The evolution of… Zombies?

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20131025-zombie-nation

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.

http://www.cdc.gov/phpr/zombies.htm

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? Andwhat is it about our society that makes us focus on the post-apocalypse, instead of an impending apocalypse like societies in the past?

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36 Responses to The evolution of… Zombies?

  1. gwuw2014 says:

    Great post, arcanium82! I’m actually writing about “Night of the Living Dead” for my final paper (more on fear of zombies than fascination with them), so I’m hoping I can provide some insight from the research I’ve done.

    My main assertion is that zombie stories are so fascinating/horrifying because they discuss two different levels of survival of the fittest. Not only do the humans have to struggle against the zombies to survive, even apocalyptic settings cannot complete erase tensions between humans as well. Therefore, the human characters within zombie films are dealing with both interspecies and intraspecies competition. With these two different threats facing us, we’re forced to side with the strongest human (almost always problematic in terms of cultural portrayal of gender and race, but you can read about that here: http://brightlightsfilm.com/night-living-dead-reappraising-undead-classic#.VG9T0YvF9-5) in an unconscious effort to save ourselves. Why? Because we want the humans to win. We want them to outwit the zombies and live in relative peace.

    • arcanium82 says:

      gwu2014,

      The article you posted is very interesting. Especially the part where Harper talks about how the “Night of the Living Dead must be understood in relation to the impact of Vietnam on American consciousness in the 1960s…” He goes on to talk about the American flag in the movie as, “The symbolism of the flag becomes clear as the film progresses: America is a dying country as a result of the zombie menace, and the flag represents the meaninglessness and deadliness of patriotism.”

      Vietnam is generally considered as one of America’s most unpopular wars. Anti-war activists were not limited to the United States either. Many countries across Europe also actively protested against America’s involvement in Vietnam and specifically the use of napalm.

      In the BBC article, Barber points to 28 Days Later (2002) as the reemergence of zombie popularity. Coincidentally, the terror attacks of 9/11 were fresh in the memory of all Americans and we had already deployed troops to Afghanistan. As the war continues to drag on, it loses support from the American people. Do you think that zombies now represent the Global War on Terror instead of Vietnam?

      • gatorade15 says:

        Really good connection arcanium82. I like your idea of zombies representing the Global War on Terror in the contemporary depictions of zombies. As an addition to this, I think our connection to zombies is also a bit more superficial than this. I believe that most film makers make these ridiculous zombie films to feed into popular demand and make money; people like watching zombie films and tv show, and I think this has to do with our desire to experience foreign situations via these shows and films, allowing us to escape from our “mundane” lives for a few hours and live the life of a crusader fighting for the survival of the human race.

    • gatorade15 says:

      Great insight gwuw2014. The idea you propose of humans facing both inter and intra species competition as a result of a zombie apocalypse is quite interesting. However, wouldn’t zombies be regarded as simple a mutation of the human species and not an entirely new species. In fact, zombies technically aren’t living so they can’t be a species of an organism, so what would zombies be considered? If i were to give my insight, I would say that zombies are more like viruses than mutated organisms, nonliving entities who require other organisms to sustain their own lives, infecting anything in their path.

  2. Great post, arcanium82! I agree with gwuw2014 on why the zombie appeal exists, and I also think that there is a lot of rhetorical value behind the suspense and juxtaposition of the fantasy and feasible reality the zombie situation. I also think that its really interesting that even the CDC has taken advantage of the zombie appeal by using it as a device to deliver important information. When I first heard that the government was backing up an initiative on zombies, I was honestly a little concerned. But after looking at the CDC zombie page, I do commend them for their creativity and degree to which they are in tune with how to most effectively get information across–which is really their main goal. I think that this type of use of media phenomena should be used this way more, as a way to deliver information to an otherwise elusive audience. Thoughts?

    • arcanium82 says:

      I agree! I think it is refreshing to see a government agency respond in a way that actually works. There are so many times that the government tries to do something “hip” and “popular” and they fail miserably to connect with their intended audience.

      Perhaps the zombie narrative works especially for the CDC because, in the event of a real zombie outbreak, we would probably turn to them for guidance. I’m not sure there is another narrative that would work as well with any other agency.

