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March 13, 2013

Dear Reader,

I read once a long time ago that cultural interests shift between fantasy and sci-fi based on historical context.  When things are grim, people look back into the past and become more engaged in the heroic “golden eras” of fantasy, hence Lord of the Rings showing up after the atom bomb.  When things are looking up and hopeful, people become enamored with the future and turn to sci-fi, hence Star Trek after the Civil Rights movement.  I wonder then what our recent ultra-obsession with a zombie apocalypse means?

Sure, we can just write it off as a fad that’s caught on and become a marketing dream, so that designers of TV, movies, games, and other media (even the CDC informational pamphlet designers) consider zombies an easy selling point.  Hell, there’s even teeny-bopper zombie love dramas – Warm Bodies, which came out as a book in 2011 and is already a movie.

I think, though, that writing off the zombie fad solely as a commercial enterprise misses something.  If nostalgia makes us like fantasy and hope makes us like sci-fi, then perhaps fear makes us fascinated by zombie horror.

I’m not here to try to explain the fear; I’m no sociologist.  However, is there any wonder with the constant economic threats, scenes of violence in places both far away and close to home, and political fear-rhetoric that perhaps people might become afraid that something was going rotten at the core?  And what better symbolically represents that than infectious zombie diseases spreading throughout the populace?

Another cultural tide that our zombie fascination might reveal is our fear of assimilation.  Like the Borg from Star Trek, a fear of assimilation appears in many different genres.  As our culture becomes more and more standardized, more and more homogeneous, as our cultural outliers and subcultures are constantly turned into the mainstream, it’s not hard to imagine that many of us would feel our very identities threatened.  Again, this is symbolically represented in zombie hordes; how many zombie stories include someone committing suicide rather than becoming one of the mindless, wandering undead?

So while I play through Dead Rising 2 with my buddy and Deadlight one my own, having finished most of the Dead Space series, Dead Island, and while The Walking Dead sits in my steam library, I wonder how long before our fascination with this honestly-rather-limited genre wears off.  It’s not that I mind zombie media, it’s just that when we face our fears, we become acclimated to them; we become resistant to them.  And if we lose our fear of zombies, I wonder if that might cause us to fear loss of self  a little less, too.  Regardless, the games will lose their hold on us.


Stubborn (and zombified)

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Tellah permalink
    March 13, 2013 3:16 pm

    Did you ever read “childhood’s end” by Heinlein?

    My personal theory is that we’re experiencing racial memory. It’s no sillier than any other theory of why zombies are big now, and makes me chuckle on some level.

    • March 13, 2013 5:31 pm

      I did, eons ago, when I read Time Enough for Love, which I recall was one of your favorites. I don’t remember a thing about it, really, other than the general impression, though. Would you link racial memories to Jungian psychology at all?

  2. March 13, 2013 5:01 pm

    I never got the fascination with zombies; I have no interest in them in any media.

    Clearly, I’m fearless!

    • March 13, 2013 5:30 pm

      Well, you may very well be fearless of what they metaphorically represent. Are you afraid of being sick? Of corpses? Of losing who you are? You seem like a pretty strong and sure person, so it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if none of those things scared you at all! (;

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. March 13, 2013 5:26 pm

    The Lord of the Rings was started in 1937, published in the 1950s, and became popular (in the US) in the 1960s. Tolkien was part of a group of authors, including CS Lewis, who were interested in the tropes of fantasy in the larger sense. As I am sure you know Tolkien was a philologist and Oxford professor so he came to this from an academic and not dime novel perspective. And I’m not stating that you implied that he did, just that there is a difference to later authors who were in it solely for the cash.

    And zombies are based, as you say, in fear – like Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster. I’d suggest that rather than fear of sexuality and the other, or technology, that zombies are a social fear, that our neighbors are not what they seem and are out to convert us, to destroy our way of life. The first wave of zombies hit in the 1950s, the Red Scare, when your neighbor may be one of them. The current wave came after 9/11. Same impetus. Your neighbor may be a terrorist. Be vigilant at all times and trust that the government is not going to be able to handle it so get ready to run.

