Mar 4, 2013
We live in an age in which a variety of factors have made us more, even hyper, aware of the potential threats to our ways of life—even our very existence. Certainly humans have always lived in a world of risk and danger. Moreover, apocalyptic visions have existed for thousands of years. However, several factors have developed over the past century or so that have shifted the way we think about—and therefore the way we fear—potential disaster, as well as moved our imagination of apocalypse out of a primarily spiritual realm into more secular channels.
Significant among those possible factors is the advent of nuclear technology, particularly in its weaponized application, and the development of other weapons of mass-scale destruction. The explosion of the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki made the level of our capacity for destruction very real to people around the world, setting off an era of fear during the Cold War to follow (fear that to varying degrees continues into today). These events immediately followed the mass violence of the World Wars. World War II, and the Holocaust in particular, brought us a terrible awareness of what we were capable of inflicting on each other. While great efforts have been taken in the aftermath of the first half of the 20th century to prevent the recurrence of similar horrors, we have since seen other genocides, other wars, and more mass violence.
Another relevant factor has been the increased global discourse regarding the effect our technological and scientific development has had and will continue to have on the world we live in. This time, the issue is not what we are capable of doing to each other, but what we are capable of doing, even unknowingly, to the rest of the earth and its inhabitants. From overpopulation, disease, nuclear meltdowns, and species endangerment to climate change and dwindling resources, people around the world have been hearing about and discussing what our attempts to ensure a good future have potentially done to threaten it. Regardless of our opinions on those topics, they still form part of our cultural experience and add further to the list of possible ways we are collectively at risk.
The scale of these and other risk factors we now consider as possible future scenarios is, firstly, much larger than the threats previously feared by those who lived centuries before us. While there are examples of diseases that killed off large portions of populations around the world, such as the bubonic plague or the Spanish influenza, the ease and frequency of global travel and transport has vastly increased the spatial potential for the spread of disease and decreased the time needed to do so. The fear of nuclear weapons lies in the potential of a nuclear war that could, within a matter of hours, lay waste to vast portions of the planet. Secondly, that same globalization that has increasingly connected the world over the past century has also increased the dispersal of information around the world. More than ever before, we communicate knowledge of risk and perceive that our fates are shared.
The stories we tell, such as zombie horror tales or nuclear apocalypse novels, are not born in a vacuum. Literature, films, television, video games, and other forms of cultural production rise up from that same cultural context. There is a back-and-forth relationship between our socio-cultural environment and the fictions we create to process or express portions of that environment. A simple way to describe it is that what we experience affects what we imagine, what we imagine goes into what we produce, and the products we put out into the world, in turn, form part of others’ experience, what they imagine, and so on and so forth. Facilitated by mass communication, this relationship can form what I call in my research a “collective imaginary”—in this case, a collective imaginary of disaster or survival.
Zombies are, in one dimension, simply a form of entertainment popular for the reasons other stories that include adventure, excitement, fear, and violence are popular. But in another dimension, there are things that zombie stories are doing that have to do with our deeper anxieties about the future and how we cope with them. The awareness discussed above, of the possible massive threats to human survival and of our own capacity to cross the threshold of what we previously considered “inhuman,” given certain circumstances, makes us more receptive to narratives that allow us to test the fears that awareness brings from a safe vantage point.
One interpretation that I look at in particular is that we vicariously place ourselves in danger through the survivors of the zombie plague, who are most often the real focus of the story. Through the protagonists of a story like, for example, the now-popular Walking Dead comic and cable series, we can think about what each of those people are capable of doing in order to survive in an extreme situation, both physically and ethically speaking. We can then, in turn, ask ourselves what we would do if placed in such a situation (the possibility of which, as we established, has become more widely considered). What character would I be more likely to act like? Would I stay firm to my current moral framework, or would I adjust to fit my new circumstances? Would I die defending honor, or survive at any cost? Would I protect my family over everyone else?
In this sense, it isn’t the zombies per se that help us deal with our fears—it is our investment in the fate of the survivors. The zombies, however, are one of many vehicles for mass-scale disaster that we come up with in order to create these sorts of “test environments” for examining our fears, or experiencing them vicariously, without the actual pressure of being in danger ourselves. Zombies are perhaps particularly effective, among those many other vehicles of disaster, because they can also stand in as mirrors for ourselves—a kind of mannequin to model the parts of ourselves we hate or fear or believe to be inhuman (but fear to be actually part of being human). Some have brought up possible parallels, such as the zombies’ insatiable hunger as a reflection of the voraciousness of consumerism. Others have compared the mindless stupor yet persistent tenaciousness of the zombie to the pace and subsequent mindset of modernized societies.
Another possibility is that the survivors are themselves the “walking dead,” as the sheriff puts it in the story of the same name, in the sense that their former selves are dead and to survive they must move forward by first reinventing themselves. The people walking around with their names and faces are not the people they used to be. Knowing that fact provides a dangerous paradox of captivity and freedom. There is no escape from the world of zombies that the survivors (and the viewers or readers) can see, so they are forced to make decisions they normally would not want to make in order to navigate their new surroundings. The freedom (though not necessarily an enviable one) lies in those choices: to survive or not to survive, and at what cost?
Are not those the choices that we, as a human race, are ourselves now afraid to face?
Angela Becerra Vidergar is a literary scholar finishing a doctoral degree in comparative literature at Stanford University and the co-founder of The Graphic Narrative Project, a research group and upcoming journal for the study of comics, graphic novels, and other graphic narratives.