Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Zombies: A Cultural Metaphor

Society has changed in the last four decades. This is not to say that society isn't always changing, but the change that has occurred recently (recent being a relative term) is one that we've never seen before. Technological progress, throughout the ages, has always been seen as a good thing. I don't mean scientific discovery, which has not always been viewed positively, but the actual trinkets of technology that scientific progress has made possible. Mankind has always had an innate sense that he could do no wrong. That belief has dissipated like morning mist.

Four decades ago, a zombie was still just a zombie. A re-animated corpse. Slow. Stupid. No will of its own. It was something created by man that man controlled. The only exception to this rule was Frankenstein's monster, but the Frankenstein monster became a special case and has never really been viewed as a zombie. Even though zombies could be controlled, they were still dead things. Just animated. They had no more need of sustenance than does a marionette. They did not hunger. They did not want. They only obeyed.

That all began to change in 1968 with the release of Night of the Living Dead. For the first time, the dead, en masse, rose up against the living to devour them. It was the first use of zombies to symbolize that man might, just possibly, be playing around with forces he didn't understand.

The 80s arrived and, with it, a culture of teenagers that didn't believe they would live to be adults. Post-apocalyptic literature/entertainment hit its stride. Not that it hadn't existed, but, prior to the 80s, (and I am now going to lump all of this together into the dystopian category) dystopians had really been isolated events.
And I mean it when I say we didn't believe that we would make it through high school without nuclear holocaust being thrust upon us. In middle school, for a Christmas door decorating contest, my homeroom did a whole Nuclear Winter theme. We even re-wrote several popular Christmas songs with lyrics like, "I'm dreaming of a nuclear winter."

However, the cold war ended, and we don't really believe an actual nuclear holocaust will happen anymore. No, now, we believe man will destroy the Earth in much more subtle ways. Like a zombie apocalypse. Zombies have become the representation of our fear that mankind will, ultimately, be unable to control the technology that he plays with. Zombies have evolved. They are no longer re-animated corpses. They're fast. They're smart. They're hungry. They want to destroy us. Destroy life. They're smart, but they are unthinking. Their intelligence is applied only to achieving their goal. Devouring us Destroying life. Hmm... somewhat like the single-minded way in which corporations pursue financial success.

In short, zombies have become a cultural metaphor for all the ways in which technology will destroy us.

However, that's only  the metaphor in its simplest form. The obvious one. The one that has to do with our nightmares over what secret things governments and corporations are doing in the dark. It lives off of our fears that we'll wake up, shivering and drenched in sweat, and find out that society has collapsed. No rules. Only chaos.

The deeper part of that fear extends down to where we believe that technology is actually turning each of us into zombies. Especially the generation that's growing up around us. The generation of technological zombies. You know it's true. People refuse to be detached from their technology. People that grew up without it and know it's possible to leave home without a phone and still survive refuse to go without, so how do we show the (little) people who have never known life without cells that it's possible to go without? It's with us everywhere. And it's scary. But, still, we embrace it. We can't help it.

Despite the data that the use of cellular devices, in whatever capacity, while driving is more dangerous than driving while intoxicated, we choose to believe that we can handle it, and we don't have the excuse of impaired judgement that intoxication brings. Despite the new warnings by WHO (the World Health Organization, not the Doctor. Or the band.) that cellular devices bring a greater risk of brain cancer, especially in children and adolescents, we will go on using our bits and pieces of technology and deal with any consequences later. Despite the continued statements of desire to connect with people in actual face-to-face contact, we will, more and more often, forsake physicalness in favor of a virtual reality that we can "control."

We are becoming the zombies that we fear. Soulless creatures walking through life but only seeing things through the tiny input devices we hold in our hands. And just wait till they can actually put that stuff right inside our skulls. Is it any wonder that we have become so incredibly fascinated with zombies? After all, vampires could be defeated. How do we defeat ourselves?


