Zombies mirror deep seated cultural fears of lack of control, lawlessness, and powerlessness. In the modern world, they are a fascinating stand-in for our fears; while we cannot solve social problems, we can fantasise about defeating zombies, a ritual that is ripe with meaning.
We initially conceived of our project, Living with Zombies: Society in Apocalypse,1 as a response to the current ideological political system operating in America. Our society, we argue, is reflected in the zombie films, shows, and literature that are ever so popular at the moment. We consider, for example, AMC’s The Walking Dead2 and Max Brook’s novel World War Z.3 In such works, zombies mirror deep fears of a loss of control of the self, government, society, and even civilisation. After all, what could be more frightening to a populace that is supposedly empowered by democratic norms and institutions than a host of mindless undead unable to make meaningful choices for themselves? Indeed, horror reflects the fears of the times, and such reflection is not limited to the American pathos. Dracula, for example, reflects the fears of Victorian England by evoking, in dark form, deep seated anxieties regarding globalisation and the encroachment of the menacing unknown that accompanied it. In contemporary America, zombies reflect a sort of dreadful zeitgeist that cries out that we, as a global society, are not in control of our own destiny.
One needs not look far see these fears playing out in political action and popular discourse. In Europe, separatist movements are in vogue. The UK, seeking to regain control of its economic destiny from chaotic forces beyond the channel, has left the European Union in a somewhat shocking reversal of fifty years of foreign policy; internally, and somewhat ironically, many in Scotland seek to separate from London so that they, too, are not led by forces they believe to be beyond their control. Globally, we see a terrifying inability to rationally confront environmental crises like climate change, ongoing health crises throughout the developing world, and violent civil wars. Even as we grow closer together, our ability to actually help one another has never been more in doubt. We feel powerless to resist the challenges of our times, even as the horizons seem to continually darken.
This is contrary to what we might expect, given that the advent of glimmering new technology ought to help us collectively organise and communicate by dispersing messages and information about shared problems across the world. Yet, in a foul irony, technology has done much to make us zombies. We are glued to our phones and social media; we crave their dopamine-rewarding glow like a horde craving flesh. And even within the glow, we find no satisfactory cure for our condition. In an amniotic world of “fake news”, posts and thoughts entirely divorced from logic, and good old-fashioned ignorance, the truth is murky. The idea that there even can be truth is increasingly under siege, and the notion that reasonable, competing perspectives can exist is drowning beneath the bile of political punditry and amateur hackery. In conditions such as this, powerlessness invariably follows.
Few parts of the world have shown a powerlessness before this ignorance like the United States. After a Presidential campaign built upon an unusual amount of lies (even by American political standards), and the inauguration of a regime that has embraced the idea of “alternate facts” with the zeal that Orwell’s Inner Party promulgated doublethink as the psychic law of the land, many are unsure of what is real and what can be real. Consider, for instance, the many versions of a question posed to President Trump following the April 6, 2017 strike that sent 59 Tomahawk missiles careening into a Syrian airbase: what was the legal justification for the attack, absent notification of Congress? This has been posed by Senate Democrats and reporters alike, and no real satisfactory answer has been given. The question itself, though, is incredibly pertinent, as it betrays anxiety over questions that nobody would dare ask at a White House press conference: Are legal justifications necessary for war? To kill? Does law actually even exist?
This is the strength of the zombie. It is not only a signifier for what we fear, but its evocation attempts to render concrete the thing we hate. And something that we can kill.
We operate in a time of the suspension of both normative/moral and perhaps to some extent juridical law. Giorgio Agamben presents this idea in State of Exception.4 For Agamben, laws, truth, and reason – the very backbone of rational society and logical civilisation – are in decline. Our fantasies (or, perhaps more appropriately, our nightmares) reflect this; our discomfort with the world appears as the zombie, a stand-in for existential terror.
