In this article, Barber takes us through a condensed history of zombies and their reemergence into popular culture. According to Barber, the movie 28 Days Later (2002) was the catalyst that sparked our collective imaginations. However, zombies are not a new concept. Many cultures throughout time have had some kind of zombie in their folk lore. The earliest recorded mention of a zombie-like character dates back to 18th century BC in The Epic of Gilgamesh. There are also a few passages in the Bible which talk about the dead rising up and walking among us.
The concept of an apocalypse has been around for quite a while too. Just like zombies, almost every culture/society/religion has its own version of how the world will come to an end. The method of the apocalypse comes in many different forms ranging from world wide natural disasters or a holy war with one God or another coming down to punish us for our sins. For most societies in the past, the apocalypse was very final. It meant total annihilation of life on earth.
Our society, however, has taken the concept of an apocalypse to its next logical step. What if everybody doesn’t die? Our fascination has moved beyond impending apocalypse to post-apocalypse. And, we have also thrown zombies into the mix, as if the notion of a ravaged dystopian world is not frightening enough.
Zombies are horrifying creations that mix together multiple different fears within the human psyche. Most rational humans fear death and the prospect of getting eaten alive is usually pretty low on the “To-Do List”, as well. So, what is it about the undead that captivates our imagination and keeps us coming back for more?
In popular culture, zombies were long seen as supporting cast for a larger more sinister narrative, but just within the last decade they have taken center stage as the main attraction. Television shows like The Walking Dead have cashed in on the zombie apocalypse in a big way with 16.1 million people tuning in to watch the Season 4 premier. That tops the Breaking Bad finale by more than 5 million viewers. Even the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is jumping on the zombie bandwagon with a “Zombie Preparedness” guide.
The CDC admits that it started out as a joke, but soon realized that it was an effective way to get important information out to the public. The zombie narrative appealed to an entire demographic that the CDC did not normally have access to. They have embedded important and useful information into the zombie narrative so people can learn and have fun at the same time. It is a clever trick that is similar to smothering a plate of broccoli with cheese and bacon in order to get a child to eat their vegetables.
Given that popular culture is usually a good reflection of society at any point in time, what is it about our society and culture that makes it a prime environment for zombies? And, what is it about our society that makes us focus on the post-apocalypse, instead of an impending apocalypse like societies in the past?