The Strange Glamor of the Zombie Apocalypse

The zombie hordes are gaining strength. Or at least, there’s no sign that the supply of movies, TV shows, comic books, video games, and novels about zombie pandemics is waning. And with the pallid heroes of the Twilight saga sighing their last in theaters this weekend, it looks like the zombies will outlast even the vampires.

More than just a meme, the zombie apocalypse has become an international preoccupation, as this Google Trends graph illustrates.

Fact: The 2009 parody Pride and Prejudice and Zombies captured the No. 3 slot on the New York Times bestseller list. A film version is rumored to be in the offing.

Fact: AMC’s series “The Walking Dead,” based on the zombie comic of the same name, is the top-rated cable show in the U.S. on Sunday nights, regularly pulling in more than 9 million viewers.

Fact: PopCap’s 2009 tower defense game Plants vs. Zombies became the fastest-selling game in the history of the iTunes App Store when an iPhone version appeared in 2010. A sequel is expected next spring.

The CDC's booklet on zombie preparedness

The CDC's booklet on zombie preparedness

Fact: Last year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta urged citizens to assemble Zombie Preparedness Kits. “What first began as a tongue in cheek campaign to engage new audiences with preparedness messages has proven to be a very effective platform,” the CDC says.

Fact: A mobile app called Zombies, Run! became one of the most-talked-about fitness apps of 2011. The GPS-based app puts the user in the role of a runner shuttling supplies between human outposts in a zombie-ridden wasteland. To outrun the baddies, the user must physically speed up.

Fact: This Halloween, U.S. Marines and Navy special-ops forces battled simulated zombies in a training exercise at Paradise Point Resort, a 44-acre island off San Diego.

Fact: PBS and ITV confirm that “Downton Zombies,” a dramatization of class conflict in post-World War I Britain, is in pre-production for broadcast in early 2014.

Okay, that last one isn’t a fact. But the rest are. So the question is: WTF? What does it say about modern culture that we find stories about zombie infestations and the human survivors who must fight back so inexhaustibly appealing?

There are some thoughtful answers to this question over at Quora. The explanations that members have up-voted most often have to do with projection. Zombie stories are seen as allegories for today’s seemingly insoluble challenges, from economic instability to climate change. “The zombie genre…is more or less a blank slate upon which a writer can cast any number of big, unfathomable society and psychological fears or concerns,” writes Bradley Voytek. “Zombie stories are popular because they give a relevant, contemporary but intangible fear (loss of hope) a very simple, tangible solution: Kill zombie, find food, survive,” says KJ Watts.

I think there’s a lot of truth to those answers, but I have my own favorite theory about the psychology of Zombie Nation. I think the question “Why are zombie stories so popular?” is very similar to the question “Why is disaster news so popular?”

Why, in other words, were we so riveted a few weeks ago by the images showing half of Manhattan in watery darkness after superstorm Sandy? Why does Anderson Cooper seem most alive when he’s about to be washed out to sea? Why is it that everyone loves a good train wreck, to quote from the title of a new book by Wake Forest scholar Eric Wilson? The answer, in all of these cases, is at least partly about technology, its excesses, and its absence.

Most of us in the First World live in a cocoon of central heating, clean water, electric light, and reliable phone, cable, Internet, and wireless connections. It’s a largely comfortable and convenient existence. But it comes with a few tradeoffs.

There’s the restlessness and ennui that can stem from too much immersion in suburban sameness and safety. There’s the tyranny of always-on connectivity, with its impossible deluge of messages and tasks and status updates. Then there’s our utter disconnection from the rhythms of the natural world: night and day, the moon and the tides, wind and rain, the noises of the forest and the movements of wild animals. Housing is still a very new thing, biologically speaking. We didn’t evolve to be sealed up in our soundless, airless apartments and tract homes.

But a uniform aspect of disaster, whether it’s a hurricane, a blackout, or a terrorist incident, is that it rips our comforts away and puts us back into direct confrontation with nature, and with our fellow humans. Such experiences are undeniably traumatic. But they can also be uniquely memorable, even strangely pleasurable.

In A Paradise Built in Hell, Bay Area author Rebecca Solnit writes about the paradoxical joy she saw on the faces of earthquake and hurricane survivors as they described their disaster experiences to her. “It should not be so, is not so, in the familiar version of what disaster brings, and yet it is there, arising from rubble, from ice, from fire, from storms and floods,” Solnit writes. She posits that disaster forcibly reminds us of the qualities that really matter: bravery, altruism, survival. “The joy matters as a measure of otherwise neglected desires,” she argues.

Solnit’s focus is on the way disaster restores a sense of connection and community, at least briefly. My own interest is in the way disasters highlight our relationship to technology. In fact, that was the whole theme of my MIT PhD thesis, which included chapters on blackouts, nuclear accidents, and chemical leaks.

Most of the time, I learned from the episodes I studied, people involved in disasters rediscover things they’d forgotten, like the satisfaction of walking home instead of taking the subway, or helping a neighbor, or playing Parcheesi by candlelight. When a disaster is induced by human error or design flaws, there are opportunities for other kinds of discoveries, which was the real focus of my thesis. But whatever the case, events like power outages remind us that our technological comforts are, after all, provisional. They break and take time to repair. And not only can we make do without them, but the enforced abstinence might be fun, at least for a little while.

Which brings us back to zombies. Most books, movies, video games, and comics about the brain-eating undead follow a common outline involving a civilizational collapse. What’s most terrifying and titillating in these stories is not the zombies themselves—they’re usually stupid, shambling, and easily dispatched. Rather, it’s the fact that the protagonists are completely on their own. (Novelist Justin Cronin puts the trope to very effective use in his 2010 blockbuster The Passage. Cronin’s monsters are more vampire-like than zombie-like, but the real story is about a small band of humans coping in a post-apocalyptic future.)

We like to imagine what it would be like to test ourselves against extreme adversity, without help from technology or the structures of “civil defense” or “emergency management.” We wonder if we would still be ourselves without cable or smartphones or Facebook—and we dream that we might turn out to be more than ourselves. Evidently, there aren’t enough headlines about real-life disasters to feed this curiosity, so we turn to Hollywood for a diet of zombie plagues, alien invasions, asteroid impacts, and other end-of-the-world scenarios.

It’s unfortunate that we have to devote such a big portion of our cultural apparatus to manufacturing fictional apocalypses. But if Sandy was any indication, it’s looking as if global warming will rectify this shortage. Meanwhile, I’m gonna go download Shaun of the Dead.

The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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