But there is more to the cultural significance of the zombie than blind fear. This goes beyond the typical fin-de-siecle doomsaying. If we cannot control vague Presidential announcements, “news” organisations more concerned with merchandising than obtaining good sources, or the limp pathways to the Internet that, we once hoped, would deliver us from this murk, we can control zombies (even if they cannot be controlled themselves). This is the strength of the zombie. It is not only a signifier for what we fear, but its evocation attempts to render concrete the thing we hate. And something that we can kill. Through curing the zombie (whether it be through curing the contagion that causes it, or simply slamming a shovel to its skull), we are fighting to glimpse at our possible salvations.
And we need this catharsis because we desperately seek to cure our powerlessness. So in a social ritual as ancient as sun worship, we create a monster. A Grendel. A Dracula. In this age, like those before it, even if the social problems around us have no apparent cure, the monster that we summon can be defeated. So we imagine countless ways to cure the zombie plague. We seek to cure our powerlessness by manifesting it, and then killing it, even if we cannot do so in the waking world.
Film and literature have offered many ways to kill zombies. Sometimes, it’s a shovel to the head. Sometimes, it’s reason and science, like Will Smith’s Neville from I Am Legend.5 For characters in the film Warm Bodies,6 love and human connection seems to offer some panacea. For Max Brooks’ World War Z (the book, not the film), an efficient use of bureaucratic resources does the trick.
These representations of real fears help us process a world of unclear information, government control, apparent lawlessness, and implicit voicelessness.
Our need to create such monsters and play with the idea of destroying them is very much an attempt, on a metaphysical level, to control and harness the tidal forces that surround us. And just as we cannot always be successful in the walking world, heroes do not always entirely win. In fantasising control of the zombie hordes, a fantasy can quickly become nightmare. Consider, for example, Neegan on The Walking Dead, a hypermasculine villain who provides us some element of catharsis before the zombie hordes. In later arcs, Rick Grimes – our hero – perhaps necessarily becomes rather a mirror of Neegan than a democratic or freely operating leader. For both Rick and Neegan, suspending law is meant to be a cure, just as embracing alternative facts is a convenient way to instrumentally get around inconvenient truths like climate change and genocide.
And this is why the zombie is so fascinating. These representations of real fears (or, if you like, fantasies or nightmares) help us process a world of unclear information, government control, apparent lawlessness, and implicit voicelessness. In fact, a deep analysis of zombie literature and films shows that these tropes are engaged throughout the zombie canon, even before George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead,7 when the German impressionistic “pre-zombie” films presaged the rise of fascism, alongside early proliferating depictions of deep roots in the lawless oppression of Caribbean slaves.
Yet, with somewhat grim eyes and ears we must acknowledge that many zombie infestations have no cure, and that visualising our enemy does not always mean that we can destroy it. Or worse, even an apparent cure lands us back in the tenuous place we were before the outbreak, a place in which the conditions for outbreak are already present. In many zombie films, the future remains unclear, and survival – rather than triumph – is the norm. Likewise, in the political sphere, we find ourselves wrapped in a deluge of questionable information from sources both high and low. The political valences of this argument remain clear, perhaps now more than ever.
Dr. Alexander Cohen studies and teaches American politics. His work in Political Science has appeared in venues such as PS: Political Science, The Social Science Journal, and Field Methods. Additionally, he is the co-author of Living with Zombies published by MacFarland Press.
Dr. Chase Pielak teaches English at Auburn University. His previous books include Living with Zombies and Memorializing Animals during the Romantic Period. Shakespeare and Zombies: The Zonnets is forthcoming with McFarland Press.
1. Pielak, C., & Cohen, A. H. (2017). Living with zombies: society in apocalypse in film, literature and other media. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.,
2. The Walking Dead. Dir. Frank Darabont, Greg Nicotero, et al. AMC, 2011-2016. Web.
3. Brooks, M. (2014). World War Z: an oral history of the zombie war.Baltimore: Cemetery Dance Publications.
4. Agamben, G. (2005). State of exception. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
5. Lawrence, F. (Director), Goldsman, A., Lassiter, J., Heyman, D., & Moritz, N. H. (Producers), & Goldsman, A., & Protosevich, M. (Writers). (n.d.). I am legend[Video file].
6. Warm Bodies. Dir. Jonathan Levine. Lionsgate, 2013. DVD.
7. Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George Romero. Continental Distributing, 1968. DVD.