Zombies: Why Are We So Obsessed?

What does it mean to be a monster, really, but to be possessed by an uncontrollable force?
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One of the worst movies ever made -- and not of the "good bad" type, such as Evil Dead 2, that masterpiece of B-picture campiness -- has proven to be a prescient meditation on one of the great conflicts of contemporary society. I mean, of course, Vince D'Amato's 2004 flick, Vampires vs. Zombies. Though actually quite light on warfare between the undead and heavy on lesbian sex, this movie points to our current obsession with blood-suckers and flesh-eaters as well as our need to establish which creature is ascendant in the zeitgeist. The popularity of pallidly lovelorn vampires, who also seem, in spite of their world-weariness, to work out, is epidemic. The recent premiere of True Blood's fifth season seduced 6.3 million viewers. Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries, the book series on which the show is based, has sold over 8 million copies, and its most recent title, Deadlocked, reached number two on the New York Times bestseller list just a few weeks ago. Stephanie Meyer's Twilight trilogy has been even more successful, selling about 120 million copies and spawning four films to date, which themselves have grossed over two billion dollars.

Although about as sexy as road kill, zombies are threatening to usurp the vampire. AMC's The Walking Dead has grown even more popular than True Blood, with its season two premiere reaching 7.3 million viewers and the finale, 9 million. The zombie films Resident Evil: Afterlife, released in 2010, and Zombieland, from 2009, have each grossed over 100 million dollars. So great has been the enthusiasm for shuffling, groaning, glassy-eyed corpses that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) cheekily called their 2011 disaster readiness document "Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse." But after three separate cannibalistic murders occurred within days of one another and millions entered "zombie apocalypse" into their search engines, the CDC quickly turned earnest, stating that there was no evidence of such an Armageddon. The internet remains abuzz over the undead. Maybe our obsession with zombies is a reflection of our fear of a pandemic virus that will transform us into flesh-starved corpses. Or perhaps we are afraid of a global financial collapse that would result in cannibalistic hordes haunting burned-out cities. Or possibly portents of nuclear terrorism scare us into nightmares of ubiquitous death. The vampire's vogue might likewise reflect societal concerns, with True Blood exploring the fight for gay rights and Twilight brooding over gender politics. But zombies and vampires enthrall audiences for trans-historical reasons as well. They elicit enduring human desires -- for sexual arousal (think shirtless Bayou vampires), or for control over death (Milla Jovovich whacking zombies); they fill our craving for violent spectacle, present long before even the Roman Coliseum; and they are simply scary, and we like to be scared, as the thrill of the roller coaster ride daily demonstrates. There are more complicated reasons, though, for our fixations on fictionalized monsters, especially when we contend with real horrors. A Canadian porn actor posts a video of himself online in which he kills his lover with an icepick and then eats the dead flesh. A man in Miami, crazed on bath salts, devours the face of a homeless person before police shoot him dead. Another man, this time in Maryland, murders his roommate and consumes his brains. These events, unspeakably horrific, threaten our cherished notions of a meaningful, morally structured universe. How to make sense of them?

Fit them into a well-known narrative pattern. Say: these killings are zombie attacks. We know that this isn't true, but the idea calms our cognitive panic. The phony ghouls defend against the actual ones. The murderers suddenly appear slightly comical (zombies, with their goofy expressions and screwy motor skills, are quite funny) and their crimes vaguely meaningful (examples of gory matinee mayhem).

Make-believe fiends serve our psyches in other ways. Sometimes in the face of crisis, we mobilize, struggle to manage; other times, we lack gumption, give up, fall into the perverse pleasure of relinquishing agency -- our ability to make a choice and take responsibility for it. The world's going to hell, yes, and there's nothing to be done about it, but it's not my fault.

When we cast off the burdens of freedom, we find kinship in the monstrous, for what does it mean to be a monster, really, but to be possessed by an uncontrollable force? Zombies are driven by an urge to cannibalize. Vampires can't check their lust for blood. Werewolves, trolls, goblins, demons and imps, sinister robots and good old fashioned ghosts: all are essentially addicts unburdened of guilt. We can imagine the strange satisfaction of an existence devoid of accountability -- the joy of casting off neurotic humanity and turning untroubled machine.

To go beyond moral choosing -- this is inhuman, inhumane. It is also beyond the human, transcendent. This is another weird attraction of the monster. The creature breaks boundaries that constrain us and becomes a gruesome geographer of lands expansive and unknown. Monsters overcome the termini of death (zombies); time (vampires); space (ghosts) and stable identity (werewolves, other shape-shifters). In these ways, they become sublime, invitations to push beyond the limits locking us into this one, finite life. They are also sacred, if we recall that sacer, the word's root, means "accursed" as well as "holy." Monsters awaken the Cain within us all -- sinister, pernicious, immoral, to be sure, but also strong enough to challenge God himself and secure His saving mark.

The monster is a maniacal mirror that reflects what is best in us and worst. We require it to tell us who we are and what we can do. And its revelation of our secret and not-so-secret societal fears is only the spooky surface. There are deeper, darker apocalypses in its Gothic chambers. The deepest, perhaps most diabolical disclosure is this: The most essential battle, the one that keeps us loving and alive, is between the demons as integral to us as our hearts and the angels who require these imps to define their opposing generosities.

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