The zombie as an analogy for a mindless humanity is at the same time both humorous and tragic. We could all “land parts” in the growing number of zombie films because, after all, it’s a role that we have been auditioning for all of our lives. Anybody can shamble along looking vacant.
The great grandfather of, or at least the most famous of the “living dead,” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, was not like today’s zombies. Nor was the zombie in the 1943 Jacques Tourneur’s film “I Walked With a Zombie” because she did not eat human flesh or pose a danger to those around her. It took George Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead” to “flesh” out the scary visage we see on today’s screens.
The thing about these newly empowered 21st century zombies is that they keep coming at you, relentlessly, wave upon wave of necrotic, mindlessly voracious semi-beings. According to current convention, the individual reanimates can be dispatched by shooting or stabbing it in the brain, but the strength of this inexorable advancing zombie population is in its numbers; the ambulatory dead are, you might say, a fast-growing demographic.
As Terrence Rafferty points out in his essay “Zombie Resurrection,” zombies in fiction have the problem of not having personalities and don’t make interesting characters in a story. That’s probably why the series of books on which the HBO series True Blood is based has vampires, werewolves, demons, witches, and shape-shifters, but no zombies.
Even the federal government has jumped on the zombie bandwagon. The Centers for Disease Control issued the online and tongue-in-cheek “Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide.” The site crashed after receiving too many hits. What apocalypse are we talking about? What are the underlying causes of the popularity of this ubiquitous, ominous and terrifying semi-human creature that we all know is not “real?” And yet, we also know that it wouldn’t be so captivating if it didn’t have some basis in reality. If even the government acknowledges that there is an impending apocalypse, then enough people are feeling anxiety that it is time to talk about what is real and what isn’t. It is time to talk about Simple Reality.
Plain questions and plain answers make the shortest road out of most perplexities.
– Mark Twain
After we have had our fun with zombies as symbols of human behavior, we would miss an opportunity for a deeper understanding of why we behave the way we do if we did not pursue the issue with simple, yet critically important questions. Fortunately, Terrence Rafferty did just that when he begins our sequence of questions by wondering about the significance of the zombie phenomenon.
Why do we choose to fear this, and why now? His answer begins our probing which we will continue to pursue. In the case of Zombie fiction, you have to wonder whether our 21st century fascination with these hungry hordes has something to do with a general anxiety, particularly in the West, about the planet’s dwindling resources: a sense that there are too many people out there, with too many urgent needs, and that eventually these encroaching masses, dimly understood but somehow ominous in their collective appetites, will simply consume us. This same concern was the theme of the film Soylent Green where the primary source of food in an overpopulated world, “soylent green,” turned out to be recycled people. Zombies love the exact same food, but they love their people-food super fresh, and on-the-hoof so to speak. Maybe that’s why zombies are so healthy, they don’t eat processed or frozen food; they only eat locally grown food.
The apocalypse in this 1973 film depicted the population of New York City in 2022 suffering from pollution, overpopulation, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans, and a hot climate due to the greenhouse effect. Global warming, however, was the least of their problems because the city had reached a population of 40 million with a severe food shortage.
Human anxiety concerning over-population was expressed by British economist Reverend Thomas Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, where he predicted that global over-population would be checked by famine and disease (not zombies). In more recent times, we have Dr. Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb which in 1968 predicted hundreds of millions of people would die of starvation during the 70’s because the earth’s inhabitants would multiply at a faster rate than the world’s ability to supply food. Clearly humanity has a lot of anxiety about the effects of over-population, which in part inspires the zombie analogies.
Both Maltus and Ehrlich predicted that the world’s population would exceed its ability to feed itself. What they both failed to understand is that the problem faced by the global village is not too many people but too many unconscious people. The grim reality in P-B is that virtually all of humanity is expressing the mindless false self. That we are zombies might seem an overstatement and yet: The zombie is clearly the right monster for this glum mood, but it’s a little disturbing to think that these nonhuman creatures, with their slack, gaping maws, might be serving as metaphors for actual people—undocumented immigrants say, or the entire population of developing nations—whose only offense, in most cases, is that their mouths and bellies demand to be filled.
Alas, my poor Rafferty, the truth is even darker than that. We are all zombies feeding on each other and so it has been since the dawn of time. The chief characteristic that we humans have in common with zombies is that both of us lack consciousness—that is to say—we both are unaware of who and where we are and are ineffective in creating a sustainable or satisfactory existence. No wonder most human beings lead bewildering and joyless lives. (I don’t think we have ever seen or heard of a happy zombie in fiction or film.)
Just because we are not paranoid, doesn’t mean they are not after us. But many of us are becoming increasingly paranoid, with good reason. If the “Other” is not after us yet, they will be. As long as the “Other” is part of our narrative, as it most certainly is in P-B, they will eventually show up when conditions are favorable and the fear is sufficiently intense.
On the other hand, why don’t any healthy, conscious, “true-self” characters inhabit our fictional books and films? Well, at long last we have one. Joshua Gordon (with the pseudonym of Bell) has written The Reapers Are the Angels with a heroine, 15-year-old Temple, who copes with zombies while retaining, heroically, a sense of wonder at God’s creation, “all that beauty in the suffered world.” We can sense that Temple has managed to be in the present moment despite formidable odds… “you gotta look at the world that is [P-A] and not get bogged down by what it ain’t.”
Rafferty is on the right track in understanding what the problems of humanity are today (most of us also know them but don’t like to think about them) but he is clueless, like virtually everyone else, as to what to do about them. For example he concludes his essay with if you take the time to see and feel and think, the world, dire as it is, can lose some of its terrors. We have been trying for some time on this planet to see (relying on the senses to define reality), to think (relying on the human intellect to avoid the coming apocalypse) and to feel. We haven’t yet made a distinction between feeling (being in the present moment) and emotions (creating suffering by reacting to the illusion of P-B). Until we do, we can expect zombies to keep coming at us in our media and in our nightmares because they are expressions of our own unconscious understanding that something is happening that we don’t want to look at, except in a darkened theater, where our popcorn and soda remind us that what is on the screen isn’t really happening.
Or is it?
References and notes are available for this article.
For a much more in-depth discussion on Simple Reality, read Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival, by Roy Charles Henry, published in 2011.