All Commentary
Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Embrace the Zombie Apocalypse

Freedom, Federalism, and the Fall of Civilization

Look past the tatters and putrefaction. Scan the bent and broken bodies shuffling toward you. Do you recognize a coworker, a neighbor, maybe even a loved one?

It’s the zombie apocalypse — and it’s an idea that ever more academics are taking seriously.

They don’t expect the undead to swarm our cities, but they do notice that zombie invasion scenarios have spread through 21st-century popular culture like a pandemic, from tongue-in-cheek literary send-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, to big-screen summer blockbusters like World War Z, to the record-breaking TV show Fear the Walking Dead (with the highest-rated first season of any series in cable history).

Medium or Message?

Some scholars, like the University of Virginia’s Paul Cantor, seek to decrypt our newfound fascination with the undead, to discern the hopes and fears of popular culture. For others, the zombie craze offers a way to communicate their own prior concerns to an audience already drawn to visions of the shambling hoards.

Scholars Amy and Antonio Thompson have recently finished work on a serious academic text called …But If a Zombie Apocalypse Did Occur: Essays on Medical, Military, Governmental, Ethical, Economic and Other Implications. The book is part of publisher McFarland’s larger series called Contributions to Zombie Studies, which includes several collections of scholarly essays on the pop-cultural obsession with the living dead.

Zombie invasion scenarios have spread through 21st-century popular culture like a pandemic.

“One of the things you have to do as a college professor,” says Amy, “is reach your audience, reach your students, and talk about things that they like in order to engage them in learning.” She and Antonio, both associate professors at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, have collected essays from scholars across the country that “discuss the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor for actual catastrophes and estimate the probabilities of human survival and behavior during an undead invasion,” according to the Leaf Chronicle. “As devotees of the genre, the Thompsons saw the popularity of zombies as an opportunity to better reach students on a personal level.”

While Amy, a biologist, addresses the science of real-world pandemic contagion, Antonio, a historian, says he looked at zombie movies and books “for examples of when government has collapsed and there’s a crazy dictator who has taken over.”

Zombie Politics

Zombies are clearly symbolic, as evidenced by how readily we employ the Z-word as an insult. The undead are the ultimate other of any us-and-them division, especially if you consider us to be savvy and them to be brainless. At this basic metaphorical level, “zombie economics,” for example, can describe socialist or free-market thinking, depending on which side you believe holds the monopoly on functioning synapses.

Zombie symbolism can be political at other levels, too, but what the zombies stand for varies across stories and also across eras. George Romero, who popularized zombie movies in the 1960s and ‘70s, “saw zombies as not just a frightening enemy,” according to Antonio Thompson, “but as a vehicle to criticize what he saw as the ills of society.… What the zombies are doing is often what we do.”

Why, in Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, do the zombies swarm the shopping mall? “They do that because that’s what we do,” says Thompson. “It’s a criticism of consumerism.”

But Cantor sees a different target of criticism in more recent treatments, such as AMC’s hit television series The Walking Dead. In an article published by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, Cantor writes that zombification is

a powerful image of what governments try to do to their citizens — to create a uniform, homogeneous population, incapable of acting independently. It is no accident that zombies sometimes are portrayed as the products of scientific experiments and specifically of government projects gone awry (or gone all-too-well).

Liberal economics, wanton consumerism, or an overregulated and brain-dead citizenry — zombies can epitomize whatever alleged mindlessness the critic most strongly objects to.

The Colorless Hordes

But the popularity of the insult doesn’t explain the success of the stories in bookstores or at the box office.

Liberal economics, wanton consumerism, or an overregulated and brain-dead citizenry — zombies can epitomize whatever alleged mindlessness the critic most strongly objects to.

In his political review of World War Z, Ryan McMaken, author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre, sees at least one version of the zombie narrative as an update of the “annihilation narrative,” in which “hordes of hostile savages lay siege to a fortress inhabited by a virtuous population of defenders, generally portrayed by white people.”

But because today “it would be politically incorrect to portray white conquerors mowing down non-whites … we turn to the undead as a stand-in for the unwashed hordes who threatened us in the days of yore.”

