“They crowd our imagination. They hide under our beds. They lurk within the dark recesses or our primal unconsciousness. You can’t run, you can’t hide – it’s going to get you. The beast, the ravager, the Lusus Natura. What is it, and why do we fear it?” ~Mark Rein Hagen
The best monsters are personifications of real fears, and the monsters that survive the test of time and cinema are those that evolve into psychological metaphors for something human. I want to put forward what may be an uncomfortable premise for some. I believe that the key to the success in the zombie genre lies in their ability to tap into subconscious and unacknowledged fears that democratic government isn’t working.
Vampire folklore began as a fear of the night, and disease. The original Nosferatu was a personification black plague. But with the advent of Anne Rice’s novels the vampire took on more human traits and largely became a metaphor for unrequited love, jealousy, and sexual passion.
Werewolf folklore began as a fear of the wilderness, but they also evolved into something far more human. Echos of the werewolf appear in characters like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or even the Incredible Hulk. They have become the embodiment of human rage, and the fear of losing control.
The popularity of both has culminated, and is I’d argue terminating, with the Twilight series. Jealousy and rage, locked in an eternal soap opera of teen angst. They are more human than monster now. We need new monsters.
What about zombies? We’ve seen a huge surge in the popularity of this genre. The record breaking series The Walking Dead won the American Film Institute “Program of the Year” award for 2010 and 2012. In 2010 the comic book the show is based on won the Eisner Award for “Best Continuing Series.” The zombie audio drama, We’re Alive was named “Best of 2012” in the podcast category by iTunes.
We’re also seeing mutations in the zombie mythos, growing pains as they change from literal fear to metaphoric fear. The Reavers in Firefly are an adaptation of the zombie aesthetic for space. The rage-virus of 28 Days Later and the T-virus of Resident Evil provide a scientific explanation. In Warm Bodies the zombie is adapted for romantic comedy, although I don’t think there’s enough glitter in the world to make zombies appealing to teenage girls. The point is zombies are searching for their metaphorical home.
The great thing about metaphors is that they are bigger than the artists who wield them. Like the price mechanism in a free market, the best metaphor will manifest as long as artists are free to play with the symbols.
To figure out where zombies are going, let’s start with where they are from. The canonical zombie is the creation of George Ramero in the classic Night of the Living Dead, but before that there was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. The 1954 novel is credited as Ramero‘s inspiration, but unlike the 2007 film starring Will Smith, the original I Am Legend was about vampires, not zombies. That split in the taxonomic classification of monsters is where we’ll find the quintessential zombie.
So, zombies are cousins of vampires, but Matheson’s vampires are a kind of intermediary form between blood sucker and flesh biter. For starters, they were not supernatural. There is a pandemic causing vampire like symptoms, beginning the trend toward scientific explanation. But the primary innovation is apparent in Matheson’s first description of the monsters:
“Why do you wish them destroyed? Ah see, you have turned the poor guileless innocent into a hunted animal. He has no means of support. No measures for proper education. He has not the voting franchise. No wonder he is compelled to seek out a predatory nocturnal existence.”
Matheson was making a point about majoritarianism. In his story vampires are no longer solitary monsters, or small broods. They are the majority, and the protagonist Robert Neville is the minority. Even the name “I Am Legend” meant that Neville was a legend among the monsters, who were building the new world from the corpse of the old, not a legend among other survivors. In short, Matheson democratized the vampire and gave us the zombie.
Zombies are unique among monsters because they are a majority, enacting one of modern cinema’s most enduring themes: the triumph of the individual over the collective. Matrix, V for Vendetta, Hunger Games, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and virtually every story that rises to mythic proportion enacts this theme, and zombies bring it to the horror genre. Frankenstein is arguably part of the zombie family, except that the monster is the individual, dispatched by the collective townspeople. Without this theme, it’s just not a zombie story.
The old vampire personified natural disease like plague, but zombies are usually the result of a man-made infection. They personify the fear that governments are not only devising the biological weapons that will destroy us, but also that they are incompetent enough to release them accidentally. Further, the military and police in these movies almost always fail to protect people from the outbreak, and are usually cast as villains, further playing on a latent skepticism of government. But there are other parallels.
Fundamentally, democracy is a means by which the majority live at the expense of the minority, by force if necessary, just as a zombie horde “lives” at the expense of the survivors. Zombies perfectly obey the majoritarian ethic. The old adage that democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding on dinner is literally realized in these stories. We know this is a strong parallel because every election cycle we see political cartoons portraying grassroots supporters as zombies. Search the internet and you will find supporters of every campaign photoshopped to look like the undead. Intuitively we know that every democratic movement seeks to impose its will on others by force, and we fear being ruled by the mob, especially the stupid masses.
Reading cannibalism as a symbol for collectivist violence, the rest of the metaphor becomes clear.
The zombie outbreak is always worse in cities, where government is strongest, and the best movie survivors are always rural prepper types, the gunnies and stockpilers who avoided reliance on government. Not to mention, the character who holds out for government rescue is often among the first to die… or turn.
Another interesting trope is the emotional turmoil of dealing with infected family members. How do survivors deal with loved ones who in all likelihood will eat their face off? Well, we few fringe radicals who actually reject democracy know full well how emotionally taxing it is when our own family actually advocates violence against us if it be the will of the majority.
Similarly, a common defense in recent zombie movies is for survivors to disguise themselves and walk among the zombies, until they are discovered. Many anarchists choose this strategy to get by in democratic society, preferring to keep quiet and blend in, rather than face aggression and horizontal discipline from those who accept the ethics of majoritarianism.
By far the strongest parallel between the zombie genre and democratic society is the apocalypse scenario. Zombie stories are not just about monsters, they are about the complete breakdown of government, utilities and commerce. They are about surviving when the entire infrastructure of civilization disappears overnight. Just as the zombies must eventually starve to death, nation states that subsist on ever increasing debt must eventually collapse. We even call financial institutions that operate this way “zombie banks.” The political model of promising constituents ever increasing public consumption is a recipe for an apocalypse scenario, and we all know this on some level.
If I am correct that the success of the zombie genre is a reflection of an unacknowledged public fear that democratic government isn’t working, than the zombie movies that will succeed are those that capitalize on this metaphor. More importantly, if this is why the triumph of the individual over the collective is such an enduring theme, that means that latent voluntaryist principles are more widespread than we imagine, but they are manifesting in our art and storytelling instead of our politics.