What Is the Most Important Thing Zombies Can Teach Us About Being Human?

Before we can think about what a zombie has to teach us about being human, we must first understand exactly what a zombie is. The zombie is a walking corpse, the living dead. This definition does not give us a full understanding of the thing, however. Walking corpses have appeared in the folklore of people around the world throughout history, but all walking corpses are not zombies. One would scarcely confuse a vampire or Frankenstein’s monster with the zombie. The zombie originated in Haitian folklore, where it gained many of its other primary attributes. George Romero then expanded upon these attributes to give us the modern zombie that has become so popular today.

Unlike many other undead, the zombie is mindless, vacant, without purpose. The zombie is a slave in the original sense: The zombie was literally enslaved by magic to perform hard labor. The modern zombie is a slave to its insatiable appetite, mindlessly consuming without need. In both instances, the zombie is created by that which controls it—either the Haitian sorcerer or the act of consuming living flesh. The core features distinguishing a zombie specifically, then, are that: 1) it is a walking corpse; 2) it is mindless and without agency; 3) it is enslaved, either through magic or by appetite; and 4) it is created by that which enslaves it. Knowing this, what can we then learn about ourselves?

Many scholars have seen zombies as emblematic of a variety of social ills, including consumerism, racism, capitalism, and terrorism. Zombie-makers like Romero have been explicit in their use of the zombie as a metaphor for just such things. Most zombie stories, from Romero’s films to The Walking Dead, are not stories about zombies; rather, they are about humans and how they cope with the reality of the undead. In fact, the line between “them” and “us” is often blurred. Zombies force a recognition of the connection between the living and the dead: Loved ones become zombies, characters argue that the dead can be “saved,” debate surfaces over whether the undead are “people” or not, and very often living characters with whom the viewer develops a connection become zombies.

Buddhist philosophy can cast a further light on the boundary between the living and the dead that zombies blur. Some forms of Buddhist meditation focus on an actual corpse in order to recognize our own similarity with the dead, that life is transitory, and that our own life will end. Coming to grips with our own mortality, it is thought, can help us overcome attachment to the self; and attachment to the self is the foundation of selfishness. Watching a zombie film might be likened to such a meditation on the corpse, on the threshold between living and dying.

In fact, the zombie can be seen to embody the Buddhist notion of samsara, the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. Buddhists recognize that life, whatever else it is, is full of suffering. So long as we live, we suffer. We suffer because we wish that good things will never end, but they always do. In wishing things would remain permanent despite knowing that they will not, we cause ourselves to suffer. Instead, we should recognize the impermanence of things and simply enjoy them in the moment without fear for the certainty of their end. This applies especially to life—so long as we try to ignore life’s end, we grow upset when we are reminded of its imminence; and through ignoring it, we pretend that we need not live for today as we assume there will be many tomorrows.

Zombie movies feature characters who fight amongst themselves, selfishly attached as they are to their own individual lives despite the knowledge that death is imminent. Moreover, death in this kind of world results not in an end, but in a horrible rebirth as a zombie. The line between the living and the dead is blurred simply because there is no distinction. The “living dead” provide the mirror image of us as “dying alive.”

The zombie as embodiment of samsara demonstrates the intensity of suffering through fruitless pursuit of insatiable desire. It is driven to consume relentlessly, but also needlessly. Upon attaining its goal, the zombie is not satisfied and moves on to pursue more flesh, just as in life we are constantly striving to achieve a permanent state of happiness, however impossible. When we find a thing that makes us happy, that thing comes to an end and we are driven to seek happiness anew. So long as we are driven by desires that can never be fully satisfied, we are like zombies mindlessly craving without satiation.

That the zombie is mindless illustrates our own ignorance. If we realized and came to grips with the impermanence of all things, it would make no sense to become attached to them. I know my favorite shirt will fade and come apart at the seams; I know that the party will end and my friends will go home; I know that I will age and die. Yet, I wish that these things would not happen and so I am sad when they do. My wishing for a reality that I know cannot be causes me to suffer; through willful ignorance, I cause myself pain. I cause myself to be the zombie.

Rather than satisfy its cravings, when the modern zombie eats flesh, it simply creates another zombie. The bite of the undead causes the victim to die, rise, and consume. Craving after that which will not satisfy leads only to more suffering in samsara. The Buddhist goal is to achieve nirvana through the cessation of all selfish cravings and the appreciation for life as it is in the moment.

Ignorance of the impermanence of all things, especially our own life, leads to craving happiness through things that will all come to an end. Thus, we are like zombies stumbling mindlessly through life, denying our mortality, striving for fulfillment, finding what we achieve unsatisfying, and seeking more. Recognizing the futility of a zombie life, we can come to terms with impermanence and instead appreciate life in every moment without illusions.

Christopher Moreman is a professor of philosophy at California State University, East Bay and the co-editor of Race, Oppression and the Zombie and Zombies Are Us.

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