  3. glowcloud says:

    First of all, I really want to compliment your blog post. Your writing was funny, engaging and thought provoking. I really had never considered the idea that we are preoccupied with the post apocalypse rather than the actual event itself. I think it’s possible that the reason we don’t care as much about the actual end of days is that would not live through it. I mean, most zombie movies are based on the premise that there are only a few survivors of these huge disasters. We like these movies because we want to think of ourselves as the lone survivors, or to tie evolution back into this, as the fittest. I think a movie just about the apocalypse would be both boring and predictable. Spoiler alert: everybody dies. But when you have the fittest of our species struggling to survive it becomes a lot more interesting.

    • arcanium82 says:

      Glowcloud,

      I’m glad you liked the post. I also like your analysis of why a movie just about the apocalypse would be boring. I thought the same thing when the movie Pompeii came out earlier this year. When I saw the trailer I thought, “Let me guess. The volcano erupts and everybody dies?” I didn’t take the time to see the movie, so it may actually be good and I just don’t know it.

      I think it’s interesting that you say that zombie movies are interesting because, “the fittest of our species struggling to survive.” Do you really think it’s the fittest who survive? In most zombie films, the criteria for initial survival seems to be based more on luck than anything else. For instance: you were in a coma when the whole thing went down and when you woke up and noticed your nurse turned into a zombie. Also, one would think that the military would survive due to its firepower and resources, but in most zombie films they are usually the first ones to bite the dust.

      Furthermore, we live in an age of growing obesity and general un-fitness in America. A large portion of the population that watches these shows runs out of breath going to the microwave to get popcorn during the commercial break. They would be doomed if they ever had to outrun a zombie mob. Do you think the randomness of survival (vice survival of the “fittest”) plays more of a role in the zombie popularity? In other words, do people relate more with random survivors than ones who survived due to Herculean deeds?

      • glowcloud says:

        It’s funny that you say that because after I posted that I thought about who typically is portrayed as the survivors of the apocalypse and it’s usually random people. I suppose that in theory the fittest would survive but in practice, well we don’t really know what would happen in practice because we haven’t had to actually face this situation. People would obviously have an easier time relating to the random guy who survives because of pure luck than the “Hurculean” survivors, as you wrote. So maybe they enjoy the films because they can live vicariously through the relatable characters and experience the zombie apocalypse without going through all the trouble of actually experiencing the zombie apocalypse. I still think its idealizing though, because in relating to these characters you’re essentially placing yourself among the survivors and assuming that there’s something about you or something that you might randomly come upon that would make you strong enough to succeed where most other people would fail (and die).

        • arcanium82 says:

          I agree. I think that the survivors must represent some kind of positive attribute that the audience can relate to. We want to see the good guys win and the bad guys get eaten. I also agree that we place ourselves in the world with the characters and judge their actions based off of our own sense of morality. I think the main characters are popular because they respond to situations in a similar way as most of the audience would. We relate to them because, in a way, they share our values.

  4. Interesting post Arcanium82,
    Like Gwu2014 said, I would argue that the idea of evolution plays a large role in why we as a society have so much interest in the idea of zombies. As a species we are conditioned to have the most interest in the continuation of our species and one of the common problems that appears in Zombie related films is the struggle on deciding what exactly a zombie is. Characters often wonder if there will be a cure and whether or not their loved ones are just simply sick. Zombies are essentially humans just in a different state and that becomes problematic for our evolution. The question becomes whether or not it is right to kill these zombies for the further survival of the human race. While i cannot argue that survival of the fittest aspects are not in play I think that this is another important aspect. As a culture we struggle with the idea of what the future of the human race will be. Are we a plague who is simply going to drain the earth of its resources? Or are we truly the epitome of evolution? Zombie films to me seem to suggest that we are more like a plague who needs to reach nasty form before we die out. While this is a gruesome answer, it is still a type of answer and is why I think there is such popularity around the idea of zombies.

    • arcanium82 says:

      vikingsfootball33,

      Thanks for adding to the discussion. I think you bring up a very poignant observation. I agree that, in some ways, the zombie is representing the unsavory side of human nature. They represent our indifference to the natural world around us and our hunger to consume everything we get our hands on. Humanity has an insatiable appetite to fill itself with material things. But, just like the zombies, even if humanity gets what it is after, it is still dead inside and sets off in search of the next thing to consume.

