I have an idea for a book!
It will have zombies and otters and self-aware Japanese robots battling for supremacy of a small farm in Kansas. This once rural idyll naturally holds the key to the future of all humanity.
Think I am mad? Think again. The odds are very good in this age of zombie-centric apocalyptic fiction that I will get signed. And that the book, if well-written and promoted, will do very nicely on the bestseller lists. Why am I so confident? Because zombies are everywhere in popular culture. This is despite them being as ugly as sin, having no meaningful social skills and the oral hygiene habits of a bunch of frat boys out on a beer-filled weekend.
With a list of questionable attributes like that, it’s unlikely that you would ever invite zombies to dinner (since there’s a very good chance you would end up as the meal). Nor would you take them for a drive. Or catch the latest Bruckheimer flick with them at the cinema. In short, they’re not the ideal social companions.
Nothing like curling up for a good read with a zombie
And yet, if you are like the million of readers propelling zombie epics like Zone One by Colson Whitehead or World War Z by Max Brooks to the bestseller lists, you are more than happy to spend as many waking moments with them as you can manage.
It’s a paradox that has inspired spirited discussion among the many people observing this trend. Why are readers willing to spend so much time with inherently repellent characters?
But even if disregard the inherent un-likeability of zombies, they also have another strike against them.
Unlike vampires, werewolves, and even one-off classic monsters like Frankenstein, zombies are soulless beings. Hence, it is near impossible to imbue them with any sense of character. All of which essentially makes them useless as engaging characters in a narrative. They can certainly propel the narrative along, at a terrifyingly rapid pace at times, but you can never relate to a zombie. They only ever function as catalysts for your protagonists’ actions.
Why we have fallen in love with the undead
So why then have they so seized the popular imagination?
One of the authors who has cemented their place in the zeitgeist thinks he might know. Max Brooks, whose book World War Z is soon to be released as a movie, is quoted in a post on inthesetimes.com entitled “The Zombie Zeitgeist” by David Sirota, that the timing of this spike in zombie popularity makes perfect sense.
“Zombies are an apocalyptic threat, we are living in times of apocalyptic anxiety (and) we need a vessel in which to coalesce those anxieties.”
His perspective on the unlikely popularity of the undead is endorsed and expanded on by Mark Koltko-Rivera, a researcher and scholar in psychology who wrote in a blog post titled, “Why Zombies Are So Popular” that:
“Some people have opined that zombie movies reflect fears about the apocalyptic end of the world. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I think that zombie media reflect a far more specific fear. I think it’s about pandemic disease.”
Both Max and Mark reflect a line of thinking that posits that worldwide economic woes, epidemics, and climate change, are subverting the ability of people to stay positive, especially since they are issues with grave consequences and no easy fixes. But then again, a zombie apocalypse doesn’t have an easy fix so why invest your future dread into that particular scenario instead?
They actually make us feel better
Again Max Brooks, quoted in an article on atlantamagazine.com titled “Zombies Are So Hot Right Now” by Justin Heckert, thinks he has a good idea why this is so.
“Zombies are a safe way to explore an apocalyptic society. If you see a movie that has to do with true things – nuclear war, for instance, or swine flu – those are too real. Zombies aren’t.”
Dan Birlew, an author, blogger and video game expert concurs.
“The fascination is not because of the zombies themselves, they are merely the catalyst; the real fascination is with surviving a zombie apocalypse.”
All of which makes perfect sense. We are gravely uncertain we can beat climate change, or keep our job, but we can picture ourselves outrunning and outgunning the undead, and that gives us some strange comfort. You might wonder what use this type of comfort is in the face of real world threats, but Mark Koltko-Rivera maintains it gives us some sense we are in control and that’s a powerful thing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA recently used this renewed sense that we might have some control over our destinies to good effect. They publicised a guide to being prepared for outbreaks of contagious disease and other natural disasters by using zombies as the theme. Their aptly titled “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse” was an immediate massive viral hit, and got the message across to an anxious public by focusing on a non-existent threat.
So facing a zombie apocalypse, terrifying though it is, is ironically the ultimate safe option, and oddly reassuring in a world with a great many real threats. You can experience this apocalypse safe and sound in the privacy of your home in your jim-jams with a nice hot chocolate next to you, and a non-threatening book in your hand.
A history of literate zombies
But lest you think only anxious 21st century citizens have subverted their fears into the non-threatening realms of literature, zombies in one form or another have been a mainstay of writers for quite a long time.
Our fascination with “ghouls” goes as far back as the 9th Century when they first appeared in the Arabic compilation of One Thousand and One Nights. While they were a mainstay of storytelling in the centuries that followed, their true moment of glory began in the 18th Century when Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein violently made his present felt in the world of literature.
But it was H. P. Lovecraft in 1922 who really grabbed the ghoul ball and ran with it, according to Dan Birlew, In his famous short story, Herbert West – Reanimator, Lovecraft created a mad doctor whose lab tinkering succeeded in bringing the dead back to life as flesh eating visions of terror. His creation comes back to wreak havoc on its creator by disemboweling him. Sound like any modern day nightmarish monsters that you know?
It was this story that had a profound effect on what has effectively become a zombie industry. You can see its creative handprint on films like George Romero’s seminal horror movie, Night of the Living Dead, and all its successors and imitators. And on everything from the Resident Evil video games, to the hit TV series The Walking Dead, and yes even modern literature, which now bows at the foot of the zombie throne. In all these media, zombies are the soulless murderous beings that we increasingly love as well as know, and new iterations of them are being lapped up as soon as their creators can bring to life.
Or death, as the case may be. And then, you know, life of a sort again.
A host of modern adversaries
So pervasive have zombies become in modern pop culture that they have even been reverentially parodied, a sure sign that they sit atop the monster food chain. Zombies vs. Unicorns, is one example of the tongue-in-cheek addition to the phenomenon which urges you to decide if you are Team Zombie or Team Unicorn. It is styled as a battle of the ages, which may be stretching the truth just a little, but when zombies are pitted against that mythological mainstay, the unicorn, you know they have hit the big time.
The same goes for the Zombies vs. Robots graphic novel series where the heroic robots battle mightily to protect the remaining human baby from the surging undead hordes. While it bears a somewhat humorous title, it explores the hubris of humanity which led to the rise of the zombies, and the fact that the fate of homo sapiens rests solely with mindless machines. Battling, of course, once again everyone’s favourite soulless beings.
Whoever they are battling though, it’s highly unlikely that zombies will skulk back into the shadows any time soon. In a clear sign of the undead’s enduring popularity. Allen & Unwin have just released a compendium of two centuries of zombie stories edited by Otto Penzler called Undead Book of the Day: Zombies – A Compendium of the Living Dead. It collects together stories by the likes of Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe and of course, H. P Lovecraft who started the modern love affair with zombies.
Its release underscores once again that zombies, though they may be mindlessly unaware of it, have found their place in the pop culture sun and aren’t going to be relinquishing it anytime soon.