalypse? Do we simply want to kick over the system and start again?


Although we seldom think about it, humans have troops sizes, just like our close cousins the Chimpanzee and the Baboon. Whilst our brains aren’t as hardwired as theirs, we don’t chase someone out of our group when the maximum has been reached that’s largely because our troops are more ephemeral, they spread through a number of others, interlocking. Still, it is rare for us to truly know more than a region of 80 to 120 people – though our brains are easy to trick, so with social media we can appear to exceed the limit. Television can have the opposite effect, fictional characters can fill a troop slot, cutting us off from people. Perhaps though, this knowledge of how many people there are and the number of people we see all around us as our species becomes more urbanised and we have less and less space is kicking off a desire to remove the people we see as unworthy – the kid who plays his music loudly on the bus, the old woman who dodders down the street unaware or uncaring of the obstruction she causes. The supermarket cashier who seems to be in a world of their own. Crime is a factor too, it has become presented as a fait accompli, something we have to accept, that we cannot do anything to stop. Policing has changed to become smarter, but as a result, there are fewer visible officers, again adding to the feeling of the world being huge and uncaring. When a recent police force in the UK admitted that for small crimes the victims would be better off just investigating themselves because the force no longer had the manpower or resources to deal with smaller offences, surely it was a nail in the coffin of justice: another sign that King Mob is starting to get the upper hand.

Then too, there is the issue of the ‘script’, the story that we tell ourselves and that society spins out for us to understand the world by. It governs everything, from what we consider to be desirable in a mate to what is shunned and more. With regards to subcultures, the common story used to that there were dangerous loners and odd balls who would do horrible things. Columbine’s Trench Coat Mafia were probably the epitome of it in real life, whilst media presented us with a series of bad boys out to seduce teenage girls to the dark side. In many ways, the Goth scene was what these apocryphal modern fairy tales seemed to be warning about, but that changed. Horribly, it took the murder of Sophie Lancaster to finally push the media onto a different track. The fact that she had acted so bravely, so selflessly and that the attack had been predicated purely because of her tribe seemed to have switched something around. The script became focused far more on gangs of ‘youths’ who had no respect for law and order. There had been a low level antipathy towards this demographic anyway but they have become seen as far more of a menace in recent years, not aided I’m sure, by the 2011 riots (remember those?). Sometimes I wonder if there’s a class element to this too. Considering how quickly the narrative about the recession turned from blaming the rich and banks (in the mainstream press) to slamming the Labour party for financial mismanagement and the way the poor and disabled have been demonised in recent years; there is often a nasty classism to British interpretations of the zombie problem. When was the last time you saw a middle-class zombie? 

Could the zombie be just a way of dealing with these irritations, an almost Malthusian desire for a
world less cluttered with people? If the zombie is a metaphor is it because it so closely aligns with this slow drip of daily irritations which we unable to get respite from. Technology has made this worse; adding another strand as people vanish inside their devices, becoming zombie like as they communicate with people on the other side of the world, but ignore their local communities. I’m guilty of this myself, in fact at present I’m struggling because I realise how few people I consider to be friends I know in the physical world.

Technology in general has become complicated enough to prove a problem. The days where cars and other appliances were fixable at home are behind us in the main. Cars have computers in, which talk to other computers when something goes wrong. Technology has become more complex, and therefore harder for the layman or woman to use. Another bar to feeling as if we are in control of our world, even if this something we have created.

The devastation of the zombie apocalypse would, potentially, return us to a sense community and control again; after the initial panic at least. We tell ourselves we would be fine, even if that's not the case. It would shrink our world. The borders of our perception would become manageable, rather than the overwhelming barrage of data the news seems to give us now. And we would have the chance to know our neighbours, to be able to depend on them, rather than rushing around or seeing them as distant figures who expect us to give chocolate to their children every Halloween and otherwise barely figure in our lives.

Other factors figure in the equation too. Diseases like SARS and the fear of bird flu mutating to be communicable between humans have dominated the public consciousness for most of this century, in a way that not even AIDS and HIV managed in the 20th Century. It is true we are overdue an epidemic, badly overdue one actually. When a new strain of flu finally manifests it will likely kill as many people, if not more, as the Spanish Flu did a century ago. Certainly World War Z seemed to use zombies as a metaphor for disease whilst other works have used them to highlight out quickly an infection can spread. Again, there is a sense of ‘we’ve been lucky so far and it cannot last’.

With all this in mind is it any wonder that we long for something to drastically alter the way we live. The system has become so large, our vision so great that it affects our mental health, makes many of us feel that our lives are without purpose. The apocalypse has become, I feel, a metaphor for the intense change the world is undergoing and it represents a need to have some sort of control over the changes; a way to fix them as they encroach, ever more, into our lives. I am sure there is a simplicity to the situation that is attractive – we know, or think we know, how to deal with a zombie outbreak: get a gun and aim for the head. In fact there are studies that suggest a zombie apocalypse could be stopped easily, simply because the way of dealing with it is so well known now. I think the appeal is not only the violence (if it were the only people interested would be adolescents and geeks who mistake violence for quality), so there must be something more to it. For me, it must be about the desire for simplicity and an understandable world, in one that seems to be stripping us of power and grows ever more confusing. Zombies are a metaphor for this, both in a desire to simplify our world and to be able to stop thinking, stop choosing and simply live to the best of our ability.

As a symbol of the Zeitgeist the zombie is inelegant, but perhaps that's appropriate; the new century shambles along, lurching from crisis to crisis. Perhaps in time we will outgrow it and see something new emerge, but I guess we will have to wait and see.