The heroes in World War Z “are no longer necessarily white people,” McMaken writes,

but are nevertheless agents of what white people traditionally represented in 20th century film, namely, order, civilization, safety, and enlightened rule; and these things were in turn provided by the nation-state and its army of military and scientific experts.

The updated annihilation narrative no doubt explains much of the popularity of zombie stories (and also another resurgent genre: the invasion from outer space) and we shouldn’t expect any single answer to questions about cultural cause and effect. Popular culture, like all culture, is complex. But World War Z seems to be the exception to the 21st-century zombie story, a throwback to an earlier vision of the lumbering dead. It’s really only in the past decade that zombies have moved beyond the reach of the traditional horror subgenre and become a story that large numbers of nonhorror fans consume.

Where the annihilation narratives of the past showed a small band of the besieged holding out until the cavalry arrives — in other words, self-sufficiency as a temporary condition while we await rescue by the authorities — in today’s zombie stories, the cavalry isn’t coming.

Don’t Look at the Zombies — Look at the Apocalypse

If we focus on the undead multitude, we may fail to notice a broader pattern in recent dramas: it’s the end of the world as we know it.

“American popular culture is overflowing with doomsday prophecies and end-of-the-world scenarios,” Cantor writes. “According to film and television, vampires, werewolves, and zombies are storming across our landscape, and alien invaders, asteroids, and airborne toxic events threaten us from the skies.… Is there some weird kind of wish-fulfillment at work in all these visions of near-universal death and destruction?”

Sigmund Freud coined the term wish fulfillment in The Interpretation of Dreams, and while Freud’s theories don’t hold the same sway among psychologists as they once did, cultural critics still find his dream theory useful in understanding popular fiction. But the term can be misleading. Wish fulfillment does not designate the obviously desirable things one might openly wish for.

A child may want to fly like Superman or fight like Batman, but those desires don’t need any special explanation. Wish fulfillment refers to deeper parts of the narrative that the audience may not want to cop to liking. In this case, both Superman and Batman are orphans: it was the death of their parents that made them extraordinary. If you want to understand the popularity of these two superheroes, you need to look beyond their powers and heroism to the darker theme in their origins.

Fiction allows us to explore the attractive side of the scenarios we fear. Few of us want more poverty, greater danger, or less freedom, and yet we are drawn to stories whose characters are subjected to far more drama than we seek in our own lives.

From its beginnings, the zombie apocalypse has been the horror fiction of scarcity. But Cantor sees something else going on in the darker backstory:

The thrust of these end-of-the-world scenarios is precisely for government to grow smaller or to disappear entirely.… One might even describe these shows as “federalist” in spirit. The aim seems to be to reduce the size of government radically and thereby to bring it closer to the people. Cut back to regional or local units, government becomes manageable again and ordinary people get to participate in it actively, recovering a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

Not only does the growing government bureaucracy reduce our wealth and our welfare; it is also the cause of the very chaos we fear.

In shows like The Walking Dead and Falling Skies (about a handful of survivors after an alien invasion), people lose everything they thought they valued, but discover that the apocalypse has its compensations: homeschooling and more intimate time with family in general; more personal health care, however scarce the medicine and medical technology; self-sufficiency and personal responsibility; and lots and lots of guns.

“No longer locked into institutions already in place,” writes Cantor, “the public gets to assess their value and see if it really needs them or might be better off under other arrangements or perhaps no government at all.”

Chaos Theory

If Cantor is right, if the popular embrace of apocalyptic fiction is evidence of an inchoate libertarian longing for far less government, then the zombie vogue is both good and bad news for advocates of freedom.

There is, at a very deep level, a growing dissatisfaction with the centralized status quo — even a recognition that Leviathan is to blame. As they say in self-help circles, recognizing the problem is the first step.

But for most people, the solution is far from clear. In the popular imagination, central government is associated with order; the state and the society are understood to rise and fall together. What we have lost is the key insight of the classical liberal tradition that society runs itself, that liberty is the wellspring of balance and order. Not only does the growing government bureaucracy reduce our wealth and our welfare; it is also the cause of the very chaos we fear.

Until an appreciation of spontaneous order is at least as popular as ambivalent fantasies of a world conquered by corpses, we should expect the culture to continue its strange attraction to the apocalypse.