A Zombie Outbreak (in Pop Culture)

Sprint Unlimited recently launched a commercial featuring a fairly freaky looking zombie. Advertising a phone plan that is “for life,” the zombie denies his obvious, undead identity. From my treadmill at the gym I watched as this grotesque figure was spotlighted on the center screen. In the last several years, the zombie theme has exploded beyond horror movies and Halloween into the mainstream with the rising popularity of TV show The Walking Dead, video games, “Run for Your Life” 5ks; even the CDC launched a campaign in 2011 on preparing for a zombie apocalypse. Zombies, these undead, flesh-hungry awfuls, have become the subject of our fascination.

This isn’t the first time that popular entertainment has dwelled on the darker subjects. (A brief history, if you will.) Gothic fiction, most prominent in the second half of the 18th century, combined elements of romance (as in Romantic literature, not your mom’s collection of harlequins) and horror. It took the supernatural, anti-rational, intuition- and emotion-driven writings of Romanticism and added a heaping dose of fear, mystery, curses, and death. The term “Gothic literature” comes from the association with Gothic Revival architecture, which rejected the rationalism of Neoclassical architecture. Both Gothic structures and novels appreciated the joys of extreme emotion and awe. A few of the classics include Frankenstein, Dracula, and anything by Edgar Allen Poe. An extension of Romantic literary pleasures, they utilized a “pleasing sort of terror.” Not so different from our zombie obsession.

Darren Mooney made the observation in an article last year that when our economy struggles, horror movies do well. He revealed correlations between recessions of the last century with horror film success. In a similar way, Gothic fiction associated the architecture they were compared to with what they saw as a “dark and terrifying period, characterized by harsh laws enforced by torture, and with mysterious, fantastic, and superstitious rituals.” For centuries it seems that we have externalized the darkness of our times. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King describes horror as hitting our “pressure points,” almost as if a therapeutic process. We alleviate our fear by pressing into it, by finding out what is behind the closed door or what happens when you stop running. But the question remains, why zombies?

In Gothic fiction, the ruins of Gothic buildings were utilized as dramatic settings that drew attention to the inevitable collapse of all that we create. Zombies, in contrast, are not limited to ruins or cemeteries or even to nighttime (depending on which fiction you’re reading). They come for you in the broad daylight of your quaint neighborhood with the good school district and they don’t care about your age, race, income, or even your good looks—they are as inevitable and indiscriminate as death itself. In the midst of our economic depression, we have also had our attention on the Mayan calendar prediction, terrorist attacks, catastrophic natural disasters, wars, and Biblical signs of the world’s end. It is not surprising that the imminence of death—whether it comes for you as fast and violent as 28 Days Later or slowly and inevitably like Night of the Living Dead—is a pressure point.

Beyond the despair of an apocalypse, there is also a freedom found in the destruction of the systems that bring us most grief: our enemies, our cubicles, our laws, our financial state. It all disappears. For once, our struggles are outward and tangible and it is our duty to fight them. The calling is to survive rather than to be civil or to practice restraint. And whether we’re bitten or not, we have the freedom to unleash the internal monster.

Potentially the greatest freedom of the fictional zombie apocalypse is seen as we physically run from the brainless consumption of the masses. We are not free from threat, but there is a glimmering possibility of escape; and with whoever is left in this societal collapse, we find something more. Mass death, like that anticipated in an apocalypse, sheds a light on our lives for what they really are. In light of death, the importance of friends, family, love, forgiveness, and God is revealed. Perhaps, in the end, our zombie obsession has a bit more to do with that.