      Maybe we see the killing of zombies as a subconscious way of killing the dark side of humanity that we see every day on the news. Instead of confronting the proponents of global warming, terrorism, nuclear warfare, etc. in the real world, we resort to killing their zombie representatives in a fantasy world.

  5. collegeblogger19 says:

    I really liked your post, arcanium82! I think it’s interesting that the zombie obsession commenced around the 1970s and then resurfaced again recently. It must say something about the relation between these two time periods, like you stated above in response to gwuw2014 that zombies represented Vietnam and now they could possibly represent the Global War on Terror. I think this makes a lot of sense, and it also tells us a lot about our culture and reactions to certain events. Instead of thinking about the fears that are actually possible in reality–like terrorism, climate disasters, etc.–we use these fears in a fantasy type world where zombies taking over humanity is the main fear. The idea of a zombie apocalyptic world is very popular, and many people joke about it, but could an actual fear be hidden underneath the fantasy idea? The world is advancing in technology and modernization at a rapid rate. Mass destruction can be a reality with the possibility of nuclear bombs and even natural disasters due to climate change–and the zombie apocalyptic world is a way to express these fears in an entertaining way.

    • arcanium82 says:

      collegeblogger19,

      I think you are absolutely right. It is tough to deal with all the horrible things that are going on in the world right now. It is much easier to get lost in a TV show and, as you said, “express these fears in an entertaining way.”

      In some ways, the zombie apocalypse narrative is therapeutic in nature. It allows us an outlet to vent these types of feelings that are normally kept bottled up.

  6. punky1218 says:

    Zombie movies and TV shows bring out a very interesting discussion on survival of the fittest. On the TV show the Walking Dead, it seems the people who are the least humane are the ones that survive. Numerous times through out the show we see where the person how can make the hard choice and kill another human or think in his or her own best interest is the one who ends up surviving. This creates an entirely new social hierarchy. The outcasts in the previous society who were violent or worked dirty jobs are now the leaders in the post-apocalypse society since they are the ones who can get their hands dirty and are the most willing to be selfish. Zombie movies and TV shows often have an interesting comment on society.

    • arcanium82 says:

      punky1218,

      I think you are on to something with your analysis of The Walking Dead. It does turn society up-side down. The unsavory ones, by our current set of standards and morals, are usually the ones who end up surviving and even find themselves in places of authority.

      With growing income inequality in America, do you think The Walking Dead represents a portion of our society who wishes they could knock the excessively rich elite off their pedestal and reset society?

      • moneytrees3001 says:

        I think the idea of upsetting the system is common among many horror movies about widespread disease or destruction. There are so many people who feel like they are being slighted by the system that’s in place now. If only the rules that kept them down were changed, they could rise to the top. Zombies taking over the country is obviously not ideal, and I’m sure these people understand that, but any kind of violent change is appealing when you feel trapped where you are.

  7. In answer to the question about our preference for post-apocalyptic stories I think that it is our desire to see survival rather than the destruction of impending doom that would come from a pre-apocalyptic storyline that satisfies us.

    • gatorade15 says:

      I would like to play devils advocate here: in most post apocalyptic films, don’t the survivors end up dying anyways? Or living an entirely undesirable quality of life?

  8. sunny2018 says:

    I think part of the reason that we have such a fascination with post-apocalyptic related media is because human society today is built upon set-rules and organization, while a post-apocalypse shows how we may react to society as we know it crumbling; and in particular, we like to see ourselves doing well in these scenarios. I think we’re always afraid of our society breaking down; the ‘news’ especially likes to insist that any change is the downfall of life as we know it. Media takes these fears and puts them into a fantastical setting. This way, they are easier to digest, and we are able to, typically, see humanity thrive even in the most dire situations.

    • gatorade15 says:

      Interesting post, sunny2018. You point towards our fascination of post-apocalyptic media as a result of our curiosity as to what an unorganized and crumbling society will look like as compared to the organized society we live in today. We have achieved so much greatness as a species due to our ability to organize and work together, so my question is, why do you think we are fascinated with a broken down society? Is it an animalistic instinct to be unorganized and independent? Or something else?

      • sunny2018 says:

        Actually, I would argue that our animalistic instinct is to be organized. I think our fascination stems from the need to consume media that reflects a world unlike our own, as a form of escapism. It goes against our nature to want a disorganized, chaotic world, and that’s what making the idea of an apocalypse so interesting to us.