    • March 13, 2013 5:35 pm

      I’m familiar with all the Tolkien history, and I agree that his interest was more linguistic and literary than to cash anything in. In fact, it wasn’t Tolkien that went after D&D for using “hobbits” instead of halflings but his later foundation. His comment that’s widely spread about D&D was along the lines that there were some young men in America who took his work far too seriously – or something of that regard.

      I like your connection to specific historical incidents; I think you’re quite right. I think there’s more, too, though; those may be triggers, but they hang around after the fact I think because of the homogenization of the times – again, the 50’s and now, when commercialism and fitting in are at all-time highs.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. March 13, 2013 6:37 pm

    I dunno. I never seen the zombie thing as a fad (these days, as opposed to the 60s) so much as an simple answer to the need to have a faceless, unsympathetic human-like opponent to shoot. There are only so many times you can shoot Nazis and communists before it gets ridiculous, nevermind how much it shoehorns you into particular historical narratives. Demons and other monsters are fine, but they lack the intuitive human profile (e.g. shoot them in the head for maximum damage).

    Even if I acknowledge there being some cultural significance to the “zombie movement,” I think it has more to do with a sort of yearning/antipathy towards post-apocalyptic scenarios than zombies per se. Some people think things are so bad now that the world deserves to be wiped clean, while other fear that the cleansing is already in process. And everyone believes they’ll be the ones to survive, of course. Surviving means battling some oppressive quality, and scenarios like The Road are simply too bleak to be cathartic. Shooting even cannibal bandits feels a bit bad after a while… but zombie? Shoot them all day with no regrets.

    What else are people going to do with their 10,000 rounds of ammunition?

    • March 19, 2013 2:28 pm

      From a director or developer standpoint, I’d agree, but in finer cinema or literature I don’t think the faceless masses are particularly engaging (which is why there’s little zombie literature out there). In the few exceptions, the story is often more about the main character’s personal struggles than the struggle with the mindless hordes.

      Still, from a video game or blockbuster-movie standpoint, I’d agree. It’s easy to throw some black makeup around a crowd’s eyes and let them go to town chasing -and being killed by- the heroes.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. kaleedity permalink*
    March 14, 2013 11:20 am

    I agree that the current zeitgeist has a big influence on what kind of entertainment is really at the center of attention at any given moment, but I’d be wary to attribute this fad to something outside of the technological realm; zombie movies have been a thing for decades, but we’ve really only had the technical chops to get them [somewhat] right for a few years in video games. You’ve got the piggyback effect of successful franchises, the bottleneck effect of technology, and the multi-year long development cycle of big time video games all conspiring together to create this glut of similar games. It feels like the smorgasbord of world war 2 games we were rolling in years ago.

    • March 19, 2013 2:29 pm

      Good comparison, and I suspect that you’re right about the success of certain franchises and the development time contributing to the effect. Still, though, there almost has to be a consumer desire for this type of thing or it would have failed from the start. We’ll discuss it more this weekend; I bet you there’ll be at least one zombie presentation…

  6. Daniel permalink
    March 18, 2013 2:17 pm

    Actually I find most pop culture tends to be more reflective of our cultures fears as a whole. during the cold war we got a whole bunch of “radioactive” superheroes in comics. right now I’d say the zombie fad probably comes out of a fear of disease than anything else. Or perhaps I should say bioengineered diseases.

    Also we get stories like these out of a need to, metaphorically, shine a light in the dark places around us. Its a way to explain the things we don’t understand.

    • March 19, 2013 2:40 pm

      I agree about the fear of disease; consider that SARS, Ebola, and avian flu have made international news almost every year since they’ve shown up. I also think that’s why more zombie situations are explained now, whereas back in the old movies it was just something that happened; it adds a political bent to the story.

      Thanks for the comment!

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