  1. Isn't that what Walking Dead is about. The title has less to do with the zombies than the survivors. Zombies have always been about social commentary.

  2. I LOVE Zombies but I prefer my zombies to be old school. They aren't fast and they can't do flips and they don't have super powers. And yes the people I work with are one wants to meet anymore they text me or leave me a voicemail or send me an email when I am sitting two offices down from the. Pathetic!

  3. Yours is an interesting take on zombies. However, I tend to think of our reliance on technology and social networks as a result of growing apart as a society. Anthropologically speaking, humans used to live in communes and the sick, weak, and elderly could count on their fellow to ensure that they didn't die. All of these systems in a modern world have been removed. We now live in a world where there are no guarantees. Instead, what we have is a world where you are responsible for your own welfare. I think this breeds innate selfishness as one person seeks out another with the intent of using them for their resources (whatever those may be). This in turn drives the social networks and the reliance on technology as people seek to ensure their own survival through understanding and use of electronics.

    Zombies have been used metaphorically by George Romero most recently in "Land of the Dead" to symbolize Americans. There's a scene where people shoot off fireworks and it makes the zombies go into a state of non-movement with their heads turned to the sky. This is the Director saying that "We are all zombies to patriotism".

  4. I agree 110% with Michael. The whole look out for yourself and screw everyone else attitude? Yeah, we talk about that all the time @ the day job. Because it's true! And altogether sad, really, because the days of actually caring for the sick, elderly, and less fortunate grow weaker by the day.

    As far as zombies, I love the old school version. However, I did enjoy the heck out of Zombieland; although, I suspect that had more to do with Woody Harrelson & his Twinkie fetish than the actual zombies. ;)

  5. Liz: I haven't actually seen Walking Dead. However, I wouldn't say I agree with zombies always being about social commentary. I mean, that implies some forethought about it, and I don't think most people go that far. Generally, I think it doesn't go past "zombies are cool!"

    Jennifer: I'm kind of an old school person with zombies, too. They can take a lot of damage and just keep coming, but the loss of body parts tends to keep them from doing anything spectacular.

    Michael: But that's my point exactly. The zombie, even in groups, is an independent operator concerned only with itself. I was looking at some studies the other day that show that narcissistic behavior has risen over 30% in the last two decades, the two decades that have given birth to the internet and the iLife. That is exactly the zombie behavior that I think we recognize on a subliminal level.

    Alyssia: I liked Zombieland, too. I mean, they killed Bill Murray for crying out loud! That was awesome! I bet Murray thought it was awesome, too, which is why he did it. It wouldn't surprise me if he thought of it.

  6. Pretty spot on. I am at times enslaved. This post is helping set me free.

  7. Interesting look at how the metaphor of zombies has changed over the years. They had also fallen very much by the wayside, behind the romanticized vampires and werewolves, but as we pull further into ourselves they become more important. I think horror writers have seen this growth of the importance of technology for some time. There's a Dean Koontz book where a man becomes a part of his computer, and it was written probably about two decades ago. That man was a zombie, just a different type.

    On cells, I almost wrote a tirade the other night about people being so attached to them that they have to use them while driving, while eating dinner at a nice restaurant, and while in a movie theater. What is wrong with people that they can't just turn off the machines for a little while and enjoy something? The truly astounding part is that it isn't teens, who've never really lived much without this technology around them, but adults who know it's possible to survive without being tuned in 24/7.

  8. Jesse: Well good! I'm glad it gave you a nudge. And glad to see you stop by :)

    Shannon: I saw a commercial (on a dvd) the other day about being able to download digital copies and take them anywhere. Why? Seriously, why? Why is it that we feel this compulsion to be constantly plugged in? I'm living as much of a non-zombie life as I can while still owning a computer, but, at least, I don't have all those other devices. Or even cable!

  9. Interesting theories in the post and comments as well. Different than my thoughts for the most part, but in some ways related. I'll link to this post in the zombie post that I'll be doing soon.

    Tossing It Out