    • arcanium82 says:

      Sunny2018,

      I think you are right when you say, “the ‘news’ especially likes to insist that any change is the downfall of life as we know it”. This has become very apparent with the 24 hour news cycle. It used to be that people only received their news at regular intervals through newspapers or the nightly news television programs.

      Now, we have news thrown at us from all directions the entire day. The media is a very competitive industry and they have to make everything seem REALLY important in order to get us to watch. Take CNN for example. I bet if you watch CNN for 15 minutes you will see multiple “BREAKING NEWS” alerts. If everything is “breaking news”, then nothing is “breaking news”.

      I do think that the media has backed themselves into a corner similar to the boy who cried wolf. In order to get anybody to pay attention to them, they must make us feel like the world is going to come crashing down at any moment. I do not believe this business model is sustainable.

    • graduallychanging says:

      Sunny2018, your perspective of post-apocalyptic movies is very insightful. Watching us, humans, survive after a catastrophic event, even in a movie, seems like it would be reassuring. I say “seems” because I was not thinking about why I enjoyed the movies/television shows while I watched them.
      Are there many popular movies in which a catastrophe wipes out everyone?

  9. serrobert says:

    I think we see post apocalyptic stories because we naturally desire to see some kind of end. Things like the end of a baseball game, or the end of an era, we count down the seconds to the end of the year and the start of a new one. We have a need to see some sort of closure. The apocalypse used to be enough, stories stating that everything ends, shattering of the earth type stuff. In modern society however we think beyond the end of humanity or even the end of the earth. We always yearn to know what things will be like after us. We are always looking farther and farther into the future, making long term plans and dreams, therefore our concept of the end keeps on looking farther and farther beyond the end of the world as we know it.

    • gatorade15 says:

      Great post serrobert! I like your ideas about humans and their desire to see an ending to all situations. With respect to the class we are currently taking, we should try to connect this idea to evolutionary theory. Why do you think we have evolved to desire endings, or closure? How would the benefit us a species?

      • serrobert says:

        I have no idea how this would relate back to evolution. The only thing that comes to mind is the ability to tell good stories. That’s all I got, anyone else have any thoughts?

    • arcanium82 says:

      serrobert,

      That is a very interesting concept. I never thought about our natural desire for an end or closure to a situation. I would imagine that humans in the past also shared a similar desire. Modern technology, especially medicine, has allowed us to explore new horizons with longer life expediencies. Perhaps this has something to do with our ability to look farther into the future.

      Do you think religion plays a role in this? More specifically, a lack of religion? Most apocalyptic scenarios of the past revolved around religion in some way. Do you think that, with more and more people distancing themselves from any type of organized religion, the finality of an apocalypse has diminished? Perhaps the fact that we rely more on technology than God on a daily basis (compared to past societies) has influenced our perception of how the world will end, or not end.

      • serrobert says:

        That is possible, I think what might be more accurate is that our exploration into space and to learn that earth is not the only planet in the universe has made us look at the end differently. Instead of the end being the end of all being, it is more the end of humans specifically with the assumption that the rest of the universe would continue.

  10. thinkbrush says:

    AnonymousGWUStudent, I agree and I want to explore how this concept relates to our class and the discussion on how apocalypse and evolution tie in together. If the underlying argument that creationists share is that God created us to be special, to rise above the other creatures of this planet and live as the main characters, how does that story continue after we are gone as a civilization? It seems akin to the saying “if a tree falls in the forrest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”. As someone who accepts evolution, I think post-apocolyptic stories intrigue me on a primal level as I think about human existence and its nature of ultimate meaningless in a universe that operates independently from a a deity.

    • arcanium82 says:

      thinkbrush,

      I think using the term “creationists” here is too broad. Many religions (including the multiple sects of Christianity) would be considered creationists, but almost every religion has it’s own form of apocalypse.

      Some believe there will be a Rapture, where all the faithful are transported immediately to Heaven before the really bad stuff starts. Others believe that people will just have to fend for themselves and it will all get sorted out in the after-life.

      To answer your question about how the story continues after we are gone as a civilization, the Jehovah Witnesses believe that a new world government, with Jesus at the helm, will eventually take over the earth again.

