Zombies and being human

Happy Halloween (almost)! This post is about zombies, and it’s uncomfortable, but I hope that you will read it and enjoy on this weekend where the veil between life and death is thin. It seems particularly apt to reflect on zombies on this weekend of all weekends. Enjoy!

I was sitting in the memorial garden outside of city hall, enjoying an unseasonably warm day, eating my lunch. I was thinking about how me, in my office clothes, sitting on the concrete stair of the memorial, was probably unusual. Most people get a little finicky about sitting on the ground. The higher up the ladder you go, the more that’s likely.

As I was having this thought I heard someone behind me, across the hedge. They were attempting to sing. It wasn’t going well, and something about it raised the hairs on the back of my neck. It sounded like moaning. You know the kind I mean.

the written dead

I ordered this book recently, and I’m very excited to read it. I haven’t started digging into it yet, and I imagine I will do a review or recap once I do. That said, questioning the zombie myth and how it has been appropriated and interpreted by modern media in the US was something that I started doing when I encountered this article from The Atlantic. To recap, what zombies meant in the Caribbean islands where they were first conceptualized was an inability to be released from the horrors of slave labor, even in death. In contrast, the article argues, modern zombie stories are about consumerist culture. In fact, The Walking Dead is called out as being the pinnacle of that metaphor. “The zombie is no longer a commentary on consumerist culture, as it was in the comparatively halcyon days of Dawn of the Dead; it has consumed consumerist culture.” The zombie is a late stage capitalist fetishization.

But this article misses an important point where current zombie stories do parallel the original zombie concept because it does not analyze the zombie stories we tell today based off of class.

Back to me, eating lunch.

The person singing behind me was not a zombie. The person singing behind me was homeless, with likely either an addiction or mental illness or both. She shuffled, and wailed her song, and hung her head, and lurched. And I, already thinking of the differences between people, of how we present, I, uncomfortable with my back turned, thought of zombies.

And then I wondered why I had thought that.

And then I thought about how we as a culture think of homeless people. Of people with mental illnesses. Of people with physical disabilities. And I could very clearly see the parallel with how stories treat zombies – as hurtles, as threats, and as things to be overcome or safely contained and partitioned from our human lives.

Let’s take a step back.

I want to make it clear that I don’t think of people that don’t fit neatly into our society, in any way, as no longer human. The opposite, in fact. Human beings are human – just because you don’t fit, does not make you less valid. The state of marginalization for people with mental and physical disabilities is in fact a commentary on our own society.  There are a lot of reasons that people become homeless. Those with severe mental illness are often victim of our terrible systems for treatment in this country, a lot of which is tied up with our lack of universal healthcare. Those with physical disabilities often slip through what slim social nets we have in place. And some people are just not able to make ends meet, often through no fault of their own, and are ejected from the workforce and from their homes. We should be talking about that.

But have you ever noticed how many of the lead characters in zombie movies are white, and able-bodied, and mostly mentally stable excepting when their mental instability is shown as an acceptable kind? And the extras, the faceless hordes, well – they’re ill, yes, but we’ve got to put them down for our own survival.

Modern zombies may have begun as a critique of mindless consumption, but I think that it’s  worth arguing that the allure of zombie stories as told in this day and age is not always about the madness of consumerism. There is some of that. The root is there. But the reason that many people love zombie movies is because they have the ability to act on zombies with impunity. They are not human. They cannot contribute. Zombies are created by a virus. The illness removes identity and humanity. And then, the protagonist can get out the shotguns and enjoy the blood spatter. The zombie is not someone chained to labor, as in the Caribbean myth. The zombie is someone who has failed to be labor, and thus becomes expendable, a hurdle that must be crossed in the zero-sum game of survival.

I love zombie stories, and I don’t think I’ll stop reading them (though I can’t watch the serious movies, I get nightmares). But I think it’s important to recognize how this story can be used, and it seems to me that it is easily used to rationalize our homicidal urges, to prop up that action hero parallel of the exceptional human being who is faster and stronger and keeps their cool and therefore survives. The best zombie stories question this idea of the exceptional person. They make use look at ourselves. Take Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series, for example. The zombie virus in her stories is a really good take on this, with her main characters both embodying and undermining the idea of the exceptional person.

We can ignore the things that make us human, in favor of survival – but one has to question, at the end of the day, who the monster really is.

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