      All species have the instinctual need to survive. Humans are unique because we have evolved the ability to have an imagination. I suppose other animals would eventually come up with their own apocalyptic scenarios of how they will become extinct if they possessed the mental capacity to do so.

  11. gatorade15 says:

    I think that another important factor in our apparent obsession with zombies has to do with the idea of the “undead”. Death is both feared and idolized in not only American culture, but all over the world. The concept of a zombie takes life and death and places a third category in between, the undead. We have thought of the life cycle linearly, as beginning with life and ending with death for so long, and this idea of a new notch in the cycle has obviously intrigued the masses. As serrobert said earlier in the discussion, we like closure, knowledge. This mysterious realm of zombies triggered people to rethink their idea of a previously known idea and expand their horizons to account for an undead state of living. As a result, popular media exploded with extravagant and exciting depictions of this new state of living, and not surprisingly it was all negative. People are scared of the undead and what it represents, so the undead became the zombie, the flesh eating parasitic creature that wants to rip your head off and suck out your brains.

    • jwmigook says:

      I agree with this, and I’d like to add that maybe people take comfort in the concept of the undead. Though it definitely hasn’t been portrayed attractively in media and entertainment, it gives people something to think about other than death. We don’t like dealing with the fact that things can end for us so suddenly, just a dead end with nowhere else to go (this of course can be argued against if you’re religious, but death often implies that in its most technical definition). Zombies are depicted negatively, but they’re still somewhat “alive.”

  12. macnplease says:

    I hadn’t previously realized the implication of post-apocalypse media being our new interpretation of the worst-case scenario; as Arcanium82 points out, while the idea of Zombies and “The Undead” has been around since the 20th century, the idea behind it was that such an event would mark the end of the world; now, with movies like “I am Legend” and “28 Days Later”, we can see that society regards such an event as a paradigm shift; not simply the end of times.

    We all love the idea of being important. Being a survivor, one of the FEW survivors, is almost a sick fantasy that people play out in their minds. It is reflected in the newer zombie culture that almost glorifies the survivor killing wave after wave of the undead, without indicated the sheer horror and dismay that such a survivor would endure.

    At this point in our development in our race, most people assume that it would be pretty hard to truly wipe out all of humanity – there are simply too many of us. Instead, such an event like a zombie apocalypse would kill off anywhere from thousands of people to billions, and the rest of us are still here to fight off the problem and be important for a short while (until either the problem is resolved or you get killed).

    • arcanium82 says:

      macnplease,

      I like how you brought up the fact that we glorify the survivor without coming to terms with what survival would actually mean. In some ways, you may be better of dying early in the apocalypse. Many of us do not consider battling hordes of zombies, scrounging for food, neglecting personal hygiene, and sleeping with one eye open to be much of a life. At some point it is probably easier just to die and get it over with.

      But, for those who don’t give up and continue to press on and survive. What if they do succeed? What if humanity was able to repopulate the world? Do you think the new post-apocalyptic race of humans would be different than us? Do you think they would be stronger and more resilient, given the fact that there would be a drastically reduced gene pool and only the most persistent of humans would have survived?

  13. jwmigook says:

    Great article, arcanium82! I feel like this article and post reminded me specifically of the movie I Am Legend. I haven’t seen The Walking Dead before, so I Am Legend is what came to mind for me. It also focuses on the idea of a post-apocalyptic wasteland and what can happen when there is in fact a survivor. I like the two questions you pose at the end, because they really made me think about the answers. Besides the fact that zombies thrive off of living hosts (making humans the perfect prey because we are basically everywhere and are upright creatures that are able to accomplish a wide range of activities), the fact that we’re in groups makes it easier for them to target us because we’re all right where they want us to be. It also allows them to group together and build up their force. Regarding your second question, I feel like humans continue to just want to go above and beyond their current state. There is a constant desire for us to evolve beyond what we are, to find advancements that can help us in the future and allow us to rise above and beyond our enemies/possible future obstacles. We don’t want to just be able to deal with an impending apocalypse, we want to now OVERCOME it and be ready for what could happen next, and how we would be able to rebuild civilization if it were to collapse but still leave survivors. Now it’s not just a matter of how to survive, it’s a matter of surviving for sure and dealing with what steps we can take afterwards.

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